Sunday, May 9, 2010

Engage and Persuade: San Francisco Cabbie Edition

I’d like to highlight a fine example of persuasive writing. It’s about an obscure topic, so the author needs a way to engage us. Here is how he starts.

After 25 years as a San Francisco cab driver, I’ve accumulated enough stories to yak my way through a dinner party: celebrities, hookers, a $103 tip, a hand­gun held to my head, and—the blockbuster—a $20,644.90 ride from the Golden Gate Bridge to the White House. But whenever I begin to tell my most important (but perhaps driest) tale, the one about how the mayor and a handful of transportation officials are working together to strong-arm a large fortune away from the cab industry, I notice eyes glazing over and hear minds switching channels. So tell you what: Hang with me for as long as a $10 cab fare might take, and next time you’re in my backseat, the ride’s on the house. Assuming my cab hasn’t been stolen out from under me. Deal?

The author, Brad Newsham, wants us on his side. But he knows we’re not up for a lecture on the issues. Instead he weaves the issues into a story about himself and his cabbie colleagues: They worked hard to succeed in San Francisco’s old system, where a long-time cabbie could earn a medallion to operate his or her own cab. With a medallion, the cabbie could make money not just from driving but also, when not driving, from renting the medallion to other drivers. This system...

...enabled hundreds of medallion holders to buy a home, put a kid through college, afford healthcare, or just relax a bit. Many senior drivers consider Prop K’s largesse the best break—often the only break—they’ve ever gotten. So, since I enjoyed the work, I shook off my inaugural mugging, cleaned up after the pukers, and just kept grinding, with that shiny medallion always dangling in the distance.

Shoulder to shoulder with me were hordes of other hopefuls, many of whom had clawed their way out of political or economic chaos in the developing world. Wondwossen had left Ethiopia after the Communist government killed hundreds of his friends. Moham­med, a former driver at the American Embassy in Kabul, had led his family on foot across the Hindu Kush just ahead of the Russian invasion. Ali had fam­ily living not far from the pyramids of Giza who still counted on his support.

While waiting, we cheered friends who summited the list. Adam’s medallion allowed him to take care of some much needed dental work. Mulugeta splurged on horse-riding lessons for his son. Gary, a lifelong baseball fan, bought a Giants’ season ticket. But not everyone made it: My friend Chris died of AIDS before achieving medallion status; Ron became a full-time teacher and dropped out of the hunt; Zareh was past 70 and nearing the top of the list when his cab was broadsided on Broadway by a drunk—he and a pas­senger died instantly.

Newsham uses the struggles and camaraderie of his fellow drivers to imply a larger camaraderie with the reader. This set-up is key because he then tells us the city of San Francisco wants to confiscate all the medallions and auction them to the highest bidder—which will be companies, not cabbies. How can that happen? Voters approved an ordinance that included, buried somewhere in the middle, a few lines that nobody noticed about changing the rules for cabs.

But Newsham doesn’t just tell us that. He puts it in terms of the cabbies and their connections to you:

San Franciscans have always had a soft spot for their cab drivers. We are the late-night ride home, occasional entertainment, the city’s unofficial ambassadors. The cab world is seen as foreign and vaguely exciting, and often as a potential backup strategy: If my life ever blows up, I can always drive a cab. So people hope we’re being treated decently. And if this new bill had not been conceived in darkness and disguised in camouflage gear (“Rescue Muni!” was a campaign rallying cry), it wouldn’t have had a chance. As is, it passed with the votes of only 15 percent of the electorate, most of whom had—and still have—no idea they were dynamiting the cab industry.

Please read the whole piece. It’s a case study for how a skilled writer can make something matter when, for the vast majority of people, it otherwise wouldn’t.

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