For some reason, as I write this, I’m hearing Frank Sinatra sing “Uber Doober Doo” in my head, but this has nothing to do with Old Blue Eyes. This is about Uber. I love Uber. Maybe the reason is, I love people. Anybody who knows me, anybody who has hung around me for any length of time, knows I start conversations with . . . well . . . everyone. They also know, I’m seriously interested in people, in what they think, in what they do, in what they say.
Having grown up in New York, and spending a great deal of time on the road in major cities, I’m no stranger to taxis.
I don’t love taxis. They get me where I’m going, but I wouldn’t call it love.
So what’s so different about Uber?
The front seat. It changes everything.
I hit the app on my cell phone, six minutes later, I’m opening the front door. Sure, I could choose the back seat, but then it becomes a driver driving a passenger. The front seat creates a sense of travel mates. The driver is the driver, but I’m the buddy in the seat beside him.
There’s also the element of the driver being the owner of the car. It isn’t a taxi with a sliding glass window and generic seats and signs. An Uber ride comes with a sense of who the driver is. When I sit in that front seat I notice things. I can comment on the Pittsburgh Steelers decal, the solar powered snowman on the dashboard, the FSU cup in the cup holder, or the Panic at the Disco CD sticking out of the CD player. I notice the satellite radio station they have on, whether they have an iPhone or an Android, and the pictures, notes, or parking tickets they have tucked into the visor. One quick glance around the front seat of the car and I’m ready for conversation.
I want to tell you about some of my rides. I haven’t any agenda here. I’m not selling Uber. I’m simply sharing. This has nothing to do with fitness or health or protein powders or webinars. It’s just conversation (which you’re free to engage in by commenting at the end).
Before I get into the Uberers I’ve met, let me say this. I know Uber likely has policies that may have been violated by characters in some of the stories I’m about to share, so, let’s assume this is a work of fiction lest anybody be called on anything I share.
IT STARTS WITH THE FIRST ONE
My first Uber ride is probably one I shouldn’t write about, but if this is written with full disclosure (and we’re all aware it may be fiction), she was a single Mom, and she picked me up from a sushi restaurant in Hermosa Beach. I had been dining with two friends who were staying at a different hotel than I was so the plan was to drop me off first. I didn’t yet understand Uber so I offered to pay but one of my dinner-mates used his phone to call the Uber and he explained it was billed to his account.
I sat in the front. I was intrigued. The driver was pretty. She introduced herself as Cassandra. I don’t know that I’d ever had a pretty taxi driver so from moment one this was clearly different.
“How does this Uber thing work?”
“Oh, it’s awesome. I just sign in when I want a passenger and I can do 10 or 12 rides a night.”
“Do you have another job?”
“I work in retail a few days a week but this is great for extra money.”
We talked. I joked as I do (often referred to by others as flirting). Cassandra laughed. Nothing encourages me more than a pretty Uber driver laughing at my jokes. I flirted . . . ummm . . . I mean I talked some more.
From the back seat a voice said, “obnoxious, not funny.” Hmmph. Some friend.
I threw out another question, “Are you married?”
The 12-minute conversation revealed she had an 8-year-old and 5-year-old, both little girls, her Mom watches the girls when she works, and her ex-husband sees them every other weekend and one night during the week. Those are the nights she Ubers.
We made a right turn off of Rosecrans down the road that leads to the Manhattan Beach Marriott where I was staying. I was to be the first one out of the car.
I said my “see ya soon” to my friends in the back seat, friends I’m very fond of and hoped to see soon, and as we pulled into the driveway Cassandra said. “Have a great night. That was a short ride. You asked all the questions. I’d like to know more about what you do.”
Jokingly I said, “OK, but we don’t have much time. I leave town tomorrow. I’m in Room 716. Ask for Phil.” I was kidding. Really I was.
She left to drive the back seaters back to Santa Monica.
At 10:40 the phone in my room rang. Cassandra was in the lobby. Let’s leave it at that. Just know that she stopped driving for the night at 10:40 and it was right then and there that I decided, “I Love Uber.”
Am I proud of that story? No, but it was my first Uber experience, and I came to realize, every Uber ride was simply an opportunity to connect, in a different way, with an interesting human being invited to share some thoughts for a brief journey from location to destination.
I downloaded the Uber app the next day, but didn’t use it until a couple of weeks later. I was visiting with my parents, about to fly to Pittsburgh, and I thought I’d leave my car at my parent’s house while I was gone. I decided I would Uber to the airport. Simple. No parking. I’d get dropped off right at the entrance. I opened my app, confirmed the pin as the right location, and 5 minutes later the Mercedes pulled up with the Uber decal on the front window. I must admit, my mind asked “Mercedes?” It then moved past it. I was about to hear an amazing story.
The driver was an older Latin man. He introduced himself as Samuel. I sat in the front seat and we started talking. Samuel was from Columbia. He was well dressed, had expensive looking jewelry, and I had to ask why he’s driving people around. He appeared to be of retirement age and, at least based on appearances, seemed to be rather well off.
“I have to work,” Samuel began. “My partner stole my business.” That’s where the conversation started and it went from there.
I wanted to hit traffic, I wanted this to be a long ride, as I was so intrigued by the story he told me. His partner stealing his business was only the icing on the cake, in fact, the icing I never got to hear any more about. He had a story that Brian DePalma could turn into a movie every bit as compelling as Scarface.
We entered I-95 at Palmetto Park Road and Samuel, with my prompts, was off and running.
SAMUEL AND THE DRUG LORD
“I was a writer for the largest newspaper in Bogota and I ran my own successful marketing company. I used to write a political column and when the communists started coming in, I’d write about it. I warned people as they were being told the change was good. At first I was being praised for my opinions and warnings, but then the drug money started pouring in and the government was flipped upside down and I started getting threats. Death threats. I ignored them. I felt it was my job, as a journalist, to tell the truth, no matter how ugly, and that’s what I did. I ignored the threats until one day I came home to an empty house. My wife and kids had been taken.”
I sat with my jaw halfway down to my chest. I was intrigued, in awe, and spellbound.
“Taken? What do you mean taken?”
“Kidnapped. I got a phone call telling me to be at a specific location. I knew I’d have to pay ransom so I arranged for some money to be available. I went to the location, a car pulled up, two guerillas got out with machine guns, they blindfolded me and drove me to a runway. They took off the blindfold and pointed up the ramp to a private plane, and I knew exactly who was in there. He was the biggest drug lord in Columbia. I sat across from him on the plane with machine guns pointed at me the whole time.”
“The big guy smiled at me. “Samuel, why do you write bad things about us? We bring money into this country, we make people happy, what have you got against us?”” I couldn’t answer him. I had to ask about my wife and children.
“Where is my family?”
“I don’t know. But I do know if you want to see them again you’ll stop writing about us. You won’t write anything about us. In fact, you won’t write anything at all. Ever.”
“I agreed. I was driven back to my home, and one of the guerillas drove off with my car. I never saw the car again. They didn’t ask me for money. At least not then.”
I had to just do a quick reality check. “Samuel, this is an amazing story. Is it really true?”
“Es verdad. Of course it’s true. It’s so sad what happened to so many families’ lives in that country. It used to be a beautiful place to live. I’m thankful to be in America and I remind myself of that every single day.”
“OK, so they took your family and your car. Obviously things worked out OK. You’re here. What happened next?”
“There was a man who came to visit me almost every day after my trip to the airplane. He’d sit in my house, ask for coffee, and put a gun on the table. He didn’t say very much but he came every day. As he would leave he would ask, “no more writing, right?””
“Wow.” I hesitated, but I needed to know. “What about your family? Did you ever see them again?””
My daughter is now 33. She lives in Miami and she works, but she’s going through a lot of therapy. What they did to her was terrible.”
I felt myself quiver at the thought. He continued the story.
“My son had to work in the fields. For 3 months he worked like a slave and then the man who came to my house told me if I gave him about $50,000 US, my son would come home the next day. I did, and he did. He was OK.”
“My wife was working indoors doing cleaning for some of the big guys’ families, and a month after my son came home my wife came home. She cried so much I couldn’t believe she didn’t run out of tears, but she was strong for my son. He only saw her cry once. It was only when we were alone that she cried. I never asked her what happened other than cleaning. I didn’t want to know and she didn’t want to talk about it.”
“The man would come every day and always remind me not to write. He’d sometimes touch my wife on the arm, just to let me know if I did anything wrong he could take her again. One day, I started to crack. I couldn’t be so strong anymore. I begged the man to tell me where my daughter was. I told him I’d give him everything I have to get her back. He smoked a cigar and smiled. I wished I could have killed him. I would have. Right there. Right then.”
“Just keep behaving and you’ll see her again.”
Airport Exit, 2 miles.
Shit. I wanted to know the rest of the story.
“Samuel, drive slow. I want to hear how things worked out.” I saw him wince. I realized, he gets paid per ride, so if I asked him to slow down, I wanted him to feel good about it. I handed him $20. I could make every argument in the world as to why he deserved it. He accepted it, slowed down, and went on with the story.
“They asked me to withdraw all of my money. I mean all of it. I earned a good living in Columbia and had a beautiful home, but it meant nothing if I’d never see my daughter again. The man came as usual but he came in carrying a bag for the money and he came in a limousine with dark windows and he blindfolded me. There were four other men, all wearing masks. They took me in front of my wife and son and sat me inside the limo. They made sure I heard my wife crying and then closed the door and we drove for a very long time. I heard them counting money and I heard the sound of gun clips. One of them held a gun to my neck and told me to pray. I did. I prayed for my little girl to come home, and then, suddenly, they took off the blindfold, pushed me out, had me lean on the hood of the limo, and they debated whether they should shoot me or not. After about 15 minutes they told me to run, so I did and a bullet went right past my ear. It grazed me.”
Samuel touched his ear and paused. I think he was showing me a scar but it was the left ear and he was driving so I really didn’t see it.
“They drove away laughing. When I got home my daughter was there crying with my wife and son. Everyone was home.”
“Thank God. You said they did something terrible to your daughter.”
“They did. The first day they took her, they brought her to the fields, and in front of her they cut off a young boy’s head, and they made her carry the head walking behind a tractor for miles. She still has nightmares, but she’s alive and is married and has a little girl and I thank God every day.”
We pulled up to the Southwest terminal.
“And after all that, your partner stole your business?”
“Yes, but that’s another story.”
I’m hoping at some point Samuel picks me up again.
What a story. What a ride. I love Uber.
This was to be a double-Uber day.
THE BUDDHIST AND THE DEMON
After a short flight, replaying Samuel’s story in my head, I landed in Pittsburgh. At Pittsburgh International Airport you have to go outside Door 4 at the Baggage claim to get an Uber. I did. There were about 8 other people waiting for Ubers. You watch for the car the app tells you is coming and check to make sure it’s the right driver. Mine was Dale.
Dale’s car was filled with incense, Buddha statues, and hanging things. Lots of ornaments. I sat in the front seat, I introduced myself, he said I looked like I worked out, and the conversation started.
I don’t know how many more Uber driver stories I want to include here. This is beginning to become a book. Maybe I’ll just tell you about Dale and his sexual apparition and then leave the 82-year-old-bigot who missed every turn, the drunk whose son followed us the entire ride, the NFL-almost working in the neurology lab at UCLA, and the stockbroker bodybuilder after whose trip I rushed to wash my hands for another installment. That’s what I’ll do. Let’s finish this one up with Dale and I’ll save the rest for another day.
Dale asked whether I do yoga.
“I have, but not regularly. I’ve dated a few girls who were very into it and became somewhat intrigued but I guess I never made it to the point of really connecting.”
“I understand. I’ve been doing it for 12 years, ever since I gave up my former life.”
“Your former life?”
“I was a partier. No, that’s not right. I was an addict. I made a promise to my father the day he threw me out of the house. I promised I’d quit. I knew I needed something to replace it, an entirely new lifestyle, so I started taking a yoga class and it changed my life.”
“I no longer cared about material possessions. I became enlightened. I didn’t need drugs or weed any more. I found silence.”
“Silence is better than weed?”
“Oh yeah, but it takes time to get there. I struggled at first, but I learned to breathe, to control, to observe urges and let them pass, melt away. I went to a retreat in upstate New York and that’s where I really found the beauty of meditation.”
“Meditation is better than medication.”
He laughed, but I think he really wanted to roll his eyes at my idiotic quips. “Yes.”
The conversation moved into relationships. He referenced the fact that I told him I only did yoga when I was dating someone who connected me with it, and told me that’s why he not only left the drugs, but left his girlfriend. She was so deep into drugs he knew he’d have to leave her to experience her own journey, and that someday she’d find peace.
“Was that hard?”
“At first, but then I met a beautiful woman who I’ve been with for 10 years now.”
“Oh, are you married?”
“No. We’re just together, as partners . . . sort of.”
“What’s the sort of?”
“Well, I’ve been celibate for 12 years.”
“Yes. It’s actually blissful, and I know that when I meet the person I’m supposed to be with we will marry and enjoy the physical intimacy that is special between a man and woman.”
“You don’t sleep with your . . . ummm . . . partner of 10 years? Do you think about marrying her?”
“I did, but something held me back. And then, one night we were in a yert . . . “
“A yert. It’s like a lean-to, like an outdoor little treehouse without the tree, and we were looking up at the stars, and she suddenly became seductive. I almost couldn’t resist her. I shouldn’t be telling you this.”
“I’m just your driver.”
“It’s OK, if you can’t tell an anonymous stranger who you’ll never see again, who can you tell?”
“But you’re going to think it’s strange.”
“Dale, I’ve had more strange shit in my life than one person deserves, and I already think you’re strange because you’ve been celibate for 12 years. I’m kidding, but go on. You couldn’t resist her.”
“No, I couldn’t. I became so aroused I almost couldn’t control myself. I never had that reaction to her before but something about the moment in the yert was so overwhelming I was completely overtaken by lust.”
“Was she as taken as you were?”
“She created it, but when I saw her, I realized what was happening. Her truth came forth. I saw her for who she was. She was Mara!”
“Yes, Mara the Seductress, a demon.”
“Your partner became a demon?”
“I suspect she always was. I just never saw it until that moment.”
“So what did you do?”
“I resisted, and I went out into the night alone to meditate, and when I returned to the yert she was gone. I knew what I had to do.”
“I had to go home and make peace with my father, and on that day I signed up as an Uber driver.”
We pulled into the parking lot of Revelation Health. I handed Dale a $20 bill. I guess I’m a good Uber passenger. The fact is, these people are providing a great service at a great price and I appreciate the human connection rarely offered by taxis. Dale pulled away and I wished him luck in finding “the One.’ I’m not totally sure what I meant by that, but it seemed appropriate. Perhaps it means, “I hope your celibacy ends in bliss . . . demon-free.”
Feel free to post your Uber experiences, or let me know if you want to hear more. I’ll continue to Uber so more human interest stories shall no doubt flow to me. For now, I’ll leave you only with the stories of Cassandra, Samuel, and Dale. Just know, there are plenty more where they came from!
Aside from the untold stories I referenced earlier, I can tell you about the 79-year-old world traveler whose uncle warned Washington about Pearl Harbor before it happened (he wrote a book about it . . . I ordered the book on Amazon), the entrepreneur from Pakistan with the struggling Dollar Store and the problematic daughter, the gay pizza maker who moved from Wisconsin to Florida to find acceptance, or any one of a number of characters who drove me to various destinations and were kind enough to share stories of tiny fragments of their lives.