If a $50 billion tech-fueled transportation company can help adjust my attitude, then it's possible that Uber's infiltration into America's cities is making the nation a friendlier place everywhere.
"Now, here's what I do," my driver said, half-turning his dreadlocked head toward me. "When one of my daughters has a friend or a boyfriend come over, I play mind games with them. I use psychology to make them understand that neither myself nor my family is to be toyed with."
My driver, a burly black guy in his late 40s, had a precise way of talking where he would pause after the long words in each sentence as if those extra syllables warranted my extra consideration.
"I offer them a glass of water," he said. "Then, I leave the room and a couple minutes later, I come back and take the glass away before they finish."
"Yeah," I said, chuckling.
"You see, then they understand! Then I take the rest of their water and I put it in a plastic bag and I write their name on it and hand it back to them. The look on their face is priceless. Believe me when I say we have no problems after that." My driver half-turned to me again, evidently quite satisfied with himself.
"Uhhh, yeah," I said. I looked at the car's door handle. My shopping bag only had a loaf of bread and a cookie in it. I could probably just leave it on the seat, and the car wasn't moving that fast, so I could jump out of the car and start running or roll away without getting banged up too badly, I thought. I used to live in this neighborhood. I could shake him in case he follows me.
"Plus, they really don't want to mess with me when they find out they're dealing with an ex-Special Forces sniper," my driver continued.
"Oh, really? You were a sniper? That's amazing," I said. He looked a little too heavy set to be a sniper, but he had a big frame and held the weight well. And besides, I've known plenty of military guys who've lost their shape after leaving the service, so I supposed it was possible. I should probably do a shoulder roll as he turns left up here, I thought.
"Uh huh," he said. "But I quit after they left me behind one too many times. I was holed up and they were supposed to come get me, but the chopper left me behind after the op."
My driver went on to explain that he also ran background checks on all his daughters' friends and interviewed everyone closely to ensure they were fit to be around his family.
"You can't be too careful," I said. I looked out the window and saw I was almost home. And I did arrive home safely, of course. I'm still not sure if my Uber driver had really been a sniper or if he was just a nut. I recognized some of his strange tendencies, my own father having been a Marine Corps platoon sergeant in the Vietnam War. Exposure to war and erratic, paranoid behavior tend to go together, I've noticed; but on the other hand, people with mental illness will often fabricate associations with organizations, like the Special Forces, that they consider authoritative or respected. This one could have gone either way. There was a long pause on the phone after I relayed the story to my father.
"That's bizarre ...," he said.
"Yeah," I said.
"I mean, that's really bizarre ...," he said again.
"Yeah," I said.
My dad deemed the guy "a faker." Whatever or whoever he really was, he was also one of 189 Uber drivers I've had over the past 12 months. It's easy to see why Uber's business is shooting into the stratosphere as if propelled by a sniper rifle. It's convenient, faster and cheaper than a taxi; the cars are clean because they belong to the drivers; the drivers are polite because they want a good rating; and for a lot of people, myself included, it's a great alternative to owning a car. Uber also gave me something I couldn't have found anywhere else, which was an opportunity to talk to and learn from people I ordinarily would never meet, sometimes for good reason.
My African drivers taught me that I need to have children -- a lot of them, and soon.
"Why you not have children if you married?" one particularly animated Eritrean driver asked me. His age was difficult to tell because he was slight and had a boyishness about him that could have meant he was 27 or 49. "If you don't have children, what are you doing with your life? We must have family."
"Yeah, I don't know," I said. " It's just such a big commitment. My wife is still in school and I don't know if we could afford it."
"I have. Six. Children," my driver said.
"Whoa!" I said.
He smiled. "Yes," he said. "This is why I must drive Uber. Is very good money for my family."
To hear some of my other drivers tell it, Uber is good money. Many drivers, especially female drivers, who were usually either African or Indian, told me they drive for Uber part time between shifts at their other jobs or to supplement their husbands' incomes instead of just staying home all day. The convenience of being able to clock in and out when they wanted was what drew many to the service.
Another of my drivers, a black American guy in his early 20s, told me he was making big money in Uber. He drove a brand-new entry-level Mercedes with leather trim.
"Well, you must be if you're driving this around," I said.
"This isn't even my car," he said. "This is a rental. My Mercedes is better than this."
Mercedes guy was nice, but he didn't talk much. A lot of the younger drivers didn't like talking. One young Middle Eastern guy picked me up with his friend in the front seat, the local pop-rap station playing softly.
"This is Reh-Heed," he said pointing to his friend. "Sometimes, my friend just rides with me all day."
That's a little weird, I thought.
The car smelled sharply of cologne. I felt a bit uncomfortable as the two talked about going to the club later and calling up "Monty." They loved talking about Monty.
"Hey," my driver said to Reh-Heed, "Did you hear what Monty did at the club last weekend? We should go to the club with Monty this weekend."
"Thanks, guys," I said as we approached my apartment. The driver hopped out of the car and opened the trunk to help me with my grocery bags. He gave a little bow in salutation and thanked me for my business as he returned to the wheel.
Riding with Uber reinforced a notion that I already held, which is that foreigners are less easily offended and more willing to share their minds than Americans are. I think it has something to do with speaking English as a second language. It gives people more time to process what they're saying and they are more thoughtful and comfortable sharing things.
I've been told on more than one occasion that I'm sometimes too forthright in casual conversation, but I try to avoid being rude and it doesn't bother me, so I see no problem with it. I only offended a couple of my drivers and they were both white American men.
"Where are you from?" I asked one driver. My wife and mother happened to be in the car at the time.
"Rocklin, California," he said. He was an unassuming looking white guy in his mid-30s wearing an ironed button-down.
"Oh, we're from the Sacramento area, too," I said.
We talked about Sacramento for a bit and I mentioned that there are a lot of old people living in Rocklin, because I worked briefly for a flower delivery service in Rocklin and noticed there were a bunch of retirement homes in that region, not to mention most of the people I delivered to were of retirement age.
"It's not only old people!" he said. He seemed annoyed with my comment. "There are young people living there, too! It's a vibrant community!"
"All right," I said. I thought I'd made a valid point, but I wasn't passionate enough about census data to argue with him about it. Maybe he worked for the Rocklin tourism board.
I rated him four out of five stars after our trip instead of my usual automatic five-star rating, my subtle form of protest.
The Uber rating system taught me how to let things go. You see, being outspoken has its advantages, but it can also get a fella into trouble. A few times a year, I get into verbal or physical altercations with neighbors and people on the street. It's a combination of a temper and thirst for justice that makes me go at people's throats when I should probably just let things go. Make a snide comment about my dog? Go to hell. I'm coming at you twice as hard. Stick your nose in my business unprovoked? Prepare for an apt description of your physical appearance. Ask me four times to donate to your charity after I said no politely each time? I will punch you in the face and not think twice about it.
This unfortunate aspect of my personality has gotten better with age and therapy, but I think the Uber rating system was the thing that helped me view interactions with strangers in a new light. The purpose of the Uber rating system is to promote good driver behavior so the network of drivers doesn't devolve into what taxi services have become. Poorly rated drivers with dirty cars and bad attitudes are naturally flushed out of the system. But when I have a bad or even mediocre experience with a driver (which seldom happens with Uber, I found), I view the situation pragmatically by assessing the risk and reward by giving that driver a low rating.
Drivers are not permitted by the system to see how they've been rated by individual drivers, but it is possible for drivers to figure out how they've been rated recently by fluctuations in their overall score. If a driver has a score of 4.3 and then after dropping me off, he sees his score go down to 4.2, it's not hard for him to do the math. So it is possible for a driver to know how I've rated him.
Giving a driver a poor rating because his car is dirty or because he yells at me is something different altogether because I'm unlikely to see that person again anyway, but the cases where I was tempted to give a poor rating were for trivial things like a driver talking to me too much when it was clear I was trying to listen to a podcast or read a book. Perhaps that driver deserves a lower rating, but what good does it do me to give him a low rating? It will make him a little upset, I gain nothing, and there's even a potential for that driver to remember my poor rating and use it against me in some fashion in the future. If I'm ever late to the airport and need a car, I don't want the guy behind the wheel to be someone who remembers anything bad about me, even subconsciously. His failure to step just a little harder on that gas pedal isn't anything I could report to Uber, but it could ruin my day by making me miss my flight. Getting into fights with people on the street has taught me what a small world it is. You don't have to believe in the supernatural notion of karma for it to affect you. Karma's real and it's a lot more direct than people realize. They just don't notice the connections.
Last month, I needed to return something at Radio Shack and I realized the guy behind the counter was someone I had yelled at in front of the grocery store a few months prior. I felt embarrassed and ashamed to recall the incident, and now I had the added worry that this guy would steal my credit card information or cancel my return after I left as some kind of revenge.
Last year, I saw a doctor and one of his assistants said, "You look really familiar. Have we met?"
My heart sank when I realized I'd had a similar encounter with this guy. He didn't remember me in this case, but being nose to nose with a stranger in a cramped doctor's waiting room and realizing they might remember any second that they have a legitimate reason to hate you has quite a sobering effect.
This is why I automatically rate all my drivers five stars. I'm not afraid of something bad happening to me in return, necessarily, but why risk it? This philosophy of selfish philanthropy has overtaken many other areas of my life. I'm not phony, glad-handing everyone I meet and saying things I don't mean, but I now recognize the value in positivity and see the dearth of utility in negativity. That recognition molds my thoughts and actions every day. With every interaction with someone, I think, why? What's the point? That's not to say every interaction needs to be deeply meaningful, but recognizing one's place within a greater social and personal context has done nothing but enriched my life. And as for karma, you don't need to punch anyone for people to remember you. Everything people do reflects back to them in some fashion.
I'm not really talking about superficial benefits like getting stuff for free, but a few instances where being good to people has gotten me things for free does well to illustrate my point. I was in a particularly good mood one evening when I got picked up by a young Ethiopian man wearing a bright orange and green plaid shirt.
"I like that shirt!" I said.
He smiled and nodded sheepishly.
"Thank you," he said.
"Yeah! That's a good-lookin' shirt, man. Where'd you get that?" I asked. I really wanted to know because I would have bought the shirt if I could find it.
"I don't know," he said. "I bought it at ... a mall."
"Oh, all right," I said. I was on doctor-prescribed prednisone, a corticosteroid that happens to give you lots of energy. It's the kind of drug that makes you understand why people who are on anabolic steroids go berserk sometimes. My wife and I were going to a movie and we laughed and joked with the driver as we approached the theater.
"Hey, thanks, man!" I said. I slapped the driver on the back and cracked another joke and he smiled.
When I checked my ride history later, I saw that my ride had been free. My guess is that he gave me a free ride because I'd been a nice guy for those 15 minutes.
A few weeks later, a similar incident happened when I ordered a pizza. The delivery boy told me they periodically give out random free pizzas and that I was the day's lucky winner. But when I recalled my conversation with the person from the call center who took my order, I realized it wasn't random. I'd made her laugh twice and had otherwise been uncharacteristically agreeable. I think she decided to give me the free pizza because I sounded like an all-right guy. That anecdote might sound like nothing, but I think that's the shortest and most accurate description of how life works.
A lot of people stumble and sprint through life thinking it's a harsh and unforgiving desert, and it certainly can be, but you get out of the world what you put into it. A shift in the angle of your shoulders or the shape of your lips is enough to change how other people treat you, so why not do yourself the favor of smiling, treating other people decently, and not punch people in the face even if they deserve it? It's not an easy habit to make, but it is an easier way to live.
Opening up to my drivers meant they often opened up to me in return. Stepping into my car each time almost felt like a date with the driver. Another opportunity to meet someone new and compare notes on life. I talked to a squirrelly pale guy with messy black hair one day and he told me about how resourceful he was. His glasses were very similar to those of his favorite actor, Jeff Goldblum, he explained, and rather than getting discouraged by the high price of the real thing, he found a reasonable substitute. He also built a shed from instructions he found online, and with a little more investigation, I found he was the co-creator of a two-member Halloween-themed band called Creature Feature. I looked it up when I got home and found that while he wasn't performing anymore, his band still had a strong cult following.
One Ethiopian guy with a Fu Manchu told me that Uber was a great deal for him because it was like an English class that he was paid to attend.
An Islamic African guy with a leather jacket told me that everyone in Africa has two or three wives and a couple dozen kids.
"That's crazy," I said. "Why?"
"But no more than four!" he stipulated. "The Quran does not allow it. I moved here and so I only have one wife."
"Hey, me too," I said.
A huge white guy with tattoos told me he was a professional driver, usually driving dump trucks to haul the local dirt and concrete being dug up for construction of Seattle's light rail, ironically. He was saving his money to build a drag racer.
"You don't do it for the money," he said. "Because even the biggest races, you won't make as much as you spend on the car."
One young quiet African guy told me the story of his escape from his country first to Europe then the U.S. after a violent coup.
One Indian man who seemed a little depressed asked me what I did.
"I'm a journalist," I said.
He brightened immediately.
"Oh, wow! Two in one day!" he said.
"Oh, you had another journalist in here?" I asked.
"Yeah, this lady from King5 was in here earlier and she was ripped!" he said.
"She was drunk?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "Completely wasted. Ah-hahaha!"
An ex-insurance salesman explained to me that the insurance sales business just isn't what it used to be.
I ended up leaving my glasses in the car of a nice ex-military guy from Maine. My wife and I were on the way to see Penn & Teller and at one point during the ride, all of us were laughing about something and having a great time, when I looked over and saw a taxi driver watching us from behind the fingerprint-smudged glass of his car. He looked sad and yearning, as if laughter within a car was not something he was familiar with, but wished to someday experience.
My favorite driver was a guy named Fikru. Fikru was a jolly man from Ethiopia with a graying mini-fro. When he first picked me up, he told me about his theory of life.
"OK, so most people, they think about life is maybe 70, 80 years, but this is not right," he began. "Your first 20 years, you do nothing, you go to school and are just starting out in life. From 20 to 40, you work, maybe buy a house, get married. From 40 to 60, this is when your career becomes mature and you watch your children grow. And then after 60, you are preparing to die. Really, life is just about 40 years maybe where you can really do the things you want."
"This is your life theory?" I said. "I hate this. Life is already too short. I don't want to cut it up into smaller pieces!"
Fikru laughed at my reaction and continued on with his theory. He held up his fingers in the "OK" symbol and pulled them up and down daintily as if controlling an invisible puppet when he was emphasizing a point.
"This is why we must use our time wisely," he said. "People are wasting their life on things that don't matter. The drugs, the drinking, going to prison, and by the time they see what it is they are doing, it's too late. They are old. This is why we must appreciate life. Every day."
I ended up spending an hour with Fikru because the roads in Seattle were designed by a toddler with a crayon. I discovered that despite having come from two different backgrounds, Fikru and I held similar political beliefs, something that rarely happens to me in Seattle.
Fikru complained that he had gotten a raise at his job at the university, but that had meant the grants his twins had been receiving (he had a boy and a girl, he told me), had been repealed and now it was as if he had gotten no raise at all. He told me about the long, expensive and complicated process he needed to go through to make additions to his house or to fell trees on his property that threatened to crush his home in each storm and how dealing with the city was a loathsome experience.
At one point during our ride, Fikru's eyes got really wide like he just saw an incoming ship on the horizon loaded with chocolate and supermodels.
"Rich or poor, black or white, it makes no difference!" he said, turning to me. "We all die!"
The two of us laughed beneath the harsh afternoon sun that beat on the cars vying for position on the crowded thoroughfare.