Content warning: language, depictions of possible mental health breakdown(s).
2:49 AM. I get a request for pickup at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. It’s a little too early for it to be an airport run, though I’ve had at least one person go that early when they thought that Louis Armstrong International was not perhaps the fastest curb-to-gate place in the country (it’s up there). I pull up to the curb ahead of a taxi driver cleaning out his car who glares at me slightly as I pull past. He’s probably going to wait in front of the Ritz for the next hour or so until an airport rider emerges. I feel a slight twinge of guilt and identify my rider, a huddled looking woman in a big puffy parka. It’s sixty-two degrees out, mild for early January.
I confirm her name, a Russian name, and she agrees in a fascinating blend of Russian and Southern accents, with a hard-nosed edge to the delivery that would best be described as “urban” or even “gangster”. Like she’s pretending to be in a movie about drug dealers. But her face tells me she’s not pretending.
I swipe the green bar on my phone to start the ride. The map zooms out to reveal the entire southeastern United States. The destination is simply listed as Tucker, GA. No address. I blink once and feel that whooshing rush of adrenaline that comes with the unexpected, the verge of adventure. But then I remember two nights prior and immediately tamp it down.
Two nights prior, I’d picked up a guy at a rousing French Quarter club toward closing, swiped the green bar, and seen the whole USA. The destination was listed as an address in Tucson, Arizona. The guy had no luggage, was boisterously amiable, talking mile-a-minute, and seemed impatient. I felt a joke was the best approach. “I assume we’re not going to Tucson?”
“Tucson? Hell no! Is that what it put in there? Jesus. I have a house out in Tucson, we could go check it out. I guess it picked up on that. No, just going around the corner to the Bywater. You know where Markey’s is at? It’s right around there. God. No wonder they wouldn’t give me the estimate of the fare and I had to say I was okay with that. I’m just going a few blocks!”
I sighed with predominant relief, but there was just the tiniest bit of sadness in me that I didn’t get to be the guy who went on a two-day Uber roadtrip, who didn’t have that story to add to the collection, who didn’t contend for an all-time record-high fare. I filed the thought away. Alex needs the car in the morning. I’ll be tired before too long and this guy is in no shape to drive. I couldn’t have done it anyway. When I drop him off three minutes later, he thanks me and says “Man, we woulda had fun going to Tucson. Maybe next time.”
Back in front of the Ritz Carlton. This rider also has no luggage, not even a purse. I turn to ask the puffy-coated woman where we’re actually going. She cuts me off, “Just to confirm, we’re going to Atlanta?” Her sentences lilt up, but with emphasis, the pronunciation on Atlanta is At-LAN-ta, sounding almost like a curse word.
“Um.” I hesitate. “Let me just check how far away that is. I don’t think I can take you to Atlanta.” I’m stalling, but also in a bit of the shock that happens when unpredictable events unfold. I know how far away Atlanta is, it’s 6-8 hours, depending on traffic, and it’s almost 3:00, and Alex needs to go to work at 6:30. I would barely be in Alabama. I confirm what I already know. “Yeah, I’m sorry. I can’t take you to Atlanta. My girlfriend needs the car in the morning.”
“What, you could take me five minutes ago, but you can’t take me now?”
It’s a common misunderstanding that Uber drivers see the destination of the ride when they accept or reject the pick-up. “No. I didn’t know that’s where you were going until just now. Drivers don’t see where you’re headed until you get in the car.”
“Sir. I need to go to Atlanta right now. And that’s your job, you have a contract, you have to take me where I need to go.”
I am half-turned around awkwardly in the driver’s seat, looking her in the eyes over my shoulder, somewhat imploringly. She is staring back with a quiet, matter-of-fact desperation. There is no fear there, but it looks more like this is because life has surgically removed fear from her than because she’s not in a situation that would make her afraid. “I can’t take you to Atlanta. My girlfriend needs the car.”
“Sir. If you cancel the ride, they will hold my money. The money I need to get to Atlanta. And I need someone to take me to Atlanta. Do you have the cash to give me back, sir?”
“I don’t have the cash. But that’s not the way it works.”
“They will hold my money! They said you would take me to Atlanta.”
“Look.” I turn back to my phone, hit cancel ride, and hover over the reason for cancellation. The ride is not actually cancelled until I submit the reason. I point. “You see that? It says ‘do not charge rider’.” That’s what I’m going to press. Okay? You won’t be charged. It won’t charge you a dime or hold your money. I’m really sorry. But I can’t take you to Atlanta. Someone will. You’ll get a driver who can take you to Atlanta. It may take two or three tries, but it’s not me.”
“Sir. They will hold my money. I need to go to Atlanta. I’m not getting out of this vehicle until we’re in Atlanta.”
I look at her again. She is resolute. I know she’s wrong about the money, but in that kind of 98% way you know something, not absolute. It’s not completely impossible that there’s a special hold for interstate trips. But didn’t the Tucson guy say that he hadn’t been given a fare estimate at all? How does Uber handle $500 rides for accounts linked to checking accounts that may have far less in them?
Of course, here is where I have to admit to myself that there’s been a small but rising voice in my head rooting for the woman refusing to leave the back of my Versa Note. Because I do want this story, I do want to be the guy who gets the huge crazy roadtrip fare. In all my months driving for Uber, I haven’t gone so far as even Baton Rouge. My two longest trips were to La Place and Covington, less than an hour away each, still places classified as far-flung suburbs of New Orleans. I sigh heavily. I look back at the woman. She is dug in, hands in her parka pockets, looking out the window. My phone screen is still inquiring why I’m cancelling the ride. I sigh again.
“Let me call my girlfriend.”
It is unclear to me whether I’m hoping to have Alex yell at me, perhaps audibly to the woman, on the phone. Yell at me for waking her up at 3 in the morning when she has to teach at 7. Yell at me for considering this idea to the point of bringing it to her attention. Yell at me so I have an excuse to again reject the woman’s insistence and this time mean it. I start thinking about what recourse I have if she persists in refusing to absent herself from the car. I conclude, as the phone rings, that I am left with the police as the only option. I immediately recoil from this thought, but then consider that the woman is not Black and, more importantly, most of New Orleans’ officers are. Unlike nearby Baton Rouge, where protests and eventually violent recrimination erupted after the shooting of Alton Sterling a few months prior, New Orleans doesn’t have a police shooting problem. It did during Katrina, but not since.
The phone near my ear tells me that the number doesn’t have a voicemail set up. It did the last time I called Alex. And then I remember that Alex is switching work phones today, that she gets the new one in the morning, that the service contract probably reset at midnight. And her personal phone has had problems for weeks and is not receiving calls. We don’t have a landline. I have literally no way to reach her except in person. And I can’t even think about heading to Atlanta without telling her. Perhaps more importantly, she doesn’t have an alarm set to wake up if her work phone isn’t working. Her number now directs to her new work phone, safely tucked away at school or perhaps the phone carrier.
I hang up. I turn back to the woman. “Okay, look. I’m not promising anything. I have to talk to my girlfriend because she takes the car to work and she has work in the morning. And her phone isn’t working. So we have to drive to my apartment. I have to go talk to her. She may say no. Is that okay with you?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I’m in no rush. I gotta be there by 3:00 is all. But I need to go to Atlanta.”
I relax a little and head toward home, trying to catch up to my competing thoughts. Am I really going to do this? Am I really going to embark on a 12-16 hour roadtrip? How do I convince Alex? What will the fare be? It seems like it has to be at least $400 or $500. The estimate on Waze said 484 miles to the destination, and $1/mile is generally a good ballpark. Then again, that’s for slower city driving and time is also a factor. We’ll probably average 75 mph on the way to Atlanta, so it might be closer to $400. My record-high day of fares at this point (I’ve yet to drive a Mardi Gras) was Halloween, at around $350. I’ve already made about $80 today in four hours, mostly in the wake of the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert at the Smoothie King Center.
Of course, it’s not really for the money. Oh sure, I’ve been jealous of the stories I’ve read about big-ticket fares in online media. The first big one that was popularly discussed was a trip from New York City to Buffalo, not even crossing a state line. A friend of Alex’s family told me this summer about a ride he gave from Atlantic City to New York City. But the fare always seemed dwarfed by the romance of the story. And hey, I’m working on a book about this. What material!
We reach my apartment building. I decide not to bother with the gated parking lot and just park on the street. I take a minute to gather my wits. I’m about to leave a stranger alone in the car. Admittedly I have her Uber identity, but still. What are the vulnerabilities? I make sure to grab my keys and phone and open the door. “Give me ten minutes,” I tell the woman. “No promises.”
I rush into the apartment and start calling Alex’s name. I am trying not to sound alarmingly urgent, but I need her to wake up. She rises, bleary, to a sitting position on the bed. “Hi, cutie,” she says softly. “What is it?”
I explain the situation, that there’s a woman who really wants to go to Atlanta, right now. That it will be around a $500 fare. “I wouldn’t be back until tomorrow night,” I conclude.
“So I’d take an Uber to work?”
“Yeah, probably. And that or get a ride home.”
“Okay,” she says quietly.
“Okay?” I am exhilarated and just the slightest bit disappointed.
“Yeah, if you want to. You have to promise to be super-safe though, okay?”
“Of course, of course.” I look back at my phone, at the map of the road ahead. “Do you need anything before I go?”
“Just a hug.”
Before I go, I tell her that her phone alarm might not work because of the switch and that this also will put her out of touch with me till she gets the new one. We test the alarm on her phone and it works and she admonishes me again to be careful.
I head back out to the car, glad that Alex seemed genuinely okay with it, excited that the woman will not be disappointed and, perhaps more importantly, that a confrontation about her removal from the car will not be necessary. I wonder if I can go see anything in Atlanta when I’m there, if I’ll be up for it. I consider, just before I see the car, that there is a small chance the woman will be gone.
“Okay,” I say.
“We’re going. You ready?”
“Oh, thank God. I was so worried when you came out alone.”
I start the car and pull away from the curb. “How come?”
“You came out alone. I thought she was coming with us.”
Just the faintest drip of hesitation drops down from my heart into my gut. This seems like such a strange thing to say. I dismiss it. “No, she has work here. In New Orleans. We’re going to Atlanta. She has to be at work in a few hours and I had to make sure she was okay.”
“Oh,” she says absently. “I thought we were picking her up.”
It takes me a few minutes to realize that she didn’t think Alex was joining us for the journey to Atlanta, but that I was running her to work beforehand. I think about Alex sitting outside the dark school for the next few hours, waiting for the first person with a building key to arrive. I relax a little. This wasn’t such a crazy thing to think. And after all, she doesn’t know she teaches kindergarten. Maybe Alex goes to work at 4:00 and she’d just be a little early.
We ride in silence for a while. It seems we are both collecting our thoughts. My heartrate is calming down, the shift from the adrenaline rush of a momentous decision to the compartmentalization of mental focus necessary to drive for seven uninterrupted hours. She seems relieved, but has withdrawn deeply into her own head, I guess with the primary worry of not being able to get out of town being sorted. Twenty minutes into the ride, I realize that I should have packed a backpack and taken it along. There is plenty of space in the car, I won’t be able to pick anyone up in Atlanta (or Alabama or Mississippi) anyway, and I may have to stay the night somewhere on the road back. A change of clothes would be nice, but a book is completely essential. Twenty minutes after that, I realize the ride will end during daylight hours, headed east in the morning, and I didn’t even bring sunglasses.
We keep going in silence, across Lake Ponchartrain, through Slidell, away from the city.
I ask if she wants to listen to anything, my way of saying I would like to. She looks up.
“I just don’t know if they’re messing with me or if it’s real. You understand what I’m saying?”
“I mean, like the prophecy?” She is speaking very rapidly. “The prophecy. I just don’t know if it’s real or not. They’re telling me about the floods. And like I don’t want anybody to get hurt, man. I don’t wish that on anyone. But I had to get out, you know. Do you understand what I’m saying? I had to. Do you know the prophecy?”
I look out into the Mississippi night. We are in swamp country, the kind of place where the highway is surrounded on both sides by alligator-filled bayou. There are only a couple headlights, a couple taillights, visible at any given moment. It is very very dark. The situation has deteriorated quickly.
“Um. I don’t know.”
“You know the prophecy. They don’t mess with the old world. It’s the new world they fuck with. Like there’s the line through, what was it? I can’t remember. Phoenix I think it is. That line that goes through Phoenix and all the way around to the other side. You know what I’m saying? And it covers the Pacific and California and Asia and all that shit. And then on the other side you have here and New York and that Atlantic and, like, Europe. And that’s the old world. And they don’t fuck with the old world. But they’re trying to destroy the new world. You understand what I’m saying? With a flood.”
“Okay,” I say, trying to swallow my nervous sigh under the syllables.
“But they flooded here. So I don’t know. I get nervous that they’re going to do it. You know, I don’t know who to trust. They’re telling me this. And they say it’s going to happen. But I don’t know if it’s real. You goddamn motherfucker! Shut the fuck up, I’ll knock you out!”
I haven’t said anything. I really hope she’s talking to the voice in her head.
“I don’t even know. I don’t know who’s a clone and who’s real. Barack Obama. He’s a clone, right? Do you know?”
Deep breath. “I don’t know.”
“Why would they do that to him? To be married to that? You understand what I’m saying? Do they hate him that much?”
“I think he’s a clone. He’s a fucking clone! I knew it. Motherfucker. But maybe they’re just trying to fuck with me. I don’t remember.”
She withdraws into a bit of mumbling, then reclines slightly. Silence takes hold.
I re-evaluate my options under this sudden barrage of new information. My father’s voice is reverberating in my head with his most frequent and important adage, never get yourself into a situation you can’t get out of.
She has already refused to leave the car once. We are now in rural Mississippi, the kind of place where there’s only an exit every ten miles. Turning around or ending the trip early do not feel like real options. They feel like they would risk jeopardizing my safety and causing further agitation in someone who is suddenly clearly quite troubled. I calm down a little. Aside from the shouted “motherfuckers,” there’s not a clear threat to me, especially if I don’t interrupt the ride.
Because of my history, because I play with worst-case scenarios in order to prevent them (another lesson from dad), I start trying to discern why she is here. Why a ride that could cost her well more than $500 in the middle of the night was not only worth it, but desperately important. Maybe she just committed a crime and needed to get out? Am I facilitating a fugitive? Is there a giant butcher knife packed into that parka? Or is her assumption that she can do something to get out of paying for the ride? That she can grab the phone when my guard is down and try to cancel the ride somehow? I have often worried about this before when contemplating the big-ticket roadtrip ride that might come in the future.
The ride to La Place, my second longest prior to this trip, got cancelled in the middle of the ride. Toward the end of it, actually. We were on a minor highway in the middle of the night, swamp country again, and the disheartening but sudden sound of a cancelled ride rang out of my phone. My heart dropped precipitously. Usually this only happens if someone has picked up the wrong rider and the actual rider has seen that they are allegedly on a ride while they stand waiting. They cancel the ride and the driver suddenly realizes that they have the wrong rider, that they are not getting paid for this ride, and, perhaps most importantly, that all of the protection that comes with Uber is suddenly lost. Because now you don’t have the identity of the person in your car. Now they could be anyone and there’s no way that Uber can look up who you drove and tie their identity to you being at this place in this time.
In that instance, the rider had been one of the most amiable and friendly riders I’d ever had, passing the long drive quickly with tales of work and growing up outside New Orleans. Of course, con men tend to be talkative and gregarious. That’s how it works. He tried to re-request the ride from the freeway, but the app wouldn’t let him. We pulled over and he tried again to no avail. The app showed I had actually gotten paid for the first part of the trip up until cancellation and he said he had $8 cash on him and he’d pay me that to finish the ride. It was almost exactly fair, so we continued on. But I was still relieved when the address proved to be in a quiet neighborhood, not a rundown shack, and when no one emerged from the building to join him in stealing the car.
So theoretically this is a power a rider always has, to cancel the ride, though one at least gets paid for the time already spent driving. But what if they took the driver’s phone and cancelled the ride there? This was no minor investment I’d made in time and money, three tanks of gas to come, inconveniencing Alex, her extra spending to get to and from work without our car.
I assure myself I’m being paranoid, perhaps even more paranoid than my traveling companion. I focus on my breathing. I reset cruise control and try to play little mental games to compartmentalize the time remaining in the trip. Hours past and hours to go. Fractions of the trip. Landmarks to come: Biloxi, Mobile, Montgomery. To try to predict where we’ll be at sunrise.
Periodically, she interrupts my little internal mental games with new rants. Many of them center on clones and the idea that regular people are sometimes clones with no outward indication other than slightly aberrant action. Many of them engage with voices in her head telling her to leave New Orleans. At one point, I ask her if she has to be back for work at 3:00 PM, trying to center her on a more normal reality and she looks up blankly. “No, I, I don’t work.” I repeatedly try to ask why she’s going back to Atlanta, but she either ignores these queries of says “They told me to.” It occurs to me she could have been fleeing abuse. Some time passes in silence.
“Can I smoke a cigarette?” she asks.
“I’d really prefer that you don’t. My girlfriend has asthma. She’s allergic to it. I’m happy to stop if you want.”
“Okay, fine. Don’t bother.”
“But can I please smoke a cigarette?”
“How about I pull over?”
“Here? No way. Please? I really need a cigarette bad.”
I try to calculate a number of cigarettes that this trip will require for her, given that it’s been over an hour before this request. I think about the fabled calming effect of nicotine. I think about the hypothetical butcher knife beneath her parka. “Okay, if we roll the windows down.”
I do so and she lights up. I think Alex is going to kill me if my rider doesn’t first.
Half an hour later, I’m glad that she hasn’t asked for another cigarette and that the smell is very faint already. I tell her we’re going to pull over for gas soon, that she should get some snacks if she wants. She has returned to something more normal. “Okay. I wish I had a few bucks to throw you for gas, but I only have a card.”
“It’s okay,” I say, thinking about the expense of the trip overall.
“You should smoke again at the gas station if you want,” hoping that this will buy me out of a few more requests.
I pull into the station, a Marathon just over the Mississippi/Alabama border. Alex had Facebook messaged me from her computer when she got up and now I had the ability to reply…
Alex: how’s it going?
Storey: The rider is really odd. I think she might be schizophrenic.
Alex: What do you mean?
Storey: I think she is clinically schizophrenic. She talks about voices and doesn’t always make sense. She might be tired or on something instead.
Alex: You are being careful, right?
It occurs to me that it was a really bad idea to tell Alex all this before the ride was over and I was safe. It also occurs to me that I wanted there to be a record of the rider’s behavior, just in case. These things are in diametric conflict.
Storey: It’s fine, it’s an adventure! Getting gas and coffee now.
We pile back into the car. My rider has smoked two cigarettes and purchased one small heavily doctored cup of coffee. She has also removed her parka, revealing long curly dyed red hair that was previously invisible under the parka hood. Also revealing no butcher knife.
We head northeast through Alabama. The first glimmers of light are starting to emerge on the far horizon. I forgot to buy sunglasses at the gas station. We have, according to Waze, four hours to go. Soon, rain starts, offering a reprieve from my oversight.
“Sir. When’s the inauguration? It’s in two days, is that correct?”
“No,” I say. “It’s in nine days. A week from then.”
“Sir, you are not telling me the truth right now. You are lying. It’s in two days. Is that not correct?”
“Today is the 10th. Well, morning of the 11th. The inauguration is the 20th.”
“Sir, please stop lying to me. We have 37 hours before the end of the world and we all die. Is that not correct?” Her agitation is growing. I am becoming concerned again and realize that if she wants the inauguration to be in two days, it might as well be in two days. It occurs to me that this is the best thing to do with people convinced of things whose reality is dubious. You placate, you go along with it, you try to get on their level and reassure them in their terms. It also occurs to me that the last reference I saw to this tactic was in the movie “Collateral Beauty” and that said reference was punctuated with the following joke:
“I thought you couldn’t afford therapy.”
“I can’t. My Uber driver told me that.”
Here were are, at full circle. “My mistake,” I tell the woman. “It’s day after tomorrow.”
“Goddamn right. I think. Fuck, maybe it is in a week. Motherfuckers! Why are they messing with me like this!” A pause. “Barack Obama, he’s a clone, is he not?”
“I don’t know,” I say it as evenly as possible, as though I’m considering the possibility.
“He must be. He’s a fucking clone. And you sir, are you a clone?”
My heart palpitates exactly once. “No.”
“Sir. Are you a goddamn clone?”
“Good,” she leans back. “I didn’t think so. Fuck.”
After a couple minutes, she puts some music on her phone. It is, near as I can tell, Russian gangster rap. The language is definitely Russian. The cadence is definitely rap. Some really fake sounding gunshots are peppered throughout the first three tracks. I would normally, at this point, offer to hook up the aux cable, but four hours of Russian gangster rap through the speakers is a bigger commitment than I’m presently ready to add to this venture.
After a few songs, she asks for a phone charger. I ask if she needs an iPhone or Android. When she says Android, I reluctantly hand over my phone’s own charger, noting that I’ll need it back in about an hour and that we can trade back and forth. She mumbles, accepting the cord.
The music goes off. She leans back, her eyes close a little, even leans over on the seat. I am pretty impressed that she’s been awake the whole trip. Had I just booked a seven-hour Uber to Atlanta, I would probably have immediately laid out on the back seat and slept for a few hours. That said, it occurs to me, again, that she may be harboring lingering doubts about me and feels compelled to keep her eyes open. Maybe she’s fleeing some sort of abusive situation. Maybe she’s been trafficked. Maybe she has very good reasons to distrust men but has to rely on one now to get away. Maybe she’s just hopped up on something. But maybe not. I ponder, hoping that she’ll feel okay enough to get some rest. She looks like she needs it.
I don’t think she ever quite falls asleep. Twenty minutes later, she pops back up.
“Sir. What do you know about voodoo?”
“Not much, honestly. There’s a lot of people in New Orleans who know about it, but I only know what’s in the movies, really.”
“Sir. Do you know how to get a curse removed?”
“I do not.”
“Because I think I, I picked up something there. I think someone. They fucking did this to me. You understand what I’m saying? I am so confused. I remember but I don’t remember. You know?”
“I. I guess?”
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“No, not really. Who did this to you?”
“Don’t fuck with me like that. You know who. You fucking know. They did it. And now they’re talking to me but I can’t tell what they’re saying and I don’t know if it’s true. Do you think it’s true?”
“I. I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think it’s true? Man, I need someone to fucking take this thing off of me. Fuck. I don’t even know how I got this. But do you know someone who can take curses away?”
“I don’t. I’m sorry. Maybe there’s someone in Atlanta who knows about voodoo?”
I keep driving. She periodically leans forward and asks things which lead to five-minute conversations in the same style. A sample of some opening lines:
“Sir. When was it again that all the Nazis left the planet?”
“So, you’ve seen the movie ‘The Matrix,’ right? That’s pretty much true, isn’t it? How much of it exactly is true?”
“Sir. Where did the neo-Nazis come from if they all left the planet?”
“What other movie is Keanu Reeves in? Is he a clone?”
“I’m glad I’m an ugly bitch. Thank God. If I weren’t an ugly bitch, I’d be so arrogant. And then they’d get me. You understand what I’m saying?”
It is important to stress that her tone throughout these conversations is deadly serious, the way most of us would discuss a family member getting cancer or perhaps a recent mass-shooting. It is delivered in the persistent staccato harshness of her overall demeanor, fast, a little angry, and laden with swearing. When I respond at a pace even half as fast as hers, she responds simply with “Sir.” to indicate that she has not understood me. The Russian gangster rap comes and goes. A couple more cigarettes are smoked (she always politely rolls the window down first). It occurs to me at one point that she might be trolling me, that she feels the most entertaining way to pass these necessary hours with a stranger is to rant and inquire about bizarre theories about the nature of the world and see how I react. If this is the case, she is perhaps among the finest actors in the world.
Her most fervent phrase, peppered throughout the scattershot dialogue, is “You understand what I’m saying?” There is always a special emphasis on these five words, an extra loudness, as though she can detect throughout that I do not, in fact, understand. I still try to usually reply to this in a vaguely affirmative way, mostly for fear of being re-accused of being a clone.
When I ask her questions, such as for my phone charger back, she is usually non-responsive. Occasionally she mumbles and then ignores me. By the time my phone battery is getting dangerously low, risking both the GPS and verification of this trip with Uber, I get insistent and she finally lets me take it back.
A few minutes later, she asks if she can see my phone a second. My heartrate surges again. “Why? Is your phone not working?” I am unable to keep the surprise/fear out of my voice.
She ignores me and stares out the window. I am content to let this one drop.
The sun comes out from behind the storm. We have made it through the vast majority of our trip. I am starting to gain some confidence, in the daylight, that I will have the energy to finish the journey, that she will not attack me, that even if the ride somehow gets cancelled most of it has been logged and I will be compensated for this extraordinary experience. In the back, my traveling companion is showing every bit of having been up as long as I have. It occurs to me, for maybe the hundredth time, that she may be going through withdrawal. A few minutes later, as though she heard my thoughts:
“Sir. Can we. When we get to Atlanta, can we go to the hospital?”
“Yes. If that’s what you want, absolutely.”
“We can go to the hospital?”
“We can go to the hospital.”
“I’m sorry for freaking you out. I’m. I always talk too much. I’m sorry for talking too much.”
I smile. It’s been a few hours since that happened. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s a long ride.”
“I’m just. I’m just trying to understand, you know? You understand what I’m saying? They’ve got me all crossed up. I’m just. I’m messed up. I’m sorry.”
“No, no! No problem.”
An hour goes by. We cross into Georgia. I try to confirm that we’re going to Tucker, Georgia. The fourth time over the course of twenty minutes that I try to ask this, she says “Yes sir.” I realize she may just have a hard time hearing, though I have been increasingly loud with my inquiries over the course of the trip. I follow the GPS toward Tucker, realizing again that there is no address there. I wonder if I should ask again about the hospital. I wonder if she’ll want to return to New Orleans when we reach Tucker. I wonder if I’ve come 484 miles to be in the same game of chicken with her about leaving the back seat. I follow the directions my phone offers.
Soon, we’re in metro Atlanta, just behind rush hour, a fortuitous near-miss made all the better for the hour time-change at the Alabama/Georgia border. Tucker appears to be a suburb nestled on the eastern side of Atlanta. We proceed along a three-digit ring highway, I-285, south of Atlanta to get there. As we approach the exit for Tucker, I ask her again to confirm where we’re going. She replies affirmatively. “You still want to go to the hospital?”
She is looking vastly better than when she made that request. “No, I’m fine sir.”
I am trying, hard, to picture what the closing scene of this ride will be like. I wonder if she has a home. If she will just ask to be dropped off in the middle of Tucker, go sketch a sign on cardboard, and stand on a sidewalk. This doesn’t square with reserving a $600 Uber at 3 in the morning under what appears to be her real name, but it would not be the first thing tonight that has failed to square. We take the exit. I ask for directions. She responds quickly, with cogency, a series of turns that appear to be going in a direction, not in circles. She is the same person who made it clear how important it was I take her to Atlanta in the first place.
We pull up to a run-down vinyl-sided series of apartments, four-plexes or so, in a vast sprawling complex. The road through them is halfway to being reclaimed by the dirt. The biome is piney, strewn with brown needles. The road slopes gently downward and we are going to the very back, she assures me. I briefly envision people jumping out at me, banishing the thought almost as soon as it comes. We are so close.
We pull up. “Right here is fine, sir.”
“Right here?” I basically don’t believe it.
“Right here.” She looks at me, sincerely. “Listen. I am so so grateful for you. I just don’t even know what I would have done. I had to get out of there.”
“Oh, you’re welcome. I’m glad it worked out.”
“No. You don’t understand. I am so grateful. Thank you.” She opens her arms as though to hug me, an impossibility from the back seat to the driver’s seat. I offer her my right hand instead and she clutches it fervently in both of hers. “So grateful.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad we made it.”
She opens the car door, gathers her parka, sizes up the building in front of her, and sighs. “Thanks,” she says, closing the door behind her.
I sigh. I swipe the red bar, untouched for seven hours and twenty-one minutes, to end the trip. The phone, naturally, takes about 30 seconds to process this information. It asks me to rate the experience. I fall into a spasmodic laughter and pull away from the curb.
I click over to the Earnings tab on my phone, satiating my long-running curiosity. Riders are always asking me how much a fare is, often so they can calculate a fair tip. I always tell them honestly that I don’t know. It sometimes takes half an hour for a ride’s fare to show up and one can never see it till the ride’s over. This one populates pretty quickly. $391.26 is my share. She paid $521.68 for it. Less than I thought.
In half an hour, I will be at Waffle House, eating for the first time in half a day, loading up on more coffee. I’ll tell Alex I need to get out of metro Atlanta before rush hour starts and then I’ll evaluate when and where to sleep. But I won’t sleep. I’ll drive seven straight hours from Waffle House, stopping only for gas, to New Orleans. It’s not rational. It’s probably not totally safe, though I’ll have a surprising amount of energy throughout the drive and promise myself I’ll pull over if I start to fade. But I don’t fade, even after 19 consecutive hours of driving, of 30 consecutive hours being awake. It doesn’t make sense. But sometimes, you’ve just got to be home.
This is an excerpted chapter of the in-progress book tentatively titled Driving for U: Behind the Wheel of a New Orleans Uber by Storey Clayton. If you are in the publishing industry and would like to contact Storey about this book, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.