My 2nd First Step is a blog by LaRue Cook, a former senior editor for ESPN The Magazine. His posts chronicle his new life as a driver for Uber and lyft.

When It Rains... Part 1

When It Rains... Part 1

Some days I wake up and stare at my laptop screen, like it has the answer to my question. Then I check my email. In that millisecond between clicking refresh and learning my fate, I hope that an agent has stumbled upon a short story of mine or a post on my site, and that he or she will have simply written, "I want more."

But my inbox tends to be empty. If there is a "1" or a "2," it's usually a rejection letter saying, "We enjoyed it, but not enough." Or LinkedIn has sent me an update about someone else. Or Twitter has sent me a list of folks I ought to follow. Or the travel sites I subscribe to have a list of places I ought to go, instead of staring at my laptop screen.

It rained here on Wednesday for a long time, for the first time in a long time. I didn't open my laptop, just left it shut on my dining room table, which is cluttered with notebooks I've scribbled in and lit magazines and books with dogeared pages. My dining room and living room are one, no partitions or hallways, four knotty pine walls and six windows, if you count the glass pane in the front door. I have a desk in the spare bedroom, but I always wind up picking the largest, most open space to write in. It's already claustrophobic enough, wandering around inside your own head, so I reckon I can't take the walls being so close.

On Wednesday, I opened the blinds of all six windows, and I sat at my dining room table with a cup of coffee. I watched the drops splash onto the glass. I thought about all the charred wood in the Great Smoky Mountains, how all those displaced folks in the hills of East Tennessee got the rain they were praying for, although I figure they couldn't help but wonder why it came a day late. Or maybe "all in the Lord's way, all in the Lord's time" was how they rationalized it. Who's to say? It wasn't you, and it wasn't me.

When it rains, Uber business spikes. The people who actually walk anywhere, or the people who dare to rely on public transit in the South splurge on a ride to keep from getting wet. So I finished my coffee, and I put on my shoes and buttoned up a shirt and rolled up the sleeves and brushed my teeth. I drove around instead of staying stationary in my usual spots near downtown and campus. I weaved through neighborhoods until I found my way out, near an on-ramp to I-40. I drove a few miles west, out toward the mall and suburbia, and then I exited and headed back toward downtown on the scenic route. I drove around for nearly an hour without a single request. I haven't been too impressed with the new releases on Spotify—House of Balloons Weeknd, come back, please—so I took matters into my own hands. I put A$AP Rocky's last album on repeat, turning it up until the bass rattled my water bottle a little in the cup holder. 

Finally, "Mark" needed a lift. Mark was on campus at the student center. He walked out with a girl, and they climbed in the backseat. I turned down the music. The rain had let up. They said "Hi," but that was it. I noticed that the trip was twenty-five minutes, and that they were going farther west than I even had, out to the sprawl and strip malls that have spread exponentially over the last decade, taking over rolling farmland that I seem to remember folks once fought to preserve. But it didn't seem quite right to ask why or where, at least not at the moment. I could hear harmless flirting, so I pushed the volume button up on my steering wheel and maneuvered the one-way streets around campus. We hit the main drag and I sped onto I-40. 

"You got good taste in music," the girl said from the back, commenting on A$AP's song "L$D." 

I told them about my lack of enthusiasm for the "new, new," and I seized my opportunity. "Where we headed? Home?"

"He's going to get a haircut," she said and I could hear her drawl now, thick as molasses in December. "We heard this place was good for guys—he's nervous."

"Nothing worse than a bad haircut," I said and glanced at Mark in the rearview. "It's why I buzzed my own head for about five years. Figured I couldn't look any worse."

"Maybe I..."

But she said, "No way," before Mark could finish. We all laughed. 

Mark was wearing a hat adorned with an orange "T" that covered his dark, curly hair, which was a poof on both sides. His voice, at least what I'd heard of it, was deep and his eyes were as black as fresh charcoal, which belied his soft, white smile. His beard was just as dark, and his complexion was olive. As for the girl, she could've been my younger sister, although she was a brunette.

"The key is to tell them exactly what you want," I said. "Don't be shy. Even the shyest woman will speak up about her hair." 

"That's his problem," she squeaked. "You don't ever tell them what you want!"

"I don't know what I want," Mark said and smiled that genuine smile, a smile I remember, when life is breezy and your fine to be along for the ride, no roadblocks or detours yet. "I just want it to look good—and not have to go back for a few months." 

"And tell them you don't wear product," I said. "If they cut it like you wear product, then it's this helmet. Like old-school Bieber."

"I hate product," he said.

"You should try it," she said. "I think it'd look nice." 

"You know," I said. "You ought to use her to your advantage. Let her keep an eye out, have her tell them how you want it. That's how I got brave enough to go back. I had a woman who used to talk for me, in a former life."

They were too young to sense the nostalgia, too young to pry, or maybe they assumed I was about their age, what with my baby face and all. Their biggest worry on the last day of November, I imagine, was whether they'd be able to squeeze in studying for finals between all the ugly Christmas sweater parties across campus.

We arrived at the haircut place and joked about it being next to a greasy burger joint and an organic juice bar, the dichotomy from one suite to the next at strip malls. "If it's a disaster, you can always put the hat back on," I said. "At least you've got that."

Mark smiled, and his girlfriend told me, as though Mark wasn't next to her, that the point of the haircut was to lose the hat. They got out, and she flipped the bill of his hat. He widened those charcoal eyes, and then he wrapped her in a bearhug. And I tried to remember how that kind of love felt, the sneaking into a girl's dorm room kind, the waking up at noon next to a girl without a care in the world over Christmas break kind. But it was too far gone. 

***

Before I could get an exit away from the haircut place, I received another request, this one from "Ellen" at Krystal (for those up yonder, think Southern White Castle). The rain was light, a drizzle, and it was a tad past four o'clock in the afternoon. I parked next to a beige Jeep Grand Cherokee with a dint in the front fender. I texted, "Hi, Uber here," as I often do, and I noticed a woman emerge from the passenger's side of the Jeep. Another woman remained in the driver's seat and waved good-bye. 

Ellen had finished her shift at Krystal and was headed home. I didn't ask about why she was in the Jeep, or who the other woman was. The intersection at the Krystal was tricky, directly into a turning lane that I would have to switch out of with a traffic light less than a football field away. 

"Be extra careful," Ellen said. "I wrecked the Jeep here last week." I looked her in the eyes for the first time. Her hair was pixie short and strawberry-blond. Her eyes were green. She said that she liked my Civic, that "they" were looking at a Volkswagen Golf. I didn't ask who "they" was. 

"West Knoxville is a s*** show after three," I said. "I came here as a kid and traffic was nowhere near this bad."

"Where'd you grow up?" Ellen asked. 

"Kingston," I said, "a small town west of here."

"I went to Kingston Elementary!" she yelled. "I moved to Lenoir City, though. West Knoxville was the big city to us!"

I agreed. I didn't feel the need to go into my days in Queens and Brooklyn, cramming onto the 7 or the 4/5/6, shutting my eyes and transporting myself anywhere but the metal box I was in, all the body heat swirling around me.

"I graduated from Roane County High in '03," I said. 

"I'm almost a decade older than you," she gasped, which meant close to forty, if not already there. 

"I usually drive near downtown and campus," I said. "But you never know where you'll go when you turn on Uber."

"I almost always get picked up in the morning by two old men," she said, "and they're always complaining about their day not going how they want. They want to stay in a ten-mile radius. West Knoxville—that's it. One is a retired cop, so he asks me a million questions, and the other is a retired teacher, who just complains about the poor schools around here."

"The kids on campus always seem glad to get me—I like the music they like and drive over the speed limit. We don't talk about anything too serious. Maybe whether Drake is losing his edge."

"I had a guy younger than you pick me up the other day, and he was playing Doggystyle. I was like, 'Were you even born when this came out?' I guess that's retro now."

"Not sure we're ready to make sense of the '90s yet," I said. "We need a TV show first." Ellen laughed at that. 

I pulled onto a street that didn't have a sign, just a neighborhood name on a red-brick wall. "That's all we got," Ellen said. "Some drunk knocked down our green sign and the city still hasn't put up a new one." It seemed to be a nice neighborhood, two-story houses, a neighborhood that might start a petition over such things, maybe show up en masse at a city council meeting. I thought about the dinted Jeep Grand Cherokee and about Krystal and about the other woman in the driver's seat who waved good-bye. Ellen had a story, but it didn't seem like it was for me to tell.

"Be safe out there," she said. I feigned a grin and nodded and my phone pinged with another request, this one from "Mary Anne." 

***

The rain was heavy again, hard enough for full-blown wipers. I snaked through Ellen's neighborhood rather than back toward Krystal and the traffic. I wasn't familiar with the area, lots of four-way stops and a school zone and some bare farmland, a small win for the protesters, perhaps. I emerged onto a main road and realized I was full circle, not far from the burger joint and the juice bar and the haircut place. 

I idled at a stop sign and texted Mary Anne, asking for her location. No response. At a traffic light, I called. The drawl answered, and I said that I'd be back soon.

Mark didn't have his hat on. Mary Anne was holding it when they got in. "It looks good don't it," she said. 

I said that it did, although I hadn't seen what was under the hat before. "I used to sound like you," I said, "before the North mellowed mine out."

"What? Oh, you mean my accent," Mary Anne said, oblivious in a way that only true Southerners can be.

"I had an internship in D.C. when I was twenty," I said. "And it was the first time I knew I talked funny. They couldn't believe I could write sentences."

"I know!" Mary Anne said. "I get it all the time, folks like, can you say what you said again? I just love how you talk. I'm from Virginia, just across the state line. Near Bristol, the races, ya know?" 

I asked Mark where he was from, and he said Nashville, specifically a neighborhood called Brentwood, a well-to-do area just south of the city. His voice was smooth, not an octave higher or lower than the next. I found out they were freshmen, and so I added two and two. They'd met here in Knoxville, young love moving fast, already bringing her along for haircuts.

They were occupied, I could tell, some game on her phone, answering my questions intermittently. I cued up Spotify's "Rap Caviar" playlist, and I could hear them humming along, subconsciously, maybe a shimmy of the shoulders or two, giving each other googly eyes, multi-tasking but not interested in a conversation of substance.

"I didn't mean to sleep that late this morning," Marry Anne said to Mark. "We still have so much studying to do."

"It was nice, though," Mark said. "We needed it."

I watched in the rearview as Mary Anne ran her hands through Mark's dark, curly hair. "It looks good," she said. "It looks really good."

I arrived at their dorms, which surround a courtyard where the student cafeteria is located and where freshmen and sophomores who don't live off campus yet gather. My first girlfriend lived in Mary Anne's dorm—we could barely fit in the twin bed side-by-side.

"You're not putting on the hat when we get out," Mary Anne said as they opened the doors. "You shouldn't be embarrassed—you're hot."

The "thank yous" barely reached me before the doors closed. I wished them luck on finals, but doubt they heard me. They played faux tug-of-war with the hat, not seeming to care about the rain as it fell on them. I wanted to tell Mark, knowing what I know, that Mary Anne's a keeper. But that isn't for me to decide.

When It Rains... Part 2

When It Rains... Part 2

Who's Coming to Dinner?

Who's Coming to Dinner?