One year, 1,716 rides, and now, a crossroads
Today, Jan. 31, marks one year since I accepted my first Uber ride. Those of you who've been around since the beginning (and I do appreciate it) might recall reading about that initial trip. It didn't go very well, although, in fairness, I was new to the idea of giving a complete stranger a ride, and a bit anxious about my uncertain future. Just two weeks prior, I'd left my job as a Senior Editor at ESPN, and I still had a mortgage to pay in Hartford, Connecticut. I had no source of income lined up, other than my career as an Uber Man and the money I'd saved over seven years at The Worldwide Leader.
If I'm honest—as I am trying to be these days—I didn't actually think I'd drive Uber for an entire year. At least not as my sole source of income. I didn't actually think I'd start writing about the people I met, or about myself, how my worldview began to evolve based on the lives that crossed with mine. Or that I'd build a site based around the idea of my existential journey, a year of travel and coming to terms with the errors of my past ways, a list that I'm still ticking off. But, as they say, one sin at a time.
I could have never imagined that I'd accept 1,715 trips after that kid I picked up at the West Hartford mall, the one who accused me of starting the meter too soon. I could have never imagined that I'd travel to Ireland or to Italy, or that I'd drive from Knoxville, Tennessee, to San Francisco and back, roughly 7,500 miles. I could have never imagined that I'd be able to live on my savings, plus $14,870.41, which is my untaxed Uber salary to date.
There is a point here, likely wrapped up inside a cliche, one about always following your heart. Or maybe the one about being able to accomplish anything you put your mind to. Or maybe it's the one about money not being everything. But, if I were to pat myself on the back, then I would be falling victim to another cliche altogether. And that would be the one about resting on my laurels. There is no time for that.
Because, despite what I might've said in a past post, I didn't actually think Donald J. Trump would be elected President of the United States of America. I believe my exact words were: "I am disappointed, but not surprised." Yet with the distance of hindsight, I was merely lying to myself, mostly at the sake of making a point, a point that I'd hoped would lead to a greater good, to understanding, which is the gigantic word in the background photo on my Facebook wall.
Eleven days have come and gone since President Trump was inaugurated, and there is no more time for surprise—in fact, there is barely time enough to react before the surprise of what our President will do next has come and gone. I pride myself on living in the gray area, in the objectified world of a former journalist. I have become so intent on seeing both sides that my life is no longer lived in decisions based on instinct, but rather in a series of philosophical inquiries into multiple choices. (I naively thought that should be the trait of a president, too.)
I wanted to take that tact, one of open-mindedness, with President Trump, and with all of the folks who tell me that they had to live through eight years of "it" so why can't I. I wanted this post to be about all the slices of life I've ingested over the past year, all the sides I've heard and considered. I wanted this post to be about how much hope my passengers have injected into me, not only for humanity, but also for myself, a man who had begun down a path to complacency and conformity, a man who'd given up hope on much of anything.
I wanted this post to be about one of my recent passengers named Brad, a thirty-something white man with a private pilot license, a guy with a chiseled jaw and a welcoming grin. He'd flown in from Louisville, Kentucky, after finding out his father had been rushed to the hospital in Knoxville with complications from cancer. I wanted to tell you about how I sped to the McDonald's drive-thru so Brad could pick up two Egg McMuffins—his dad's favorite, "Has to have 'em fresh," he said—and two large sweet teas. I wanted to tell you about how I agreed to wait at the hospital, how Brad had flown in just to spend half an hour with his father, how we bonded over the fact that I'd lost my father at fifteen, how you have no way of knowing exactly what you're losing until it's gone.
I wanted this post to be about a young black man named Dee, sporting a high-top fade and lugging his keyboard and beats machine, an aspiring producer/rapper. I wanted to tell you about how we bonded over one of our favorite hip-hop artists on the rise, Anderson.Paak, how we dissected his rhyme schemes and the beats he packages with colorful avant-garde jazz riffs. I wanted this post to be about how we applauded each other, Dee and I, for following our passions, for choosing a road not necessarily less traveled, but a road that has no promise of a destination.
I wanted this post to be about the stories that sustain us, the stories of people, just like you and like me—not the stories of pro athletes or celebrities or famous entertainers, not the stories of CEOs or of politicians or of reality TV stars. Yes, those people are like "us," but they are not us. We are the people of the United States, too. We come in all colors and in all creeds and in all ethnicities and in all genders. Anyone is allowed in my car. And if he or she blows us up or kills me at gunpoint, then I will die knowing I did not discriminate against my fellow human being. That, to paraphrase ol' Dubbya, is how we fight terror. Terror wins when we fear the unknown. Terror wins when we let the fear of fear itself prey on our better judgment, to paraphrase another of our former leaders.
But in light of President Trump's recent executive decisions, and in light of Uber's weak response, I cannot allow this post to be tone deaf, to land with a thud on levity or smack of sentimentality. This post cannot be about my quest to seek all sides, about the community Uber has created, not when Uber isn't openly advocating to protect its diverse community.
On Saturday, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance announced that it was implementing a one-hour strike at JFK in protest to the immigration ban. Rather than follow suit, Uber alerted riders that "surge" pricing had been turned off and continued to allow drivers to collect fares. The hashtag #deleteUber began trending on social media and many customers canceled their accounts in response. Meanwhile, Uber's competitor, Lyft, announced that it was donating $1 million to the ACLU. I did not accept any rides on Saturday, mostly because I was attending my five-year-old nephew's birthday party in Nashville. I didn't drive on Sunday either, opting instead to catch up with a friend over, what else, beer and politics. While we talked, I received an email from Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, outlining how Uber is supporting drivers affected by the ban, including the creation of a $3 million legal defense fund to help with immigration and translation services.
Still, I am quite conflicted. Mr. Kalanick has already come under scrutiny for his relationship with President Trump, and he is also meeting with the President on Friday as part of a business advisory council. In my estimation, hypocrisy is one of the world's most damning social ills, alongside dishonesty and disrespect, as a relative of mine says. So am I a hypocrite to accept another dime from Uber?
People tell me I think too much. As if thinking—as opposed to not thinking—has put us in the predicament we are in. People tell me that I can't become obsessed with honesty and with truth. As if honesty and truth—as opposed to dishonesty and lies—has put us in the predicament we are in. People tell me that they appreciate what I'm trying to do, my sincerity, but that to be an open book 365 days a year is an impossibility. As if being sincere and forthright—as opposed to insincere and secretive—has put us in the predicament we are in.
As for my mother, she worries about her only child. My mother worries that I am going to write something on the internet that will follow me for the rest of this life, something that will disadvantage me in whatever career path I choose. She worries I will turn a friend into an enemy. I am only thirty-one, my mother tells me, and that, to her, is so very young. She also reminds me that I can let my unhealthy penchant for competition—to win—cloud my ultimate mission, which is to unite, not segregate. I wonder if that renders me just as polarizing and petulant as President Trump. Although, I wonder if I did the world a favor by choosing words as my ammunition, not hollow-points, by choosing a profession that lends itself to my temperament, when politics clearly do not.
I wish my mother did not have a son like me, a son who has spent his life pushing people away out of fear that he might love them as much as the father he lost. I wish my mother did not have a son who has made an emotional island of himself, and now, a literal island, a man with no spouse or partner, a man with no child. I wish my mother did not have a son who believes that his purpose is to write what is in his heart. My mother raised me to have a big heart, a heart I'd closed. But that heart is open again, that heart my mother taught me to open to everyone, a heart so big that I'm not certain my chest can hold it some days, a heart that some days is so heavy I'd just as soon not have to bear it.
I am conflicted because, in my heart, I truly do not believe President Trump is honoring the governmental processes of our great country. Or that he is showing any regard for the instantaneous and catastrophic impact his simple signature can have on human lives, both at home and abroad. I am conflicted because so many people seem to cast his first week in a positive light, as if he is finally greasing the slow-moving wheels of D.C. bureaucracy, as opposed to undermining the checks and balances of a free nation without its congressional consent. I am conflicted because so many people seem to cast President Trump, the man, in a positive light, in this imperial red glow, in a light that I cannot, perhaps for the first time in my life, even glimpse. I search for the man they tell me he is, somewhere in the light of his eyes, but to me, they are as dark and unforgiving as a piranha's.
I am only an Uber driver, a thirty-one-year-old white man with a Bachelor's in Journalism and a Master's in Creative Writing. I am not an expert on policy or economics or national security. If your main source of news is TheBlaze, then you're only reading this because we're kin or you've known me since I was a kid. If you swear by The Huffington Post, then you probably think I'm just tip-toeing around President Trump. Look, I don't want terrorists in this country, same as I don't want to turn away refugees or immigrants at the door, with no care to where they're headed because we hadn't thought that far ahead. I'd like to have a president who would consider how to approach that statement reasonably, with thought and with care. But that's too reasonable a statement. I don't quench your thirst for outrage, much less TheBlaze's or HuffPo's need for clicks.
Again, there is absolutely no reason to listen to me on matters of politics, nor am I claiming that you should. Even my Uber experiment has been admittedly unscientific, and one could argue that "Uber Nights" has been a self-aggrandizing exercise, when the fact remains that any expertise I might have lies mostly in sports media. At least sports seem to have gained some societal perspective—although I don't imagine any Patriots fans will turn away on Sunday, just because Tom Brady is buddies with the President. Nor am I suggesting that they should.
Which brings us to the real existential crossroads: If you've read a handful of my essays, then you're probably aware of this thing I do, this crutch I have, which is less technical than it is rhetorical, allowing me to feign neutrality while my stance is hiding in plain sight. I pose questions as if they're declarative statements, usually preceded by an "I wonder if" or "I considered whether or not." It's a defense mechanism, in essence, affording me the ability to not exclude points of view, to never be unequivocally on either side, especially not the "wrong" side. It's how you win popularity contests, how you win Prom King and Mr. Roane County High School, as I once did.
It's how you become president—unless, of course, you're Donald J. Trump.
So, here we are. I'm exposed, finally forcing myself to give you a glimpse into my eyes. They are finding it difficult to discern any gray area with our President, any sign that he can adjust his black pupils and the whites of his eyes to compromise or to diplomacy or to peace, not if peace comes at the price of his ego.
Perhaps you're on the side that says an unwavering administration was imperative to law and order, to putting America first again. Perhaps you're on the side that says we've already slid down the slippery slope into tyranny, a nation where the President can rule unilaterally with no consequences to the collateral damage.
It's no secret that I lean left, that I'll always err on the side of the individual over the populace, on the side of negotiation as opposed to aggression. President Trump has not given me any reason to believe he errs on the side of anything but his own whims, whether they aline with his party or not.
Still, our democracy, for now, remains untainted, which is why I remain proud to live where I live, in a country where the gray area can still be seen, although the blues and reds are starting to bleed. You're free to vote for the candidate of your choice, or not to vote. You're free to march, or not to march. You're free to protest, or not to protest. You're free to volunteer, or not to volunteer. Just don't let that freedom become diluted, misconstrued as the right to ignorance, lest you become a detriment to our freedom as I once was, loitering for nearly all of my twenties as an uninformed citizen without a cause.
You're also free to watch the Super Bowl, free even to travel to Houston and watch it in person, should you have the luxury and a green card. (I think.) As for me, I won't be watching it from anywhere, although I'm not going to blame that on Mr. Brady or President Trump. I've seen enough football for a lifetime. As for Uber, I'm not accepting another ride until Mr. Kalanick meets with President Trump on Friday, until I see that he keeps his promise to say something.
In the meantime, I'll give ol' Sen. Lamar Alexander a call or two, and I'll keep plugging away on my next post, "Black Lives Matter, Part 3." I'll get back to volunteering for the Boys & Girls Clubs, and tonight I'm going to Yassin's Falafel House to eat Mediterranean food and support a fundraiser for refugees. I don't have much these days, but I have more than many, both Americans and not.
I've had a lot of practice at being the problem. I became such an expert at being the problem that I couldn't even see that I was it. So I figure it's time I start learning how to be the solution.