A few weeks ago I visited Los Angeles from London. I wanted to see my brother’s new house, visit with friends and consider whether it would be possible to move back to the US and settle in LA. So I set up some meetings, approached the task with my usual type-A frenzy and came back thinking more about the strangers I met rather than the friends and family I saw. Specifically, the time I spent with Uber drivers (from wheels down at LAX on a Wednesday afternoon to dinnertime on Friday, 14 trips to be exact).
In this sprawling city of villages without a subway to piece it all together decisions to meet up are predicated on where you are located. There can’t be too many cities where even jobs are won or lost based on whether you live in Atwater Village, Calabasas, the Valley or Orange County.
But with Uber at my disposal I said ‘yes’ to everyone. I knew I’d make good use of my time, but what I didn’t expect is what this cohort of residents would tell me about the city.
Of the 14 drivers I had four were women, seven Hispanic, four African American, one Eastern European, one Chilean via Miami, one White. Most were mid-career, two were students. Most had other jobs. And while none of my drivers shared anything overly personal, illegal or scandalous, I will still keep personal identifiers light and use their first initial to protect privacy.
Chatting with your cab or Uber driver can go without notice during the buzz of one’s day, but having done it so many times over such a short amount of time I realized what an amazing opportunity it was to listen, to share and come back understanding more about a place than what I learned from family and friends.
LAX –> Thurman Ave
‘Where are you in from,’ said a smiling, happy B to tired squinting, me, ‘welcome to LA!’
B was my first driver as I left LAX and headed to see an old friend at her workplace.
While friends these days seem to avoid the discussion of politics like the plague, B wouldn’t be the first of my drivers to happily dive in with strong, but respectful, thoughts on how Washington has let him down.
B talked about his embarrassment at how the world must see us right now, his fear of the hate he sees around him, a bit about his family and his plans for the Summer.
He drives for Uber just when he needs it. Fares have previously afforded him a nice vacation and now he needs to replace a window.
As we pulled into the small office where I was to be dropped off in a seemingly non-descript area just off the freeway he talked with breathless enthusiasm about the historic and gilded past of this little corner of town. “So and so and so and so used to live right here,” he said.
In LA you are never far from the stars.
Larchmont Village –> Sherman Oaks
End of day one and I made my way home to my brother’s house with a driver named D.
After sharing a few thoughts about what it means to live outside of the US and what I appreciate most about the country from afar, D began to tell me his story.
Originally from a country on the Balkan peninsula, D was once a successful forensic accountant. Like many Uber drivers (and cab drivers) who have emigrated to a new country, D was unable to practice the specialty he trained at and was qualified to do at home. And, in fact, it was even more serious than this, as D was in America seeking political asylum. In addition to his home and well-paid profession, D left behind a wife and young child.
With much sorrow in explaining bits and pieces of his situation he talked about how confusing it is to be in a land of opportunity where few realize how lucky they are. He told me of a fare he picked up around a local university and how the rider was fuming, literally spitting fire, because his favorite Starbucks drink was now 30 cents more expensive.
In this land of opportunity, this land of plenty, more than ever there seems to be those who feel entitled to more. Immune from war, from famine, from the heart-wrenching scenes of migrants washing up on the shore of your city, or in fact being that migrant looking for a better life, the Americas Got Talent, YouTube generation expects zero inflation on their sugary, frothy Starbucks drink.
UCLA –> Santa Monica
R was my favorite driver. When he heard I lived in London he told me how his partner was there now. She was sight-seeing before flying to Kenya to check out beans for a coffee shop they wanted to open.
When I heard R had seven children, with just the last one finally leaving home, I asked him how he successfully raised such a large brood, steering them toward happy, healthy lives (and away from the trouble and temptations on the doorstep of all kids who grow up in big cities).
He said it was simple, he listened to them. He didn’t judge his kids but gave his opinion. He would say ‘I don’t think this is the right friend for you, but I’ll respect your decision to hang out with them and I’ll be here when it goes wrong’ He also talked about simple lessons such as the importance of building a good credit history. He was present, thoughtful in his feedback and ready to just listen to what his children wanted to say.
The next day was Saturday and a regular occurrence he often looked forward to — grandpa day. R would take his four granddaughters jumping, running, playing, ice cream eating and deliver them back to their parents exhausted and happy.
Santa Monica –> Culver City
G was a self-professed lover of words. He was particularly fascinated by how words are used these days to talk about politics, race and the world affairs reflecting more about inequality in their complexion and subtlety.
Nuances in word choice, such as racism versus prejudice, was something that particularly interested G. As I wondered why we talk about inequality in terms of skin color rather than socio-economic status, G said that it was because it is an inconvenient narrative, in his opinion.
For instance, lower class white Americans are the ones, G said, who ‘show up’ these days for wealthy politicians. The ‘Trump army’ of followers that we see on the news are often put in a different bucket than those at the same socio-economic level who are of a different skin color. Or at least that’s what it seems. This is the narrative that unsettles the wordsmith in G.
Calabasas –> Malibu
A pretty morning drive through the Santa Monica mountains is probably a good story to close with. My driver A was that group of reluctant Uber driver that the company has driven (no pun intended), somewhat unwillingly, into this new era of transportation.
A had a successful limo company. But he couldn’t compete with Uber. So if you can’t beat them, join them, right? Although it was obvious that this drained all enthusiasm out of A for his work. He was a business owner and now he is a driver. He seemed tired and resigned to this change in circumstances.
That said, he had his priorities in order, while I bemoaned the cloudy, rainy weather that I was hoping to escape in coming from London. He said ‘tough luck’ the trees need the rain, the grass, the flowers and mountains need the rain and they don’t care about my holiday.
Well said, A.
And this is where I came back feeling that Uber may be missing a trick in building a brand with more soul and less controversy.
While the service has unchained us from limitations of travel, such as taking on the expanse of a city like Los Angeles, more cheaply and easily that before, we’ve lost sight that it’s a business based on human capital (for now at least…before cars drive themselves). There are so many stories to be told and maybe recognizing this would make the next #deleteuber less likely.