Everyone in the Pool!

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It’s a metaphor, dummy.

“So how does UberPool work?”

This, after “How long have you been driving?” and “Has anyone ever puked in your car?” is the question I’m asked most often by my riders.

Seems funny that Uber users wouldn’t understand how this option works. But people tend to be very busy nowadays, and much of their mental bandwidth gets devoted to predicting future Game of Thrones plot lines and hacking their work computers to view NSFW websites. Funnier still: I don’t really know how UberPool works. The reasons for this are manifold, but it mostly comes down to the fact that I, too, am a lazy idiot.

The company promotes UberPool in the app and on its website—but good luck tracking down that info. Also, like most rhetoric from Uber HQ, the description of the service is simplistic, incomplete and possibly disingenuous:Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 7.50.17 AM

So rather than offering my usual response to the age-old UberPool question—”Um, it’s sorta complicated”—let me try to get it sorted here. I’ll cover the company’s explanation of the service, which falls somewhere on the truth spectrum between overly optimistic and Trumpian, and follow up with a reality the average rider can relate to.

Uber: Pool is the most affordable ride option.

Uber_Duder Truth: So far, so good. If you choose Pool and no other riders in the area headed your direction also choose Pool during your ride, you’re golden. The service will work just like UberX (a.k.a., regular Uber), but you save a small percentage on the fare. Of course, you’ve screwed over a driver desperately toiling to feed his starving family, but congrats, Thrifty McChintzy: You just saved yourself a couple bucks.

Now, if you live in a densely populated area, you ride during peak hours and/or the particular deity you worship is a vengeful god, your driver will make another pickup along the way. The fare will be shared with any other riders, yes, but the percentage of that fare you’re on the hook for, as well as the extra duration of your ride, will be a mystery—as will be the state of mind of those additional passengers.

Uber: Comfortable sedans.

Uber_Duder Truth:

Trabant-image

Uber: Convenient shared routes.

Uber_Duder Truth: You know those roadside shops around Houston selling $8-a-gallon gas and $12 bottled waters right now? Technically, they fit the definition of convenience stores. But, hey, you might disagree.

Occasionally, multiple-rider Pool trips come off without a hitch: no waiting, plenty of room in the car, pickups and drop-offs firmly within the bounds of prescribed routes. Smooth.

But just as often, things fall apart. The other night, for instance, I picked up a clearly exhausted mother and her young son after midnight at a Metra stop in Evanston. She was headed home to Des Plaines, due east a solid 20-25 minutes in the best conditions. Instead, I was immediately pinged to a spot a few minutes north, where we picked up a couple of day laborers who had been drinking with a buddy on the street curb. Their destination: Winnetka.

Look like a straight line between two points to you?

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Just as problematic was throwing a couple of juiced-up adult men in the Sonata with a mother and son. And because the second customer hadn’t indicated in the app how many passengers would be riding (if I’d know it would be two, I might have canceled), a semi-stoned stranger wound up sidled next to a sleeping 5-year-old boy in my backseat.

All’s well that ends well: The dudes were quiet, respectful and even tipped. But mom’s Spidey Senses must have been raging, and the length of her late-night ride home probably more than doubled, to about 45 minutes. She might’ve saved $8, tops. Was it worth it? Only she knows.

Uber: Maximum 2 riders per pickup.

Uber_Duder Truth: This is either an exercise in linguistic gymnastics or good old-fashioned bullshit. I’ve been pinged to pick up as many as four separate Pool riders before Customer No. 1 ever reached his destination. I’ve heard stories of others who got stuck with more. To save money, some people are willing to put up with a little hassle. What they generally aren’t willing to do is accept a 12-minute ride being turned into a three-hour tour, or being sucked into the world’s worst speed dating game during a glorified cab ride home.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve had some enjoyable Pool rides. You meet a bunch of new people, steam up the windows, have some laughs. It’s sort of a house party on wheels. But surely you’ve seen some of those bashes go sideways, too. Crabby Girl. Grabby Guy. Sir Talks-A-Lot. The Gang That Couldn’t See Straight (Because They Were So Goddamn Drunk). I’ve had them all in Pools before, too. Wanna join them?

I thought not. Be a grown-up. Take UberX. It’s still cheaper than a taxi, and you no longer have to worry whether you’ll be the weirdest person in the car. You will be.

Unless I’m your driver.

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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.