Categotry Archives: Adventures in Uber

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Seventeen Years of Blogging

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Let's Go M's, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Here are two relatively unflattering portraits of me, seventeen years apart. What can I say – blogging hasn’t always been pretty.

Yesterday was the seventeenth anniversary of Introspection, my first blog. It lasted for just seven years and change before the daily short-format gave way to this more haphazard long format, now nearly ten years into process. My first post was mostly about dreams and teeth. My first post on StoreyTelling was mostly about Introspection, but also my larger history with blogging and the web. Today’s post will be about neither, really, but it felt like an anniversary to mark, not least because of the significance the number 17 plays in my life. But I haven’t posted in a while and that’s partially because I’ve had only a bunch of micro-post ideas flitting around in my head and that reminds me of Introspection and its flitty, flighty, one-liner format. So here we go:

-Mardi Gras was great for parades and great for Uber and kind of terrible for Uber. I gave multiple $150 rides and also had half-hours where I went six blocks without a rider the whole time and wanted to tear the steering wheel out of the car. Ultimately, it was still a very very good couple of weeks. I got pretty Zen about the traffic once I saw just how much I was making on most of the rides that I actually was able to give. I’ve also never had so many cancellations and frustrations since both Uber and especially Lyft had no real idea how to line people up with a pickup spot that made sense given parade routing. Driving during the parades was the worst; just after was much better.

-After a fantastic January for writing, February and March so far have been dismal. I partially blame Mardi Gras, but also wedding planning and also that it’s just flipping hard to focus on writing and anything else. Like yes, Uber is both a pretty easy casual job and the subject of my book, but it still consumes 35-45 hours a week, depending, and that’s time that really needs to be close to empty for me to write effectively. And/or I am also wrestling with too many internal confidence demons to really commit to writing fully and effectively. And/or there is too much variation and too little routine? I am inclined to think they are all factors, in the order presented. The book remains half-finished, but feels over the tipping point and should still be available to my loyal friend readers by summer at the latest (no whammy).

-Today was one of the first times I’ve ever delivered rolled change to the bank and they didn’t kind of whimsically roll their eyes at me. This is kind of a thing that I do regularly, in part because I find rolling change relaxing and re-ordering for me. I was almost heartbroken when Capital One briefly decided they weren’t accepting rolled change anymore and had me actually unwrap and unceremoniously dump all my change into a bucket so it could be fed into their automatic coin-sorter. By the next time I was ready to turn my change into electronically tracked currency, however, their coin sorting machine was out in the shop, perhaps indefinitely, and they were back to asking me to roll it. The bankers are always kind of bemused by me bringing in rolled change like I’m some sort of crank, but then again, most all commercially available change starts in rolls – someone is doing it somewhere, regularly, to keep the economy going, right? Is it so weird?

-Another relaxing and re-ordering practice for me is reading, which has been even more dismal all year than writing in the last forty days. I blame my ambition as a reader – I’ve spent most of the year allegedly reading The Familiar, vol. 1, a gigantic graphically bedecked book that looks like an elaborate prank. It was a mistake to try to read this, especially at a time when I want to be writing, but I really liked House of Leaves by the same author. The last renewal ran out at the library today and I returned it, having done about 160 pages in two months. I’m sure it’s brilliant in some way and I found some of the characters intriguing, but it just hadn’t spoken to me sufficiently to make it worth the work. I need to be reading regularly, though, and it needs to feel like a joy and not a chore. I may return to it someday, but long after I’ve written a couple more books.

-I am so insanely jealous of the folks living in the path of the snowstorm that’s about to batter the eastern seaboard. There’s a lot I don’t love about the northeastern United States, but the regular access to blizzards is not among them. I keep repeating the promise to myself that someday I will live in a place where I don’t have to anxiously anticipate snow, but it will be a regular occurrence with no possibility of not happening. I worry that places that used to be on this list are starting to fall off of the list, but no matter. Next year in Murmansk.

-Was there ever a more short-sighted decision than to decline to name that British ship Boaty McBoatface? Now the yellow sub they allowed to be called by said moniker is getting all kinds of press its expedition never would otherwise. Sometimes you have to steer into the curve. People are so often their own undoing by taking themselves too seriously.

-The Louisiana state government is having massive budget shortfalls this year because gas prices are low. This prompted them to try to charge state taxes from me from 2014 on all of my New Jersey-earned income. My only Louisiana income that year were some poker winnings from a large payout at Harrah’s. They sent me a bill for nearly $2,000 a few months back, including fees for failing to file and interest (as though interest were something that exists in the world these days). They sent multiple threats via certified letter. After three responses from me, all also sent certified, they sent me a check this weekend for $108, which was actually what they owed me for taking too much out of the poker payout in the first place. I was happy to let this money go in exchange for not filing a Louisiana return back in 2014. But they wanted to push it, so I’m happy to make them pay. Of course, in reality, it all feels like a huge waste – of state employee time, of my time, of the certified mail system. But I know to them it’s not a waste, because like all made-up bills, 80% of people probably just get scared and pay them no questions asked. And we wonder how the poor are kept poor in our system.

-Something I have been doing a lot lately is play chess. It’s not quite as relaxing as reading or walking or even writing sometimes, but it’s good for me. The problem is that I should spend more time between chess club “tournaments” practicing, but that would cut into time potentially writing or driving. This is actually an argument that cuts into a lot of things lately, including a pretty successful video-game moratorium I’ve put on myself for all of 2017 till the book is finished. Chess, like all games, is great patience practice, even the fifteen-minute games I favor and we play on Monday nights. The problem is that I still am spending more time looking at my mistakes and how to get out of them than not making them in the first place.

-I lost about an eighth of a tooth the other day. I think I swallowed it. I have an impacting wisdom tooth that’s pushing its neighbor on a tilt out of position, and I’ve just realized that this has made my bite sufficiently uneven so as to hammer into the tooth below with every chew. As a result, the top corner of the tooth below finally gave way. Luckily the root was not exposed; unluckily I have not had dental insurance since 2014. Trying to get into the LSU dental clinic is proving to be a chore, but at least after three days my tongue toughened up enough so that the newly jagged tooth edge stopped serrating it. It was an ugly couple days at first adjusting to the new reality.

-The Mariners lost their Spring Training game today by a score of 24-3. That said, all their best players are at the World Baseball Classic. They were doing really well before the WBC started. I am irrationally exuberant for the lineup of Dyson, Segura, Cano, Cruz, and Seager.

-Peak Trump Outrage seems to have passed. I know a lot of people want everyone to stay angry and vigilant, but I feel like Trump has slowed down into a kind of plodding pace of not being able to get any of his agenda done. I had long predicted that a President without either party really behind him would have a lot of trouble getting anything done and I think that’s coming to fruition. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay vigilant or react strongly to the truly bad stuff that comes out of the administration, but a half-assed tweak on a bad healthcare law to make it slightly worse doesn’t pass muster on that for me. Especially when the best analysts don’t think they even want it to pass in the first place.

-Speaking of which, “Get Out” is one of the most flawlessly executed movies in recent memory. Right up there with “Arrival”. However, the former’s third act is its weakest point while the latter’s third act is its best, so just keep that in mind. “Weakest” in this context, however, is still mighty strong.

-I feel supremely lucky to live in a time when the Lumineers can be as popular a band as they are. The Lumineers being popular feels like one of those things that shouldn’t be able to happen – they defy all the tropes of what you’d expect of rock music success. And yet, there they are. Alex and I saw them ten days ago in the UNO basketball stadium and it was incredible. They seemed to express the same kind of incredulity at their success and following that I felt. At one point, referencing the time that they used to spend playing in living rooms and similar tiny venues, they came out into a literal pop-up stage in the center of the arena, closer to our seats, and played part of their set there. It was magical. The Lumineers feel magical in the way that New Orleans does when it’s at its simplest, most historical, and most charming. They seem like they shouldn’t be real. They aren’t passing Counting Crows or anything, but I forget how transporting and inspiring music can be sometimes. It can get so habitual and dull or so processed and rote. The discovery of music, the reimagining of it, makes me supremely sad that I didn’t end up in music somehow even though I have no natural ability there whatsoever…

Submarines
Flowers in Your Hair
Ho Hey
Cleopatra
Gun Song
Dead Sea
Classy Girls
Where the Skies are Blue
Charlie Boy
Slow it Down
Sleep on the Floor
Angela
Ophelia
Big Parade
In the Light
My Eyes

Long Way from Home
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Stubborn Love

-Nothing compares to the magic of having by far and away your favorite song from a band close the encore. Especially the first time you see them. You’ve spent the entire show wondering if they’ll play that song or not, with the drama increasing the whole way. And then finally it happens and it’s their sign-off and you don’t even want them to keep playing after because it’s too perfect. I think this has literally only happened to me one other time, the first time I saw Counting Crows. That was in November 1999, notably just more than seventeen years ago. You would think that means you can’t read what I thought of it at the time online now. You would be wrong.

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Twisting the Night Away

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , ,

For more of my life than I care to admit, I was an avid player of Dark Age of Camelot, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG for, well, long). Dark Age, for the uninitiated, was basically the precursor to World of Warcraft (WoW), which you’ve definitely heard of, except the graphics were better (far less cartoony) and the game was harder. Much harder. When a former family member got me WoW for Christmas (perhaps the last thing I wanted at the time), I remember playing it and marveling at how little work everything took. Dark Age felt like work and, thus, in its weird way, was kind of rewarding.

In Dark Age, I primarily played a bard, who I named Fiver Mep, whose task was to sing and play songs to aid, comfort, and heal his friends. Bards in Dark Age were (I should say “are” because the game still exists and I still occasionally play the free months the remnants of the game offers me to try to get drawn back into the addiction) equipped with three particular songs: one providing power, one endurance, and one speed (of movement, not amphetamines). The intent was that only one of these could be played a time – it’s pretty hard to imagine that multiple songs offered by a bard simultaneously would be of any real value. However, at some point early in the game’s inception, a bard discovered that two songs could be played at once to mutual effect. This strategy came to be known in the gameplay parlance as “twisting”.

Because each task in the game was initiated by a keystroke, twisting entailed constantly pressing two buttons in a row, in a vaguely frenetic rhythm, permanently during the game. This while also peppering in other tasks such as, for instance, typing to chat with other players or pressing buttons to heal or conduct other magical activities entailed in the game. I tried twisting for an hour or two one night and quickly found that it wasn’t for me. Playing just one song didn’t involve any repeated keystrokes at all – just a single button to start the song, which would play indefinitely until you decided to stop. This differential in gameplay experience was easily the distinction between enjoying a game that still felt a little like work sometimes and working very hard indeed at a job that was supremely boring. Many players disregarded or refused to adventure with Fiver when he informed them, emphatically, that he did not twist. Others, who had actually played bards in other lives, were more forgiving.

I offer all this as a little metaphor, though one that most may find inscrutable, for the experience of simultaneously driving for Uber and Lyft. I have now been an Uber driver for just shy of nine months (!), but only recently finally got around to signing up for Lyft. The primary motivation was the emerging #DeleteUber campaign sweeping the nation in the wake of the startling discovery that a corporate CEO was not, in fact, a good person. While I myself was not about to delete Uber, I had long been wondering if Lyft was better in some way and was eager to not lose all my business, or at least all my business that hated Donald Trump (read: basically all my business). Plus, it felt like essential research for my book: it would be weirdly neglectful to write a whole book about driving for Uber and not even mention Lyft or detail the rival’s pros and cons. So a couple weeks ago, I began peppering in sessions of Lyft.

The word on the street has always been that Lyft pays better (including and especially because they enable tipping through the app), while Uber keeps you busier because many more people use Uber. I have since been told that this last part is a regional difference – there are apparently some US cities where Lyft is actually the primary service and Uber is struggling to catch up. But in New Orleans, Uber is completely dominant, or at least was before the advent of the Trump administration. In my time with Lyft so far, most of the stereotypes above have demonstrated themselves to be true, though the better money is somewhat inconsistent. There is a $1.25 fee built into each fare with both services – Uber pockets this, but Lyft splits it with drivers. Thus the minimum driver compensation for a ride is $3.75 with Lyft and $3.00 with Uber. For about six weeks, Uber actually upped theirs to $3.75 (for min-fares only, keeping the difference for all longer rides) in New Orleans and lowered the airport pick-up bonus to try to stop 80 people at a time from waiting 60-90 minutes in the airport lot for a single trip. Apparently, this brought about heavy backlash from the seeming majority of NOLA Uber drivers who just want to be airport shuttles and they reversed the change. No amount of praise for the change from me could stop it, so I was pleased to see the extra 75 cents a ride from Lyft, which really adds up when you’re doing short runs in the Quarter.

Tipping, however, has proven to be a bit of a red herring. While it is true that a much higher portion of Lyft riders tip than Uber riders (I would say roughly 40% choosing to tip as opposed to the 12-15% I’m used to), the tips tend to me much smaller. With cash tips, $5 is customary (people actually apologize for tipping less even though everyone tipping me exactly $1 per ride would yield more in total tips than I currently receive) and $20 is not terribly uncommon. It helps, I suppose, that it’s usually 2:30 AM and people are drunk out of their minds. Whereas the cold sobriety of the app, plus the option to decide on a tip up to 24 hours later, yields a ton of $1 and $2 tips. Now, don’t get me wrong, $2 tips are fantastic! But it’s not quite the difference of tripling my tip total vs. Uber that was purported. Additionally, of course, all the Lyft app tips are reported to the IRS, so that can be a difference depending on how you treat your cash tips (relevantly, many waitstaff and bartenders still give cash tips on Lyft). Though as I’m realizing doing my taxes this year, the US has lots of ways to make it basically impossible for anyone who claims to be in business to pay any taxes whatsoever. The horror stories and fears I had about a significant Uber tax liability have been pretty well put to bed by a quick tax session Uber hosted and a newly thorough understanding of Schedule C.

The really tangible potential differences in money break down as a comparison between Uber’s surge and Lyft’s Power Driver status. Uber’s (in)famous surge pricing squares up supply and demand and offers a real opportunity to make bank when driving during, say, Halloween weekend, or, as I can hardly imagine, the upcoming weekend featuring a full slate of Mardi Gras parades and the NBA All-Star Game. When demand is high, during such times or at the end of a game or concert, then Uber drivers can make a normal night’s worth of fares in a good few rides. This is definitely slightly over-rated as part of the income of Uber driving, especially with recent efforts by the company to nerf surge by making the zones much smaller and rebound on each other more slowly. But it can add up on Saturday nights and holidays and during events. Lyft allegedly offers PrimeTime as their corollary to this, but there’s only one problem. It is, apparently, a lie. When you agree to do an Uber pick-up, they tell you the value of the surge the fare will carry. I have done hundreds of surge rides and they’ve all added up to the total promised. When you agree to do a Lyft pick-up, however, they do not tell you if it has a PrimeTime value. And despite picking up many riders in the thick of a pink-shaded PT event, not one of my 88 Lyft rides to date has been deemed a PrimeTime fare. Some preliminary Internet research reveals widespread belief that PrimeTime is somewhere between a scam and a myth and my experience certainly correlates to this. More disconcertingly, many drivers attest that their riders have said they were charged PrimeTime for pick-ups that did not pass such bonuses on to the driver.

This would make Lyft super problematic were it not for the Power Driver status, which is almost enough and possibly quite enough to forgive them for lying about PrimeTime, if they in fact are. (It’s possible that it just doesn’t work somehow, given Lyft’s other technological inferiorities, below.) If a driver accepts 90% of their offered Lyft rides in a week, while completing at least 15 rides during peak hours (a narrow band of afternoon rush hours plus Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights) and 40 rides total, one gets an extra 10% of the total fares, getting 85% instead of the normal 75%. Bump those last two numbers up to 20 and 60 and you get another 10%, meaning you keep a full 95% of the fare charged to the rider (less whatever lying about PrimeTime may be happening, of course). For those of you used to Uber rates, this is the equivalent of getting 1.26x surge on every single ride for the whole week. That’s pretty great. The one week I made the grade here, it was worth an extra hundred bucks. Not enough to compete with surge during Mardi Gras, perhaps, but certainly something to boost a lot of Tuesday nights.

The problem, of course, is that Lyft is often slower than Uber, and more problematically is not afraid of sending you on a wild goose chase for a fare. Uber often strands riders with their requirement that every pick-up be 10 minutes or less from a driver’s current location. (Surge gets triggered if no riders are available within 10 minutes.) Lyft, on the other hand, has given me multiple requests that are 25-27 minutes away. Which is insane. Especially in New Orleans, where you’re always 15 minutes from everything. 13-20 minutes away is a regular occurrence. Of course, most Lyft riders don’t want to wait this long, so 85% of my requests that are that far away get cancelled within 3 minutes. Which just doesn’t smack of efficiency. And because acceptance rate is such a core part of Lyft’s access to the coveted Power Driver status, then you really can’t just turn your nose up at a 20-minute trek. With Uber, I often have enough work that I decline something 8-10 minutes away as requiring too much unpaid gas.

As a result, twisting becomes the norm, especially not on weekends or during events that are busier. In this instance, twisting entails keeping both apps on simultaneously and ready to go, then switching off one app as soon as a request comes in on the other. As I predicted when I first heard about this, this process is hectic and stressful, especially when you remember that you are also, y’know, driving while this happens. Usually driving just involves hitting the phone screen once and then a second time to navigate – not hard when the phone is mounted to the air conditioner or some equally accessible spot. But all the opening and closing of apps is challenging. Already, I’ve had two instances of basically simultaneous requests and had to cancel one (usually the Uber one because acceptance rate –> Power Driver) and just take the other. It’s not quite playing power song and endurance song at once for hours, but it’s not the easiest either. And at least that only impacted fake or simulated people, er, magical creatures?

Of course, the problem is that just choosing one of the apps now creates this insidious FOMO effect whenever one doesn’t immediately have a ride request. I am driving around just trawling for a ride, but I could have both apps on, my brain tells me. I bet there are constant requests on the app you have closed! Is it really that hard to twist?

A week before Saturday, I even was double-apping on a Saturday night, something I swore never to try because of how busy Saturday nights are ’round here. But that promise was so quickly broken the second I’d gone five minutes without a request.

As far as other empirics, there’s not a lot of difference. There seem to be more women traveling alone on Lyft, which is a big part of their marketing strategy for both drivers and riders. (Lyft actually conducts an interview, which Uber does not, though I would not exactly describe it as much of a screening process from my experience.) Lyft riders have disproportionately talked about how they don’t want to use Uber, or are trying not to, but many find it hard in New Orleans given the dominance of Uber in the market. Lyft riders seem much more diligent, on average, about being ready for their ride right away when I pull up, though this may be a product of the significantly longer wait times involved in sending drivers long distances to pick-ups. When the GPS or rider mess up on the map, Lyft automatically starts the ride when you leave to go to the right location. While this theoretically is to help the driver get compensated, it empirically just creates cancellations when the rider freaks out that they’re listed as riding in the car when, in fact, they are not. Lyft won’t let you text riders for some reason, which Uber insists is what riders prefer. Most riders on both platforms cannot remember which service they’ve used to hail me, which is something I definitely remember from just doing Uber as well. Though the ones that do remember and are not strongly anti-Trump have usually just had a bad experience with Uber, which seems weird to me knowing that so many drivers use both platforms interchangeably.

Many people in the cultural imagination, including a guy out front of a bar last night who saw both my signs in the windshield and asked me incredulously how such a thing was possible and wasn’t I a traitor to both companies, seem to not realize that one can do both, much less at the same time. For companies that brand themselves with such contrast, black vs. pink, businesslike vs. whimsical, pro-Trump (now not-un-pro-Trump?) vs. anti-Trump, the reality is basically the same. You are in a person’s car and they are taking you where you want. No matter how much corporate veneer and artifice we put on things, we remain, unflinchingly, just people in all that we do.

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This Land is… Your Land?

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , ,

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I feel about the United States of America. I suspect I am not alone in this.

In fact, I know I am not alone in this. Every post on Facebook, half of the reports on the radio, and a third of my conversations in Uber drives involve people thinking and feeling about America. This country, its values, and its way of doing business in the world have never witnessed such scrutiny in my lifetime. And on face, that’s a great thing. I have, in many ways, been wishing for an event to prompt this self-examination my entire life, or at least my whole life since I first took a serious history class.

But self-examination doesn’t only apply to others, of course, no matter my history of self-critical reflection on this nation and my role in it. Self-examination starts with… the self.

Last night, a paradox hit me that I am still kind of reeling from and can’t quite solve. And the more I considered the paradox, the more that I realized it’s the same paradox most Americans seem to have about America, except it’s inverted. And I don’t quite know what to do with this conclusion, other than explain it, offer it as lived experience, and try to see where other people are on this spectrum. I know how alone I am in most of my conclusions about the advent of the Trump administration, so I suspect I’m pretty alone in all of what follows. But I’m curious what this dredges up for anyone reading it. I’m curious what articulating it will dredge up for me.

I am someone who goes around saying that they hate America. This is not common. Increasingly, this might be dangerous. Hate is a strong word and most people who hate are prone to violence and violence against the country is the scariest thing anyone thinks exists since 9/11. Of course, I’m also a pacifist, but one who doesn’t aspire with the best of them to live without hate in their heart. I have hate in my heart. Lots of it. A lot of personal life experiences and impersonal history have combined to make me angry a lot of the time. When I’m not angry, I’m sad. When I’m neither sad nor angry, I’m usually really ecstatic. This is probably because I am a manic depressive. It might just be because I’m really aggressively not afraid of my emotions, which – near as I can tell – amounts to the same thing.

But this isn’t about mental health. It’s about hate. What does it mean to hate America? The conclusion most people have about people who hate America is that they hate freedom or that they are fanatically devoted to some sort of cause hell-bent on the violent downfall of America. This is not how I feel. I was born here. My parents were born here. Their parents were born here. I know that some of what separates me from most of those who don’t hate America is that I don’t feel like those facts make me in any way special. Lucky, yes, but not special. I know and have discussed how much I would’ve wanted to be born in America had I been born anywhere else, not because America is a place I would want to be, but because America is the seat of power of the world so far in my lifetime, and also the seat of harmful influence on the world’s people, and I would be committed to changing that. And I can imagine the angry quarrels I would have with friends in foreign cafes, where they would look at me bemusedly across the table and claim that if I were born in America, I would not be capable of hating it, because where are the Americans who hate America. And I would glare back at them and say I knew, I knew they were wrong. How could anyone be aware about the role of America in the world and not seethe?

Of course, the other issue with the chain of births in America leading to my own is that I lack contact with living ancestors who lived elsewhere and voluntarily came here. I don’t have a relatable ancestral story of someone clinging to a raft or looking over a boat railing or sneaking aboard a vessel or over a wall into what they thought would mean freedom. I did not grow up on stories of how much was sacrificed and forgone so that I could be here on this red, white, and blue soaked soil. I can understand how it would be different if I had. If dad or granny had sold all their possessions for a sketchy ticket to this nation under the cover of night so that their grandchild or child could be born American, then it would be harder for me to feel the way I do. It would feel ungrateful, no matter what else the facts or feelings about the country said. It would feel like betrayal.

So what do I mean when I say I hate America? If I don’t want it destroyed and I don’t wish to do it ill, what does my hate really mean? And if I don’t hate freedom or immigrants or the colors red and blue, how does my hate manifest? What is it I hate about America? Its people? Its ideas? Its success?

The best one-word answer I can give is this: hypocrisy. There are many things I wish America did differently, or had never done. But it’s the hypocrisy that really riles me up, gets me actually angry and upset. It’s that America parades around in the world pretending to be a beacon of freedom, hope, and light, while actually serving as a vehicle of empire, destruction, and manipulation. If America unapologetically embraced its imperial attitude in the world, it would actually make me less hateful. At least there would be some truth, some sincerity in advertising. At least other countries would know what was coming and why. It’s the old difference between a backstab and a “frontstab” as we used to call it in weekend games of Diplomacy in Albuquerque. You can have begrudging respect for a “frontstab”. A backstab is just evil. There’s a reason Judas is a greater villain in history than Napoleon, why Dante put the betrayers in the ninth (and worst) circle. If you’re going to do a bad thing, at least let people know. It’s the absolute least you could do.

This is why I have felt so powerfully alone in the wake of Donald Trump’s first fortnight as President of the United States. The people who love America, who feel like America really does represent freedom, hope, and light in the world, they only feel betrayed by the President now. This two weeks, or maybe the three months since the election, these are their introductions to the stab of betrayal I’ve felt since I first took a serious long look at the nation’s history. To them, the country is good and Donald Trump is leading it, single-handedly, astray. To me, of course, Donald Trump’s values look exactly like America’s values. Naked self-interest, self-serving hypocrisy, abridging rights and freedoms at will, bullying, manipulation, and intimidation in the service of empire. I can recognize that he is being more brazen and escalative about these values, but again, if anything, that makes it a little more like a frontstab. He’s not making much of an effort to dress the emperor in clothes, to cloak his actions in the finery of noble causes. He’s basically going commando to the world, nude and proud, saying “come and get it, this is what we are.” When you think it’s what we’ve always been, it just doesn’t feel like that much of a change.

If you’re sitting here wondering what I could possibly be talking about when I discuss America as hypocritical or problematic, then I don’t know exactly what to tell you. I guess my best recommendation would be to watch this video that Russ Gooberman and I made ten years ago about America’s transgressions against humanity, often including its own people. The motif of the commercial was making fun of Chevy ads with John Mellencamp’s insipid “This is Our Country” tune celebrating a nation that had just wrecked Iraq and conducted Abu Ghraib as standing beside “the idea to stand and fight”. Make no mistake, Photoshopping Chevrolets into a series of American atrocities was just a vehicle (!) for reminding people of said atrocities:

And that entire two-and-a-half minute barrage is pretty light on the last fifty years, leaving out the CIA’s role in destroying democracies across the globe, barely touching on Vietnam or Afghanistan, not engaging with drone strikes or corporate imperialism or police shootings. And if you didn’t watch the video, it ran through slavery and the Native American genocide, firebombing Dresden and nuking Japan, Japanese internment and lynchings, Abu Ghraib and mass shootings, 9/11 and Katrina, the Martin Luther King assassination and the Rodney King beating, poverty and Kent State, border guards and Donald Rumsfeld, the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church. If you think Trump is a betrayal of American values but those events don’t all make you want to throw up in your mouth, I don’t understand you. I just don’t.

From what I can tell, the way most people reconcile this endless history of human abuse and slaughter with loving America is precisely in the same way that I find America hypocritical. It’s because all those events diverge from the purported rhetoric of America. For some reason, America claiming to represent what’s good and right, claiming to represent democracy and freedom and openness, can forgive a million sins against those ideals. Because, according to this perspective, at least we’re trying. No matter that Soviet or Chinese shortcomings on their purported ideals of equality and freedom are written off as deliberate fraud while we make these claims. No matter how many people who observe this hypocrisy are branded as enemies and shipped to Gitmo or summarily executed by sky-robot. Our sexist and racist Constitution, our rosy image of the wealthy white male landowners who killed Britons over taxation with insufficient representation, our acceptance (and exploitation) of immigrants from select countries over the years, these are enough to absolve us of any missteps along the way. That, and we maintain the belief that we are always improving. No matter how many disastrous and catastrophic wars are fought by the last administration, no matter how many freedoms suspended in the wake of the last perceived threat to America, we always feel like we’re moving forward. Until now.

It doesn’t wash for me. I can’t do it. I can’t get through the mental hoops required to look at all that history, all those deliberate injustices and murders perpetrated in the nation’s name, and just write them off as innocent mistakes on the ledger of our role on the planet. Sure, this probably blinds me to some good that America occasionally does that I’m forgetting. But that’s just applying the same standard America does to every other leader and country on the planet as long as we’ve decided the time for them to face our wrath has come.

But the weird thing, the revelation the other night, the paradox, is this. I kind of love Americans. And I really love the place that is America. Like to a kind of absurd extreme in both cases. And driving for Uber has really reminded me, profoundly, just how much that is all the case.

I’ve been to 48 states and lived in nine cities. And I’ve been to most of those states three, four, five different times. I feel like I’ve done a tremendous amount of traveling, but it’s mostly been domestic. I really know this nation. I have been most everywhere and seen most everything. When discussing wanting to visit San Antonio a few months ago, I stated it’s the major US city I’m most interested in visiting that I’ve never seen. But then I had to pause to realize it may be one of the only ones. Indeed, after visiting Omaha this summer, San Antonio (7th) and El Paso (19th), also in Texas, are the only two cities among the US’ fifty largest where I haven’t logged time. Corpus Christi (60th) is next on the list after that. And one road trip, a pretty accessible journey from New Orleans, could probably knock all of those out.

I love road trips across America. I love the high speed limits and open scenery of the freeway. I love roadside truck stop gas stations with their cheesy trinkets and sincere drawling service staff. I love Waffle House, wherever it is, yellow beacon in the dark promising delicious cheap greasy food and heartfelt cooks and waitresses. I love Cracker Barrel and its hard candies and needlingly difficult little triangle-peg game. I love Taco Bell drive-throughs at three in the morning, often with an Uber rider or five in tow. I love unique diners and farmers markets and scenic overlooks and cheap roadside motels where insomniacs wait behind the desk for middle-of-the-night arrivals to talk to about their rambling thoughts.

I love specific places, too. I love every National Park I’ve ever been to (except maybe Cuyahoga Valley, because it just looked like a random unimpressive urban park and I think only exists because Ohio wanted to pretend it has nature). I love the perfectly carved depths of the Grand Canyon and the bubbling vapors of Yellowstone and the majestic cliffs of Yosemite and the alien landscape of the Badlands. I love other natural wonders less storied in our landscape: the waterfalls off the Columbia in Oregon, the golden beaches of Biloxi, the rocky windswept shores of Maine. I love the cities, so many cities. I’ve passed the cable cars traversing hilly San Francisco daily, reminding myself each time to appreciate how fortunate I was to see such a sight as part of a mundane commute. Ditto driving through the low-slung French Quarter each night, now, these days, in my life, past gaslamps and into narrow three-century alleys. Ditto hiking through the crooked streets of Santa Fe from its oldest hotel to the Capitol building to simulate representing a foreign country in annual Model UN competitions. Ditto driving through all those roadtrip hallmarks to college campus after college campus, full of old quaint chapels and high brick libraries and grand domed ceilings and modern glass facades. Ditto waking up each day for a year in the Castle, now doomed to be reunited with the gritty earth of Waltham, Massachusetts. I love Harvard Square and OMSI, the Georgia Aquarium and the L train, the dingy chess shops of New York City and the forgotten bookshops of New Orleans. Powell’s, the Frontier, the Smithsonian, the Gateway Arch, the Space Needle. Chipotle and Southwest Airlines ticket counters. I love so many places in this country that does so much damage.

I play a little game with many of my Uber riders. When they ask about my background, I see how long it takes before I can talk about a place that I know and love that they’ve been. Maybe they’re from there. Maybe they just visited. Maybe they’ve always wanted to go, but they’ve read more about it than I ever will. When it comes to America, I’ll put my experience here up against most folks. It’s rare that I get stumped, that someone’s mostly been in central Texas or the west coast of Florida or Alaska or North Dakota or one of the other small pockets I haven’t traversed. And when we find that connection, whatever it is, we usually bond over our mutual love of something there, or a shared memory of a place we visited separately. Sometimes it really hits home – a couple who grew up in Albuquerque or a woman who also did Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in her youth or a student who went to Rutgers or Brandeis. But more often, it’s just a place I’ve passed through, remembered, taken to heart. And in that process, I come to love these people too, these kind wonderful appreciative people swirling in their newfound awe of New Orleans as I drive them to their hotel or to another bar or to the show. They are good people who want good things for themselves and others. And I want that for them and theirs as well.

So what can I hate about America? Is it really so that what I hate about America is the idea of America? Or, more perfectly (!), how the idea fails and becomes the reality of our actions, our collective actions, our place in the world? Do I love the sinner and hate the sin, love the place where we commit the sins but hate the consequences? That seems about the size of it. I should hold these people more accountable for all of our collective actions, perhaps, but they seem so remote, so uncontrollable. Even with the soldiers or their families, even with the corporate attorneys.

This is what my best novel, still unpublished, American Dream On is mostly about. How bad things happen from good people. And how beautiful the backdrop is. I put so many of those little places that I love throughout the book. Not just because I wanted it to be an epic that encompassed the whole idea and reality of America. But because so much of the place is so memorable and so great. Is that really all that people who love America see? Or where they stop?

Of course, the more unsettling and alienating reality, for me, is that most people who love America and hate Trump increasingly seem to hate many places and people in America. And, to be fair, ditto those who love America and love Trump. The cataclysmic divide accentuated by this election and the string of shock doctrine actions by new President Trump has created an America united in its self-love, but bound in conflict by mutual loathing. Red America hates Blue America and vice versa. People lampoon the iconography and geography of the “other” America, discredit its people as unthinking or unfeeling, sabotage the other half as irrelevant or downright evil. I am not here to get preachy about why you feel that way and that you shouldn’t – I get it. I get why so many people say that anyone who even said the word “Trump” without hate in their heart during the year 2016 is complicit with his racism, sexism, and xenophobia. And I get why so many people observe this as hypocrisy when Obama did much that was similar, if more measured, muted, and dignified. I get where y’all are coming from. Maybe because I feel like I love all of you. Really.

What do I do with a country I hate full of people and places I love? What do you all do with a country you love full of people and places you hate?

You tell me. Because I really don’t know.

by

Long Night’s Journey into Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Primary Sources, Tags: , ,

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.

She’s not.

“Okay,” I say.

“Okay?”

“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?”

“Excuse me?”

“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?”

“Um.”

“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.”

Another minute.

“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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“Yes?”

“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?”

“Fuck.”

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.”

“You sure?”

“Yes 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.”

“Yes sir.”

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 storey@bluepyramid.org.

by

Haunted City

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , , , ,

It’s Twelfth Night. Happy Twelfth Night, everybody! Here is my favorite song about Twelfth Night:

It occurs to me that posting links to things isn’t really good enough for the long-term posterity of the web. Sometimes I review old posts of mine and pretty much all the links are dead. It’s just about a universal. For all that people clamor in fear of a web that Never Forgets, it seems I spend a lot more time lamenting a web that has lost a bunch of information. Major websites are keepers of major information, but then they get caught up in IPOs and mergers and inevitable failures. The people who ran the show get away with billions and the grunt folks lose their jobs and all the creative energy and thoughtful exchange poured into that particular series of tubes is lost in a reshuffle. Remember how much original music was on MySpace? MySpace is just a butt of jokes now, but it’s also the Facebook of yesterday. Say what you will about creative destruction as a principle, but it’s got destruction right there in the description. It’s hard to know whether it’s reassuring or depressing that all the preeminent corporations of today will be gone in a century. Their infinite consumption and recomposition feels like a fitting metaphor for an ecosystem under heavy pressure to fold.

Anyway, for the future record, the song linked above is “Pieces of the Night” by the Gin Blossoms, written by the late Doug Hopkins, one of my erstwhile poetry/rock-n-roll heroes/cautionary tales. I am now older than Doug was when he killed himself, which is a little daunting. That said, I didn’t even like Doug’s music till after he killed himself, so what can you do? But the guy knew something about memory. And regret. Oh lord, the regret.

Twelfth Night is a big deal in New Orleans. It’s not just a Shakespeare play, but the opening of the Mardi Gras season, also known as King Cake season around here. People will sell you a King Cake before today, but you’re really not supposed to eat it until now. King Cake is basically New Orleans in a pastry, it’s decadent and overly sweet and purple, green, and gold. It’s got frosting and sprinkles and tastes a little like kissing a unicorn. You would imagine.

Here, have a look:

I’ve made that image permanently linked from the Blue Pyramid, so if somehow most of the web crumbles, but someone is left keeping up the maintenance fees on the Blue Pyramid after many long years, then future people will be able to see New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake in all its sugary glory. There’s a lesson here about the fragility and temporality of an entirely electronic-and-connection based medium, but the only feasible alternative is to literally print out reams and reams of webpages on actual paper, which itself has longevity issues in most conditions. But, like mandalas and snow and luminarias and perhaps most things that are good in the world, maybe posts aren’t meant to be permanent. Maybe they’re meant to be made, consumed, and discarded all in a day. #snapchat

What can’t be consumed in a day is memory. I kind of meant to post this in Albuquerque, or post about this phenomenon, because Albuquerque really gets my senses going. But I realized, over time and missed opportunity, that Albuquerque is not the only haunted city. Any city can be haunted if you fill it with enough people and enough time for rumination. And now that I’m trying to exercise every day (he said as he looked out the window to a 40-degree thunderstorm, recoiling), there’s a lot more time for observational rumination. Which is perhaps good for writing but bad for my daily frame of mind. Putting those on a diametric axis is probably roughly accurate, regardless of situation, come to think of it.

Anyway, Albuquerque always feels charged and haunted when I first get in. Everyone I’ve ever loved has logged serious time there, and most of the people I’ve liked. There are few corners or streets or establishments that I can pass that are not encoded with memories or references or something that links in to a long and roller coastery past. This is a trope of homecoming, made all the more relevant for not living at home all the time, preventing an old haunted place from becoming mundane again since it does not inhabit one’s daily spectrum. Any landscape, from Manhattan to the Grand Canyon, becomes routine upon daily backdropping. I have had daily commutes past the cable-car turnaround in San Francisco, to the historic Old Queens building at Rutgers, now through the French Quarter at night, and I chant to myself to not let it become typical. It’s the fish, a la DFW, praying to the universe: “This is water. This is water.” It is a hard and thorny discipline, reinfusing the omnipresent magic in your daily normal. But in almost anywhere on Earth that is not war-torn or deeply impoverished, much less America in the twilight of its apex, it is a thing we can and should do. It is also a trope to feel blessed by the ability to exist, to think, to absorb, to move. But it is a trope we too often dismiss for failure to see the real power within.

There are times when the hauntedness of a place, especially Albuquerque, can become overwhelming. Times I wish I could look at a street corner or a building and just have it be a corner or a place. I’m sure German has a word for the deeply felt desire for a cigar to just be a cigar. But you know it’s not just a cigar and you can’t unsee it, any more than you can unsee the other half of a tessellation once you’ve unlocked its mystery. Then again, there are benefits to the inability to unsee. A connection to a sense of place and time and purpose and being on a journey. A real sense of identity and temporality and presence that can be hard for the overly ruminative mind sometimes. It’s not all bad.

In this state, and sometimes in others, I find that I am often almost seeing people. In crowds, in restaurants, on corners. Driving up to them to get in my Uber or driving past them to deliver the latest passenger. Walking around a corner shelf in a bookstore, past the endcap in a grocery store. I am in a near-constant state of being startled by visages of people from the past. This has been such a frequent reality for me that it made it into my first book, Loosely Based, under the theory that there are only a few templates in the world and people just keep recurring. It’s not true, of course, it’s much more that our pattern-seeking brains are trying to eke recognition out of an ocean of strangers. A world of seven billion souls is impossible to comprehend, much less process. We keep looking for flashes of recognition in a sea of empty anonymity.

What pulls me out of it, usually, is the sudden realization that the people I think I’m recognizing are not those people anymore. I will think I see a high school classmate and I will be startled, then curious, but what gets me to realize they are not a high school classmate will be the fact that the person in front of me is currently in high school. And, of course, my high school classmates are, like me, all in their mid-thirties now. None of them look like they’re in high school. My memory of that classmate is fossilized to them at 17, but I will never see them at 17 again. This can often be an actual wrestling match in my brain – the main thing that gets me to rule out the idea that the stranger is the person I first thought they were is the understanding that they can’t be that age anymore, not that they have some distinguishing feature from the person I mistook them for. Just yesterday, I stared at the spitting image of a college classmate for some time before being sure they were 22 and said classmate was, well, 38.

The grand irony of all this, of course, is that this pattern-seeking would probably keep me from actually recognizing many of these former classmates and acquaintances if I saw them on the streets of Albuquerque or New Orleans or Manhattan. They’ve aged, they’ve gained weight, they’ve cut their hair, their hair has lost color, they’ve acquired a string of kids or worries or responsibilities or all of the above. So I am traversing a city, continually starting at apparitions, while the real ghosts could lurk in plain sight, undetected.

We are not well built for change, we humans. We adjust slowly, painfully, and usually under duress. We fall back into habits, patterns, addictions, comfort. It takes so much self-encouragement, self-criticism, inner reflection and yes, resolution to get us to make even the tiniest of alterations. And yet change so often feels refreshing and rejuvenating, exciting with the promise that the old gnawing discomforts and annoyances we’ve mistaken for familiar don’t have to be omnipresent. It’s a familiar bear to wrestle around the early part of January. And here on Twelfth Night, especially, a night when revelers will take to freezing rain-soaked streets to honor Joan D’Arc, patron saint of New Orleans, of the misunderstood, of Pyrrhic losses and those who die before their time. When we defy the winter and its discontent with toothachey sweets and bright mismatched colors, with loud noises and glasses held aloft. Tonight, for the first time in nearly a decade, it may actually snow in New Orleans. Just some flurries, just some flakes, a brief taste of what’s burying the rest of the nation.

I’ll be out there to see it, driving in search of wayward souls looking to find their way home. Seeing them as my past once was, haunted by memory, chanting to myself to not miss the present. This is water. This is the French Quarter in New Orleans in 2017. This is Earth and we are all alive.

by

From Here to There

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

She gets in the car and laughs. I confirm that it’s for Jimmy and she says yes and shakes her head in ongoing amusement. I ask her what and she says “He got it exactly right. Jimmy described you exactly.” And I ask her what she means by this and she says “A white guy with long hair. That’s what you are.”

We head toward her destination, an apartment all but under the freeway, the area within two blocks of which I advise tourists not to drive alone. This is a decently long way from the riverside Tchoupatoulis apartment where I picked her up, worlds away in New Orleanian perception. We have time for a longer talk, Friday night traffic being what it is likely to be. I’m just getting underway with my night.

She talks about how she’s sick and it’s hard to be sick in the summer. But she doesn’t think she’s that sick and she won’t be for long. Her boyfriend’s been sick and got her sick, a little, but she’s fighting it off, but she apologizes for her voice, which is just a touch scratchy and punctuated by little sniffles. She says she just had a long nap and is feeling better.

She asks me some standard origin questions and I ask if she’s from here and she say she is, but spent a lot of time in Houston, after the storm. Her brother was still there, until he died. She does not say how. She talks about her brother’s kids and her brother’s young wife and how it was sudden and she’s thankful that her sister-in-law keeps in touch with this side of the family, because they don’t always and those children are her family, too. How her other brother signed up for the army shortly after and her own mother tried to forbid it. She couldn’t stand to lose another boy, her other boy, so soon, but it was not her choice to make.

“You know, from the beginning, he’s just always been about Call of Duty. That’s his whole life, he’s always playing and so into it. He’s always wanted to live like that. So we prayed for him and sent him on his way.” He is, apparently, in Afghanistan at the moment. They don’t hear from him too often and their mother can’t even stand to think about it.

She talks about her own kids, about their father, about how his new girlfriend and her new boyfriend all pitch in to raise them, it’s a family affair. She is currently going from the house with the father and the kids to the house with the boyfriend, or possibly the other way, but I end up being pretty sure it’s the former by the end of the ride when she starts criticizing her boyfriend’s taste in housing locations. As we turn under the highway, there are two police cars boxing in a third non-police car, lights aglow, and she almost reflexively flinches, doing it in a verbal way I can catch without even checking my blindspot. She starts in again about the location, too close to the freeway, too close to where the cops are always looking to make trouble. I think about her brother, a cop of a kind in a foreign land, called into the recruiting office by the siren call of Call of Duty.

I think of Pokemon lures and who designed Call of Duty and what it was designed for. I think of the unsuspecting quest for entertainment and how it traps us into decisions that, by the end, feel like destiny. I don’t choose to share this line of self-interrogation with her, don’t need to sound like that about these military recruitment games being designed as well, military recruitment. It’s bad enough to think your brother is risking everything out of a sense of fulfilling what he always enjoyed most without thinking someone manipulated him into it. Best not worry about that until he comes home. Or doesn’t.

We have had time, if briefly, to cross over my own relationship history, my own uncertainty about having children, the fear of the future I rarely had until my divorce. She seems certain that these things work out, that they will always be better in surprising ways than you expect. A level of certainty I dare not try to convey about her own siblings, especially with one lost so recently. I wonder if I am the fretting mother, or would be, and I wonder what I would do with a child who wanted to play Call of Duty all the time, and it becomes overwhelming, the inability to be sure of anything. The phrase “that’s why they play the game” bubbles up into my mind, meaning at least two things in this context.

We are at not-Jimmy’s house, just out of sight of the spinning blue lights of the cop cars. The highway looms dark and ominous above, punctuated by engine revs and tire squeals. She mentions again how he wishes he would move, but there is inertia and the rent is cheap over here. I wish her and all her family the best, her brother in Afghanistan, sister and sister-in-law in Houston, her kids and her dead brother’s kids and Jimmy and not-Jimmy, whose name I never learned. She shakes my hand, finally giving me her name for the first time, asking me for mine. She hopes I have a safe night.

I pull away from the curb slowly, envisioning what it is like to realize life is not like a video game, as I give Jimmy 5 stars and wait for the next ping to take me in a new direction.

Overpass

by

The Surprising Nourishment of Human Connection

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,

NOLABridgeNightDrive

The world is a scary place. It’s always been a scary place, but 2016 is marking a transition where people in the traditionally sheltered and over-privileged “first world” (or “developed world” if you prefer) are having to feel the heat of its scariness as well. No longer are bombings and acts of violence something that happens “over there” in the bad neighborhoods or difficult countries, but the violence perpetuated by the leading countries in our world is coming home to roost. I say this not to celebrate the expansion of violence, but to put it into a context where we can understand it and start to unpack it. People all over America have grown weary of clicking on headlines about the latest mass shooting, the next terror threat or attack, the most recent bomb to go off in a country they may actually consider visiting, the late execution of an unarmed minority on the streets of our cities.

This is not going to be a primarily political post, but I wanted to start with that context because I think it’s especially pertinent in how we choose to respond to the burgeoning crisis of creeping violence in a world that should know better. It is easy to lose heart, to lose faith, to crawl back inside our living rooms and covers in fear. The major party candidates are courting and counting on that fear, both advocating stringent violent responses to every possible threat, real or perceived. There is little to no realistic hope that the years 2016-2020 will mark an era of peace and conciliation on the world stage. People are increasingly fearful, increasingly defensive, increasingly entrenched. So where to find hope?

For me, it’s been in the car.

I think it’s been surprising to a fair number of people that I’ve, for a time at least, walked away from the world of day jobs and the resume ladder to pursue modern day taxi driving through Uber. It’s surprised me, to be honest. And while I’ve spent my whole “career” looking for gigs that afford me the opportunity to work seriously on my writing and prioritize those goals, I can’t say as driving a taxi was even high on my “regular jobs” list of more mundane uses of time, like, say, postal worker (a two-year interest as a young child), or, say, hotel night manager.

Some of the appeal of Uber is more obvious and thus probably less surprising to those who know me best. It can be done primarily overnight, hours that I have always favored since I was first allowed to see them regularly. It has no direct manager or supervisor, as I have often butted heads with bosses, as have we all. It carries an utterly flexible schedule, offering the promise of time to write and pursue creative interests. And it doesn’t follow you home. Most day jobs, especially those high profile enough to be satisfying to serious people, carry substantial mission creep. In addition to their lengthy scheduled hours, there is endless mental and actual homework to be done, crowding out the ability to use any outside time for pursuits that are not sleep and recreation.

But the big surprise of Uber has been the actual satisfaction with the time spent driving. It’s not that I simply love driving, though night driving has always had a special place in my heart and it’s hard to argue with the scenery of historically gorgeous New Orleans. It’s the human connections that take place regularly while driving, while driving every night. And increasingly, in a world where I feel politically disheartened and depressed, this has been what sustains me. I get nightly reminders that people are fundamentally good, fundamentally interesting, fundamentally human. And I think that focusing on this reality and finding ways to remind ourselves of this key truth is one of the best ways to keep the best parts of our society going as we face the next few years.

Yes, there are plenty of people who are simply wasted. And I’ve had now three people drop the n-word in my car, the first two on the same night laden with violent threats and invective, the last one just last night, a semi-famous movie industry hack who added other racial slurs and gave me my first ever 1-star rating in revenge for me rating him that way (note to Uber: you need to fix the ability of riders to know that you down-rated them before they rate drivers). These experiences are disheartening: seven years in the Bay Area had almost convinced me that racism was largely vanquished in America, especially in the younger generations, but time in Jersey and New Orleans (along with all the horrible police shootings) has since corrected this gross misperception. People spill drinks in the car and don’t tell you, people rant and rave in their drunkenness, people spout drivel sometimes. But these experiences, combined, are the vast vast exceptions. Most people are amazing.

At least four or five times a night, every time that I drive, I have incredible conversations with people. And at least once a night, I have a really transcendent conversation, one that pushes past the typical initial small talk and into real human connection. I’m never going to see 95% of these people again, we’re never going to have more than the five to fifteen minutes we share on the quieting streets of 2:30 AM New Orleans, but we still manage to share intimate details of our lives, hopes, fears, and perceptions. It’s downright amazing.

There is an intimacy in a shared car ride that is hard to match in other environments in our society. And I manipulate the situation a bit by maintaining silence in the car unless people request music or unless efforts to strike up a conversation flag and the trip is going to be long. I have discussed my issues with our society requiring background noise in every environment before, and indeed many riders when I offer music say they just prefer the silence as a refreshing change from all their other experiences. But usually that little break from the bumping music of clubs and bars, the incessant beeping and blooping of our devices, that pause opens up the opportunity to reach out and talk about the things we don’t always discuss.

There is also the opportunity created specifically by strangers which is a fairly well documented phenomenon, but perhaps under-appreciated outside the context of professional therapy. It is precisely the fact that Uber riders are unaccountable to future interactions with me that makes it more likely for them to open up about specific grievances, troubles, or insights about the world and their lives. Granted, this avenue along with my whiteness also makes them guess I will be receptive to their racism, but that’s literally been three unfortunate rides out of 532 to date. In many more cases, however, it inclines them to open up about their relationship troubles, their proposed solutions for the ills of the world, their laments and dreams about their careers, their creative ideas. And those shared moments are solid gold. They are the fuel that keeps me going these days, not just to keep driving the lonely overnight hours in search of riders, but to continue to believe in the underlying goodness and progress of the human spirit.

There are a thousand ways in which technology has been blamed for pulling us apart, despite it shortening the distances of communication on our planet. We are absorbed with our mini pocket computers, we look down and not up, we argue anonymously or with our friends on Facebook when we could be making real memories. But I think Uber is a remarkable development that’s enabled us to restore some of those lost moments of true connection and even create the opportunity for previously impossible conversations. Yes, people have probably been having these chats with their taxi drivers for years, but it feels like there’s something about Uber and Lyft that makes it more likely. Perhaps it’s the human face that shows up on the app, transforming the driver into a real person. Maybe it’s the mutual-feedback system that triggers the urge for people to impress each other just a little bit, to reach out a tiny bit more. Indeed, the success in these operations overcoming the cardinal rule of our youth (don’t get in cars with strangers) is itself a giant exercise in restoring our faith in humanity. The world is not out to get you, with danger lurking at every turn. 99% of people are out there seeking to make your day better, to find something in common, to find a shared thought, belief, or feeling in the darkness.

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Top Twenty Questions I Get Driving Uber in New Orleans

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Quick Updates, Tags: , , ,

NOLANight

In approximate order of frequency:

1. Are you from New Orleans originally?
2. Where are you from originally?
3. How long have you been driving Uber?
4. Busy night?
5. Are you doing Uber full time or do you have another job?
6. Where do you go out in New Orleans?
7. What’s the best place to hear jazz / eat seafood / drink in New Orleans?
8. How do you like living in New Orleans?
9. Were you here during Katrina?
10. If I want to add another stop, do I have to call another Uber?
11. How late are things going at [pickup location]?
12. Is Bourbon Street always like this?
13. Are things still happening on Frenchmen Street right now?
14. Can we stop to pick up water / alcohol / cigarettes / snacks?
15. Does it always rain like this in New Orleans?
16. How do you deal with the humidity here?
17. Do you have an aux cord?
18. Are there really no open container laws in New Orleans?
19. Do you mind if we have five / six people in this car?
20. Can you pull over so my friend can throw up?

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A Pilgrimage

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , ,

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish Catholic Church in New Orleans.

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish Catholic Church in New Orleans.

On Saturday night, hours before the shooting in Orlando, I was driving for Uber. As I explained on Facebook at the top of the month, I have recently started driving for Uber while between jobs and possibly as the new quasi-full-time gig to enable more creative pursuits. The first step in getting back in a creative rhythm has been posting here more, which has itself been fueled by ideas from the many riders whose journey I help enable on a near-nightly basis while conducting this little experiment.

As I posted about in a later comment on that Facebook thread, these are the four key questions asked by the experiment:
1. Is this a sustainable way of replacing day job income?
2. Does this gig help facilitate a more creative/writing lifestyle?
3. Do I feel like I’m doing enough good? Or at least not doing harm?
4. Can I get a lot of writing material and inspiration out of the chance conversations that this gig creates?

So it’s Saturday, early evening, I’m just starting what I expect will be a long overnight shift and it’s not even dark out yet. It’s just after 5:00 PM and the French Quarter is crawling with tourists, locals, and attendees of the Creole Tomato Festival. I get a ping for a pickup at Cafe du Monde, the iconic open-air beignet restaurant, open 24 hours daily and boasting a line for many of them. I crawl slowly through the heavy traffic toward the green-and-white striped awnings.

A minute or so after pulling over, I’m greeted by what look to be three generations of women in the same family. The Uber was called by someone in her early twenties, while her mother and someone who could easily be her grandmother also pile in, the mother in the front seat and the others in back. However, the bespectacled potential grandmother is fully adorned in a spotless Catholic habit, modest shining cross at the center of a sea of black and white. She could have taken the veil later in life, but the dialogue later seemed as though she were a more distant relative of the great aunt ilk, while their status as family seemed almost undeniable.

They were relatively low-energy (a not uncommon trait of post-beignet du Monde pickups), but quite polite and clearly in awe of all the French Quarter had to offer in full bustle. I confirmed their destination as Canal and Broad Street, which already seemed of concern since the destination in the app just said “Canal Street, New Orleans” which is akin to saying “Main Street, USA”. They asked if I knew the whereabouts of the Seelos Church, which, through the nun’s particular accent, I couldn’t quite catch. I asked her to spell the location, but she said it was just on Canal and as long as we went up Canal, we’d find it. She said she thought it was near Broad or a little before. So off we went, slogging upstream through the Quarter like salmon climbing the waterless face of Hoover Dam. Once it became clear it could take us 30 minutes to reach Canal that way, I aborted (apologies for the turn of phrase, sister) and redirected eastward out of the Quarter to run back to the west and meet up with Canal around the freeway.

Once we hit Canal, it became pretty clear we’d misjudged the location of the church. A search revealed something about Dauphine Street, a fixture of the Quarter, and I despaired that we’d been just feet from it from the outset. They advised we redirect to Canal and Dauphine, but I pulled over and suggested we actually confirm the location of the church online before chasing more geese, already feeling a bit guilty I hadn’t done this in the first place. The youngest of the three pulled it up on her phone, discovered that there were two churches (a Seelos Shrine and a Seelos Parish) and after consultation about the relative locations, neither of which were remotely close to Canal Street, we opted for Seelos Parish as the more likely match. We were on a pilgrimage, it turned out, to where the nun had spent part of her early days, or at least visited decades prior. She said the church was very beautiful and she wished to see it again. It was clear in equal measure that her traveling companions were nonplussed about the church quest in their own right, but very much wanted the sister to feel fulfilled. We redirected in the direction of Seelos Parish, deep in the Marigny, and the sister confirmed that it had been close to the Mississippi as she recalled.

After a brief stint on the highway and a long stop-signy traverse through the Marigny, we pull up to a contrastingly glorious red brick church with a high steeple in the midst of a run-down neighborhood. Two robust heavy wood doors lie at the center and a sign on one side indicates that Saturday mass began two hours prior as it’s now just 6:00 PM. We’ve been on this adventure nearly an hour and the youngest is unsure the church is still accessible after the mass that must surely be over. She pops out to check the doors, crossing the street to the church, but finding no purchase on the unhandled wood doors. I’m just about to roll down the window to suggest she try around the side when a naked man rides by on a bicycle.

And then another. And a naked woman. And then a horde, hundreds long, of naked or nearly-naked bike riders.

After a gasp, the mother yells “Cover your eyes, sister,” a command which the latter ignores as we all half-stare at, half try to look away from the fleshy procession. The three of us in the car exchange periodic awkward expressions of disbelief, mine tending more toward the “that’s New Orleans” variety while the other two continually profess shock that such a thing can be happening. The awkwardness is pervasive for all of us, though when I steal a glance across the street through the flopping bodies, the shame/horror I see on the face of our stranded counterpart on the far sidewalk is enough to make anyone blush.

“Beautiful bodies, though,” murmurs the vaguely Caribbean accent of our elder pilgrim, prompting the mother to crack up in a mixture of nervousness and surprise. The nun, encouraged by this reaction, is then inspired to declare “The older you get, the more you see.” And then even I have to join in the laughter, because it’s all too real.

After the nearly interminable predominantly nude parade, the flashing lights of cop cars signal the tail of the bicycles, and the youngest of our cohort skips back across the street, looking older but otherwise no worse for the wear. She reports that the church is closed, deftly ignoring the 250+ unclothed elephants that just left the room. I suggest she try around the side, which she does, pausing only slightly at the notion of crossing this street again. Within minutes, she has discovered that it is indeed open for viewing and after a brief deliberation, they say it might be a while and they don’t need me to wait. I wish them a great night as they slowly exit the vehicle, still chuckling about this city of stark contrasts wedged between the waters of a sunken swamp.

Soon I was on my way, in search of the next person who needed to get to wherever they were going next.