Man in the (Rearview) Mirror
I promised myself that I wouldn't start writing this until I was in Atlanta, the past sixteen months as an Uber and Lyft driver in Knoxville, Tennessee, officially behind me. That's two thousand, eight hundred, and thirty-eight trips in the proverbial rearview mirror. I'd hoped to reach three thousand rides before I left, but I've learned that living life in milestones can become an addictive, if not dangerous habit, this penchant for justifying days with a belief that they'll eventually matter, rather than believing each one matters regardless of what it might add up to.
So, I am here now, as promised, in the pit of the Peach State, trying to remember to live day by day, yet overwhelmed by the precipice I am on. I'm sitting in a hotel room across the street from the Braves' old stadium and the long-extinguished torch cauldron from the '96 Olympics. I can't move in to my apartment until tomorrow afternoon, and my furniture won't arrive for another two days. But in the morning, I will begin my first day of graduate student orientation at Georgia State, and then graduate teaching orientation the day after that and then tutoring orientation after that.
It's Aug. 13, a sleepy Sunday afternoon, stick-to-your-back humidity, the kind of day when you'd just as soon relax in the A/C and hum about not having a care in the world, and wish it were true. The scene from my eleventh-floor window is desolate, save for the rush of cars and pickups and semis pedal to the metal along the criss-crossing interstate overpasses. Across the street, the old Braves' stadium rests like a retiree, and the vast stretch of perpendicular white lines that don't have anything between them except bare blacktop yawn with relief. On the other side of the street, directly outside my window, there is a plot of grass dotted brown with dead spots and dirt, likely once a thriving green space expertly manicured for the hundreds of thousands of Olympic spectators who descended on Atlanta—spectators who probably paid hundreds of dollars a night to stay in this very room.
Paved walkways seem to have cut through the small park and a concrete plot appears to have rested in its center, but all the cement has mostly given way to dry grass or has been reduced to gravel. A tow truck is idling in the middle of the corrosion, its front end aimed at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the gleaming new home of the Falcons in the distance, towering above those busy interstates. My undergrad alma mater, the Tennessee Volunteers, will open their football season in that dome on Labor Day, eventually winning in double overtime against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, which happen to share my high school's mascot.
I booked this room through a third-party site and didn't know exactly where I'd be located before I clicked the button. So I guess I shouldn't dismiss the coincidences. Like the fact that a leg of the '96 Olympic torch's route ran through my hometown of Kingston, Tennessee. I can still remember, as an eleven-year-old, my late father pushing through the tiny crowds that lined our blocked-off, two-lane highway, snapping black-and-white photos for a short newspaper article about the locals who carried the flame. Or the fact that Georgia State's football team will call the Braves' old stadium home this season, or that I will begin work on a PhD in Creative Writing at Georgia State this fall, in addition to teaching freshman composition.
I tend to not find much meaning in coincidences, mostly because you can always find them, if you're in the mood to look, to convince yourself that whatever you believe in has put up sign posts, letting you know you're headed in the right direction. But whether complete coincidence or a product of the divine, I can't ignore that this road I'm on has led me to this hotel room in Atlanta on the verge of a third degree and a new career, somewhere between the last thirty-two years of my life and however many more I'm lucky enough to have. I can't ignore the coincidence that my father was born in Georgia in 1926—he was fifty-nine, my mother twenty-nine when I entered the world—and that he spent the first fourteen years of his life in Fairmount, a one-exit town that I passed on my way here, the same exit you take to get to Rome.
As a child, I made a few trips from Kingston to Fairmount with my father and mother, but the only visit I can truly recall was when I was fifteen and had just received my learner's permit, less than a year before my father's sudden death. Unbeknownst to my mother, my father (who was also named LaRue but went by the nickname "Boots") let me drive the whole three hours to see his sister, a widow who took us to eat BLTs at a pharmacy that still had a soda fountain. We ate pecan pie at her apartment afterward. They drank coffee and I had sweet tea while they discussed bygone years, tossing around the names of siblings and parents and grandparents who were gone before I was even a thought. I could sense in the silences and commiserating nods that these were memories the two of them had suppressed, a bespectacled, silver-haired brother and a bespectacled, white-haired sister, both nearing the ends of their final chapters.
My father was one of seven, or maybe eight, I'm not even certain. They're all long dead now, him and his siblings, and I was only able to meet two of them: my aunt and an uncle who'd enlisted near the end of World War II but never returned from the U.K. I shook the man's hand once, the week he flew to the States to see his brother buried. I never saw the man again. The souls of my father's former life don't haunt me, but I do believe they kept my father up nights in his last years. I believe I have some trips to make to Fairmount, some walking around to do, maybe face the demons my father never got around to, somewhere off that road that also, coincidentally, leads to Rome.
When I quit my position as Senior Editor at ESPN sixteen months ago, after seven years of climbing the ladder, a colleague gave me E.B. White's One Man's Meat. It's a collection of essays written by White after he exited New York (as well as his gig at The New Yorker) and moved his wife and son to a farmhouse in Maine. “My decision to pull up stakes was impulsive and irresponsible,” he writes in the preface, with the luxury of nearly half a century of hindsight. He goes on to explain that he wasn’t disenchanted with New York—he loved New York, as the T-shirt says—or with The New Yorker, or with his wife and son. “If I was disenchanted at all,” he writes, “I was probably disenchanted with me.” As White so eloquently puts it, “Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep."
I'm no E.B. White, to be certain, nor did I have a position at ESPN as prestigious as White's was at The New Yorker. Nor did I have a family to uproot and relocate from Bristol, Connecticut, to Knoxville, Tennessee, much less a partner to convince that my nice paycheck was coming at a price too great for me to bear. Yet I do know now what it is to be fully awake, the first and thus far only time in my life when I've been able to look back on that disenchanted young man, as if he is simply a character I've been writing about in a book.
Perhaps that is the ultimate blessing and the ultimate curse of being a writer: to see past the performance of every day living, yet still have to find a way to live; to become keenly aware of what is propelling you through the moments, and to comprehend that each moment's passing is a thing to be accounted for, for it cannot be lived again. That's the pursuit (or should be anyway) of any writer, to turn the inexplicable of existence explicable, or at least to transcend the cliches society has created for us, to think of something a little better than, "You only live once."
But we, as writers, are human too—of course—and the enormity of our own condition also overwhelms us, occasionally to the extent that we, too, have no words other than the ones that cannot do justice to the moment. It is in these moments—like this one in a hotel room in Atlanta—when I reach for the tactile emotion: the mini-cooler on the desk next to me, filled with my mother's mustard-and-celery-seed coleslaw, and my grandmother's potato salad laced with chunks of her homemade pickles, and the catfish my grandfather caught and then cleaned and then dredged in cornmeal before dunking it in sizzling oil.
Inside this cooler are the leftovers from my farewell dinner on a front porch in Tennessee, overlooking a lake called Watts Bar, in a place the locals call Midway, named for its purgatory between the counties Roane and Meigs. My grandmother put the coleslaw in a plastic container that once held sour cream and the potato salad in a plastic container that once held whipped cream, a thrifty woman's Tupperware. The catfish (or what's left after I snuck a few pieces on the drive down) is in a Ziploc baggie, the grease potent enough to soften the edges of the plastic.
My half brother—who was born to a different mother and who is twice my age and who is the only one in my father's first family to graduate college—has told me he's proud of my writing and what I've accomplished. But he worries that I'll be pigeon-holed as a "Southern author" if I keep on writing about potato salad and coleslaw and fried catfish. That's assuming I ever reach an echelon where anyone bothers to saddle me with an aesthetic. I tell him not to worry, though. I tell him if I keep using words like "echelon" and "aesthetic," then it'll be alright. It'll be just fine, I say.
What I haven't said to my mother or to my grandmother or to my grandfather is that inside this mini-cooler is my favorite meal, a meal that I could probably have most any weekend, so long as the catfish are biting. That is, if I'd stick around for awhile, if I didn't have this pang of guilt for growing complacent, for being given a voice and a perspective that I fear will turn stale if I stay on that lake, surrounded by the people who put their love into the food inside these heartbreakingly modest containers.
Where I'm from, that is a conflicting thing to admit, that the containers we are born into can define us but also limit our perspectives, that the outside world can judge us based on how we speak and what we cook and who we believe in, yet we begin to conform to their judgements, and then we begin to judge the outside world just the same. It is a conflicting and nearly condescending thing to admit that I write for the people where I am from, to prove to the outside world that a container does not define a person, nor do words like "echelon" and "aesthetic" mean anything other than I've bothered to open a dictionary and read a few books.
Yet as much as I write for them, I also write to them, the people where I'm from and the person I used to be, having put miles and miles between me and that lake most all of my adult life—in places like Queens, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut, and now Atlanta, places where people tell me I ought not go because of the traffic, where you damn sure don't walk around after dark, places where I ought to maybe think about buying a gun, if I'm going to keep letting strangers in my car.
This isn't the final thing I plan to write about my life as an Uber and Lyft driver, or about life in general, these sometimes fruitful yet oftentimes futile attempts at turning the mundane into meaning, of making heads or tails of all the coincidences. But it does feel like the end of a chapter—like sixteen months and two thousand, eight hundred, and thirty-eight trips that I'll always reminisce in that idyllic tone, in that way of never being able to view the world with precisely the same set of wide-open eyes. At least that's what people tell me, people who have lived longer than I and who ask rhetorically, well, did you do all you wanted to do, did you find whatever it was you were looking for?
I don't have enough distance between the beginning and the end to say for myself, although I do miss staying in bed, not having anyone care whether I ever climb out of it, or if I spend an entire day pouring coffee and then switching to beer while staring at a wall and writing down the occasional thought. I could have gone on that way, I suppose, but if you drink good coffee and good beer, then contemplation can become rather expensive, hence one of the more pragmatic reasons for closing this chapter.
By the time you read this, I will have accepted some government aid and signed a teaching contract for a few thousand dollars above the Federal Poverty Level for a single individual. I will have done it in the name of convincing twenty-five college freshmen that they have a voice and that their words can impact the world. I will have done it in the name of convincing myself that the same applies to me, even at thirty-two years old. I will have put what money I have where my mouth is, so to speak.
I will also have traded my Tennessee license plate for one with black numbers and letters against a stark white background, a Georgia peach hiding there in plain sight. I will have driven Uber Pool and Lyft Line, allowing passengers to split the fare with other riders going in the same direction, rendering the people in my backseat as foreign to each other as they are to me. Uber even allows people to send me to pick up packages and to-go orders, rating me on my skills as a delivery boy.
These amenities were not available in Knoxville, Tennessee, and unlike Knoxville, Atlanta is a metropolis in the truest sense: a city home to the largest airport by number of passengers in the United States; a city where four pro sports teams attract tourists year round; a city where Georgia Tech and Georgia State co-exist within two miles of each other in the heart of downtown; a city where citizens use Uber and Lyft as their primary modes of transportation seven days a week, where a driver earning nearly a thousand bucks in a weekend is not outside the realm of possibility.
But Uber and Lyft will inevitably morph into side gigs, something to do between writing papers and grading them, something to do over holiday breaks that will supplement my modest income. By the time you read this, I will have mostly disappeared again into the formalities of society's structure, into alarm clocks and due dates and office hours spent at a cubicle.
Which is perhaps why I'm most nostalgic for these past sixteen months, a period when Uber and Lyft were as much my social life as a paycheck. I drove people around in the morning and in the middle of the day and well after dark. I bore witness to life's ebb and flow, the tangible parts of our day-to-day that we often aren't privy to inside a cubicle or behind a desk or on our couches, staring at smart phones or laptops or flat screens. I counseled passengers nervous about new jobs and leaving old ones; I commiserated with riders ending relationships and en route to first dates; I discussed life's minutiae as if the trivial were as valuable as a twenty-dollar tip.
For sixteen months, I went out to meet the world—flew to Ireland and to Italy, drove from Knoxville to San Francisco and back, said farewell to New York a couple of times—uncertain of how it might receive me. I found myself welcomed and humbled by people who owed me nothing, people I might never cross paths with again, people I will never forget. I cherish their stories and their kindnesses as though I am the only container they were ever afforded, the only vessel through which the world might appreciate their perspectives, or even have a chance to hear them.
That is a grandiose statement, perhaps bordering on self-aggrandizement, this idea that my words could ever bring anyone together. Yet how can I stand before twenty-five college freshmen and convince them that their words can impact the world, if I don't believe the same about every word that has been entrusted to me?
As is often the case when this blank page gets the better of me, I'm sitting in a coffee shop. It's located on the bottom floor of a downtown Atlanta high-rise that used to belong to a bank, but now houses some of Georgia State's academic departments. My cube is on the 22nd floor, although only one student has visited me thus far. I assume it has everything to do with them not having any grades yet, and nothing to do with me. I'm also settled into my one-bedroom apartment east of the city, that night in the hotel room seeming like a lifetime ago, instead of a month. I've been told teaching can do that to a person, cause the calendar to flip faster while the world around you seems to be standing still.
It's a sunny Friday morning, and the Braves play the Miami Marlins tonight. There's a beer festival going on, too, in a gentrifying neighborhood near downtown. The evening should be profitable behind the wheel. Plus Hurricane Irma is bearing down on the Southeastern coastline, which has brought hundreds of thousands of evacuees north. Relaxing in this coffee shop, sun spilling in through four glass walls, my thoughts are on those people already displaced. My thoughts are on those in Texas, a daunting recovery from Harvey ahead. My thoughts are on some definitive lesson to be gained after driving around nearly three thousand strangers.
A quote by the late author and professor E.L. Doctorow is up on my laptop screen: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." I'm not much on inspirational quotes or devotionals, same as coincidences, but I return to this line during almost every essay or story I write. And for whatever reason, coffee shops clear the fog a bit for me, remind me that people do laugh and don't spend their days drinking coffee and staring at walls alone, that the world is not as dark as it can seem while I'm traveling this road behind my eyes.
But even surrounded by the care-free conversations and the sunshine, all I can see through the fog on this Friday morning is a woman and her son, two people who got in my car on a chilly February night six months ago, two people who will never be far from my mind. I picked them up at Wal-Mart, and the mother and son filled my trunk with groceries. She'd just cashed her first paycheck since starting behind the register at a truck stop and travel center.
She sat in the back, the boy up front. "He'll get sick on them curvy roads," the mother said, although I hadn't asked for an explanation. They'd only been in Knoxville a couple of weeks, having escaped Charleston, South Carolina, for reasons that were never revealed to me. She said they were living with her brother until she could cash a few more checks. The woman told me her brother had been kind of enough to let them stay on his couch, that her and the boy were sleeping in shifts, him during the day while she worked, her at night.
"I gotta get that boy in school, though," she said.
The boy did not speak. He stared out the windshield, clutching a nerf gun that his mother had bought him in Wal-Mart. He wore glasses and an indifferent expression. He was dark-headed, like his mother, neither of them dressed in particularly distinguishable manners—jeans and T-shirts and thin jackets and what we call tennis shoes in the South, even though not many of us take up tennis. But the boy seemed older than the nerf gun implied, maybe thirteen or fourteen. Something in the way he occasionally winced, as if he comprehended the gravity of their situation in a way his mother couldn't afford.
They were simply down on their luck, so I was careful not to pry or ask any questions that might be inconsiderate to their situation. We could speculate as to why, you and I, same as passing a homeless person on the street or on the side of an interstate exit ramp. We could speculate about whether the mother deserved a break, or deserved affordable health care, or deserved some government aid. Some might say at least she was behind a register. Some might even admire her more for walking those curvy backroads to work, this Lyft ride courtesy of her brother's account. But we could also judge the woman for putting her son in this predicament, sleepless nights and a stunted education. We could do a lot of things from where we sit.
I wanted to engage the boy by asking what his interests were, how he stayed busy all night while his mother snored. But she chimed in: "He plays them games on my phone," she said. "I can barely keep up with all the data that boy needs." The boy just wore his expression and clutched his gun.
"I sure am hungry," the woman said then. "You hungry?" she asked the boy. "Too late for anything open," she said without letting her son answer.
"Always Taco Bell," I said.
"Now that sounds awful good," she said. "I ain't had nothin all day, and we can't bust in my brother's bangin around in the kitchen. His wife's gotta get up early. Hell, it's already near midnight."
"I can take you," I said.
"Awww, never mind," she said. "Sweet of ya, but I'm runnin up my brother's bill anyhow. And him already put out with us on his couch."
"I'll turn the meter off," I said.
"Would you do that?" the woman said. "I'll get ya something off that dollar menu. A couple of those cheesy roll-ups or whatever."
I went through the empty Taco Bell drive-thru, and the woman announced the order through the back window. The boy nodded at a chicken quesadilla being alright. His mother ordered two for him and two for her, and two cheesy roll-ups for me, despite my insistence that I wasn't hungry.
Both of them ripped open the wrappers immediately and began eating. She'd left the window down and the smell of grease and burnt cheese swirled in the car. The mother didn't say another word, and I wondered if the boy perhaps was mute, if I had insulted him by asking a question he couldn't answer. I tend to be annoyed by the smacking of lips and swallowing, chewing with mouths open, a hyper-awareness of mine. But I didn't mind this. I was glad to hear the hunger subside.
When we reached the address, the mother directed me toward a dirt path, which was muddy from an earlier shower. It snaked around a one-story house that was visible from the road to a double-wide situated at the bottom of an embankment. A front-porch light was on, a metal folding chair out front, along with a couple of feral cats that scurried for cover upon hearing my engine.
We all three opened our doors, and I popped the trunk, and we began unloading the groceries onto the concrete slab where the metal chair rested. The plastic bags were stuffed full of frozen dinners and snack cakes and potato chips. There were cases of Mellow Yellow and Dr. Pepper and Coke. The mother had bought an air mattress.
"Can't blow that up tonight," she said. "Wake the whole damn house up."
A man busted through the screen front door. He was dark-headed too, with a scraggly black beard, in dirt-stained blue jeans and boots and a red-and-black checkered flannel coat, like I imagine lumber jacks wear during winter. He was on crutches, although he seemed to maneuver the cinder block steps rather well. We could assume he was abusing worksmans comp, I guess, but we could assume a lot from where we sit.
"Why the hell did you bring him all the way?" he growled, half-walking, half-hobbling. "You know'd damn well he's gonna get stuck, Sheila, wake up my damn landlord up yonder."
"I can get out," I said. "I'm a professional." The man didn't bite at my joke or acknowledge me.
"Sorry, Mikey," Sheila said. "We couldn't cart the groceries from up that hill no how."
"I'm bout over this shit," he said. A woman yelled something inaudible from inside the trailer. "Hell, you done gone and woke her up too," he said.
Mikey crutched up the cinder block steps and surveyed the scene, me and the boy now a tandem, unloading groceries as if we were soldiers before a drill sergeant.
"I get back out here, this mess better be inside and put up," Mikey said and slammed the screen behind him.
I hustled for the last couple of cartons of Dr. Pepper. The boy and I reached for them, touching hands. "I got 'em," he said. "Better get on." I jerked away. He didn't glance up, just stuck his fingers into the creases in the cartons and hoisted them out.
"Sure do appreciate you," Shelia said. She patted her son on the back, and they began the assembly line up the cinder block steps. I shut the trunk and waved goodbye, but they were too busy to return the gesture. I got in and reversed enough to position my car for an angled shot, determined not to spin out or backslide.
I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Mikey's disheveled head emerge, barking orders as Shelia and her son carried in the groceries. Mikey had the nerf gun now, waving it as though the boy might have to accomplish some act of menial labor to earn it.
What I wanted to do then was slide back down that muddy path and ask the mother and son if they'd like to go with me, just load up everything and we'd figure out something. My grandmother could cook for them, a real meal, and we could send them home with leftovers. I had a sleeper sofa. I had some books that the boy might like to read. I could even teach him how, if he didn't already know.
I had enough fight in me then to conquer whatever burdens they came with. I had enough fight in me then to save them all, even though people who know such things tell me I can't.
I looked in the rearview mirror, and I wondered what I will always wonder: Why them and not me.