I am a 4.7/5 Uber driver, rated by my passengers, which puts me in the top 8% of drivers in the New Orleans metro area. (I could probably rate higher with a better car.) This exemplary performance does not result in bonuses or promotions – it merely allows me to keep driving. My riders have posted compliments: I am “smart as a whip”; “an amazing Uber driver”; and “kind.” The last is my favorite. It feels odd to be rated for this exceedingly mundane activity, infinitely easier than my so-called profession. Still, it does provide satisfaction I can render a service to those in need.
All I intended in any of these circumstances was to drive somebody from point A to point B, but somehow I almost always end up having pithy conversations. This might be explained by my habit as a journalist of asking open-ended questions.
You cannot get rich driving for Uber, but the big plus is the social interaction. After years, sitting in front of a computer, staring at a screen and responding to a firehose of email, it is amazing to have 10 different conversations, back-to-back with a wide range of people.
Uber driving sets up a remarkably intimate situation. Passengers in my economy car are so close that I can hear every word they say, even when they are on the phone in my backseat. I am often tempted to comment or give advice during their conversation, which feels three-way. Some people jump into the front seat, ready to chat, as if they’d been waiting for their best friend or mother to arrive to share the most interesting news of the day. Though I am the service provider, I am usually addressed as “m’am.”
I believe people are starved for a real conversation, not tweeting or posting or emailing. It used to be necessary to speak, but now that can be avoided through the wonders of technology. Social media does not provide the gratification of a facial expression (not an emoji), a sigh, a nod or a laugh, however.
One young woman who sat in my front seat said she was dating a much older guy because everyone her age is constantly looking at their phones. A young meter reader complained on the phone to his friend that he’d spent too much money taking a girl out to dinner who wouldn’t stop looking at her smartphone.
In a society where people are discouraged from airing their problems, Uber is the perfect place to share grief. Within five minutes, a rider told me her husband had been shot and killed out of state. A pregnant passenger traveling to her prenatal appointment expressed how difficult it was finding a good doctor through her healthcare plan. The topper was a casino worker I picked up at LSU emergency exit who had been jettisoned from her boyfriend’s truck the previous night. She’d just arrived in New Orleans without any idea where she was when she was tossed into the street. When she called 911, the police who arrived tasered her, then dropped her at the hospital door. I drove her all the way to Biloxi to a job, food and rest.
Tourists tend to confuse me with a tour guide. What should they do with only two days in New Orleans? I drove one guy all the way up St. Charles Avenue on the way to City Park just to see the beautiful houses, and I’ve diverted more than one passenger from Bourbon to Frenchmen Street.
One night, I’d decided I would drive only as long as it took to make another $20. It just so happened, I picked up two middle-age ladies who had arrived that day. “Is this the part of the city that flooded?” they asked.
“Oh, no, the Quarter stayed dry,” I told them.
Would I take them for a tour of the flooded areas, they asked. Sure, why not? It was 9 p.m., but I knew the way. We went over Frenchmen Street through the Marigny and Bywater past colorful shotgun houses, past Vaughn’s and Bacchanal and over the Industrial Canal bridge. We stopped at the place where the levee broke and they jumped out to take selfies in front of the commemorative plaque – in the dark. Then, we drove up Deslonde Street. Hiking up the levee, we found a couple of my neighbors night cat-fishing. It is also the spot for the most spectacular view of the glittering Crescent City Connection and skyline. On the return trip, they told me if they had to get on the plane right then, they’d have had the most authentic tour!
I was about to quit before 5 when I picked up a 30-something woman wearing a hijab. Turned out she was a civil rights attorney in town for a one-day meeting. She needed to fly out, but also wanted to grab some seafood. Given the commute traffic, I thought it best to recommend Fisherman’s Cove in Kenner, which is authentic with red and white checked tablecloths and platters of raw and fried oysters, where we’d be right by the airport. So, off we went. I hadn’t eaten and knew the drive back would be trying, so I asked if I could join her. At the counter, we got into a spirited conversation about social justice – so much so that the Chicago salesman sitting on the stool next to us had difficulty believing we’d only just met. “You are her Uber driver?” he asked incredulously. I spent as much for dinner as I earned on the fare, but also made a friend and a memory.
Uber is the transportation choice of individuals without relatives, boyfriends or roommates to help them get where they need to go faster and easier than the bus. One young woman was completely distraught because her car had been at the repair shop all week and the mechanic never even looked at it. She’d had to rely on Uber. As I drove away, I noticed her carrying a bumper to her car. I took a Bywater resident who works with disabled children all the way to Gretna to retrieve her towed vehicle. (I later discovered she’d left a set of keys in the backseat and had to circle back to return them.) I took a college dropout from Maryland to her new job selling timeshares on Canal Street. Though she’d had a college scholarship, she was terrified of mounting student debt, so moved to New Orleans where she knew nobody, but heard there was work. (She was very enthusiastic about timeshares.) Another student was a bikini waxing technician, working toward a PhD in sociology, aspiring to do government research. And a single mother of three who needed to drop off her littlest at daycare before heading to Delgado where she studies criminal justice.
A natural category for New Orleans is shift workers. I drove a 200+-pound female bouncer, working overnight in a bar, who said troublesome customers respect women more. I took a pole dancer to the sex workers conference at the Astor Crowne Hotel. In the Quarter, I picked up an Indonesian cruise ship steward whose passenger hailed me and waved us goodbye. Before returning to the ship, the steward asked mischievously to stop at a sex shop to buy a gift for a friend, so I dropped him at Hustler Hollywood on Bourbon.
One Saturday morning, I got a request to pick up at the National Guard Headquarters. Looking around, I spied a very tall, slender young man with a backpack, waiting near the gate. He had just finished basic training with a weekend off before heading to Missouri. He sat silently in my front seat, while I rattled on about my friend in the Army JAG Corp. I delivered him to a modest brick house near Airline Highway.
“I hear it is a life-changing experience,” I said, cheerfully wishing him good luck.