Backseat Driver: Experiencing Seattle Through Uber

Published on October 24, 2015 by   ·   No Comments

Living in North Dakota, it’s easy to take for granted the process of getting from point A to point B.  I can get from my house to pretty much anywhere in Grand Forks in about 10 minutes or less.  Maybe 15 if the lights are against me, which they usually are.  But in my day to day life, I don’t have to think too much about the impact of travel on my plans. The last couple of weeks I’ve been working in Seattle, and I am suddenly much more aware.  I’ve also had my first experiences with Uber, and let me tell you: I. Am. Fascinated.  In reality, it’s not that much different, from a user perspective, than getting a cab; but climbing into the back of someone’s Prius is somehow a bit more intimate than just hopping into a generic yellow cab.  Especially when they try to craft a sort of “experience” for you.  I decided to create a little post about some of my weird and wonderful experiences exploring Seattle with the help of my new TFF: Transportation Friends Forever!

The Guy Who Wasn’t From Uber:

Taxi cab signBefore I fired up my Uber app, I did take a single cab ride: when I arrived at the airport, I took one to my hotel downtown.  The cabbie was an older gentleman, a Sihk with a majestic white turban and a fluffy gray beard that I was dying to touch (yes, I know how fucking inappropriate that is, but the heart wants what it wants).  He greeted me warmly, placed my luggage in the trunk, and set off for the city.

The ride was terrifying.  This mild-mannered fellow had the soul of a speed demon.  The speed limit posted was 60; the lowest I saw the speedometer get to was 67, and any time it got below 70 he made his displeasure known.  He was far too classy for outright profanity, but he made exasperated little chuffing sounds under his breath while darting back and forth between lanes.  My terror was compounded by the fact that when I had gotten in and attempted to fasten the seatbelt, the locking mechanism was clearly broken: it would make the locking sound, only to pop open a few seconds later. As much as technology scares me, that cab ride scared me even more; I was ready to give in and discover what all the “cool kids” were doing.

The Seattle PR Guy:

SeattleThere must be a system: the first time you take Uber, they send you a guy who is going to talk up how wonderful everything is in Seattle.  The weather (even though it’s rainy season, it’s been unseasonably warm and mostly dry), the “friendly” people (we’ll talk about the fabled “Seattle freeze later – just know it’s a thing), the amazing food, and some fabled creatures known as Hawks of the Sea (which I can only imagine are like Capricorn, the Sea Goat, but with a hawk head instead of goat horns and a doomed maiden dangling from its terrible beak).  Truthfully, I ‘ve had a couple of this guy, but the first one was the most enthusiastic.  He was lanky and kind of cute, but way too outdoorsy in his worn flannel and patched jeans.  The impressive looking bike mounted to the front of his SUV made me think he came by the patches honestly, and it wasn’t part of some hipster uniform.  Although if the guy was cute enough I could listen for a minute or two without getting bored, I was generally detached from the sales pitch and found this guy a little too talkative for my own liking.  I picked up the tourist guide, sir; I don’t need to pay you to tell me how fabulous it is.  The one thing that seemed to work to get them to stop the hard sell was any sort of perceived criticism of their fair city.  So please, just drive and don’t even think about taking Boren all the way down.  It’s a mess!

The Beautiful Guy:

There have been some cute guys around, a few that I might even call hot, but this guy was on another level.  He was Middle Eastern with caramel skin that almost glowed in the sunrise on my morning commute.  He had those stupid thick eyelashes that some boys get, oblivious to the fact that some of us spend good money to make our lashes half as long, half as voluminous.  And his lips.  They were that perfectly sinful balance of firmness and lush excess, like strawberries in the hours before they slip into over-ripeness.  He was playing some ridiculously sexy saxophone music; I awkwardly turned on my Firefly app to capture the title.  It was a song called “Butter” by Boney James and right then it was all I could do to resist leaning up into the front seat and licking the side of his neck.  He should have been modeling obnoxiously chic and expensive clothing or lounging in a trendy nightspot I’d never be able to gain entry to, instead of carting strangers around in a pretentious hybrid.  But then I’d never have seen him, and I wouldn’t have had all of those deliciously dirty thoughts to condense down into the last few sentences…

Rino 911:

I’ve chosen not to use most of the actual names of my drivers, but with Rino I just couldn’t resist.  When his name popped up on the screen, I immediately thought of Reno 911 and had a little laugh.  Turns out it was closer to the truth than I expected (or wanted).  First, he got lost coming to pick me up.  I was standing in the parking lot of Taco Time, directly below a very large, very light sign reading, “Taco Time.”  The address I entered was for Taco Time.  After driving by a couple of times, he finally called to tell me he was in the parking lot between Starbucks and “Time Taco.”  I immediately forgave any annoyance that was emerging; there was something about hearing him say “time taco” that made me giggle; I had images of Donna Noble going through the drive-through for a natural soft taco (my favorite menu item). Once I was finally ensconced in his backseat, the 911 portion began.  I’d had some experience with Uber drivers who dart in and out of traffic, changing lanes with barely a thought; Rino was not afraid to switch lanes and directions and plans, but he had the particularly terrifying habit of making bad decisions very slowly: he would veer about a quarter of the way into another lane, then slow way down, look behind him, and make a hesitant “uhhhhhh” sound under his breath.  On more than one occasion, the view behind included a Seattle city bus.  On the front seat beside him, Rino had a copy of Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now.  I’m not religious, but that ride was enough to make me send up a couple of prayers that Osteen’s toothy, saccharine smile wouldn’t be the last thing I saw before my best life ended.

Rino 911 – The Sequel:

Six days was about how long it took me to recover from my ride with Rino; it was about six days later when his timid little face showed up on my Uber screen once again.  I almost cancelled the ride, but then I thought about Time Taco and giggled to myself until he arrived.  He didn’t get lost of his way to me, but he decided to turn into my hotel’s parking garage, not realizing that they have a pay gate at the other end.  When he got to the crossbar, he kept pushing the call button, receiving no answer, and asking me, “I can get out here, right?”  I thought, “Why the hell are you asking me?  I’m staying in a hotel!  And I clearly don’t have a rental car here, because I keep having Uber call YOU to haul my ass around!”  Finally a parking attendant took pity on us and let him through without paying.  On the way to the restaurant, he kept asking me for directions.  I just repeated the address and the name, giving him non-committal shrugs as his eyes met mine in the rearview mirror.

The “Can I Just Drop You Here?” Guy:

This was most of them, actually.  Apparently for some Uber drivers, anything within a two block radius of your actual destination is close enough.

The Conservative Talk Radio Guy:

Uber 08When I got into the back of his car and heard Lars Larson blasting out of his car stereo, I figured I was in for an unpleasant ride.  He was prattling on about the evils of gun control and how the godless liberals were coming to steal all of your guns and your rights and your morality, or whatever propagandist bullshit he was peddling that day.  The school shooting in Oregon had happened the day before, so I know that was the seed of his rant, but the “finer points” got swept away in my annoyance at the content and the volume.  The man in front never acknowledged me beyond asking me to confirm my name to make sure he had the right fare, and as he was listening his head bobbed up and down in small, confirming nods whenever Lars made a point the driver was particularly agreeable.  When I got out at my hotel, I jumped out as quickly as I could, slamming the door behind me.  I waited for the ride summary to pop up so I could leave him a 4-star rating (having worked so long in Customer Service, I still have a hard time being totally brutal on satisfaction surveys) and the following comment: I could do without the gross conservative talk radio played way too loudly.  I called you because I needed a ride, not your fascist propaganda. A little dramatic maybe.  And as the customer, I certainly had the right to express my dissatisfaction at the service I received.  But I also started to feel unsettled about the whole situation.  The intimate, more personal nature of Uber was muddying my thinking.  I wouldn’t have second-guessed that feedback if it had been a more traditional taxi service, or the radio on a public bus.  But this was a guy who invited me into his personal vehicle, and I started to feel some of that famous Midwestern politeness guilt for speaking my mind.  After all, I was the privileged white guy getting picked up and driven around by mostly non-white people who probably needed the work more than I needed to complain about this driver’s choice of personal entertainment.  And then I would get angry for feeling so apologetic, knowing that if there hadn’t been a specific news story driving the conversation toward gun control and violence, the topic of conversation could have just as easily been disparaging to me, my community, my relationship.  Even if it was the most unpleasant ride of my trip, it was also the ride that gave me the most to wrestle with.

The “Experience” Guy:

FlowersIn the last three weeks using Uber, I’ve awkwardly hoisted myself out of the backseats of more Priuses than an ecologically-minded hooker, and most of them have been pretty interchangeable experiences, but only one tried to make me feel like a lady.  Some of the situations have been interesting or the personalities of the drivers have been odd or quirky or worthy of remark, but those are just human oddities; there was only one guy I encountered who was diligently working to create an “experience.”  When I opened the door, the first thing I saw was flowers: a rather large bouquet of colorful silk flowers, not high quality but decidedly cheerful.  The seats had small red cushions to sit on and soft red fabric bows draped on the backrest.  As I climbed in, I saw that in addition to the bottles of water and Diet Coke offered by many of the drivers, there were also thank you cards binder clipped to the seat pockets.  On the back of the passenger seat, directly in my line of site were two quotes, printed out and neatly taped to the leather: one from Eddie Vedder about the power of music and another by Georgia O’Keefe (mis-credited as George) about the beauty of flowers.  As I closed the door he welcomed me warmly and with a flourish he hit the play button on the car stereo; the interior was instantly flooded with AM Gold smoothness.  That’s when I noticed that there was also a little piece of paper taped between the two quotes with a track list.  This guy was good.  It was a little hokey, a little rough around the edges, but the effort was humble and sweet.

The Ladies:

In my entire time here, I’ve only had two female drivers.  Both admitted to me within the first two minutes that they were brand new Uber drivers.  J, the first one, seemed a little scattered but laughed a lot and told me about her last job working reception at a hair salon.  She shared little funny stories without being gossipy or mean-spirited; things must have ended well when she left there, or else she’s one of those relentlessly cheerful people who insists on focusing only on the good side of any situation.  P was a little bit older with beautiful gray-streaked skinny dreads; she told me all about how she had just gotten back from visiting her 1-year-old grandson.  We talked about good places to eat around the city.  Both of these rides were very relaxed and felt much more authentic than my rides with men.  The men, if they didn’t take the hint and let me distract myself on my phone until we reached the destination, were always a little bit off balance; even in a city where gay people are as plentiful as they are here in Seattle, the men always needed some time to “figure me out.”  Some of them gave up and left me to my Facebook app, some just pressed on with their usual schtick, and a few muddled through small talk about work and local attractions.  With the two women (not a representative sample, surely, but worth noting), there were no such pretense.  I needed a ride, and they were there to provide it; why not have a pleasant chat on the way?

The New Guy:

Homer MapI’ve been a loyal Uber customer this trip, not so much because of any particular love for the brand but more because my janky Fire phone can’t get Lyft.  When my boss was in town, we shared a ride to a team dinner and so I got to experience a ride with Lyft.  Things were off to a rocky start when he drove past the driveway and parked halfway down the block and called.  When we figured out where he was, we just hoofed it down to his location.  When we started the drive, the very first instruction on the GPS seemed to confuse him and he pulled over again.  At that point my boss asked him, “So A-, how long have you been driving for lift?”  There was a polite smile on her face, but it was clear in her delivery that the jog was up and A- admitted that this was only his 3rd or 4th week.  He was new to the area and just working it part-time on top of another job in his hometown, an hour or so away.  We made it to our destination without incident, but not before A- had the chance to show off his general confusion about downtown Seattle traffic, jumping back and forth between lanes and almost taking a one-way the wrong way.  When we got out, my boss thanked him, watched him drive away then turned to me and said, “What a nice man.  But he’s a mess!”

The Indian Food Guy:

Uber 11This ride is only notable because instead of a Camry or the ubiquitous Prius, he was driving a ridiculous super-cab truck with 4 doors.  We clearly were not speaking the same language when he called to find out exactly where I was waiting and I used Sephora as a geographical point of reference.  His truck was permeated by the smell of Indian food.  This alone would not be a problem, as I love Indian food, but at that moment I was so hangry that the smell was making me feel borderline violent.  Ironically, he was picking me up to take me to an Indian restaurant, so the smell just made my hunger and desire that much more acute.  Delicious, aromatic torture.

The Classic:

I realize that talking about older people like this is probably a little ageist and inappropriate, but this man was so freaking adorable I couldn’t stand it!  A gray-haired man in his 70s came to pick me up in a lovingly maintained Prius; as I opened the door I was greeted by the mellow sound of Sinatra singing “Swinging on a Star.”  This guy was still with it, and he handled Seattle traffic beautifully; it wasn’t like Pop-Pop broke out of the nursing home and stole a sedan and disguised himself as an Uber driver, but there were definitely a few “Kids these days!” kind of moments where he pointed out the bad behavior of other drivers.  When Ella Fitzgerald started crooning “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,”Uber 07 G- started to sing along with a voice that was a little shaky and occasionally a bit flat but generally pleasant.  It was like a scene out of the type of movie that I always roll my eyes about when the commercial comes on but I still go see and shed a tear or two as the heroine struggles to find true love.  In this movie, as I was getting out of the car, Judy Dench would be getting in.  Distracted, she would start singing along as well; their eyes would meet in the rearview mirror and they would realize they knew each other.  They had been lovers in college or high school sweethearts separated by war or some other wildly impossible and utterly precious setup.  This man was my favorite thing of the day.

The Guy Who Didn’t Show Up:

Uber 09I was annoyed by this guy but it also made me laugh.  His name was Kok, and I had asked him to pick me up at the entrance to Target, across from the Hard Rock Café.  The GPS showed him circling the block a couple of times, and then I got the message that “Your driver is arriving now,” but there was no one in sight.  Finally the little car stopped moving a block away.  I texted him through the app and explained my location, but got no response.  It was like Grindr being acted out in the world: there I was, standing around waiting for Kok.  I was lead to believe he was coming, but then the communication stopped and eventually the ride was cancelled.  I realized that the internet makes me feel real sad about modern dating.  I eventually scored another Uber driver, but the damage to my pride had already been done.

The Sports Guys:

Uber 04So apparently the Seahawks are kind of a big deal.  On the day of a “big game” (I don’t know or really care why this particular game was bigger or more important than any other, but others who are sports-y assured me that it was), all three of my Uber drivers 1. asked me about the Seahawks, 2. established that I had exactly zero interest in sports, and 3. continued to engage me in conversation about the Seahawks.  Straight men are strange and interesting creatures, and should be studied; I can only assume that some biological imperative in their brains was driving them forward, continuing to spout references to people and plays I would never know or understand, and that they knew I would never know or understand.  The third guy, after explicitly stating that he could tell I wasn’t much of a sports fan, continued by saying that Player So-and-So had come out right away and immediately got sacked.  Even though sacked is one sports term I am pretty sure I know the meaning of, I still gave the driver big eyes and said, “Oh. My. God.  They fired him?!  Right there, in front of everyone?!”  That little gambit bought be some awkward stammering and then 3 solid minutes of silence before the commentary continued.  And how sweet those 3 minutes were.  At least the guy drove a Mercedes, so I got to feel fancy.

The Conclusion, Wherein We Reveal What We Learned:

Drag DriverBasically, Uber isn’t really as different from a taxi service as they would want you to think.  Some drivers put more pizazz into their particular driving “experience” (this article has a great example of someone combining drag with shuttling tired tourists around), but mostly they just pick you up, confirm your name, and then drop you off at your selected destination.  Because you are riding in someone’s vehicle, they want you to feel like you are just catching a ride from a friend, hence the term “ride-sharing.”  But I’m not really sharing anything.  The driver wasn’t magically going to the Homewood Suites or Amazon’s Galaxy building until I punch in some directions and requested that he take me there.  I’ve been on the receiving end of Uber’s infamous “surge pricing,” where my new bestie who is coming to pick me up charges me higher than the standard fare (sometimes as much as 8 times higher, though the highest my surge pricing ever went was 2.5 times) to “help them get as many Ubers on the road as possible;” whether this is accomplished by luring in drivers who will clock some extra time for the higher fares or just by the fact that it will discourage the less loyal and committed riders (and consequently preying on the more desperate riders like stranded tourists, though that may just be my sunny disposition peeking through) isn’t entirely clear.

Uber 03I think Uber and services like it come out of our specific cultural moment: so many of us want our service providers to create a type of experience where we can “forget” that we are purchasing a service.  Bottom line, you’re paying someone to come pick you up and take you to your destination.  But by calling it “ride sharing” and getting picked up in regular cars instead of clearly marked taxis, by faking our way through polite conversations, we can downplay all of the power dynamics at play.  Paying someone else to do something for you smacks of privilege, even if you’re just charging it to your company card.  It’s a simple service for money transaction, but millenials and hipsters (of which Seattle, like any urban area, is more than adequately supplied) find this sort of straight-forward transaction too crass, too hierarchical.  But giving it a trendy name and dressing it up in slick marketing doesn’t change the reality: you are still exchanging money for a service, and you still have a certain amount of power.  After all, when the ride is over, you give the driver a rating from 1 to 5 stars (if there is a way to bypass this ranking, I, with my limited technological aptitude, did not find it) that can potentially affect whether or not that driver is allowed to continue driving (drivers with sustained scores below 4.7 stars are pulled off the road), and there is still the larger issue of the drivers being treated as independent contractors so that Uber isn’t on the hook for any sort of healthcare or benefits.

We want our services to be more tailored, more comfy, more cushy, and do more to help us forget that we are actually utilizing someone else’s labor.  In this post from the Stanford Daily, Michaela Elias makes an argument about sitting in the front seat based on a what she felt was a particularly interesting exchange with her driver; in the beginning, she is conflicted because sitting in the front can be awkward but “climbing into the backseat creates an uncomfortable air of superiority as if I had no interest in the driver and just saw him as a mode of transportation.”  But that’s the thing: he is your mode of transport and that is why you’re calling him; pretending that you are going to form some sort of meaningful 15-minute relationship with someone who gives you a ride to the airport or P.F. Changs is a ridiculous way to deal with your guilt.

HandsBut maybe there is more than just guilt in these stories; maybe what they are looking for is connection.  It seems a little too easy to say that in our world of social media, with Facebook and InstaGram and Twitter keeping us in a constant state of virtual sharing and conversation, that real honest-to-goodness in-person interaction is at a premium, but I think there may be something to that.  Maybe having a chat and a laugh with  the person who is driving us around is a way to remind ourselves that we are still human beings, and that our social needs involve more than pictures of our lunch, resharing an article from the Onion, and endless duckfaced selfies.  I guess even the curmudgeon that I am can admit that having a real conversation, even if just for a short ride to my next great adventure, isn’t the worst thing in the world.  Maybe this guy is on to something.

But if you take Boren, you’re only getting 4 stars.  You may be behind the wheel, but let’s not forget who’s in charge.


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