I’m getting into the backseat of an Uber in Washington, DC with a cup of coffee in one hand and a tattered, floppy cloth mask in the other. I’ll make a half-assed attempt to mask up! indulging the Democrats’ last gasps of Covid political theater, only on airplanes and in Ubers, and that’s just to avoid the hassle of getting banned if you don’t. My mask — I only own one — is about as snug as a Kleenex with too-wet noodles for straps. It covers my contagion holes for only a few moments at a time when the loose cloth rests on the tip of my nose. The struggle to keep it up for the duration of the journey is my own bit of theater.
“Do you need to switch that mask out?” a flight attendant once asked me.
“Oh, no, I could never do that. This was my great-grandmother’s mask. It’s an heirloom.”
“I’ve got more masks up here if you need one,” a driver once said to me.
“Heavens no! This mask once belonged to Phil Collins,” I told him, taking a deep whiff. “It still smells like him. I can feel it in the air tonight.”
This morning, the driver says, “You don’t have to put that thing on. Enjoy your coffee.”
What a delight. I invite him to join me in the buff and we drive on to Union Station, two reckless strangers breathing in one another’s diseased air, ready to infect the world with selfish, granny-killing smiles. I give the guy an extra tip. When you’re demoralized by blue-city spinelessness, meeting a like-minded citizen really makes your day.
When you travel frequently, you notice local themes in the Uber fleet. While DC is neoliberal through and through, I’ve been lucky in DC with Uber drivers. They tend to have been what the kids call “based.” The Indian driver with a copy of Dinesh D’Souza’s Big Lie proudly displayed in the front seat. Another who said he always looked forward to the crowd leaving the Trump Hotel, “good, nice people,” he called them. A third gushed about picking up members of the Trump administration.
Miami has the worst Uber drivers in America. Consistently slow, dumb, shady and disinterested — don’t be surprised to find a pair of perfectly manicured coke nails extending from the pinkies atop the steering wheel as a bejeweled man rolls up in a Spandex shirt and his clubbing jeans. He moved here twenty years ago from Venezuela but never bothered to learn a word of English: count on your rating to go down if you don’t speak Spanish.
Miami’s Uber fleet is worlds apart from what you’ll find 270 miles northwest in Tampa-St. Petersburg. All three Ubers on a recent trip were driven by ambassadors from Margaritaville. They all wanted to talk about ex-wives, disappointing trips abroad, karaoke, RVs and leaving the rat race for the good life at the beach. Those three boomers in baseball caps and Hawaiian shirts left me thinking Tampa might be the best place on Earth to live.
New York is all class. New York’s entire fleet, it seems, are luxury black sedans and SUVs, impeccably clean with amenities like phone chargers, breath mints and bottles of water. In the rare event a maroon Nissan Sentra or white Kia Whatever rolls up, you wonder if there’s been some sort of mistake. Drivers are professional with a keen understanding that some people really hate chitchat or are simply exhausted. Your New York driver lets you take the lead on small talk, which is how it should always be.
I didn’t know you were allowed to have a shitty car and drive for Uber until I left the city and was agog by what they get away with in other parts of the country. I’m mostly looking at you, Atlanta. The first thing you’ll notice about the Atlanta Ubers is, they appears to be majority female. I couldn’t figure this out — you’ll almost never have a woman in New York — until I realized it was about guns. All those lady drivers are packing. In places that have effectively removed the Second Amendment, like New York, women, understandably, don’t feel safe enough to drive for Uber. Down south, they’re ready to pump a passenger full of lead if they try anything funny. It’s almost like gun restrictions have cut women out of many parts of the gig economy.
Sidearms aren’t the only thing Atlanta’s ladies are hauling. There also a lot of junk in the trunk — literally. Pop the trunk for your luggage at the airport, and don’t be surprised to find a heap of empty water bottles, old gym sneakers and a case of 7 Up. Taking people to the airport is a big part of your job, and you didn’t think to stash the collection of used ashtrays from your trunk first? In Atlanta, you’ll find yourself sharing the back seat with a smattering of fossilized French fries nestled in the floor mats, with Kroger receipts stained by an unknown brown liquid stuffed between the seat cushions.
The journey feels less like you’ve hired a livery service and more like you’re wheeling around with your cousin’s friend Jasmine looking for a spot to pull over and roll a blunt. Once, a woman had her eight-year-old son in the front seat on a midnight ride back from the bars — which I didn’t noticed until halfway through the trip when he yawned. Another driver’s windshield was shattered, the car had no hubcaps, and the doors didn’t open from the inside. The driver was nice enough. Still, his mask barely covered his chin and bottom lip for most of the ride. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave a bad review.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s April 2022 World edition.