I was on my way to a friend’s birthday party when I realized that I hadn’t even thought to get her a gift. My transit app said that I had twelve minutes until the next bus, which I reckoned gave me enough time to run into the nearby Walgreens to pick up a bunch of cigarette lighters. Cigarette lighters were a crappy solution to my gift problem, but I knew she was a fan of setting marijuana on fire and I wasn’t going to come up with a better present on the fly.
I was standing in line two minutes later when I spotted the bus pulling up outside. Dropping the lighters, I broke into a sprint out the door, narrowly missing the bus as it pulled off up Hollywood Boulevard. I could have just shrugged, waited another 15 minutes and shown up late to the bar, but as someone who chooses to live without a car in LA I feel a certain pressure to be on time to everything, just to show all the haters that I’m making it work. I don’t know who these haters are or if I even have any to begin with, but I figure the best course of action is to show them I’m making it work even if they don’t exist, which is how I wound up chasing a bus down the street like Steve Martin in that scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
I ran along the Walk of Fame for three blocks, dodging and weaving past tourists, Jack Sparrow, two different Batmans and a third-rate Don King impersonator in a thoroughly unconvincing wig. I got lucky with walk signals at a couple of crosswalks and ran up to the bus at the next stop just in time for the doors to close in my face. The bus pulled off again and I took off after it again, waving my arms and cursing like Steve Martin in that other scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I no longer cared about showing up on time to my friend’s party – I just wanted to show the bus driver, who I had determined was definitely a hater, that I was making it work.
Lungs and legs burning, I gave up after another couple of blocks and stalked down the street, huffing and puffing and glaring at the bus as it shrank and disappeared into traffic. A minivan pulled up next to me and a woman in her late 30s stuck her head out.
“Hey – do you want a ride to the next stop?”
“That bus driver is an asshole, I saw what he just did. I can give you a lift and help you get ahead of him to the next stop!”
The first ten or so years of my life were a veritable blur of adults and authority figures telling me to never accept a ride offered by a stranger under any circumstances, and I wondered if there was a statute of limitations on those instructions. Does “Stranger Danger” still apply at 29? She was wearing workout gear and there was a child’s carseat in the back, plus the various other detritus that accumulates in the minivans of ordinary people who aren’t serial killers. I wagered that if anybody had something to be worried about in this situation, it was her – after all, I was a strange man screaming obscenities at a bus. As I climbed into her passenger seat, I was struck by just how natural it felt getting into a stranger’s car after hundreds of Uber rides.
Her name was Annabelle. She had been a semi-professional triathlete until the birth of her first child, and was on her way back from training for her first triathlon since the baby. I was wheezing for breath and gushing sweat after running three blocks. The joke writes itself. After less than a minute’s conversation, it came up that the Target she was going to was only a block away from the bar I was going to, so she just gave me a lift there.
“I really appreciate this,” I said as we drew closer. “I probably looked like a nutjob running after that bus.”
“Don’t mention it. I’ve been in that situation a million times before – I hate when they pretend like they can’t see you.” She plucked a vape pen out of the center console cupholder and sucked on the mouthpiece. “Hey, you want any weed? Mellow you out?”
I always want weed, but I figured that accepting both a ride and drugs from a stranger on the same day would be pushing my luck a little too far, so I politely declined. She let me off in a Chipotle parking lot, and I leaned in the passenger window to say goodbye.
“Annabelle, seriously, thank you so much. You had nothing to gain from helping me out and you did it anyway, and that means a lot.”
“Hey, just pay it forward, y’know? Happy holidays!” And she drove off, another cloud of marijuana vapor drifting out her window as she turned onto Melrose.
After a few hours at the bar with my friends I called an UberPool to take me home. My driver’s name was Omar, and as I watched his car pull up I found myself wishing that my friends had watched The Wire so I could yell, “Omar comin’!” and get a big laugh.
There was another rider in the back seat, a beefy white guy in a wide brimmed baseball cap, so I took the passenger seat next to Omar. Presently we picked up another passenger, a girl named Jessica, from outside a bar, and she took a seat in the back directly behind me. No one spoke or listened to The Chainsmokers, and it was bliss.
As we worked our way from Hollywood back into the San Fernando Valley’s welcoming embrace, I heard Jessica begin to cough behind me, followed by what sounded like a glass of water getting dumped out. Omar looked over his shoulder and his eyes popped.
“Oh, man- Are you okay, Jessica?”
“Yeah,” came her sickly voice from behind me. “I’m sorry. It all went in my purse.”
There’s a lot of things in this world that I can’t handle, but vomit and vomiting are pretty close to the top of that list. Realizing that she had just puked into her handbag, and that me and her and Omar and the other guy and her puke were all trapped together in this car for the next 20 minutes, I longed for the innocent times when The Chainsmokers were the worst thing to happen to me in an Uber. Omar rolled down all the windows.
“I’ve got some water in the back. Do you want me to stop and grab you a bottle?” he asked.
“No, you don’t need to…”
“You feeling okay, though?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
We rode on in silence. It was no longer bliss.
Through it all, I felt bad for Jessica. Her plan for the evening probably didn’t involve throwing up in her purse in front of three strangers, and given how awkward this was for the bystanders I couldn’t even imagine what she must have been feeling. Remembering Annabelle’s last words to me, I turned my head slightly toward the backseat, careful to avert my eyes from Jessica’s soiled purse.
“Jessica, would you like some gum?” I asked.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Yes. That would be great. Thank you so much.”
I passed a stick of my gum back to her. “Don’t mention it.” I tried to think of something else to say, but the English language doesn’t offer up a lot of poetic turns of phrase for this sort of moment.
Presently we arrived at my apartment, and I wasted no time getting out of the car and going inside. I didn’t tell Jessica to pay it forward the way Annabelle had with me, because I figured she didn’t need another thing to worry about with the day she was having. But I did rate Omar five stars and give him a $1 tip through the app. In my book, he’d earned it.