Rolling with Humanity in the Age of Apps
By Maria Johnson
It’s cold, dark and rainy when we land in New York. An airport bus trundles us to a distant lot where ride-sharing cars pass through a one-way chute looking for the travelers who’ve hailed them with cell phone apps.
We’ve missed one car already; the driver got there before we did and picked up another rider. Shivering, we tap the Uber icon again as we huddle under a temporary covered walkway, all galvanized pipe and logo-plastered vinyl.
Tonya will be driving a dark Honda. We watch her oval blue dot creep across a map of the surrounding streets. We hang on the dot as she inches closer and — wait, what? — the dot is backing up.
Tonya, don’t do it! You can’t back up in this traffic! Have you lost your mind? Where are you going?
The dot stops. For a long time. Is she broken down? Did she get a better offer?
We’re sorry, Tonya! We love you, Tonya!
The dot moves again. Cue Twilight Zone music. Dee-dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee-dee. The blue oval turns, by jerky degrees, onto a side street. Ah-ha! She knows a short cut. Smart girl.
We relax as it creeps closer.
All right, Tahnnnn-ya!
The blue dot is on top of us. We raise our gazes to look for the car. The app says we’re pooling with someone named Trey. More riders make for a cheaper ride, right?
An athletic young guy sprints for the Honda at the same time we do.
The trunk pops open. He throws in his duffel. We telescope down the handles of our carry-ons and heave them in.
Nice to see you.
We settle into the Honda. Tonya’s playing her music. Rappy, soulful, feminine. She turns it down a little. Conversation kindles slowly, then catches. Trey’s from Dallas, but he’s not a Mavs fan. He’s a Pistons fella from way back.
We like the Cavs, we say.
Ah, LeBron, says Trey.
What brings you to New York? he says.
Visiting our son. You?
I live here, but I travel a lot.
What do you do?
Recycle precious metals. From teeth crowns. We collect them from dental offices.
Get out of here. Seriously? Like gold and silver?
Yeah, it’s big money. Sometimes people in the offices keep the crowns. One place, they waited until the dentist was away, then they had a big party.
He laughs. No, I swear.
Tonya turns down a narrow street, slows. It’s Trey’s destination, but it’s obviously not his home. We look for 19. No one sees 19. It’s dark. We roll down the Honda’s water-beaded windows. There’s 23. It’s the only visible number on the short block. The buildings are plain. Not residential, at least to my where’s-the-front-porch way of thinking. Trey seems unsure of what he’s looking for. That’s OK, he says. I’ll get out here. He thanks Tonya, hops out, fetches his bag, slams the trunk lid.
Tonya drives on.
The car is silent until I speak. OK, I’ll say it. That was weird. Tonya arches her brows, squelches a smile. She sees a lot, but she doesn’t say a lot. She’s putting herself through nursing school. Wants to be an RN.
We pick up another rider, a young woman dressed for a night out. She doesn’t go far. At least we can find the address. We’ve been with Tonya for a good 40 minutes. Revised thought on pool cars: The fare won’t be cheaper if you ride around for an hour, picking up and dropping off.
At least Tonya will make decent money. She’s in school, and her car won’t last much longer. The engine rattles like an old sewing machine. I see concern skip across my husband’s face every time she accelerates.
I know this makes me a real mom, I say, but I worry about the safety of women drivers. Have you ever had a problem?
Only with a woman, Tonya says. We laugh. Normally, she doesn’t drive late, when the drunks are out, but that one time, it was fairly early and the lady was smashed. When they got to the destination, the lady said it was the wrong place, but she didn’t have another address. She cursed Tonya.
If the lady had been sober, and it had been daylight, Tonya would have kicked her out of the car. But it was neither of those things.
So Tonya kept driving, talking, giving up other riders, waiting for the fog of alcohol to lift. I don’t think I could have done it, she says, without my nurse’s training, dealing with people not in their right minds. I couldn’t put her out. She said some bad stuff. But no way could I put her out.
Here we are.
Good luck with school, I say. Take care of yourself.
You, too, she says.
We step into the chill. The air is a sea of vertical dashes. It’s hard to see, but all around us water clings to water, the source of life, and tiny pools glisten in the dark.
We watch the little blue dot pull away. OH
Maria Johnson can be reached at email@example.com