The Uber Diaries

by Kyle Minor
Essay originally published in New Ohio Review Issue 24
Featured Art: Evacuation by Corran Brownlee


Indianapolis, Indiana. Somewhere near Keystone Avenue and 62nd Street my iPhone pings. A college student from Hyderabad, India. He is pleased when I tell him he’s my first customer. He tips me two dollars.

*

I pick up my second customer in front of a bar in Broad Ripple. He gets in the front seat. His hair is grown to thigh length, and he is on some kind of party drug that makes him want to touch things.

“Please stop rubbing my arm,” I say. He apologizes.

Near Rocky Ripple, he takes off his shoes and socks and rubs his bare feet on the windshield.

His feet leave little rabbit marks. He is a large man with very tiny feet. When I drop him off at the donut shop, he doesn’t leave a tip.

*

Dusk, a half-mile from the bars on Massachusetts Avenue, stuck behind a long train. The man is silent, but the woman is chatty.

“What made you become a ride-share driver?” she says. “Money,” I say.

“Do you have a day job?” she says. “I teach, but not in the summer.”

“You need to learn to manage your money better,” the man says. Now he talks. “I bet you think about that a lot, driving people around in your car.”

The train cars keep coming. No caboose in sight. “Why didn’t you save your money?” the man says. “It’s a long story,” I say.

“We’ve got time.”

I tell him everything. The book I wrote. The big promises from the movie people in California last summer. The Nazi submarines off the coast of Alabama. The long commutes. The office on the studio lot where they used to shoot Gilligan’s Island and Seinfeld. The famous producer who stood me up in Silver Lake. The famous producer who stood me up in Ojai. The propaganda documentary for the Hillary Clinton campaign. The dust-up about Meryl Streep. The elderly lady in Iowa. The nights I slept on the floor of the abandoned fitness center in Encino. The place with the saltwater pool in Santa Clarita. The flophouse in Santa Ana. The credit cards. The check that never arrived.

“You know what?” the man says. “It sounds like you’re lying.” Mercifully, the final cars of the train. Mercifully, the caboose.

“You know what?” the man says. “You’re a terrible liar.”

*

The pings come slowly between nine and ten-thirty, but at eleven o’clock the heat map turns colors, and every fare comes with a multiplier. 1.3x, 1.7x, 2x. Surge Time. In the money time.

Two quick rides, nice drunks. The neighborhood bar to the house around the corner. Then a car full of teenagers complaining about love. Two married lovers holding hands, calling the babysitter on the cell phone.

Then trouble.

Four people, two men, two women, on Guilford Road, standing outside a giant white concrete hair comb that pulls double duty as club logo and security barrier. The guy who gets in first says thanks for picking us up, but the guy who gets in second comes in yelling: “Let’s get the show on the road, you asshole.”

He must think it is funny to call me “you asshole,” because he keeps saying it. None of the other people laugh. He asks the other couple how often they have sex. “You’re husband and wife,” he says. “Three times a day, three times a week, three times a month?”

The other guy keeps saying, “Shut up, man.” I look in the rearview mirror. The woman sitting beside him has fallen asleep. “We got to get her home,” the other guy says. There is an argument about how to get her home. She lives a half-hour north, in Carmel, but everyone else wants to drink some more a few blocks south, near 54th Street.

They’re still arguing when we reach the bar. The woman wakes up. “I’ll pay you cash to take her home,” her husband says. At that moment she makes an ungodly noise. “Oh, god, don’t throw up in the car,” the mean guy says. She vomits all over the seat, all over the floor. Wet flecks of white land on my arm and the dash. The car smells like alcohol and fish tacos, plus the requisite stomach acid.

“What’s the cleaning fee?” the mean guy says.

I say two hundred dollars, but I don’t know. It’s my first night. “Make it right,” the other guy says, “make it right.”

“What if I give you one hundred and we call it even,” the mean guy says. “It’s not even my wife, it’s his, see how nice I am?” He’s standing over me, using his larger body to intimidate me the way my dad sometimes used to do. “Here.” He shoves a wad of cash into my pocket.

Okay, I say, but it’s not okay. There’s anger in the air, the parking lot is mostly empty, it’s dark, and I am afraid.

At home, after blotting the puke, sprinkling the baking soda, shampooing the carpet, scrubbing the stain with liquid cleanser and a toothbrush, I remember to check my pocket, count the cash. Twenty-five dollars.

At the convenience store I buy some air freshener and spray it around and head back to the bar district. What else is there to do? I’ve already lost an hour-and-a-half of Surge Time.

*

The next afternoon, a gated apartment complex off 78th Street, and the gate will not open. I call the rider. “I can’t give you the code,” she says. I ask if she can walk toward the gate and open it. “Wait for another car to open it,” she says, “then follow them in.”

A little later, a guy in an apartment complex. “Do you like chess?” he says. “I just played six games of chess and lost every game.” I ask him what he does for a living. “I have a degree in urban planning,” he says, “but right now I’m doing IT for a used car lot.” I ask if he’s happy. “No,” he says. “I want to make cities.” A couple days later a morning ping. Butler University campus, next to the Hinkle Fieldhouse where the basketball miracles happen. A 27-year-old woman on her way to the airport. She’s headed for Georgia to pick up her technology and design MFA at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “You’re early,” she’s saying. “You’re hustling. I like that.” I ask her what’s next. Is she looking for a job in Indianapolis or Georgia?

“Oh, I already have a job,” she says. “A San Francisco tech company. I had other offers. They had to fight for me. A great CEO. Already he’s my buddy, my friend. Stock options that vest in five years. I own my IP. Do you know IP? It stands for intellectual property. A lot of people my age haven’t made such smart choices as I have. They don’t have a brand. I have a brand. I own my own products. That’s why I have so much leverage with my new company.”

A soft rain begins to fall.

“I hate this weather,” she says. “Donald Trump is the cause of climate change, you know it? I mean, not really, but it’s fun to blame him for everything. He’s terrible. What a clusterfuck. I mean, I’m a Republican but we need universal health care. But it’s not fair to be shitty to rich people. I plan to be rich people. You see those Asian kids, they’re driving those $90,000 cars? You probably think they don’t deserve it. But here’s what people forget. Wherever there’s money, there’s someone, somewhere in the past, who busted his ass to get it. Someone in the family. People forget that. That’s the American dream, right? I mean, I’m black, I get it, but most people don’t get it. It’s there. You just have to go get it. You have to go out there and take it.”

At the airport she takes my shoulders in her hands and tells me again: You have to go out there and take it.

*

Sometimes when I get home from driving, at night or after daylight, I feel wound up, adrenalized, like I used to feel after I played a rock show with my college band. Several dark corners of the Internet offer a robust community of drivers sharing advice, complaints, tips for maximizing my money. I read the message boards. I subscribe to the usual YouTube channels. Rideshare Harry, Uber Man, Nashville Lyftzone with D.J. Rockwell.

It is not hard to fall down the rabbit hole of violent videos. The taxi drivers in Johannesburg, South Africa, setting the Uber cars on fire. The inebriated medical doctor in Miami who swings at her driver, smashes his iPhone, and breaks his rearview mirror, because he won’t give her a ride. The racist NYPD traffic cop who berates the immigrant driver and punches his car for honking at the unmarked police car that parallel parked without using a blinker. The Uber SUV that goes airborne, jumps over a curb, barrels through a parking lot, crashes through a gas pump at a Shell station in Seattle, sets off an explosion.

The message board drivers are full of conspiracy theories. They say Uber has secret spy software. Everything has a codename. The “Godview” program can see into your car at any time. The “Hell” program tracks drivers on competitor platforms like Lyft. The “Grayball” program routes drivers away from local police.

A consensus is hardening about best practices. Don’t chase the Surge. Let the Surge come to you. Run two rideshare apps at all times, and don’t be afraid to game them to get the highest fares, because that’s what the customers do. There’s more money in a five-minute wait-and-cancel than a ride down the street. Ignore all pings more than four minutes away. The app will penalize you for cancellations but not for ignoring pings. If you get called to a grocery store, cancel. They’ll make you carry the groceries up four flights of stairs and they’ll never tip. The money’s in the distance, not the fare time. If someone asks you to go through the drive-thru, say no, unless it’s a slow time, then ask them to buy you some food to compensate for your lost distance. If you don’t like someone’s face, if you feel fear, drive away, leave them at the curb. Rideshare is a free market, supply and demand, and if you don’t take advantage of the customer, the customer will take advantage of you. Grab all the control you can, then let go the illusion you have any control. The app is an oracle. It predicts and determines your future.

*

I pick up Brian at the Pony, a strip club on Lafayette, the West Side. He seems to be about my age. A big guy. He wears a suit. He looks like a bank vice president. He reeks of alcohol. When I arrive, he opens the rear passenger door, throws his body down on my back seat, curls his feet up, begins snoring. I walk around to the other side of the car and close the door. I follow the app’s directions to the address he’s requested. He sleeps all the way to Zionsville, a twenty-minute drive. His house is palatial. When I pull into his driveway and stop the car, he wakes up, sits up, says thank you, opens his garage door, goes inside.

I look in the back seat to see what kind of mess he’s made, but all I find is a five-dollar bill he’s tucked partway between the seat cushions.

*

At midnight I’m thinking three things:

I need to find a safe bathroom, badly.

This time two years ago, I was finishing a thirty-city book tour.

There is a Barry Hannah story titled “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet.”

*

Another ping to the Pony. This time a woman in a black skirt. She says she’s not a dancer, she’s a stripper. She said another stripper showed her a funny thing on Twitter. She has a screenshot on her phone. She reads it to me:

“If you get a lap dance, remember: there’s a thin layer of flesh and cartilage between you and a gyrating skeleton full of turds.”

*

Night turns again to day, and I’m still driving. I pick up Marlon on 17th Street. He’s going to work. He is a supervisor. “I make chicken sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches,” he says. “Anything you get at a gas station. Those are my sandwiches.”

He says his mom is an Uber driver in Chicago. She makes $1,400 a week, more than double what I’m making. “You should talk to my mom,” he says. He gives me her phone number. “I love my mom,” he says. “I work in the cold. I’m so glad she doesn’t work in the cold. I work in the freezer. I have to wear this jacket all the time, even when it’s eighty degrees outside. I smell so bad sometimes. Can you smell me right now? I made this German chocolate cake. It only took a little while. There’s a birthday girl at work.”

I tell him about a bad thing that happened to me a few weeks ago. I was driving around at night, not working, listening to a Rachel Maddow podcast, when somebody I don’t see shoots at my car. One through the back seat, one in the door. A Glock 9mm, the policeman said. Five hundred dollars to fix the damage. I feel lucky to be alive.

Marlon says he’s so sorry. “You can’t trust people anymore,” he says. “My sister got shot at, in Wisconsin. Nine bullets. Her kids in the car. She was just sitting in the driveway and this face just popped up. Bang bang bang bang bang. Nine bullets in her body, point blank. None of them hit any of her vital organs. Can you believe it? It’s a miracle. She survived.”

We get to the entrance to the factory, and there is a line of taxis and Ubers outside the gate, letting people out so they can go to work. “Nobody has a car?” I say. “Oh, I see,” Marlon says. “You’re from a world where everyone has a car.”

*

In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey is “Rider Zero” on an “autonomous trip,” the first Uber passenger in one of the sixteen self-driving Volvo SUVs cruising the streets of Tempe. They’ve tried it in Pittsburgh, too, but San Francisco shut the program down after one of the cars ran a red light.

I hear this news while I’m pumping 87 octane at the gas station. There’s a television screen set into the metal above the pump.

*

A lot of drunks lately.

Two in the morning, I pick up Luis outside a late-night bar downtown. He cries in the backseat all the way home.

I pick up Patrice at a dance club near the stadium. She slurs her words. “I majored in animal science,” she says. “I know people who majored in accounting, law. You know about these people? They teach them a secret language so they can take from other people. They hurt other people. That’s their job.”

I pick up Natalie at the same club an hour later. “Will you drive me through Taco Bell?” she says. “I’ll buy you anything you want.” I’m hungry. I say yes. In her driveway we share eleven soft tacos, two burritos, and two Mountain Dew Baja Blast Freezes.

Such a sad night. Rain. The smell of alcohol coming out of mouths and pores.

The smell of sadness. Rain and the smell of sadness.

I pick up Jeannine from a nightclub in Fountain Square. She asks me my favorite actress. “Sarah Paulson or maybe Maggie Gyllenhaal,” I say. She asks me what I think about the Washington Redskins. “Good team, poorly named,” I say. “Good answer,” she says. “Did you go to college? You seem like someone who should have gone to college.”

There is a particular pickled smell that rises from the skin of certain drinkers and lingers after they leave the car. I wonder if that smell has ever been on me. I vow to never drink again.

*

A passenger turns the radio to a Christian rock station. A woman sings: One day you’re born, the next day you’re dead.

*

Six in the morning. 56th Street. It’s dark. I see a flashlight coming out from the house. A white man and a black woman. He says, “Hi, I’m Russell. This is my girlfriend, Wanda. Take good care of her, please.”

Wanda is wearing a pink robe. She gets in the car. “On my way to chemo,” she says. “Hang on.” She lights up a cigarette. Usually I don’t let people smoke in the car, but she is a cancer patient.

She opens her purse, and the whole car smells immediately of marijuana. “Sorry about that,” she says. “CBD shrinks the tumor.” She hands me eighteen weed-smelling dollars. “Just turn off the meter,” she says. “It’s on Russell’s account, and I don’t want him to have to pay every time I get chemo.”

She pulls off her pink hoodie, then she pulls off the skullcap underneath it. Her head is bald. “Will you look at me for a minute?” she says. “I used to be so pretty. I wish you could’ve seen me. You would’ve loved me.”

*

Outside a cowboy bar, I pick up a man in a cowboy hat. We ride in silence.

Somewhere near Speedway, he says, “You know what you should do? You should get a picture of a sick child and put it on your dashboard and tell people it’s your own son sick with leukemia so you can get the big tips. People would feel so bad for you.”

On 17th Street, near the fast-food place where the Indy 500 drivers got robbed at gunpoint, I pick up a home care nurse who weighs nearly four hundred pounds. She is sweating and panting. I open the front door, but she wants to sit in the back. “Move this seat up,” she says. I ask if she wants me to adjust the air. “No,” she says. She rolls the window down. “I’ll do it this way, myself. I have to do it this way. I have my seasons.”

At the airport, I wait in the taxi lot for my number to be called from the Uber queue. In the car next to me, I see another driver, a woman who looks to be in her late sixties or early seventies. Her seat is reclined and she’s napping. The windows are going a little foggy. I see her phone is pinging, but she isn’t answering. As best I can tell she is breathing.

When her phone stops pinging, mine starts. I’ve stolen her ride. It’s a salesman in the steel fabrication business, flying in from Pittsburgh. He tells me about Chinese freighters, axle-welding robots, repurposed beams from skyscrapers. He asks how long I plan to keep driving, and I say September.

“Do you like movies?” he says. “Westerns?” I say I do.

“You know how they end? The good ones? You’ve got a bunch of guys sitting around on horseback, and into the frame drives the Stanley steamer. Or you’ve got a bunch of cowboys firing their rifles and someone wheels in a Gatling gun. That’s what’s about to happen to you. Have you heard about these self-driving cars?”

*

August begins but then it seems August will never end. I feel full up with the trouble of other people, but just when I make my peace with it, there’s more.

Around one in the morning, I get a ping from a high school kid at Papa John’s. He says he’s been slinging pizzas since five o’clock. He says they were real backed up. A two-hour wait for delivery right now. I ask him why he didn’t drive delivery. “First,” he says, “I don’t have a car. Second, my friend had a car, but he took it to a bad neighborhood and these guys stole it and burned it to the ground. Papa John’s doesn’t pay for that shit. You got to pay for your own car. Every time I think about that, I think: I hope he had insurance.”

I pick up a heavily tattooed guy outside of Kilroy’s in Broad Ripple. He is upset and mumbling. He keeps texting a woman. He says, “My girlfriend left me tonight at the bar. She was a stripper. I don’t care that she goes on dates with other guys. Everyone has to make a living. The problem is: Are you religious? This girl, she’s religious. This is what we always fight about. I hate it when she’s religious. I’m judgmental about it. I’m hardly judgmental about anything, but I have to be judgmental about this. That shit isn’t real! I’ve been arrested three times because of this girl. I went to jail one time already because of this girl. Hang on, she’s texting me.”

Kilroy’s again. A woman named Kelsey. She has a guy with her. They get in the backseat. In a full voice, he tells her he thinks the driver is creepy and weird. They start making out. I hear his pants unzip. I’m not sure if she’s giving him a blowjob, but I can tell that her cheek is at the very least resting against a part of the seat from which I’ve more than once sopped up vomit. When we reach their destination, she spits on the ground outside the car. Already they’ve started fighting about something. I hear their voices yelling as I drive away.

The Red Room, Broad Ripple. When I get there, a cop waves me over. He points to a woman slumped in a chair. “Can you get her to her door?” he says. I ask what’s wrong. “She’s near incoherent, she’s very inebriated, and she wants to drive her car.” He puts her in the back seat. She says, “I need to get my keys. Take me to get my keys.” I roll down the window and ask the cop what I should do. He leans into the car and raises his voice at her. “Listen clearly,” he says. “Understand me. If you get out of the car, you’re going to jail. Do you understand?” Yes, she says. We drive. A block from the Red Room, she says, “I know where my car keys are. They’re in my car, and the door is unlocked. Take me there.” I tell her she can either get out of the car or let me take her home. We’re in the only safe place for miles. She argues, then decides to get out. As she slams the door, she says, “You’re the worst.”

The Red Room again. Tommy. He’s sitting in the back of a pickup truck with another big guy. “Let me finish this beer,” he says. He slams it, throws it in a trash can, gets in the car. “Can you take me to the store? I need to buy cigarettes. I’ll buy you something. What do you want?” A Coke, I say. On the way to the store, he tells me he’s from Los Angeles. He was a firefighter. A smoke jumper. “You gave that up?” I say. He says he dropped out of a helicopter, and the rope broke when he was fifty feet from the ground. “I dropped straight down into the fire and broke my knee.”

At the convenience store, he gets his cigarettes and I get my Coke and we take them to the front counter. He pats his shirt pocket, his pants pockets, his back pocket. “Aw, man,” he says. “I forgot my debit card.”

*

It’s so late. I want to sleep. It’s almost morning. I buy the Coke, and I buy him the cigarettes, and I take him to his apartment, but it’s not what I want. I want a brand. I want to make cities. I want to know the secret language so I can take from other people. I have to go out there and take it. I’m a terrible liar. I need to learn to manage my money better. I’ll eat what you buy me. I obey the oracle. I clean the vomit. I’ll do it this way, myself. I have to do it this way. One day I’m born, the next day I’m dead. I have my seasons.

I used to be so pretty. I wish you could’ve seen me. You would’ve loved me.


Kyle Minor is the author of Praying Drunk, winner of the 2015 Story Prize Spotlight Award. His work appears in Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Iowa Review, Story, and the New York Times Book Review. 


Corran Brownlee spent his early years in Calgary, Canada before moving to London where he immersed himself in the British film industry as a storyboard artist and illustrator. After thirteen years in London and a year in New York working as a senior creative for a visual effects company, Corran returned to Calgary, where he now lives and works. His work continues to harbor the aesthetic he developed in London, stripped back images in black and white, haunting snapshots of untold narratives. Throughout his career he has explored different mediums including film, mixed media, and is now focusing primarily on charcoal. Corran’s work is part of private and corporate collections in Europe, the United States, and Canada.

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