* * *
“I don’t really need to go to Church. If I am feeling low, I just pray. What will God do that you can’t do for yourself anyway?”
Words of wisdom from a 23 year old Haitian-American UBER taxi driver, Ernst.
What would a 40 billion dollar company like UBER, a taxi service designed for the contemporary world, need more in the form of advertising from an Indian-American mom like me?
I get it.
But, I am an UBERian now. And I feel a compelling need to tell you about my journey of how I became one.
Three of my girlfriends and I had decided to go to Miami for the weekend. 4756386254 text messages later, we landed at the airport in Fort Lauderdale this past Friday night. We went to the rental car area and on a whim decided to ditch it – thank heavens for that – and try UBER.
During our stay in a bayfront Miami hotel, we met several UBER drivers when we went about the city, from the Ocean walk, to the South Beach, to destinations that were – well, that is the part that is out of bounds for this essay.
What happens in Miami must stay in Miami, right?
And, this essay is decidedly only about how awesome UBER is.
Coming back the topic, I have to say that the usage of an app to embark on a trip with a stranger in an unmarked car in a strange city made me feel stupid and out of touch with reality sometimes. But, the cost, speed and ease with which I could summon a taxi at the press of a button on my iPhone also made me feel rich, confident and the true millennial I am supposed to be living like.
Of course, there was an added bonus of not having to idle around curbs trying to flag taxis down, standing next to chicks whose figures wounded my pride and vanity deeply.
Ernst – spelled without an E in the NEST, originally from the Caribbean, spoke in a soft monotone sounding mature beyond his years. It was in the early hours of Saturday that we had requested a service before he showed up 30 seconds later at the crossroads of 9th street and Ocean drive where we were standing.
Our hotel was 9 minutes away.
I rode shotgun while my three friends sat in the back seat of his Honda Accord. I am usually relegated to the front side passenger seat mostly because I ask too many questions and encroach on people’s privacy.
It is a writer’s vanity, I’d say, if I have to defend myself.
When we complained that we were starving, he drove us to a Denny’s where I got down to order food. While in the parking lot waiting for our to-go boxes to arrive I made some small talk with him. I wanted to buy him something because he was being so nice to us, maybe a tip?, I suggested. Cash would be nice, it would help him better, he said and blushed.
“Do you go to church? I mean, what are you? Catholic?” I asked.
“I am Christian. Like Christian religion, who pray to Jesus?” He suggested surprised.
“No, no, I get that. I was wondering what denomination you belonged to. Protestant, Catholic, Methodist – like that.” I asked, not sure if he understood what I meant.
“Oh yeah, OK, I am Roman church going. You know, like Roman Christianity.”
“Roman church? Yes, yes, I’ve heard of the Roman Catholics. Sure.” I said.
“But, I don’t really need to go to Church. If I am feeling low, I just pray. What will God do that you can’t do for yourself anyway?” He questioned not exactly replying to me.
Next, I want to talk about Bryan. Bryan with a Y.
When we spotted the Honda CR-V after a request for a roadside pickup, I opened the front passenger door to greet the driver. I was expecting the same reaction I had on my face – trepidation, at opening a stranger’s car door and unsure of what to expect.
I spotted a guy in a grey hooded sweatshirt bang his steering wheel with both his fists and leap out of his seat partially. I was taken aback before I saw him look at us and scream delightedly, “I love Indians, I love Indian women! You guys are awesome!”
We laughed out loud and told him, it was so nice to hear people actually having good things to say about us Desis. He chuckled, and said that he was definitely going to marry an Indian girl.
The scene was so comical, that I wondered that this was some drunken piffle and I was chatting with a long lost twin brother with the same stupid face and boisterous personality I usually carry around – trying hard to crack a joke at any expense.
“Come on, Bryan! Really, Bryan?! Sure, you can call me Rachel, instead of Rachana. Come on now, what’s your real name?” I nudged him.
If you are an immigrant, you adapt an almost arrogant sense of misguided need to imagine every one’s life is a compelling manifestation of necessary changes to adapt to the American Life – including their name.
“It is a Bryan, with a Y. I am serious. You want to see my license? There.” He laughed as he pulled out his wallet with his right hand while his left arm was on the steering wheel as we made a sharp right turn.
“Careful, keep your eyes on the road!” I said peeking at his license.
“Oh my God, Jeez, what a baby!” I said laughing. “Where are your parents from Bryan, with a Y?” I said not holding back on my sarcasm.
“Nicaragua.” he said.
“Right next to Honduras?” I asked.
“You know Nicaragua? Nice! Oh my God, smart AND beautiful!” He said cheerfully looking straight into my eyes.
“Oh, I love anything Latino! Are you kidding? Just like how you love Indians!”
“But, it’s dangerous, right? Nicaragua?” I continued, trying to amuse him with my general knowledge.
“OK, OK, not bad. But, beautiful country.” He defended the country of his parents almost halfheartedly.
We were interrupted with laughter from the back seat.
“You girls talking dirty? Are they talking dirty about you and me?” He asked me giggling. “I like when girls talk dirty.”
“Can you ladies take a picture with me? I want to call you my Indian family. I will put it on my Instagram.” He said.
“Sure. Let’s do it man!” I paused before asking, “Bryan, tell me about your life. Where do you live? In the suburbs?”
“I live in Miami, in the city.”
No way! What city? He possibly can’t afford to live within Miami. “No, what is the place called, what city limits?” I demanded.
“It’s called the hood.” A place he told me where most hospitality workers and taxi drivers lived in the area between Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
“Are there lots of politics there, Bryan? How is life?”
“There is everyone, Haitians, people from Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico. Oh yeah, lots of people, lots of politics.”
On one trip, we met Jorge, originally from Peru, who works in the Hospitality industry in the mornings. He is an UBER driver for 5 months and he loves it a lot.
For our trip into the city one evening, we met Fransisco from Puerto Rico – Francisco like the Pope – he told us, but claimed that he was not as nice as the pope himself.
Then there was Myth, who true to his name remained a man of few words all along our 17 minute ride home one night to our hotel. I could however, manage to squeeze out a single item on his bucket list – he wants to marry an Indian girl, because he loves how beautiful they are.
Upon arriving at our hotel, he insisted we remain still in our car seats and that he would walk and open all the passenger doors to let us out. A thorough gentle man minding his manners with four women who qualified to be in his fantasy.
We met Angel, a Haitian, who picked us up one night in his Cadillac. He had a neatly placed transparent box of suckers and candy waiting on the armrest of the car. “Do NOT eat them!” My friends and I declared to one another in Hindi and giggled.
“Do you live in the hood?” I asked him shamelessly settling myself down in the front seat which had ample leg room.
“No, I live in the city. 7 minutes from the Fort Lauderdale airport.” He was in Miami tonight because he had dropped off a party of 4. He is 39 and has lived in the States since 1991 and he plans to get into the real estate business. He too wants to marry an Indian girl.
I wonder how the husbands of Indian women all over the world would ponder on the common sentiment of the UBER drivers in Miami. Of course, I am keenly aware of the idea that tomorrow, if 4 Colombian chicks with big boobs or Kim Kardashian style rear ends get into their cars for a ride, these drivers will not blink another minute before flipping their preference in ethnicity of their potential mates.
We met Federico, probably the oldest of the drivers we had. The average age was 24.5. He had worked in Barcelona for a while before moving to the States because it was closer to his home country, Cuba. We asked him to show us the best place to party – the most awesomest nightclub in Miami. It should be the most happening, I ordered.
And boy, did he deliver.
He dropped us off at Club STORY, where absent mindedly we stood in a long line for 3 minutes before asking a random guy ahead of us in the line, who was obviously on a date, for how much the cover charge was.
He looked at us like we were some pathetic bugs and told us he had got his tickets 6 months ago on the internet.
I could have run to the rooftop of the building screaming with fists thumping on my chest, to challenge Federico.
But, what was the point? I had asked him to drop me off ONLY, not whether we could get inside or not. He will have a valid defense.
Would a traditional taxi cab driver done any better? More importantly, would I go to a club where my taxi driver also frequented? How else did I expect him to know about a club where Maseratis are parked like subsidized Nissan Leafs in Atlanta public parking lots.
On Sunday, when it was time to leave for the airport at 6 in the morning, UBER misfired a signal and charged us 5 dollars penalty for “canceling” the service. This was the second faux pas in just 9 attempts to use UBER. Dismissing it as something we can dispute with UBER later, we summoned another request on the app.
This time too, the driver did not arrive at our lobby door step even when the phone showed us that he was around our pickup area. One of my friends went onto the main road outside of the lobby in frustration to find a guy in an old white Chevy Cobalt idling in front of the main gates of the hotel. She asked him if he was with UBER and he told her yes and followed her into the lobby where we were waiting.
My friend admonished him for not having his correct contact information on UBER. “How can people find you if you’re number doesn’t work?”
“I put correct number, I put correct number, I tell UBER that. I tell many times. Many time, I go to the place and there is no people to pick up.” He stressed in his deep Eastern European accent.
“Obviously people left after trying to contact you on the wrong number that is on the profile!” My friend mothered him even more before dozing off.
The car went dead silent while moving at a glacial pace in the morning traffic. I was about to doze off, when out of the blue he asked, “I can stop my car on the road and give you some paper towels if you want. Do you want some water?”
I told him we were fine.
There was silence again.
Silence – something that should always be cut and fought against vehemently.
We need to tell stories, you tell me yours, I tell you mine. Mostly, because we can feel better about ourselves. And, each of us has one, right, unique, defining and off beat story, don’t we?
Life – is a best kept secret. Until you live it for yourself, you don’t really get it.
When I quizzed him about his name, he smiled politely and said, “It’s Zachvat. Zachvat. Shawn. Just call me Shawn. It’s easy.”
“Sashhhvaag? I am sorry can you repeat, I want to say your name correctly.” I told him.
He smiled, “Oh my name, I am planning to change it, it is too complicated. Shawn is better.”
“No, no. Please tell me your real name. I want to know it.” I requested. “Spell it for ..”
“Z-A-C-H-V-A-T”. He interrupted me with the spelling.
“Where are you from Zachvat?”
“Crimean Peninsula. It is border of Russia.” He suggested when there was no reaction from me.
I asked him if it was Yugoslavia.
“East of Ukraine. Black sea?” he asked and sounded irked.
I wanted to say, “Black sea, yes, yes, I just bought a black sea mineral wrinkle removing eye cream from TJ Maxx.”
But with Zachvat, there was no talk, I could only listen.
He had been brought to the States, when he landed in Illinois as a new car loader and unloader. It is when shipment of brand new cars arrive in cargo vessels, you work for car dealerships to unload the cars from the cargo vessel containers and load them into the rigs from where they are to be transported across the United States. You get paid 8 dollars for each load or unload, while the car dealership pays 50 dollars to the cargo company.
“For 8 years I sent money to my family. Then I stopped. They were just using me. My money. They did not do anything for me. They don’t care about me and how I am earning and living alone.”
He spoke without catching his breath. He told me how he had nearly died of flu two weeks ago. “I cured myself. I helped myself.”
“You have family? He asked.
“Oh yeah, my girlfriends and I have come here to get away from them you know? Have some alone time for ourselves. But sadly, in a couple of hours, I will get back to my boring life, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids. Blah blah blah.” I said loudly sounding weepy.
“Family is good, family takes care of you. It is nice to have a family, right?” He asked.
He left in the early 90’s right around the time when Yugoslavia split. “Situation is bad, Russia wants our people to go to Ukraine and fight. 150 people die every day because of government and politics. I read in news.”
Zachvat lives in Liberty city, and as far as his eyes can see around him in his neighborhood, it’s 50% Black and 50% of Spanish people.
“This is my third week. My friend make good money. I love this. UBER is good. I have two licenses, for regular taxi and UBER. And, I am saving for myself now.”
“I have an Indian friend, his name is Ganesh. My other friend, his name is Izzur.”
“Izzur, hmmm. Doesn’t sound Indian. Is it Izzur? Are you sure?” I asked halfheartedly, worrying about disappointing him and his eagerness for conversation.
“Yes, yes, Izzur. He works at Indian restaurant. He says they have good curries, lamb, chicken. I like lamb curry. I like Indian food – spicy. But lamb curry is 16 dollars. It cost lot of money. But, I have heard it is good!” He said in a cheerful voice.
Over the past few days, I have replayed Zachvat’s words. “Family is good, and family takes care of you. It is nice to have a family, right?”
If he had died of the flu, there would be no one. No one to claim him as his own.
Those words hurt me. They hurt me physically when I recall them over and over. They sap me.
As we had approached the airport, he told us that if anyone stopped us and asked who he was, we were to say that he is our friend.
I recalled how hostile the valet and the wait staff in the lobby of our hotel was, as we stood waiting for our UBER to arrive. “It is roughly 60 dollars to go to the airport now. If there is traffic, it will be a little more.” One Valet had suggested and hovered around us.
We had waited because we knew it would cost us about 50% of what the going rate for a regular taxi is. I am glad we stood our ground. Or, I would have never met Zachvat. I would have never had a chance to spare with a 20 dollar note for the lamb curry he wants to eat.
Taxi-drivers are staging strikes in all the major cities of the world where UBER is picking up ground.
Europe is making plans to ban UBER.
An UBER driver raped a girl in India.
That is about the extent of news I have heard on UBER until I stepped into the real world of UBER.
As an Indian-American, my senses are heightened when I hear stories of indigenous auto transportation. When I was in college in the late 1990’s in India, the concept called “Share Autos” became so popular, it caused riots and strikes of protests from public transportation unions. But, India, a land of miracles, soothsayers and a fertile ground for reinventing itself constantly, survived the huge socio, geo and economical change a few such indigenous ideas that have been brought out about.
Instagram, which brought down a 140000 employee company like Kodak had 13 employees at the time it was acquired by Facebook. United States, which has shown the power of competition and contribution to the world, seems to be doing just fine and thriving in the selfie generation.
UBER is wild fire. Some wild fires are lit on purpose. They regenerate and restore the earth. Let UBER spread and bring to ashes the old habitats of the world and bring about lush new social ecosystems in its wake.
And, unlike the other iPhone apps, UBER seems to run on human heart beats.
I rest my case.