Olenka, who drove me to Van Nuys in a Prius, was one of the few female Uber drivers I’ve had so far - a middle-aged woman whose name and accent suggested that she’d spent her formative years someplace in Eastern Europe. Our conversation, like 99.9% of conversations with Uber drivers, eventually turned to the subject of driving for Uber.
“So, did you just clock in?” I asked from the backseat as we waited in the milelong line to get on the 405. The sun was setting, so I added, “Going to work the bar crowds?”
“No, no!” She rapidly shook her head. “Never. I do it one time, when I first start driving.” She held up a single finger, making eye contact with me in the rear view mirror to make sure I didn’t have any misconceptions about the number of times she’d driven at night. “One time. Never again.”
“Ugh!” She shook her head. “People, when they are drunk, they are so crazy! I had four men – all of them 40, 50 – get in my car outside a bar. And the three in back, they are drunk, they are on drugs, they are wrestling, they are hanging out the windows- When I am on freeway!”
“And am I asking the one next to me, Do something! Make them stop! But he is just laughing. And I try to stop car, to kick them out, but they yell at me and say they not leave until I take them where they want to go! So what can I do? They are four and I am just one person.”
“Wow. I’m so sorry.” I said. And I really did feel bad! The more we talked, the more I found myself getting really cheesed off at these four guys on her behalf. She’s just trying to make an extra buck, but these clowns had to go and make this nice lady miserable instead of just enjoying their cheap, convenient ride in peace. “That’s no way for an adult to behave. What a bunch of jerks.”
She nodded emphatically, then turned to me and pointed to the skin on her forearm.
“They were black.” She said, pointedly, and gave me a look that was the physical manifestation of the words, So, y’know.
“Mmm.” I said, my sympathies shifting at the speed of light. “Mmmhmm.”
Kev was a 26-year-old white guy who drove me to Hollywood in a little black sports coupe. He was not wearing a shark tooth necklace, but everything about him – from the way he dressed to the way he spoke to the way he drove – gave me the impression that he had at least three of them on top of his dresser, ready at a moment’s notice. That evening he had only one thing on his mind.
“So, where you going, Truman? You going out? Maybe meeting a lady?”
“Oh, gosh, no. I’m just meeting some friends. Tacos are involved. You get the picture.”
“Okay, alright, guys’ night, that’s cool. I need a guys’ night, man. My girlfriend, she’s been driving me up the wall.”
“She’s a psycho. I mean, she’s Mexican. So, y’know.”
“Mmm.” I said. “Mmmhmm.”
He took an off-ramp that dropped us from the freeway down onto the surface streets around Hollywood Boulevard, where we promptly got stuck at a crosswalk full of tourists, club rats and homeless people.
“I’m into Mexicans, though, so I guess I must like it. But man, we fight all the time. She’s always screaming at me about something, always wants to see my phone, Who’re you texting? Who’re you texting, you know.”
“Sounds like a drag.”
“I mean, I did cheat on her. But that’s in the past, you know? And it was just once! We were fighting, and she won’t admit it, but I'm sure she cheated on me…”
“Yeah, uh huh, okay.” I said, trying to thread the needle between affirming that I was still listening without giving the impression that I agreed with anything he was saying.
“And it’s like, at this point, I don’t know, man. I feel like we’re both just kind of together until we find something better, y’know? I mean, I guarantee you, if she’s out and she meets some guy who’s hitting on her and she likes him, she’s gonna be like, ‘Kev who?’, y’know?”
“What about you? If you meet somebody better, what would you do?”
The crosswalk finally cleared and he gunned the engine. “I dunno. I mean, I get cute girls as passengers all the time. If we hit it off, it seems like she’s into it, maybe I give her my number. I’ve done it a few times. I went out with this one girl the other day. Nothing happened, I mean, I just bought her a coffee…”
“Well, good on you for being a gentleman.”
“Oh, buddy, I always pay on the first date. It’s just one of those things, y’know? I feel bad if I don’t pay. Like, morally, I mean.”
Rory was a Latino guy in an Altima who drove me to a Dave and Buster’s in Culver City. After talking about his day job working with developmentally disabled adults, our conversation turned to real estate.
“Like, ten years ago? Before the housing bubble thing happened? My parents sold their house in Lynnwood, right on the border with Compton, in the hood, for half a million dollars.”
“Woah. They sold at the right time, huh?”
“Uh huh. And then they took that money and bought a house up in Oregon for, like, $290,000. So then they just had all that other money left over!”
“I’m from Oregon.” I said. “Where in Oregon did they buy?”
“Salem.” He said.
“Get out!” I exclaimed, just like Elaine on Seinfeld. “I’m from Salem! I grew up there! I lived there for ten years! Where do your parents live?”
“Oh, no way! They live down off of State Street, like a couple blocks from that gold statue on top of the building-”
“The state capitol!”
“Yeah! They’re right down there by the Sonic, there’s a bar on the corner called The Pink Elephant… I tell you, my wife and I, every time we go there, we drive to those outlet stores outside town-“
“The Woodburn Outlet Mall! I remember when they built that, it was nuts!”
“The discounts are so good there! And then, with the no sales tax, it’s like, the best deals ever!”
“And how about people pumping your gas for you, huh?”
“I love that! Makes me feel like a king.”
And we both laughed, reveling in the shock that out of all the drivers and riders in LA that night, Uber’s algorithm had inadvertently paired up the two who both had a connection to the same sleepy town in the Willamette Valley.
“Man, that’s crazy you're from there. I tell you what, the first time I went up to Salem to see my folks, I was tripping. It was like I was in a movie!”
“Really? You mean, like, a really boring movie? Like a Bergman film about people whose only fine dining options are Applebee’s and Olive Garden?”
“Nah, man! I just couldn’t believe how peaceful it is up there! Everything’s green, fresh air, everybody obeys the traffic laws… And the people are so nice! Everybody down here, it’s like, go, go, go. Folks are chill up in Salem. It’s a nice spot.”
“Huh,” I said. “You know, I never really thought about it that way. I’m always really down on Salem, since I’m from there, but you’re right – Salem really can be a beautiful place. All that peacefulness just made it kind of rough growing up there, y’know?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It was kind of rough growing up in Compton, too.”
“Mmm.” I said, and felt stupid. “Mmmhmm.”