Patrick

The dumbshit grabbed my head.

It’s that simple, really. The kid crossed a line. But he didn’t do himself any favors leading up to it, either: He kept me waiting. He required a laughable amount of hand-holding to make it to the door of the Sonata. And his first contact with me suggested the soft, stupid disrespect of a college-age doofus whose worldliness extended no further than the wall of empty Molson cans he erected in his summer sublet.

I pretty much hated Patrick from the start.

It’s coming up on 3 a.m., and I’m headed toward the one area near my ‘hood where the bars stayed open late. I’m hunting for one last fare—maybe two—before heading home. Halfway to my destination, I receive a ping.

The name: Franz. An older gent, I figure. Probably a European immigrant, who, in my Uber experience, have been almost unfailingly polite and low-maintenance. Franz. Sounds harmless enough. On a Saturday night, at this late hour, he sounds perfect.

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Franz remained in near-constant contact while searching for the detonato-, er, his son.

But when I reach the pickup spot—a well-kept mid-century ranch located in a posh residential suburbanscape west of the city—not a soul can be found. I troll ahead a bit, turn around, park. I flip on my blinkers and wait. And wait. Finally, a call. It’s Franz.

“Jason?” a cheerful, earnest voice asks. I detect an accent, the hint of a Low Countries lilt. “This is Franz. I’m calling for my 20-year-old son, Patrick. Is he there?”

“Hi, Franz,” I answer, glancing at the house. “No, I don’t see anyone yet.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. He should be on his way out now. I ordered the ride for him on my app and I just want to make sure everything works out OK. Thank you for being so patient. Would you please call me in a couple minutes if he doesn’t come out?”

“Yeah,” I blurt out, just glad—like a squirrel looking for a nut—to find a little appreciation for my efforts. “Yeah, I’ll let you know.”

Franz and I hang up. Minutes pass. Still nothing—literally, crickets. The front room of the house, lit by an artsy-fartsy lamp in a bay window the size of an IMAX screen, shows no activity. Our boy Patrick remains MIA. Again, the phone rings.

“Hi, Jason,” Franz coos. “Is Patrick with you yet?”

“No, sorry. No sign of anyone.”

“Hmmm. Let me call him now. He should already be there. Can I call you back in a moment? I don’t want to inconvenience you. But if he comes out, please do call me back and let me know if there are any problems.”

I say goodbye and turn again to the house. Suddenly, my Uber-senses are tingling. “Problems”? What sort of problems? Is the kid some sort of second coming of Damien the Antichrist? Franz … bubby … who are we dealing with here? Earlier, he’d said something about “making sure everything works out OK.” I initially chalked it up as a provincial quirk, but now I’m not so sure. I’d been outside idling for 10 minutes, received two phone calls from the old man, stewed over all the riders I could be scooping up right now—but still no Patrick.

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A childhood photo of everyone’s favorite little hellion.

Then, iPhone chimes. It’s Franz. Again.

“Hello, Jason,” he says, almost apologetically. “Has Patrick arrived?”

I stare into the IMAX screen, looking for proof of life. Finally, there is stirring. Shadows flicker. A figure darkens the corridor. Then more, advancing toward the door, onto the front stoop. Now I can distinctly make out the silhouettes of several … bros.

They’re slapping hands, bro-hugging, bullshitting. A tall, slender, dark-haired man-child takes two steps toward the Sonata. Then, slowly, another. Now he wheels around, shuffling back toward his boys. Then a backwards step in my direction. Patrick appears to be drunk. And, quite possibly, an imbecile.

“Uh, yes,” I tell Franz. “It looks like he’s making his way over here.”

“Oh, good.”

We exchange a few more forced pleasantries before the boy reaches my car and Franz signs off.

“Sorry to have made you wait. Again, I just want to make sure all goes well. If you need anything, please do call me back.”

Patrick opens the rear passenger-side door and crumples into the seat, catching the tail end of my discussion with the old man. He would have heard “sorry” and “made you wait,” coupled with daddy’s concern that “all goes well” on the 12-minute sojourn home. Franz, you see, is a helicopter parent and an enabler. But if he’d instilled so much as a shred of awareness or courtesy in the kid, Patrick would have mustered a fuzzy half-apology to grease my wheels.

Alas …

“What’s up, man.”

Not a “sorry.” Not a “my bad.” Not even an answer in the form of a question, Alex. His muffled “What’s up, man” was a throwaway statement from Patrick that, yes, he had indeed arrived and, blessedly, I was now free to ferry him home posthaste.

“Hey.”

In the moment, it was all I could offer—that and a pounded accelerator pedal.

Patrick begins giving directions home, but he soon trails off, surrendering to drunkenness, boredom or the stark realization that I have a fucking GPS app with the prescribed route on my phone perched on the dash. It’s also possible that he senses my condition has advanced beyond irritated to a level approaching homicidal. He falls quiet, and when I notice his head dance like a bobber in my rearview, I assume he’s passed out. Thank Christ. Eight minutes until I dump Junior on daddy’s doorstep.

From the backseat, though, the silence is broken.

“What’s up, Brandon?”

Patrick is calling one of his bro-buddies, I assume. This isn’t unusual. Riders often jump on the phone without warning, so I think nothing of it. It’s very late, the kid is only nominally coherent, and I can’t imagine what they’d have to talk about at this point, but I honestly don’t think twice about it.

“Hell-ho?” Patrick huffs.

Connection problems? Maybe his buddy is as blotto as Patrick is, and isn’t answering back. I don’t even steal a glance in the mirror to find out. I don’t give a shit. I’m just ready for a couple stiff drinks back home before bed.

But that’s when it comes.

Face forward, eyes on the road and mind keenly focused on the bottle of Absolut waiting at home, I nearly jump out of my skin when, reaching from out of the darkness behind me, Patrick’s fingertips settle around the crown of my head, palming it like a Wilson Evolution.

Now, two nights earlier, I had been handled somewhat similarly. The rider doing the handling, however, was a gorgeous, mildly tipsy woman in her early 30s, who was deeply impressed by my beard and then asked if she could touch my hair. (Not one to offend a lady, I complied.) But this business with Patrick? A different ballgame: Unexpected. Uninvited. Unequivocally uncool.

I hit the brake, spin in my seat and stare down the kid. If I hadn’t had my back turned and both hands on the wheel, I might have, without thinking, balled up one of them and winged it at his temple. I was glad that I didn’t, of course, but now the mood in the Sonata has shifted dramatically.

“I was just saying hello,” Patrick sneers at me. Again, this is not an apology. He’s defensive, bothered that I have failed to recognize that my name is actually “Brandon.” It’s my fault that he has wasted my time, fallen in a boozy heap into my car and then put hands—or hand—on me.

Having quickly scuttled my knee-jerk punch-to-the-face instinct, I’ve moved on to the where-might-I-stuff-this-kid’s-lifeless-body-in-a-barrel-and-bury-it-deep-below-the-Earth? phase of anger. I say nothing to Patrick, turn and continue driving. Five more minutes. Just five more minutes to chew on my rage. Five minutes between Patrick and the rest of his at-this-moment-undeserved life.

The car is silent, but my head is spinning. In the back, Patrick is either doleful or indifferent. I can’t tell. I think of myself at his age. Was I that oblivious? That fucking stupid? No. But was I worse than I remember? Maybe. I think of Franz. Does he know his kid is a tool, on the verge of exploding into an asshole supernova? Unlikely, but possible. Could Franz just be a bumbling but well-intentioned father? Would he be embarrassed by his son’s behavior? Would he smirk and write it off as youthful indiscretion? I think of my own boys. Great kids, both, but not perfect. And, at ages 14 and 12, not remotely out of the woods. Might I, for all I knew, have a couple of Patricks-in-waiting on my hands? Parents are all martyrs—just ask any of them—but raising a child is exceptionally challenging. Franz sounded like a good guy. How bad could his kid be? Perhaps I was being too hard on this young, besotted boob.

We pull up to the destination, a brick townhouse where roughly a half-dozen adults congregate in the garage. Again, the hour is an obscene one. The group is yukking it up. I spot a few Solo cups. Patrick steps out of the Sonata, ducks his head back into the car for a moment. “Thanks,” he says. And it almost sounds sincere.

He whirls, sashays toward the garage, arms outstretched in an “Are you not entertained?” pose. Franz—it has to be him—calls out to Patrick, doesn’t take his eyes off him. But he isn’t upset. He’s … proud?

When I back out of the drive, neither Franz nor Patrick glance my way. As I study the mask of mock outrage and amusement on dad’s face, notice mom standing in the doorway grinning, and watch the boy throw up his hands to signal touchdown, I find myself caught between a chuckle and my curiosity in the average sentencing length for a firebombing.

Spilling blood in the mud

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A composite sketch of me in the Sonata after another five-month tour driving Uber.

If I’ve learned anything out here on the road, it’s that this Uber Life ain’t for everyone. Look, I’ve seen things. Done things I’m not proud of. I am forever changed in mind and body—to say nothing of my car’s transmission. On the day I finally turn in that TNP airport sticker and come home, I’ll be leaving a little part of me back in the Sonata. That’s the cost, y’all.

Skeptical? Think I’m overselling it? Here’s a short list of the damage thus far:

  • One thousand one hundred and thirty-two trips, and roughly 15,000 extra miles. Technically, those figures don’t fall into the category of “damage,” but tell that to the Sonata. I’ve knocked roughly a year of life off this bad boy in less than half that time. I’d love to think it simply puts me that much closer to the purchase of my next ride—a Tesla Model S—but let’s be reasonable. By the time I’ll be able to afford such a luxury, the robots will have taken over Uber (and everything else), and I’ll surely be swinging a pick axe in a salt mine on Neptune.
  • Three oil changes in five months. What a pain in the ass it is staying lubricated, but a gearhead I trust once told me it’s the simplest, cheapest, most important upkeep you can perform on a vehicle. Motor oil is motor oil, just keep the engine clean.
  • One flat tire. I’ll see you in hell, Rahm.
  • Ravaged upholstery. Before I started Ubering, the Sonata’s interior was pristine. In the sterilized setting of the back seat, you could have performed heart surgery. Now it only looks like several have taken place there.
  • Nicks, dings and rust. The usual wear and tear? Sure, if you accelerate the timeline a hundredfold and remove the asshole factor. You know what I’m talking about: It’s the riders who return a car to Hertz after leaving a steaming turd in the driver’s seat and later tell anyone willing to listen, “Hey, it was a rental.” Beyond grinding doors on street curbs, denting panels with briefcases and scratching the finish with house keys (among other thoughtless abuses), the asshole factor has also done a number on my systolic and diastolic numbers. Oh, and about that physical toll …
  • Early-onset rigor mortis. As I hobble through my 40s, the creeping death of mid-life physical breakdown sets in like a pox. On those days I’m able to feign grace, I call up Longmire on Netflix and blame the TV for my spontaneous old-man sounds. When I’m cranky, I work on my manifesto calling for an international-coalition-led body-shaming campaign against Hugh Jackman (49, my ass). But here’s the kicker: Driving Uber accelerates this process. Hunched in the Sonata, I can hear my ligaments calcify. Gripping the wheel for hours at a time, my fingers curl up like a daddy longlegs in a modern-dance class. My hip flexors? Hell, Roy Clark could pick the theme to Hee Haw on them.
  • Screaming knee pain. Over the past several years playing basketball and pretending to be a moderately athletic person half my age, I have pulverized my left knee. The kneecap was smashed about two years back and, for good measure, the whole joint was torqued quite thoroughly a few months ago. I’m reminded of these meatheaded indiscretions every second of every Uber ride and patiently await Elon Musk’s public-sector rollout of bionic body parts.
  • Ankle swelling. It may be a complication of the knee, but in recent months my left ankle intermittently blows up like … like a much larger ankle, I guess. (Why do we compare swollen ankles to exotic fruit or athletic balls? I have yet to see one that resembles an actual cantaloupe or volleyball. At best, it’s a childish exaggeration; at worst, it’s fraudulent advertising.)
  • Crumbling Infrastructure Back. When I slipped a disk a couple years back, I visited a chiropractor. He walked me through some excruciating stretches, asked me what hurt (uh, all of it?) and hit me up for $70 on my way out the door. But for my troubles, I received a helpful metaphor. The chiro likened the back to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, with all its interconnected cables allowing for a certain flexibility while still maintaining critical structural integrity. He said a weakness in one or more of the “cables” of my own “suspension bridge” is what precipitated my “breakdown.” (This cheerfully delivered comparison, you can understand, made me want to “throw him into the wet concrete of freshly built bridge footings, from where he would never again see the sweet light of day.”) At any rate, the initial agony of an electric cattle prod constantly applied to the nerve endings of my lower back have, over time, dulled to a fuzzy moan of intermittent localized pain. But anytime I want to Benjamin Button my back injury, I can count on Uber. A short shift in the car ramps the pain back up to zapped-with-a-personal-defense-purse-taser levels.

Frankly, it’s a wonder I’m able—with a shot knee, a watermelon-size ankle and multiple fraying back cables—to heave myself from the smoking rattletrap of a Sonata at the end of a shift. Still, together we rave at close of day, trudging stubbornly forward, ensuring every night that no man—nor machine—is left behind. In the end, we are comforted by the thought that some things shall forever remain unbroken: the holy bond between flesh and steel, and our collective fighting spirit.

Zuri

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The calm after the drunken maelstrom.

I roll up to one of my usual haunts a bit reluctantly, aware as ever that the place will be thick with soused imbeciles.

In the wee hours of any Friday night in downtown Naperville—not far from my own ‘hood—you’ll find no small number of people seeking transportation from piss-drunken revelry to a waiting bed or, for the more strategically minded, a toilet-seat face-perch. It’s barrel-fish-shooting for an Uber driver, but it comes with risks.

Exhibit A: Zuri.

A petite, half-dressed young woman in her early 20s, Zuri wobbles through the boozy mass of humanity that has spilled into the street outside the bar. Although she would have been immediately notified by the app that her chariot awaits, Zuri isn’t the first rider to treat Uber like a personal car service. When she flops into the back seat of the Sonata, it’s already been several minutes since I arrived and she is on the clock. And on my nerves.

“Hold on a sec” are the first words she speaks after I greet her. “We’re waiting on a couple others.”

Initially annoyed by her punctuality, I’m now irritated by her manners—and her choice in friends.

“Where are you?” Zuri hisses into her phone.

I can make out the response: “I’ve gotta go to the bathroom before we can come out.”

“No, just hold it,” Zuri answers back. “I’m already in the Uber.”

“I can’t! I’ve really gotta pee.”

“Hurry up!” Zuri snaps.

Why Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew haven’t worked out the logistics of their bathroom schedule before ordering an Uber is beyond me, but we’re already five minutes into Zuri’s “ride” and the Sonata hasn’t budged.

“They’re coming,” she tells me matter-of-factly.

They are not coming.

They won’t get to my car soon, anyhow, and that’s a problem. If the Uber isn’t moving, I’m not earning. Even during a ride, I make only 15 cents a minute. If I’m stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, that’s $9 an hour. Minimum wage. None of this accounts for my time between rides, gas money, wear and tear on the Sonata, or opportunity cost. It also means I’m no closer to hitting a ride bonus that has become an essential part of my take-home pay. As I ponder grocery bills and doctor co-pays and mortgage payments while the seconds tick away, the overhead dome light flicks on and a wave of humidity floods the cab. Zuri has a surprise for me.

“I’m just opening the door for a sec to puke.”

Really?

Horrified, I look over my shoulder to find Zuri—ass still planted firmly in the rear right seat—hanging off the interior door handle, the Sonata still agonizingly within range of her projected spewing arc. Really.

Understand, I don’t have a lot of rules. With a healthy mistrust of authority and a distaste for rules in general, I believe it’s only fair that I don’t draw too many lines in the sand myself. But I do have one golden rule: Thou shalt not puke. I talk of it often. It’s right there in my too-clever Twitter bio. I remind riders that I shuttle my kids to and from basketball practices and band recitals and dental appointments in the same unremarkable—yet fastidiously cleaned—automobile in which they sit.

And here, now, Zuri threatens to empty her insides across its starboard bow.

“Uh-uh,” I sputter. “I need you to get outside the car.”

Zuri, hacking and spitting at the pavement but not yet in full-on chunk-blowing mode, suddenly snaps to attention in her seat. She exudes the calm of a Buddhist monk.

“Uber driver. Uber driver. Uber driver,” she chants at me.

I’m three feet away. I hear her. I’m also the only person, let alone Uber driver, in the car. Also, also: She can instantly learn my name—through the app opened on the screen of the phone in her hand—but instead calls me “Uber driver.” She juts her right pinkie at me.

“Look into my eyes,” Zuri says. “Look into my eyes.

I’m already looking at her. To be accurate, I’m staring lasers through her.

“I pinkie promise,” Zuri says earnestly, “I will not throw up in your car.”

Her pinkie extends toward me like an olive branch. I melt just a little. She actually appears to be in control of her faculties. I’ve been in her tiny little high-heeled shoes before, and I can tell you that a little sympathy toward the over-served can go a long way. “You tell me right away if you have to puke,” I say sternly. “I’ll stop—I’ll stop in the middle of the street if I have to—and you’ll get out.”

She doesn’t blink. I exhale. She smiles. I hook her pinkie with mine.

Then Zuri’s phone rings. The back-and-forth is muffled this time. But we’re friends now, and I relax just a little, feeling reasonably certain that I’ll have this inebriated, adorable little lady tyrant and her friends on their way soon enough. Zuri nods, swipes her phone and looks up at me with all the self-assuredness of a five-star general.

“Just give them five more minutes.”

“Get out.”

Let’s review the rules

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As Moses once proclaimed: “We got rules for a reason, BoJack.”

It isn’t hard to be an easy rider. Every Puritan, Boy Scout and sober, well-adjusted citizen of the world knows instinctively how to behave inside another person’s vehicle. But guess what? That ain’t my clientele.

So, briefly, a review of the Uber rules:

1. No puking. My singular, immutable, die-on-that-hill rule. If you must puke, don’t get in the Uber. If you are already in the Uber, you must not puke. If you face any confusion regarding this rule, simply pass into the next life, Bon Scott-style, and I promise to sort it out with your next of kin.

2. No smoking. That means no cigs, no stogies, no blunts. No hookahs, vaporizers or whatever numbnuts contraptions you haze fiends have created back at the lab.

I get it: Those 12 minutes in my Sonata are precious moments you could be turning your lungs into fried Spam, and you can never get that time back. Find a way to cope. It builds character.

3. No booze in the car. Makes sense, right? Tell that to my riders.

It’s simple: Uber isn’t a party bus. Drivers sign up to shuttle riders safely from Point A to Point B, not to risk open container citations for drunken, dimwitted strangers. Also, not for nothing, see Rule 1.

4. Four belts, four riders. Look, Copernicus, the math checks out: one seat and one belt per rider. My ride isn’t a clown car. It isn’t a flophouse. The high school pep band will not, in fact, fit into the cabin of this mid-size, four-door sedan. Broken axles and wrongful death suits aren’t my thing, so buy a sixer of Natty Ice instead of the case of Pabst and pony up for the second Uber.

And, no, bro: You aren’t going to tip me if I’ll just “be cool.” You know it. I know it.

5. Clean up after yourself. I’ve had customers seemingly mistake my ride for the dessert buffet at the Ponderosa in Hammond, Indiana. Some nights, I would swear the Local 745 United Steelworkers had held their poker night in my back seat. Just a week ago, I picked up a grumpy cat who demanded tissue (all I had were napkins), then honked for 20 minutes before leaving the phlegmy remains scattered around my floorboards.

Best practices: If you’re on the short list to appear on Hoardersor even if you’re just a garden-variety filthy animal, ignore every basic instinct and cosplay Martha Stewart until you see my tail lights round the corner.

6. Ask—don’t tell—if you’d like a stop-off. Uber’s rules for stops between pickup and destination are ambiguous. The company doesn’t prohibit them, but it stops short of requiring drivers to accept them. For the record, I’ve never turned one down—even last night’s gas station pit stop in a supremely dangerous Chicago neighborhood. (Hey, Ramona needed snacks.)

But this isn’t a concierge service, Sir Periwinkle. For 15 cents a minute (yes, that’s the going rate for UberX), consider it an executive decision left up to the driver. We make our money on miles, plus bonuses for number of trips made. So if you’re gonna stand in the way of that, don’t be a jagoff and …

7. Don’t be afraid to tip. News flash: There is literally nothing stopping you from tipping your driver. Uber champions its cashless app but provides no tipping option within it, implicitly okaying you to stiff its employees. Drivers, when offered, are instructed to remind riders that tipping isn’t necessary. (And I have, in all honestly, uttered the phrase “No, that’s too much” in response to a handful of over-the-top tips.)

But mama didn’t raise no fool. If you throw me a few bucks, I’ll look you in the eye, offer my heartfelt appreciation and, without a second thought, stuff those bills away like a ravenous pack rat. We earn this shit.

Flat busted

It’s all about perspective, right? Your cup is either half-full or half-empty, and it’s entirely up to you to decide which.

But what happens when your “cup” is a front passenger-side tire? And when “half full” actually means broke-ass flat?

I’m on the city’s south side, near Midway Airport, when I’m assaulted by the pothole—a gaping chasm that I’m certain could have been followed to the Earth’s inner core. There’s no avoiding it, not without tossing around my back-seat riders like a basket of hot wings. I take on the beast directly. I lose.

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An artist’s rendering of the offending pothole.

The car diagnostics, taunting me, broadcast the tire’s plummeting PSI from the driver’s console. I mutter something filthy under my breath and limp into a parking lot across the street from my riders’ destination.

In back, Jessica and Matt are a comfortably affectionate, late-20s couple with chill for days. They’re casually dressed for a night out, which I dig. Matt—who has the trim build and easy confidence of the undersized, overachieving linebacker on your high school football team—wears a biker’s jacket and a single hand tattoo without irony. Jessica, a pretty blond with a tiny nose stud, accents a red flannel top with jeans and jacket that tastefully accentuate her curves. They’re South Siders—I don’t need the GPS to tell me—so there’s no bullshit, no pretense. They’ve been cordial and appreciative of my taking their recommended route over the app’s recommendation. When the sidewall slashes open, they’re only concerned for my welfare.

“Dude,” says Matt, as we assess the damage. “I can help you fix that.”

I already feel bad that they’ve been put in the position to choose whether to bail or to play the Good Samaritans. The neighborhood isn’t too shady, the parking lot has decent light, and this isn’t my first time changing a flat.

“Nah,” I say. “I appreciate it, but don’t worry about it.”

“It’s no problem at all,” Jessica says.

“C’mon,” Matt says. “Let’s take care of it.”

Turns out the couple aren’t just playing Good Samaritans. Matt won’t be shooed away. Through no small effort, he loosens the lug nuts while I set up the jack. We trade off once or twice without a word. Jessica, who has never felt the need to procure her driver’s license, laughs and admits to knowing nothing about changing a tire. But she’s game. She asks how she can help, holds the hardware, and provides staunch moral support. Strangers a moment ago, we’re now a well-oiled pit crew.

Thirty minutes later, the donut is snugly attached and the useless wheel is tossed in the trunk. Matt asks for a favor.

“You mind taking us just down the street? Looks like the place we were headed to is closed.”

“Of course,” I say. “Wherever you wanna go.”

As we roll gingerly into the street on the spare, I hear Jessica dig through her purse and whisper to Matt. More shifting in the back seat. When I drop the couple off a few blocks away, Jessica hands me a small wad of cash. “Hopefully,” she says, “your night gets better.”

“No, no,” I blurt out, waving the money away. “I appreciate it, but I’m just glad you guys were around to help. Don’t worry—”

“It’s yours,” Jessica says firmly. “If you don’t take it, I’ll leave it here anyway.” She wedges the bills between the front armrest and passenger seat. That’s it. End of discussion. I pivot around to face them, nod and shake hands.

As they walk away, Jessica grabs Matt around the waist and pecks him on the cheek. Matt turns and smiles. They stride through the street light’s beam and out of sight.

All in all, I lose about an hour. The delay costs me two fares, which is the exact number that I fall short of nailing my weekend bonus. And the next day’s repair isn’t cheap. I figure I’m out at least $250—or roughly what I would earn for the night and the previous day combined. It’s a colossal nut punch.

But I can’t help but feel a sort of contentment about the whole episode. I meet some weird folks doing the Uber thing. Some cynical. A few genuinely awful. Jessica and Matt are the sort of people who—with a few kind gestures and an utter lack of self-congratulation—restore the balance.

My cup is full.

Veronica

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I’m an easygoing, affable guy. Ask around. I avoid drama like most people do herpes. No time for the nonsense, you know? Don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing.

So, for the love of Christ, what was Veronica’s beef with me?

It was about three weeks back, past midnight, when I rolled up to the spot, a quaint little area in a quaint little Chicago suburb. Here, ambling about a deserted downtown street, were a couple of women in their mid- to late-40s.

They were blotto.

Which is fine. I’ve been known to, uh, take a nip myself. And I’d ferried drunks home before. Driving Uber, it’s part of the deal. Hell, some nights it’s the whole deal. Get shitfaced. Come ride with us.

(Note to Uber Human Resources: Call me. There’s plenty more marketing gold where that came from.)

At any rate, Veronica doesn’t fit the mold of the happy/silly/bubbly lush. She’s sarcastic. Belligerent. She’s spoiling for a fight before ever setting ass to upholstery. When I pull into the nondescript alley where Uber’s GPS has sent me, I suspect something is off. This isn’t my first rodeo. I wait maybe 10 seconds to call and confirm the location.

“We’re right out front.” It’s Veronica, and she seems to be put upon in the worst way. “Where are you?”

“Ah, sorry,” I say, backing up the car. “I should be just a moment away. Can you give me a street or intersection that’s close by?”

Really? Because this is such a big town that it’s just impossible to find us?”

I pause. See, the way Uber works, a driver is guided to a rider’s pickup location by the proprietary app. A snaking, responsive navigational plot on your driver’s phone screen directs them toward the rider and, if they’re lucky, an exact address. But we aren’t local taxi drivers. We are not topography/traffic savants. Driving Uber can require covering an area of thousands of square miles. We are, for the most part, slaves to the app. The technology, when it works, is fucking amazing. But it is less than perfect.

I turn a corner, still on the phone, and spot our heroes on a dimly lit block of sleeping shops, restaurants and taverns. The ladies stare blankly. They wobble. Slowly, almost in stages, they gather themselves up and fall into my Sonata.

“Wow, that must have been really tough tracking us down,” Veronica slurs.

I blink but shrug off the comment. “So we’re headed to—”

“No,” Veronica says, cutting me off. “We’ve gotta go somewhere else.”

I click my teeth. “OK. No problem. Do you want to make the adjustment in the app?”

Veronica heaves an Oscar-worthy sigh. “Why is this so hard? I mean, it’s pretty much on the way. Just change it in the thing. Can’t you just drive?”

Another Uber lesson: In the app, a driver can’t change a rider’s address. It’s not that it’s prohibited. It simply isn’t possible. Think about it: Ever had that one creeper Uber driver? Sure you have. Now, whether he only plans to overcharge you or he has something more nefarious in mind, do you really want that guy in charge of setting your destination? Right. Trust me, Uber (and its attorneys) feel the same way.

So I bite my tongue and drive. Veronica’s friend—sensing the creeping tension and, perhaps, her friend’s batshit demeanor—is mildly apologetic. She also offers to manually guide me to their destination, the coordinates of which apparently are encrypted-nuclear-codes-level classified. “You can just take this street down,” she says.

By now, I have lost much of my patience, most of my good will and every ounce of cheer. It’s also about this time that Veronica begins to cry. As in, openly weep. This isn’t a reaction to our previous exchange, mind you. But a reaction to what, exactly? Had she been thrown out of the last bar? Scorned by a lover? Is she currently bleeding out in my back seat? It isn’t certain.

“Are you OK?” her friend asks.

“It’s fine,” Veronica says, sniffling. “No, I’m fine. I mean … it’s just—it’s just, you know. I don’t know.”

Precisely: We don’t know. And at this point, if I’m being honest, I don’t care. I’ve already had something of an unfortunate night, and now, here in my car, Veronica —a stranger who only a moment ago had history’s heaviest axe to grind with me—is suffering a breakdown of sorts in my back seat. I want clear directions and an end to this ride, or I want the hemlock.

But none of it seems forthcoming. Worse, the conversation behind me has turned icy. Veronica, no longer sobbing, blames her friend for some grave, vague offense. Meanwhile, I’m blowing off the app as it pleads with me to turn at every left—any left—as we meander toward … somewhere? Each time I reluctantly interject with a hushed-tone “Keep going straight?” Veronica fires back with a mixture of bile and, I can only assume, bourbon.

Arriving at a T intersection, I quickly scan the app, find no thru streets to the left, and decide to bank right. “You should have taken a left there, but that’s OK,” the friend says, just a little too matter-of-factly. Veronica spits out something unintelligible, and in that way station between my mind and mouth, I’m suddenly both Jules and Vincent in the brain detail scene from Pulp Fiction—a race car in the red and a mushroom-cloud-layin’ motherfucker.

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The interior of my Sonata, post-Veronica, in my darkest dreams.

Boiling but silent, I turn left, then left again. “You can take a right here and just keep going,” the friend says. This makes no sense, but she’s beginning to understand that this ride has transformed my soul into pure cobalt malice, and her tone is now conciliatory, almost bordering on apologetic. She and I, at least, both just want this to be over. Maybe, I think, just maybe, we’ll get there.

“Ummm,” Veronica blurts. “Is there some reason you didn’t take a left back there where the app told you to?”

I pull hard on the wheel, yanking the Sonata into a mall parking lot. I brake, shift to park, unclick my belt, flip on the dome light and turn to face the rear.

“You have two choices,” I say, jaw clenched but raising my voice only a tick. “You can get out right here, right now, or I can take you to the address in the app.” Under normal circumstances, I’m not the type who would leave two women in a desolate parking lot in the wee hours. These are not normal circumstances.

“Those are your choices,” I say. “What’s it gonna be?”

Before Veronica can speak, her friend sputters, “Ohmygod, I’m so sorry. Yes, of course, the address in the app is fine. That’s perfect. I understand.”

“You’re sure?” I ask, eyeing Veronica.

“Yes, please,” says the friend. “Look, I’m really sorry.”

I say nothing, settle back into my seat and drive. A drunken murmur drifts from the back but is swiftly shushed. Then, quiet.

We ride like this, silent, for blocks. A mile, perhaps. But as we near our destination—the original address—the ladies whisper.

It’s right there.

I know.

I can practically see the car.

I feel the slightest pang of guilt. Had I overreacted? Was I really going to dump two sloppy-drunk chicks in a parking lot in the middle of the night? I extend an olive branch.

“How close is it?” I ask wearily. “Are we talking a block or a mile?”

“It’s right there,” they chime in together.

“OK,” I sigh.

This lifts the mood, if only a little. “Wow, you were really angry back there,” Veronica says, genuinely surprised. “I mean, I thought you were really gonna kick us out of the car.”

I veer onto a side street. I drive a block, turn, then drive another. I roll through the intersection and, sure enough, there it is.

“That’s it,” the friend says. “That’s my car.”

Sweet relief. My long national nightmare is over. Yet from the back, I make out the sound of hands sloppily rummaging through handbag.

“I want to tip you,” Veronica says. “Do you have change for a twenty?”

I’m stunned. Apoplectic. Every dime for me counts right now, but I still have a shred of pride left lying around somewhere. “No, I don’t,” I say. “But we’re good. Don’t worry about it—we’re all good.” I haven’t bothered hiding the just-get-the-fuck-out-of-my-car undertone. It’s the best I can offer in the moment.

This was all Veronica needed to hear.

“You know what?” she says, instantly fuming. “You’re right. You’re right! I’m not gonna tip you. You know why? Because you’re a fucking asshole!”

The back door slams. Tiny IEDs explode in my mind. My ears are ringing. I’m roughly three seconds away from locking up my own ride—straight to Cook County Jail, before serving 20-to-30 downstate—when my last rational instinct, so to speak, takes the wheel.

My foot hammers the accelerator.

And now it can be told.

The pic is the thing

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Jake and Stephanie are all in on the Uber Arthouse Project—a thing I just made up right now.

I’m trying something new: photos.

Yes, I’m aware: Photos are not, in fact, new. Neither is the idea that they should be included in blogs, social media and all things interweb to ensure maximum eyeballs/clicks/follows. I’m old, but I’m not sarsaparilla-sipping, shop-at-the-general-store, gonna-die-of-the-whooping-cough old. Everyone who’s anyone knows that sharing images remains an activity that is, in the words of one of our great bards, “hot” and “now.”

So I’ve added a wrinkle to my Uber chronicling, asking certain riders if they’d mind my snapping a quick photo of them. As it turns out—and I know this is wild—members of a certain generation really dig their pics. Particularly those photos in which they appear.

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Kaycee and The Sunshine Band brighten the doorstep of D.P. Dough.

Other generations, I’ve found, don’t like this idea as much. When I ask if it’s OK if I get a quick shot, most believe me to be a creeper. Or maybe they’re just goddamn cranks.

They don’t understand “The Twitter.” Or “FacesBooks.” And, Jesus Christ, to folks of a certain age Instagram might as well be Tinder. For their delicate analog constitutions, Snapchat induces instant seizures.

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Katie would not be denied: She and her friend were too rushed to stop for a photo, so she insisted on texting me this one.

Look, I get it: Young people can be insufferable. I’ve had a few Millennial riders I would’ve gladly tied to the Sonata’s bumper, “Vacation”-style, to learn just how long they could keep up. But most are charming, humorous, all-in-good-fun types. They aren’t any more vain than you, me or your Uncle Loin. Growing up in the age of mind-blowing technology just gives them access to a creative outlet we weren’t able to indulge. Grandma Ethel would’ve totally squeezed into a string bikini and Snapped a selfie to her FWB if, back in her day, the old bat had gotten the chance.

So why not have fun with it? Let the kids be kids, I say. No harm, no foul. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

And, y’know, if I maybe get a few more clicks out of it …

‘Life is great’

IMG_2829I happened by this mural in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood about a week ago. I spotted it again a few days later, before a show at Thalia Hall, in the same South Side burg. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

I don’t pretend to know the city’s landscape all that well, but I do know that Pilsen, not long ago, had been a dodgy place to find yourself. Gripped by the usual street terrors of drugs, guns and gangs, it was considered by most—when it was considered at all—an area to be avoided.

Now it’s something different: safer, by any objective standard; gritty, but in that comfortable, gentrified way; popular among the beardo-and-hipster monied class.

In other words: whiter.

We often talk about this stuff—or, rather, around it. Not necessarily with malice or prejudice, but in a sort of code. Fact is, a quarter of Pilsen’s Hispanic population is gone from the neighborhood since 2000. Property values are up, yes, but so too are taxes and rent. Some families—many that have lived in the area for generations—can’t afford to stay there anymore.

I’m not smart enough to know what it all means, how to fix it—or even if “it” actually needs fixing. Stuff happens. Things change. In the end, we’ve all gotta deal.

I just see that mural, and I think it’s beautiful. And I see a place like Pilsen changing, and I think it’s nice. And also kind of a shame.

Transportation is a precise business

I should’ve known what I was in for today.

When I opened the Uber app and flipped my status to “online,” I was pinged right away. The client called me before I could leave the house.

This was unusual. And the conversation was … complicated. With a great deal of explanation, I learned that Beck, the client, wants me to pick up some materials. We’ll call these materials The Package. What made this ride different from most is that it included no rider. I’ll be honest: I have no idea if Uber considers this to be kosher. I feel like the answer is no. But I don’t have any rule against transporting packages, I think to myself, and that should be good enough. so I agree to the delivery. As I hang up, Beck tells me, “Don’t worry. I’ll tip you well.”

When I arrive at the pickup location—a suburban alley dividing rows of townhome garages—no one, and no package, is to be found. I call Beck.

“Are my mom and dad there?” Beck asks. Mom, dad and I, incidentally, are not old pals.

“Uh, I don’t see anyone,” I say.

“Wait, is the garage door up or down?”

“Down.”

“Hold on.”

Here’s the thing: Even at this time, I don’t know where Beck is. Waiting inside the garage? Ready to accept The Package at the other end of the trip? At an undisclosed location monitoring my actions via satellite camera? Who the hell knows?

When the garage door opens a moment later, Ma and Pa Beck are there to greet me. Wide smiles. No words. At the entrance to the garage is what appears to be a gas-powered hibachi grill and a pair of propane tanks—one of them still attached to the main apparatus.

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Further weirdness ensues.

My efforts to coax some guidance from Ma and Pa are DOA. Ma hands me her phone. It’s Beck. He tells me, “My parents don’t speak much English.” Beck is overplaying his hand here: Ma and Pa speak zero English.

He tells me The Package is comprised of all that I see before me. I worry aloud whether it’ll fit in the trunk of my just-cleaned Hyundai Sonata, particularly the hibachi stand. Also … about that attached propane tank. “It’s easy to remove,” Beck assures me.

It is not easy to remove.

Eventually, though, I’ve squeezed The Package into the car, soiling it with a dusting of sooty shit that also now covers my hands. Where once I had been puzzled, then frustrated and soon agitated, I was now full-on prickly. And this is before I swipe in the app to begin the trip and realize I’m staring down the barrel of a 17-mile trip with a hot wok/dirty bomb bouncing around my trunk like a goddamn nitroglycerin pinball.

The ride is uneventful and harrowing. By all rights, no less than two-thirds of Chicago’s southwest suburbs should have been leveled in the hibachi blast. But I’m able to safely deliver The Package. “There’ll be some guys there to grab it,” Beck—cryptically, weirdly—has told me. Except that I arrive at the vaguely marked destination—a vast expanse of loading docks in a sprawling industrial area—and again not a soul is to be found.

I wait two minutes—my standard allowance (a man’s gotta have rules)—then call Beck, exasperated. “No one’s there?” He sounds stunned, which makes one of us. On cue, a driver emerges from a nearby truck wearing a look that says, “I have a head injury.”

“So … I think your guy is here,” I tell Beck.

“Who is it? Who’s there?”

“Look, I don’t know his name.”

But Head Injury hears Beck through my open passenger-side window.

“Becka? Becka!”

I pop the trunk, scramble from the front seat and unload The Package. The transfer leaves behind an even larger mess of sooty shit than the original pile. By now, Head Injury has been joined by a friend, both of them standing by, not at all at the ready, staring at me blankly. I wait a beat. There’s the matter of that tip.

There would be no tip.

I drive away suspecting that it will be a long, strange bastard of a night. And so it was.

I’ve gotta get some better fucking rules.