The first time I took an Uber, I tried to get into the wrong car.
I was in Arlington, Va., and after a midnight soak in a friend’s rooftop hot tub on a freezing February night, I had to get back to my budget hotel in D.C. My friend sent me a code for a free Uber ride, but I was apprehensive. Could I trust the Uber driver to not kidnap, kill, cut me into tiny pieces and/or stuff me into his trunk? That apprehensiveness grew when when I tried to open the door of a car that was parked in front of my friend’s apartment.
The door was locked. I knocked on the window.
“Uber?” I asked, waving my phone. The confused driver stared at me, and then shook his head.
I tried to ignore the fact that I had essentially turned a stereotype on its head–instead of a large black man trying to rob a small white woman, I was the small white woman who appeared to be jacking a large black man’s car–and I called my Uber driver.
“You’re parked around the corner?”
I got back to my hotel in one piece.
Two days later, I almost missed my flight back to Kansas City.
I sat in the back of an Uber, waiting as we stood still in traffic for five full minutes.
“Is it always this bad in D.C. on a Friday evening?” I asked my driver.
“Oh, that’s the President’s motorcade driving past,” he said.
Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.
By the time I visited Atlanta a month later for a computer-assisted reporting conference, I was an Uber convert. An Uber proselytizer, really. I was sharing a cheap hotel room with three other grad students, and we were shamelessly cutting costs at every corner.
“We can share the cost of one Uber ride, which’ll be $3 each,” I told them. So, we took Uber everywhere.
We probably had ten drivers total. Not one of them was white, and two of them were women.
I asked one of the women how she started working for Uber.
“Well, I came to Atlanta to help out my daughter,” she said. “She’s thirty, but she acts like she’s sixteen years old or something. She burned through all her money. So I moved from Alabama to help her out.”
“Do you like Atlanta?” I asked.
The woman laughed. “Nope, not really.”
“Do you like Atlanta?” was a question I asked often, and more often than not, the Uber drivers said yes.
I soon learned that several of these drivers had recently moved to Atlanta from other states in the South–Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana.
Our first morning in Atlanta, our driver could not sing the city’s praises enough. “I moved here two years ago, and I love it,” he said. “Ladies, you would love it too. You’re just what Atlanta needs–four, young, smart, pretty single ladies out on the town!”
He wore a metallic patterned shirt, and his energy at 7 a.m. was more effective as a strong cup of coffee.
“Is that your real eye color, or are you wearing contacts?” he asked me.
“I mean, I’m wearing contacts, but they’re not colored…”
“Well, girl, you have got beautiful eyes.”
Funny, the most romantic thing ever said to me was by a gay Uber driver.
He loved that we were new to Atlanta, and he loved pointing everything out. “And that’s the Hard Rock Cafe,” he said, his voice authoritative, as if we couldn’t read the giant neon sign that read: “Hard Rock Cafe.”
“That’s a trolley car–they’re just testing it out. See that man in the yellow vest? That’s a cop. They’re everywhere, but they’re friendly. They’re here so tourists will feel safe and come back,” he said. “Homeless people might ask you for money, but if you say no, they won’t harass you. It’s because they know the cops don’t mess around. Oh! See that other guy in yellow? Another cop.”
One of our Uber drivers, it turned out, was a retired cop and Atlanta native.
I couldn’t help myself.
“I’m a journalist from Missouri, and I’ve been covering some stuff about Ferguson and its aftermath,” I said. “What do you think about the police department here in Atlanta? Do you see similar issues?”
“It’s not as bad here. In this city, a lot of the cops are black. A lot of the people are black,” he said. “I tell you what, and this is just my opinion, but I truly believe it. If the racial makeup of police forces reflected the racial makeup of their cities, we wouldn’t be having these problems.”
On our final morning in Atlanta, our last Uber driver had another solution to my questions about Ferguson and race (oops–we’ll blame it on the reporter in me; nobody’s perfect).
“I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. We need rules and regulations, but we need family values too. You know what would solve the world’s problems? If parents taught their kids compassion!” he said.
“But how does that translate to legislation?” I asked.
“Those lawmakers need to legislate compassion!” the driver said, half-laughing, half-serious. “Nothing is just Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. It should go deeper than that. My political philosophy, I get that from Star Wars. Yoda said, ‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes.'”
Hear that, world? Only a Sith deals in absolutes.