Ubering brings me into contact with scores of people. In the last four months alone I've provided over 1100 rides for complete strangers. The riders commonly consist of two people, sometimes three and the occasional foursome. Which means I've probably met over 3000+ people since the end of December. That’s amazing, isn't it? 3000+ people. I’ll usually ask or say something open-ended to see if there’s a conversation to be had. Sometimes their response is followed by a conversation, often not.
But something disquieting happens when a ride is viewed as a whole, from “hi” to “thanks for the ride,” what sometimes seems to me a juxtaposition of the shared human experience and the dehumanization of the same.
The 2+ riders usually talk amongst themselves, saying everything from where they’ll honeymoon — “Rome or somewhere in Asia, Brenda?”. “I’m not certain yet, Michael. I’ll have to think about it.” — to who they’ve been hooking up with lately — Red head: “I found out on Facebook he’s a doctor.” Friend: “Wow!” Red Head: “I don’t care. I just know what his penis looks like.”
Sometimes I’ll be preached to, usually about politics, and sometimes the conversation is actually very engaging. For example:
Over the weekend I drove two married couples from Fells to a karaoke bar on Water St. (Why in the hell anyone is interested in karaoke is beyond me, but whatever.) We all laughed and talked the entire way. One of the couples had three children just a year older than each of mine and we discussed several things including the incessant, never ending guilt of being a parent. "I love my children, and I'd give anything for them,” I said, “but often I love myself more, and I don't know if that guilt will ever go away." From the backseat I heard the other mother say quietly to herself, "but I love myself more…"
They gave me room to continue. “It’s like no matter how much you do for them — how much money you spend, how much time or attention you give them, how many experiences you provide for them — it just isn’t enough. It’ll never be enough.” More discussion, a joke to lighten the mood and more laughing. I thought to myself, "I would love to hang out with these guys; we’re on the same page.”
Then something disquieting happened.
When we arrived at the karaoke bar, they closed the car doors as if they’d never known me and I was suddenly alone. It was like being kissed by a stranger in the dark. I’ll admit that being kissed by a stranger in the dark has a certain appeal, but when the lights come on and whomever it was makes no effort to reengage it can leave one feeling… Empty? Yes, empty. You’re standing alone in a crowded room.
It reminded me yet again of what I’ve known all along: I don’t belong. This has been most obvious when we engage and then I drive away like the above but it's also obvious when my riders talk amongst themselves on topics I could contribute to. Were we at a cocktail party I could contribute and my contribution would probably be welcomed, a stranger brought into the fold. But in the car, uninvited? It would be odd, intrusive.
Still there are times when I am invited in — I’m kissed by a stranger — if but for a moment. Another example:
C & A
This passed Saturday morning around 3:00am I picked up two young women on Broadway in Fells. “A” was totally sh*t-faced, “C” was comparitively sober. They’d just been verbally assaulted by a pack of wolves, “the most vulgar things you can imagine,” C later told me. It went on for a block and a half with two officers sitting in their cars a hundred feet away doing nothing but watching. On the way to Essex, C was trying to console A, the sh*t-faced one, who was visibly distraught.
C was nearly badgering A into agreeing with her that she (C) should have done something to stop the assault. Then C engaged me: “Mr. Uber driver, what’s your name? … Okay, Jim, I have a question.” What was my opinion on how she acted? Should she have said something to the wolves? Cussed them out? After getting a few details I said, “That’s a bad situation. Real bad. I don’t know if there was anything you could have done.” and some other things I can’t recall. Then I got more details and my heart broke for C and A.
What I clearly recall are two things:
- When they exited the car our “moment” was clearly over.
- Half-way to back Baltimore I wanted to turn around, knock on the door and try to console them.
“You did the right thing by ignoring them, C.” I wanted to say. “If you’d engaged them who knows what would have happened. They could have swarmed you, or worse, before the cops climbed out of their cars and came over to help.”
And to A: “Those f*ckers are pieces of sh*t. But now they’re gone. You’re going to be okay, A,” with an arm around her shoulder, “though I do think you should talk to someone professional. You were definitely assaulted.” I wanted to rub her back, hug her, roll her a joint… anything to help her calm down.
And to both: “A, I think what C is trying to say (with all her badgering) is ‘I love you. You know that, right? I really, really love you and I feel guilty that I didn’t stand up for you.’ She wants you to agree that she’s guilty so she can make amends.” What I wouldn’t have said was “Why in the hell were you two out at three in the morning a block away from a blue light district when everything is closed? What were you thinking?” I wouldn’t have said that because I’m not their dad and it seemed they already knew it.
But no such thing could happen. There are Rules, and
Rule #1 is “The Uber Guy Drives Away” — and all that implies.
Love and Marriage
On yet another occasion a young woman engaged me in a deep conversation about love and relationships. I said what I could think to say and later thought of more I should have said. That time I actually did turn around and parked in front of the house where I dropped them off. Then I thought, “Jim, do you know how f*cking creepy it would be for the Uber Guy — The One Who Drives Away — to knock on their door and say, ‘Hey, remember me? About that thing, I’ve thought of something else…’” So I drove away as Uber Guys are expected to do.
On the Rocks, Please
You see, I love my riders, as much as one can “love” a stranger, anyway. I find that I care about many of them and what happens to them. Often I’m still thinking about them many days after I’ve dropped them off, wondering how they are, wishing I could buy them a drink and talk more with them. E.g.:
- The divorced out-of-towner who was starting his futile chemo at Hopkins the following morning and just wanted to have fun. His frame of reference for fun? “Do you know of any strip clubs? When I was 21 my brother took me to a strip club. It was just so much fun. I wanted to live it up a little before…" I didn't know of any strip clubs; I've never been to one. But had I known I would've taken him. Hell, I probably would've gone in with him, bought him a couple of drinks and the company of a young woman. Why not? ”Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more,” said the wise Solomon.
- The producer of the photo and video shoots for Under Armour’s marketing campaigns who has a Masters in a completely different field. I was driving her to pick up a rental car so she could travel to New Jersey for a shoot the following day. I wanted to drive her to Jersey just to keep talking with her, but an Uber a guy can't ask such a thing.
- The (literally) most stunningly beautiful woman I have ever seen in person. Though intelligent and well-spoken she was also humble, nearly apologizing for each thing she said, the tone of her voice being: “I’m sorry I’m so smart, I’m really trying to be normal”. I just wanted to keep talking to her. I dropped her off at a strip club of all places then went offline, found a place to park and smoked and paced I was so beside myself from the experience.
- C and A, and the relationship-woman, of course.
- The African-American, fresh-out-of-college woman who’d just moved to Baltimore knowing no one, determined to make it on her own and tired of the catcalls as she’d walk from work on Charles to home in Fells. I wanted to go off-line and drive her around what I knew of the city, show her some places to hang out and meet some friends.
- The Loyola photography major whose latest project is presenting female beauty through the eyes of females via a series of close-up, black and white nudes. (“I’ve always wanted to shoot bodyscapes,” I told her. “The curves, lines, textures… the human body is just so amazing.” “Why haven’t you?” she asked. “I’d have no idea how to ask someone to undrape in front of me.” “It’s easier than you think,” she said.) Her perspectives and preparations for the shoot were more than interesting and I just wanted to keep talking to her about it.
But you know what? Sometimes I get the distinct, nearly obvious impression that they’d like to be bought a drink and talk more, too. But there are Rules, and
Rule #2 is “The Uber Guy doesn’t really belong in my life”, because "he's just going to drive away" (Rule #1).
Entitlement, Presumption, Assumption
To date I’ve not yet been able to define what I’ve been feeling all these months regarding my relationship, or lack thereof, with my riders. Thankfully, someone else did it for me.
Harris O'Malley, dating advisor, recently had an article posted on the The Good Men Project addressing online dating etiquette. In one example, a model and friend of his posted an alluring photo with a tub of water in the background; we only see a portion of her face and arm. A stranger commented on her post: “Got room for more?”
Now to be fair, this comment is actually fairly mild as such things go. However, the issue isn’t whether he asked her to f*ck him or just implied it, it’s the entitlement. Comments like these carry a presumption of intimacy that doesn’t actually exist. You are making the assumption that you already have a relationship that allows for you to say things. That entitled attitude is unattractive at best and a warning-sign at worst.
This perfectly sums up what I’ve been feeling: entitlement, presumption, assumption. I know it in part because on four occasions I made such an “assumption of intimacy” by injecting myself into a conversation where I was't wanted and the tone of the ride immediately changed for the worse. It was awkward, embarrassing and, yes, creepy.
When I am invited in I follow their lead and engage to the extent they’re engaging me, which is often like standing on a precipice with people you don’t know and whose motives you can’t be sure of. When I’m very uninvited I keep my mouth shut, though a smile creases my face every now and then as they talk of this or that. When I’ve invited myself in it’s never worked out well.
But no matter the situation the Rules still apply:
- The Uber Guy drives away
- The Uber Guy has no relationship with me — a friendship doesn’t actually exist. And if it does? It ends when I step out of his car.
- The Uber Guy isn’t entitled to my life — he doesn’t know me no matter how engaging or significant my conversation is with him.
Like I said, disquieting. We engage, then it’s over. We're all there together, then I’m alone. The truth is I’ll probably never see them again — only three times in over 1100 rides have I driven the same person twice (they recognize me, or rather my hat). That’s .003%. Perhaps that's part of the reason the rules are disquieting.
Ah, the necessary, disquieting Rules. But which came first: the Rules or our own way of being which created the Rules?
* "Kissed by a stranger in the dark" is a quote from Stephen King. Brilliant, isn't it?
Photo credit: Getty Images