An Uber driver looks back after six years and 6,000 miles on the road
By Tim Bennett
“You are sooo handsome! How many hearts have you broken?”
I turned to look at the zealous 80-year-old lady in my backseat in shock and with a complete loss for words. I had just stopped at the entrance of a local hospital to pick up my riders for Uber — apparently a middle-aged daughter and her mother.
Going on 72 (or at any age), I have never considered myself irresistible to the opposite sex — and with my teeth and hair deserting me and a growing paunch, even less so.
Yet, somehow, I had caught this older lady’s fancy. (Was she on strong medication?) Her daughter had just helped her in the car and was going around to the other passenger door when she erupted with this sudden effusion of flattery. I was tempted to say, “Oh, probably thousands” to play along, but held my tongue. I didn’t want to sound conceited with my new status as most attractive male Uber driver in Central New York. The funny thing about it was, once her daughter got in the car, she returned to normal. In fact, the conversation was so normal on the way to their house, I had to shake my head in disbelief after I dropped them off. Did that lady really say that, or was I just imagining it?
As you can see, being an Uber driver gives you a rare opportunity to meet all kinds of people. But let me give you a little back story on how I became an Uber driver. I had been working as a market researcher since 2006 when Uber came to town in 2017. Unfortunately, during that time, the market research industry had dried up considerably. In fact, market researchers like myself had dwindled to 10 people in our company when in 2006 there had been more than 100 people “smiling and dialing.”
Over the years, the public was obviously less enthused about doing surveys of any kind and it was taking longer and longer to get people to answer questions on the phone. As a result, I began dreading going to work — even after taking early Social Security and working only three days a week. I thought maybe a two-week vacation would renew my motivation. It didn’t.
Enter Uber on the Syracuse stage. A woman at work said she was driving for Uber and loving it. I saw it as my ticket out of tedium and convinced my wife it was a valid alternative to making money. Plus, I could choose my own hours and nobody was looking over my shoulder. Another benefit was if my wife and I wanted to visit our adult children’s families on a weekend or go to a grandchild’s sporting event during the week, I could just work other days.
In terms of a job, nothing could be easier. The Uber app tells you where to go with a map and a voice. OK, sometimes the voice gets on your nerves, but you can always turn it off. I can listen to audio books or music as I drive. I get to go to places I’ve never been before and meet people from all walks of life. I’ve met a helicopter pilot trainer, a Special Forces commander, a judge, a hockey player, students from around the world, professional baseball players, a pro bowler, a voice coach for Broadway musicals, a crypto coin enthusiast and a comic book creator, among many others.
You might wonder if being an Uber driver is dangerous. After driving for six years with more than 6,000 trips under my belt, there was really only one that fell into that category. It started with a call from a local bar. A text message from a woman revealed that things could get “strange.”
At the bar, two couples got into my car — the two women in back with one of the guys and one guy in front. They were probably in their early 40s. Apparently, the two men — normally friends according to one of the women — were upset with one another. One had hit the other below the belt in the bar and now the offended party (in the back) wanted to fight him once they got out of the car. They yelled obscenities at each other right from the get-go. I tried to distract them by offering to play their favorite type of music on Sirius radio. “Country” a woman said. I switched it on. The cursing and vulgarity continued.
Finally, I said, “Excuse me, guys. Could we tone down all the obscenities?” The women immediately voiced their agreement: “Yeah!”
The more belligerent guy in the back seat became calm and asked a random question, “Did you have a rough life or something?”
I figured I’d be honest. “Well, I think everyone has some rough times now and then.” To which he said nothing for a few minutes and then resumed his vulgarities with renewed gusto. The guy in front, however, was apologetic whenever he slipped, but his “friend” remained unremorseful.
I was relieved when we pulled up to a middle class-type home in the suburbs. The woman in the rear passenger seat got out and the man next to her started to slide out when he stopped and said, “You know, you really shouldn’t be an Uber driver. In fact, why don’t you get out of the f**king car right now, you p**sy. Let’s fight!”
His wife, in the meantime, was pushing hard on his cheek with her hand to discourage more talking. But he couldn’t help himself. He spouted, “Get the hell outa here!” as he exited my vehicle.
My last view of the four of them was standing side by side in the light of my low beams.
My only positive takeaway from the ride was, maybe he no longer wanted to fight his friend, having vented all his anger at me. I notified Uber of the incident. The woman, whose credit card was used for the ride, selected the Uber tag, “Night time hero” to describe me.
Fortunately, the percentage of riders like that are infinitesimal. Some of my funnier ones include the call I got from the commercial mall, Destiny USA.
As I drove up to the food court entrance, I saw a group of four young Asian students from Syracuse University. One was carrying a huge mattress. In my mind I am thinking, Lord, no, please. There’s no way that thing is going to fit in my Kia Forte with four people! Sure enough, they were my passengers.
At first I complained and urged them to get a larger vehicle, but the young man with the mattress countered my reservations with, “It’s OK. It’s OK. I’ll just fold it and put it on our laps!” And that’s what he did. One student took the front seat and the three others held the mattress on their laps. I couldn’t see them but I thought, Well, at least they’ll be well-protected if we have an accident!
Another time a young African-American woman got into my car with her 5-year-old son. I sometimes offer candy or mints to my riders so when we reached their destination I asked the lady if I could give a piece of candy to her son. She politely said, “Thank you, but no.” This, of course, put the boy into a foul mood. When I turned to wish them a good day, he stared at my mouth and said bluntly, “What happened to your teeth?” His mom was clearly embarrassed by his remark, so I quickly turned it into a show-and-tell lesson that supported her views: “Well, my boy. That’s what happens when you eat too much candy. You lose some teeth. So, listen to your mom and make sure you brush every day.”
Probably my favorite trip was with a young South Korean-American woman I picked up at the Syracuse International Airport. Her flight had been delayed and she had waited at the airport for two hours before learning her flight was cancelled. She, therefore, had to return to Cornell University the next day.
During our conversation I got to share how my life had changed as a young person when I had put my faith in God. When I dropped her off she thanked me for my sharing and said she felt I was a godsend because she had been grappling with her family Christian beliefs in college. She strongly believed it wasn’t an accident I had turned out to be her driver. When she got out of the car, she smiled and then spontaneously gave me a hug. Of course, I was then thankful that she was thankful so I did what any writer would do, I gave her one of my books, my young adults’ novel, “Runaways.”
Pros of Driving for Uber
1. You make your own schedule, even drop out for months and still be on the books.
2. You meet interesting people.
3. You can write off the mileage you use while on the Uber app (not just when riders are in the car).
4. You are motivated to keep your car clean.
5. On good days you can make $30 an hour or more.
Cons of Driving for Uber
1. Uber sometimes jerks you around by changing the incentives week to week.
2. On bad days you only make $20 an hour or less.
3. If you have problems it can take time to resolve them because there is no middle management. The “Help” call center is in the Philippines.
4. You do not get personal affirmation for doing a good job.
5. The Uber umbrella car insurance policy has a deductible of $2,500 if accident is not covered by your own insurance.
Tim Bennett is an award-winning author who lives in Syracuse. His articles have appeared in a wide variety of magazines and newspapers. His books include: “To Uber or Not to Uber,” “Runaways,” “With a Grain of Salt,” “Salt for the Supper Table,” and “My Life Zero to Sixty” (co-written by Terry Bish).