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.

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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 …