My 500th Ride in the Heart of Music City
I notched my 500th Uber ride on Saturday, around 6 in the evenin, as the sun was flirtin with the western side of the sky. I knew the half-century mark was comin, and I figured it'd be a dud, folks just wantin me to get it 'em from one block to the next. But as the universe would have it, I scooped up a quartet of thirty-somethings headed to a '90s-themed music festival on the east side of the Cumberland River. I myself was a child of the '90s, entered them as a fair-haired, blue-eyed five-year-old and exited into the aughts with a full set of Dream Team cups (both 1 and 2) from McDonald's and slightly south of middle class, a fatherless fifteen-year-old fascinated with hip-hop and still naive enough to believe that a five-foot-eleven (and 3/4 of an inch) white boy with hustle and a serviceable 15-footer could play college ball—all that and a confused notion that my life had taken on the tropes of a Hallmark movie: I'd chin up, thicken my skin, and become something even greater than I could've imagined before my father fell and hit his head, that my mother would never have to put on a fast-food uniform again.
But before we get to the conversation inside my Civic and the commemoratin, I reckon you ought to have a bit more background. This existential journey started six months ago, back in January, when I put in my two weeks at ESPN and signed up to be an Uber man in Hartford, Connecticut. Since then, I've driven to and through roughly twenty cities and towns in the Constitution State, to go along with my current gig in Knoxville, as well as the neighborhoods that sprawl from the Sunsphere out into the nooks and crannies of East Tennessee. Then, this holiday weekend, I added Nashville, which, as the locals in the state capital will tell ya, is about to unseat the Vegas Strip and Bourbon Street for the title of bachelor-bachelorette-party/drunken-reunion/"why not go to Hillbilly Hollywood for a three-day weekend" destination of the moment. So, with more than a few stops behind me, I figured it was time to take some stock, what with hitting 500, sans puke in my car or a black eye. It's an arbitrary milestone, sure, but what remains of the sports writer/editor in me can't keep from getting nostalgic around large, round numbers. Besides, what a way to live the last six months: I've met white folks and black folks; Jews and Christians; Indians and Native Americans; Hindus and Muslims; Japanese and British; Buddhists and Atheists; Irish and Chinese; Mexicans and Koreans; Puerto Ricans and Dominicans; Agnostics and a man who swears by Zoroaster; a couple from Cuba, a lady from Croatia, and a man from Iran, nearly all of them calling the U.S. home—or at least praying to soon. We've discussed their occupations and their families; their beliefs and their passions and their dreams, our trips a tidy metaphor for where they began, how they've ended up where they've ended up, and where they hope to one day be.
Which brings us back to our '90s quartet, a guy and three women hashing out the single topic that rarely gets attention within the confines of my Civic. Love. It's not a theme for the faint of heart, and most of us would just as soon find it and call it quits. But while those who know me will simply say I'm a sucker to plug my boy Ray Carver, what we talk about when we talk about love will never cease to reveal us, to define us as a people, as a society, as a country, especially in times like these. "I told him I just wasn't ready, that I still think about Robert every day, and that isn't fair to him—I'm not ready to get in bed with nobody," one of our ladies said, recounting a recent interest she turned down, following her abrupt breakup, a man she'd thought was her lifetime. "So sad, but so f---in' mature of you, girl," woman No. 2 commiserated. "I only wish I was that together." Then female No. 3 chimed in: "But we're in our thirties, it's time to grow up—our twenties? We didn't know no better, that we weren't prepared for the next one. We'd go through them thinkin' the one before was that easy to forget." The sage of the group, a wife and a mother of two, continued: "I just don't know how these kids today are going to get through it—what I'm seeing on Snapchat and Facebook and Instagram. It worries me to death, what little value they place on love. Mike [her husband] kissed me harder than normal this morning, and I loved it. But Ava and Ryan [her adolescent kids] saw us and said, 'Oooooh, you're movie kissing.' I told them Daddy and I love each other. Then Ryan asked, 'Why can't I kiss Ava like that? I love her a lot.'" [Please insert Southern incest jokes here and leave them here.] The group "awwwwed" and laughed, rather nervously, although they were drunk enough and deep enough into their road beers that the poignancy could pass with relative ease. But I considered that, the distinctions we make when it comes to love: romantic, familial, paternal, sibling, friendship, religious, patriotism, humankind. I'd be lyin if I said that the thing we talk about wasn't at the heart of what set me on this existential journey, wondering how it was that I'd let myself do what I told myself I never would—mistake lust for love, monetary gain and a fancy title for fulfillment, home for a place that is to be overcome instead of savored like gravy and biscuits. A fellow MFA graduate of mine recently asked if I'd mind confessing the reason for my return South, and I told her I'd been foolish enough to think you could get through this inside your own head, without a community of people who aren't like you but are just like you. I used to wake up scared and lonely most mornings, and it took driving folks around, of all things, to remind me that friends are waiting right outside your door, whether you find them at the local coffee shop or watering hole; whether they're clerks at the grocery store or servers at your favorite restaurant; or maybe they're just across the street, the neighbors you've never bothered to do more than wave at. Or maybe they're gathered around your own supper table, and you've lost touch, stopped asking the simplest of follow-up questions, actually listening and moving beyond what comes after the "How are yous?." And isn't that where the real peace lies, not in the bed, but in knowing that nothing you've gone through hasn't been gone through before?
In the end, our '90s friends didn't say much to me, other than when they pointed in the wrong direction and I had to make a U-Turn. "At least you're the sober one," they joked. "I'm high on life," I replied with a grin, although, in truth, I'm only now gettin a contact buzz. So the next time you find yourself in an Uber or a cab, or in the checkout line, or sitting in a restaurant booth or at the bar counter, or surrounded by old friends and new friends and family at the supper table or at a backyard cookout, put this damn thing in your hand down. Ask a question, tell a story. And if the person's English behind the wheel or the counter or the register or sitting next to you in the lawn chair is a tad broken, piece it together. You might just find the part of yourself that's been missing.