Just another fieldwork day in San Francisco

California newt.png

Thinktank’s Steve Mullins, journalist and novelist turned researcher, gives a (barely) fictionalised account of one day’s B2B interviewing, wryly taking in friendly Lyft drivers, expat footballers … and some pesky newts. 

Welcome to San Francisco. Smoked. The northern California fires fogged the streets, hazed the skyscrapers. The Golden Gate Bridge was nowhere to be seen. San Francisco Bay? The blue Pacific sky? No more. Schools had been closed to protect kids, people went masked to protect lungs, life was being lived indoors. 

Not the Thinktank’s researcher’s life though. My fieldwork schedule for that day was packed with five B2B interviews in locations around the Bay area.

I turned to Lyft to criss-cross the Opaque City. Arch rival to Uber, the company has a softer reputation. And for sure its San Francisco drivers were friendly, chatty, often sharing… and, as it turned out, could actually be very supportive.

Maria took me from the city over to the East Bay, her home turf and the place that drove her driving. For a single parent working in municipal admin, Lyft was a pathway to building a deposit that would get her the house she wanted in the Bay Area.

She had ‘done the math’ on working for a ride hailing company. Her Lyft gig meant having to drive long shifts through the weekend every two weeks, overnighting in a cheap San Francisco hotel. For each chunk of that road time, she pocketed a net $1,000 towards the new house on the horizon. Next year maybe…

However, she had built in a little flexibility, an entertaining detour. Before Christmas, she was going to use some of that Lyft cash to head to Disneyworld with her daughter, she explained.

Not that growing the deposit wasn’t still top of mind.

“I’m going to achieve my goals,” Maria said in that serious way North Americans have when discussing life purpose.

“Do you like working for Lyft?” I asked.

“It’s OK.”

“What about Uber?”

Maria didn’t answer. I thought she hadn’t heard. I was just about to ask her again.

“I was thinking about joining Uber,” she said. “Then I read in the papers that one of their drivers had just shot a passenger.”


 “Yeah. So, I thought I’d go work for Lyft.”

“Good choice.”

Maria’s eyes smiled at me in the mirror.

I got out of the car and handed over a good tip. Enough for one more brick in the house, perhaps.

The Lyft jag left me just outside Oakland – smokier even than San Francisco – and right outside a Starbucks. I went in and got a coffee, found a seat. I liked being there early. There were till 10 minutes before my first respondent was due to arrive.

He made it on time. And Chuck looked like a Chuck should. He was several big sizes bigger than me and I felt the difference as my right hand disappeared into his.

He picked up on my accent, asked where I lived.

“I’m from London.”

“I know England pretty well,” Chuck said. “I played football over there.”

“Really, you mean soccer football?”

“Yep, professionally.”

“Professionally? How come?”

“I was first-pick goalkeeper for Crewe”

I immediately saw Chuck filling the gap between the posts. With his huge green-shirted chest and arms out wide, any second-division striker would seriously worry in a one-on-one.

“I played as long as I could without a visa,” Chuck said. “Then I headed off to the Serbian leagues.”

This was odder than I’d expected. I had naïvely thought I’d be interviewing an All-American Boy, one who’d maybe never once left the States.

“How on earth did you end up in Serbia?” I asked.

“The Carlisle trainer was a Serb. He went back home and asked me to come with. Seemed like a good thing to do.”

“And how did that turn out?”

“Not great,” Chuck said. “I got injured. Really badly injured. And what the trainer did to it made it even worse. Now I have it for the rest of my life. No more football.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“Aaah.” Chuck cracked an easy smile that shrugged off the Serbian mishap. “Now I’m back in California and I’m running the family firm.”

“Which is not so bad.”

“No, not so bad.”

I felt Chuck and I understood each other. We got down to business…

Later, came the next Lyft. The car pulled up in front of the hotel and I got into the back. Mike hesitated when he heard the destination. Just as I’d feared any driver might.

“What do you think?” I asked. If he said no, it might be pretty hard to find another car.  And I needed that respondent to fill the quota.  He was recruiter’s gold dust.

Mike looked at his watch. Then he checked his app. It seemed like he was making some sort of calculation.

“OK, let’s go,” he said.

The address was distinctly backwoods, and faraway. We were heading to Grizzly Head.

There was little traffic and it didn’t take long to get to the other side of San Francisco Bay. Maybe this was going to be easy after all. Mike and I came off the bridge, drove a while through listless suburbs. Then we climbed sharply. The smoke cleared. Soon there were no other cars. No other people. There were plenty of steep hills, a lot of very tall trees.

“Grizzly Head,” Mike said confidently. “Not too far now”

He drove into yet another curve. “I hope this trip is worth a few million to you.”

“Of course it is,” I said jokingly. I could understand his reckoning. Why else would a guy fly from London to San Francisco, then take a cab early one morning over the bridge and into the hills.  I wasn’t going to disappoint Mike by talking about an interview on business decision making. Or the size of incentive payments in market research.

Suddenly the bends straightened. The road came to an end.

“It’s closed,” Mike announced.

He was right. There was a wide red-and-white-striped barrier topped with urgent flashing amber lights. My respondent suddenly seemed a very long way away. And my quota …

“Why is that road closed?” I thought of the fires. Surely they hadn’t spread this far south.

“Well, the app does say we’ve arrived,” Mike said checking his phone. “But I can’t leave you here, can I?”

I was glad he said that. How could it be that just thirty minutes ago I was in a city, things coming along fine, and now we seemed a very long from civilisation?

I had to call Donald, my interviewee. I needed to tell him I might be late. Maybe I couldn’t even get there now.

But no! Of course. There was no signal.


Mike checked. He still had a single bar.

“That road should not be closed,” Donald – call me Don – said emphatically.

I looked at the fairground-like barrier. It clearly wasn’t open.

“Actually, you are pretty close to where you need to be,” he said.

That was what I wanted to hear. However, we had to go a roundabout route to get to where we wanted. And it would take us about fifteen minutes. Don offered up complicated-sounding instructions over the speaker – second-left on Water Mill Road, dog leg on Old Turnpike Street – on how to reach his office.

I looked at Mike. It was clear neither he nor I really got the gist of the shape of the journey to come.

“Will you still be there if it takes us a bit longer?” I asked Don. I was worried this might be slipping away.

“I’ll be waiting.”

As it happened, he wouldn’t have that option.

Back on the road, Mike and I tussled with in-and-out mobile phone signals. We made wrong turns, did U-turns. But we made progress.

“App says we’re almost there,” Mike said, a touch of triumph in his voice.

That had taken us half an hour. I imagined Don being antsy with me before we’d even met.

We rounded a bend. And we ended up smack in front of a barrier with flashing amber lights. That barrier with those lights.

Neither of us had a thing to say.

Mike’s phone rang. It was Don.

“You won’t believe where we are,” I said. How annoyed was he going to be at this loser market researcher from the big city?

But Don just laughed. “I’ll grab a key and open the road, even though it’s illegal,” he said.

“Are you sure?” We were now officially in adventure territory.

“Wait on up. I’ll be with you shortly.”

And fifteen minutes later Don arrived. We travelled along the forbidden road, me next to Don in his car, Mike tailgating, a short, illicit convoy among the redwoods.

Don said navigation apps never worked for this location. He’d been telling Google, Apple, everyone, for two years. Only Google had done anything about it.

“But I was using Google Maps,” I showed him my mobile.

“On that iPhone?”


“Won’t work with Apple.” He shook his head.

Is this what people meant when they said ‘Wild West’? 

We arrived at the destination, as least one hour later than arranged. I realised it was going to be hard getting back after this. I couldn’t let go of the lifeline to San Francisco that was Mike.

“What are your plans now?” I asked him.

“Oh, I’m done for the day after this. Going home.”

“How about you wait and we go back together? Then you don’t have an empty ride.”

Mike looked around. We were surrounded by trees.

“It’s pretty nice up here,” he said. “Think I might go for a stroll.”

And he did.

So, an hour and something later, Mike and I came down from the hills and into the smoke.

We rode up the road to the highway. There was a sign for San Francisco.

I had waited for the moment. This was it.

“Do you know, they close that road for four months every year,” I said.

“You’re kidding me.”

“Don told me all about it.”

“What, they need to do repairs?”

“Nothing like that,” I said. “It’s for the newts.”

“The whats?”

“Newts. Like small lizard things.”

“But why do they need to close a road?”

“So they can get across without being run over.”

“Newts, huh?”

“They will only cross when it rains.”

“But it hasn’t rained here for at least eight months.”

“I know.”

“Jeez.” Mike shook his head.

We neared the Bay Bridge. Mike had gone quiet. I was certain he was thinking, like I was, of hundreds of thousands of newts – California Newts, coloured bright orange, as I later discovered – crossing the road in the first downpour of the season. That would be some sight. Though, of course, the road was closed so you’d never get to see it. 

“I tell you something,” Mike said as we were over the water.

“What’s that?”

“I know for sure now that deal of yours was worth a few million,” he said.

I made some kind of noise that could have been taken as a “yes, maybe”. I wanted to make Mike happy. 

A few minutes later, back across the Bay, we dropped off the highway and were in the city.

“San Francisco,” Mike shouted out. “I kiss the ground.”

“The City,” I said. “Smoke and all.”

“Yes, smoke and all.”

He drove me back to the hotel.

“Listen, Steve, I know 99% of the streets in San Francisco,” Mike said.

“Of course. This wasn’t what you were expecting when you picked me up,” I said. “Grizzly Head.”

“Yeah, Grizzly Head,” Mike laughed. “Adiós.”

 My friend of just a few hours took a right turn on red at the end of the first block and was gone.

Three more interviews to go.