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.

The Women at the Country Club

The Women at the Country Club

I haven't driven for Uber since Monday night. I still await word on the investigation into sexual harassment, or an acknowledgement that action has been taken.

Last Thursday around midnight, I got a ride request from "Buffy." That isn't the woman's real name, of course, but I choose it in keeping with the upper-class stereotype of her real name. I pulled into the circle drive of a country club to find Buffy and two other fifty-something women wobbling aimlessly on the sidewalk. They were tipsy, I could tell, mostly by the wobbling and the giggling, but also by the way they made a show of merely getting into my car.

"We need to see your Uber credentials," one of the women said in a low, serious tone, mimicking a police officer. She was up front with me and had yet to shut the door, leaving the overhead light on. She squinted at me, and I squinted back. "You look like my teenage son!" she shouted, closing the door. We were illuminated by the fluorescent blues and greens off the dash.

"Why he's barely old enough to drive!" Buffy squealed, which morphed into a high-pitched guffaw from behind me. The other two women joined in. A chorus of ha ha has filled my car.

It shouldn't bother me that I look young, that I often feel like a thirty-one-year old trapped inside a twenty-five-year-old exterior. (More like twenty-two on days when I actually shave.) But it does bother me. I think the insecurity stems from having spent my life searching for approval from adults, being that I lost my father at fifteen, my ultimate source of approval. There is also a perceived stigma—especially below the Mason-Dixon and in small-town U.S.A.—that comes with being unmarried and childless post-thirty, as though those are necessary rites of passage into proper adulthood. I've spent much of my adult life with a chip on my shoulder, constantly fighting to earn my seat at the table, to have my opinions heard and my ideas respected, a respect that tends to only come with either titles on your resume or a ring on your finger and credit card debt. Yet now that I actually have the former and have avoided the latter, I'm still sized up on first glance as a college kid driving people around for beer money.

I don't necessarily mind the jokes, if said within context or over the course of a ride. But to open the conversation with a judgment based solely on my appearance, no matter how innocuous, doesn't create much of a rapport with me. It's really no different than me blurting out, "God, you're fat!," the minute we meet. Although society has taught us otherwise.

So, admittedly, if I were to describe for you those two women and Buffy, my images would be clouded unfairly with negative connotation. Those women might as well have been wearing pearl earrings and toting Chanel handbags to match their Louboutins. Maybe they were. But I didn't particularly care to give them anymore thought than they had me. They were ostensibly upper-class, as well as being older and women, and I was ostensibly middle-class, as well as being younger and a man. And we were all as white as their collars. That was about all the nuance any of us had cared to consider.

When I read their destination aloud to confirm, Buffy interrupted: "No, no, no. Three stops. I'm last." 

"All right," I said. "Does anyone want to give me the address?"

"Just turn left, honey," the woman up front said, patting my shoulder. "We'll tell you how to get there."

"Could I at least get the name of the road?" I asked, not in the mood for passenger-seat driving. After a beat, once she'd registered my slight irritation, the woman whose teenage son I resemble gave me the name of her road. "I know it," I said. I'd dropped a gas station attendant at that road earlier, after his shift had ended at 10. I was surprised, having seen the gas station attendant's modest, one-story rancher, that this woman and her pearls resided on the same street. 

"Ladies, let's keep the night alive," Buffy swooned with Southern gentility. "We should have this boy take us to that place. The one the cute bartender at the club told us about."

Buffy was the tipsiest, and the two other women recalled the name of the bar right away. It was on the complete opposite side of town, and the two women quickly dismissed the idea, reminding Buffy that their night should've ended an hour ago. 

"It would've been fun, though, wouldn't it?" Buffy said. "I bet this young man has been there. Haven't you, son?"

"I drop a lot of people off there," I said.

"Think we'd fit in?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," I said.

"Are you saying we're too old?" Buffy playfully retorted.

"I'm saying it tends to be a gay crowd on Thursday nights," I said. "Are you gay?"

"Oh, goodness gracious," Buffy said. "We're not gay. You're not gay, are you? You don't sound gay?"

"How does gay sound?"

Buffy burst out a ha ha ha, but the other women didn't join in. 

"I've had more men tell me I'm cute than women," I said. "Maybe the Lord's giving me a hint."

"Oh, goodness," Buffy said. "You're a hoot."

"I try," I said.

"So what's your name again?" Buffy asked.

"LaRue," I said.

"You're pulling our legs," Buffy snorted and tapped my shoulder from the backseat. "You just made that up."

"No. No I didn't."

"Who would name their child LaRue?" Buffy chirped. 

I let the question settle into the silence that followed it. I took a left onto the road where the woman in the front seat lived. There was eventually a fork. She was headed in the opposite direction of the gas station attendant's house, up a steep, curvy hill, which overlooked the less expensive neighborhood. 

I continued to climb, and when I rounded a curve near the top, I saw a concrete wall lit by a spotlight, a neighborhood moniker etched into the stone. It's long been a stereotypical signifier to me, a sort-of DO NOT ENTER sign for those who can't afford multi-story homes and in-ground pools and enough vehicles to fill a three-car garage. To enter is to separate yourself, but also to surround yourself with those who can also afford multi-story homes and in-ground pools and three-car garages and a neighborhood with a made-up name. 

That's a gross generalization that I must unlearn, a stereotype that I've begun to overcome as I've dropped off more and more people in neighborhoods like this, where one multi-story brick house is nearly impossible to discern from the next—other than the meticulousness of the landscaping and cost of the mailbox. But why should I not say what's on my mind, in this era of saying what's really on our minds? In this era of speech being free to everyone? Why should I reserve my assumptions when Buffy doesn't offer me the same unassuming courtesy? When she asks her questions out of disbelief rather than curiosity?

This detour into my internal dialogue might seem petty to you, a privileged white guy whining over trumped-up slights. Yet where do we draw the line between harmless assumption and prejudice? What is it in our humanity that causes us to balk when our stereotypes aren't reinforced? 

And just like people questioning my age, questioning my lack of a wife and a child, I've grown exhausted with the fascination over my name, a fascination that people chalk up to uniqueness, yet I contend the fascination is predicated on the very fact that most white men from small-town Tennessee aren't named anything unique. I've grown exhausted with people saying, "That's really your name, like, your real name?," as if I concocted an alternate identity to be an Uber driver. I've become so exhausted with the whole song and dance that I didn't have the energy to give Buffy the benefit of the doubt.

"That's just offensive," I said finally. "You know you're implying that my parents made some kind of mistake in picking my name?"

Buffy fumbled: "What? No, no, no. Not at all. That's not us at all. We would never mean to insult you."

I was pulling into the driveway of the woman up front, who was side-eyeing me, seemingly glad to be getting out of the car at this juncture. Her house was two stories and brick and had a two-car garage, not three. I put the car in park, and we idled, the woman up front hesitant to move before there was a resolution.

"But who's heard of a name like that?" Buffy asked. "What'd you expect? For Heaven's sake, my name's Buffy!"

"And what does that prove?" I asked. "That's like saying I should've gone ahead and asked how the bridge and snifter of brandy was back at the country club. Or how many rounds of golf you got in."

"Well, you're not far off!" Buffy said and ha ha ha-ed.

I turned to the woman up front. She put her hand on my shoulder and patted it, as she might do to her own teenage son, the one who looks like me. I knew I had two more stops to make with these two women, and I knew that they were fine with living up to a stereotype, especially one that comes with privilege. Stereotypes are funny that way. They can feel as soft and comforting as a mink coat, but also as bullet proof as a flak jacket, when they come with multi-story houses and in-ground pools and three-car garages and snifters of Remy Martin. 

I wondered then if I even had a battle worth fighting for, seeing as how my only complaints were growing up in a one-story house with an above-ground pool that collapsed and no garage at all. How do you explain the slippery slope of stereotypes and assumptions based on sight and name alone when the consequences in your world of white privilege are relatively minor?

I did what many people who suffer actual prejudice do: I waved the white flag and regretted that I'd even attempted to fight any sort of good fight, if what I was fighting was even good at all.   

Buffy and the woman in the backseat pleaded, "Let's just start all over. We're sorry. Let's just start again. We didn't know you'd be so sensitive."

***

Satisfied that we'd reconciled sufficiently, the woman up front said goodbye to her friends and told them she'd call in the morning. They would have to figure out how to retrieve the cars they'd left at the country club.

As I headed out of the neighborhood and back down the steep, curvy hill, the woman next to Buffy asked, "So what's your story, honey? Start at the beginning."

We only had eight minutes or so, along winding roads through well-to-do neighborhoods. I told them I'd been named after my father. I told them he'd been given a nickname at a very young age: "Boots," which had stuck, so much so that it became his only name in Kingston, the small town where he'd started a newspaper and where I was raised. I told them about graduating from the University of Tennessee and leaving for New York City, about ESPN and about leaving a steady paycheck to pursue my own writing, to travel, to figure out how I'd let eight years pass without addressing a nameless pain and lingering sadness that had festered.  

"Are you an only child?" Buffy asked. "You sound like an only child."

I didn't ask what an only child sounds like. I calmly told Buffy that my family dynamic was as unique as my name, that my biological father was fifty-nine when I was born and that I have half-siblings from my father's first marriage, siblings that are twice my age.

"Oh, goodness," Buffy said. "How odd."

The other woman must've been sobering up, or had finally recognized the tension that rose and fell with each of my exchanges with Buffy. "Is your father still alive?" she chimed in. 

I told the story I've already told on this site, about my father tripping on the sidewalk and smacking his head on the concrete. How his seventy-four-year old brain hemorrhaged and he went into a coma, passing away a week later.

"I'm so sorry to hear that," Buffy said, without qualification.

"So what about you two—what's your story?" I asked in my most up-beat tone, the awkwardness starting to dissipate.

"Oh, my!" Buffy exclaimed. "Goodness." I heard her pat the hand of the other woman. "We're just not that interesting."

"Everybody's got a story," I said. "There's happiness and sadness and hope in it all."

"You don't know sadness," the other woman said in a faraway voice. I glanced up in the rearview and could see the flash of her almond eyes in the haze of moon. She was a brunette, slender face, the slight wrinkles belying the smoothness of her youth. Her statement was unsettlingly bold, her voice so steady that I wasn't even sure if she was speaking to me or to Buffy, as though the "you" were royal, as if she were telling the world.

"I lost my father at fifteen," I said. "I'm not sure I can say I feel sad so much as disappointed. I would've liked to know him as an adult. You know?"

"I do know," the woman said, snapping out of her trance. "I lost my mother at twenty-one, cancer." 

It was the quietest Buffy had been, as if she were being reverent to our losses. Or perhaps Buffy was protecting herself, unwilling to let her own losses escape into my car, where she'd have to relive them, letting bad memories prey on her like shadows in the dark. 

"You never know who you might've been," I said. "You can't trace the what ifs, cause there's no end. I wonder sometimes if I would've even left Tennessee."

"You're right," the other woman said. "What a parent means is indefinable, until they're gone. And still you don't know what might've been."

I maneuvered passed another concrete headstone with a made-up neighborhood name etched into it. The woman lived atop a steep driveway, and she pleaded that I not go to the trouble of climbing it, that she didn't mind walking up so I wouldn't have to deal with the hassle of backing down. Before I could insist, Buffy interjected: "If I can get an SUV down this thing, then he can get this tiny car back down." I revved the engine and sped up the paved carport (three-car garage) and the other woman opened the door, thanking me for the conversation and the ride. 

With the interior lights on, I glanced back to see the other woman hand Buffy a to-go coffee cup with a black lid. "This is almost full!" Buffy said. "You are a lightweight!" They'd been sipping on some kind of alcohol, passing it back and forth, whether Remy Martin or high-dollar wine, I didn't bother to ask. The woman was petite, wearing a thin, black long-sleeve sweater with white denim jeans. She still had a figure, hips a smidge wider than her waist. 

I also stole a glimpse of Buffy before the other woman closed the door: long wispy hair, graying with black roots. She was wearing a loose-fitting navy blouse, denim jeans that weren't nearly as skinny as her friend's.

The woman shut the door, and Buffy lurched forward and waved, her fingers wagging beside my head. "She's such a beautiful woman," Buffy said as I inched down the driveway in reverse. "She's a widow, like me."

***

Buffy slurped the unknown liquid from the to-go cup. I didn't know how to approach the revelation other than to say, "I hate you lost your husband," as we twisted through more backroads to another concrete sign lit by a spotlight. 

"Old age," Buffy said. "Just old age."

"Still, I'm sorry," I said. "What about your friend?"

"He was a good man," she said, "active in the community." Buffy told me he'd been the "right-hand man" to the owner of a popular chain of restaurants. 

"If you don't mind me asking," I said, "how'd he die?"

Buffy hiccuped. She slurped. "By his own hand," she said.

We rode for a few minutes without making a sound. I did not know this sadness. I did not know if this woman's husband had taken his own life last year or last week. I did not know if these women were each other's only comfort, a trio of widows who were left with large life insurance payouts and big, empty houses. I know loneliness, but I did not know this kind of loss. 

"Money troubles," Buffy said, unprompted. She took a slurp.

"I thought you said he was the right-hand man?"

"He had his own vices," Buffy said.

I didn't pry anymore.

"Her daughter is married to a good young man. A lawyer. They have a little girl, and they just found out they're expecting another." I could sense Buffy's smile, even if I couldn't see it. "He would be so happy."

I did not know this happiness, either, the sharing of a life, the creating of new ones. There was an optimism in Buffy that I now admired, and I wondered if the suffering through, no matter the number of cars in your garage, is the rite of passage. I wondered if the years accumulated afforded you too many snifters of brandy and a few rushed judgments, or if fifty-plus years on Earth should be even more reason to be open-minded, having seen all you've seen.

"Her other daughter's a lesbian," Buffy blurted out. "He wouldn't know what to think if he were here: two grandkids and a gay daughter!" Buffy ha ha ha-ed and patted her own knee. "He'd love 'em all to pieces. He would."

***

Some nights, I drive for the purity of the task—the concentration needed to hold a conversation and maneuver the road; the hand-eye-foot coordination necessary to operate an automobile; and the storytelling, some stories that only the passenger and I may ever hear in exactly the same way.

Some nights, I just enjoy being in the company of others, the visceral connection that a digital community cannot replicate. And on some nights, like this one, I fear I'm cheapening the purity of the thing by even writing this story, by possibly breaking the trust of people who tell me things in assumed confidence, never the wiser that I might relate our moment in time to the world.

Within humanity, there is an innate trust that I'd still like to believe in, one that reminds us of our commonality, an unassuming nature that reinforces Alexander Pope: "to err is human." But on nights like tonight, when I am overcome with a want to tell you a story, it is because I must make sense of the corrosion that occurs inside us with the passage of time. It is this breaking down of our trust between one another that corrodes the benefit of the doubt.

I am writing to you with hesitancy, because inside this story lie the ugliness and the beauty of us. Inside this story lies a version of truth, unfiltered, no cameras or recorders, yet a version of truth that I am only relaying to the best of my recollection. Inside these words exist the lives of people you will likely never meet, nor will I ever meet again. I don't take these lives lightly, and I can't ignore that Buffy would probably have never said what she said to me if not for the liquid in the cup. And certainly not if she were told her words would be written for people to read. Would any of us?

Some nights, I feel guilty for even writing these words, on nights when I can't make sense of any of them, only the fact of them. And I have to admit to you that Buffy's house was the biggest of the three women, a circle drive all its own, two stories and a garage for three cars. It was a house bigger than I've ever lived in or probably ever will. But what does that matter, truly, when both of our houses sit empty, our loneliness not equated to any square footage or dollar amount?

Buffy must've dozed off into a cat nap, because I didn't hear any movement when I shifted to park. "We're here," I said. There was rustling and fishing through her purse. A twenty-dollar bill appeared next to me on the console.

"Too much," I said, sliding it back.

"I want to," Buffy said, "all those stops you had to make."

"Thank you," I said. "I appreciate it."

Buffy took her cup and her purse and shut the door. She didn't say goodbye, the lifted spirits from what was in her cup likely fading away. We were all alone now, in our respective places—me and Buffy and Buffy's two friends.

I stretched the twenty taut and remembered how my mother would give me one in high school, how I'd stretch it into lunch money and a few McDonald's value meals over the course of a week. I was back there, stretching a twenty, while Buffy and her friends tossed them around. Although I figure they'd probably spend a lot of twenties to get their old lives back, to hear the sound of a welcome voice in those big, empty houses.

Nerds Need Love Too

Nerds Need Love Too

One year, 1,716 rides, and now, a crossroads

One year, 1,716 rides, and now, a crossroads