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.”