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.
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 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.