Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Taking drinkers off the roads and listening to their sad tales

Welcome to my new blog, based on my new book, Tales of UberMan: An auto journalist shares his Prius with savvy riders.  I've been writing about Uber and Lyft for years in Green Auto Market. After taking my first Uber ride at SFO (and falling in love with it, swearing to never take a taxi ride again), a friend encouraged me to try out some part-time Uber driving. He got an incentive for doing so, and it didn't take much for me to get set up on the mobile app and have my background check done. After a few rides, I got used to taking people to work and school in the early morning and occasionally doing a late-night Friday/Saturday night drive in L.A.

A few months into it, my girlfriend Susan suggested I write a book about it. I'd told her several colorful stories about trips I'd driven. One of my riders loved the idea so much she suggested I call it Tales of UberMan, and I agreed. It was published a couple weeks ago on Kindle.

One of the main topics that comes up for Uber and Lyft drivers is taking drinkers home from a bar or party. It usually goes pretty well, but sometimes it goes bad. Here's a chapter of my book that delves into the subject matter, which I call "Taking drinkers off the roads and listening to their sad tales."

For Uber drivers working late on Friday and Saturday nights, driving “drinkers” is a big part of it. When you become an Uber Partner, you’re instructed on what to do if a drunk rider throws up in your car. Uber will pay for the cleaning.

I had a close call with one of my riders. I picked her up outside a club in Long Beach and drove her home near midnight on a Saturday night. She seemed pretty well intoxicated, and told me that she might be feeling the sudden urge to vomit. She would be giving me advanced warning if that were to happen.

She was doing so well until we were within a mile of her house. She suddenly demanded that I pull over right away, and I did so. I pulled into a service road off the main drag so that she wouldn’t be near oncoming traffic. The rider stuck her head outside the left passenger door and eventually had a couple of loud dry heaves. I could smell it, but was grateful to not find any vomit inside or outside my car after dropping her off. I drove for a few blocks with the windows down, and the smell fortunately went away. It did make for a good story to tell riders.

At the end of the trip, I was glad to have driven her rather than if she’d driven herself home from the club. She was not in any condition to do so.

During 2015, an alliance between Uber and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) was announced. On July 1, an email was sent out to Uber drivers prior to the 4th of July weekend (well known for its party atmosphere). Colleen Sheehey-Church, national president of MADD, acknowledged Uber drivers for helping to protect the public from drunk and drugged driving. “On behalf of MADD and Uber, thank you. You’re making your city a safer place to live,” Sheehey-Church wrote.

I’ve done my time with drunken passengers, and some who’ve smelled like they’d smoked a lot of pot before taking their Uber ride. Along with a bit of belligerence from drunken passengers, there have been odd moments with stoned riders who wanted to hang out and talk. I had a ride a few months ago with a young woman in Long Beach on a Saturday night; she reeked of ganja and wanted to share a few laughs. It seemed like she’d been talking on her phone to someone else until she asked me to respond to what she’d said. “I didn’t know you were talking to me,” I told her.

One thing I’ve found with riders who’ve been doing a lot of drinking is that inevitably one member of the group is being a bit of an asshole. His friends try to calm him down and make jokes about it, but sometimes it gets worse. If you’re going to drive on a Friday or Saturday night, you can count on having somebody in your car who’s drank too much. Fortunately, it usually goes by without a hitch; but sometimes it doesn’t.

Once on a Saturday night in Santa Monica, I had an UberPool shared ride with a sober rider and then a drunk one who became very annoying. The first rider worked for a foreign embassy in L.A. He’d been here a few years and enjoyed living here, except for the traffic. We stopped to pick up the second rider and had to wait a few minutes, which got the first rider more irritated about being late for a social event in Hollywood. The second rider got in the car and seemed a bit drunk. His route was to Koreatown in L.A. He wanted to talk about deep and meaningful stuff – what was really going on in our lives. That is asking a lot – for people you’ve just met to share deeply about what they’re dealing with in life. After sharing some strange comments with us for a few minutes, the drunk rider conked out in the backseat. When we arrived at his destination, the first rider had to nudge him a few times to wake him up. After he came to, the drunk rider wanted to make sure we’d found the right address at the strip mall before he got out of my car. His next step was to make a call to a friend who guided him in the right direction. We were glad to get him out of my car.

Some of these stories took place early in the morning after sunrise, during the drinker’s hangover. In January 2016, I drove a young man from Belmont Heights to the Los Arcos neighborhood in Long Beach. He was pretty hung over and had quite an adventure the night before. He’d been hanging out that night with a buddy who was staying in a drug rehab facility in L.A. His friend had to check in back at his rehab by 5:00 a.m. They decided to go out drinking, and his buddy met a woman at the bar. The new couple took off together around midnight, and that was the last he saw of his friend. He hoped his buddy had made it back to rehab on time and wasn’t thrown out for being late or drunk. The rider had gone into a blackout after hanging out in the bar drinking with his buddy, but somehow safely made it back to his girlfriend’s apartment in Long Beach.

I told him about a bad memory I had that went back years ago to a New Year’s Eve. I was at a house party held by an old high school friend and his wife. I’d gotten very drunk and ended up knocking over a lamp on the dance floor. I’d blacked out and woke up the next morning in one of their bedrooms. It was empty and getting ready for remodeling; one of them had directed me to the room in a blackout as the New Year’s Eve party came to an end. I staggered my way into the living room with a horrible hangover to see my friend and his wife, and another couple, glaring at me. Right about that moment, I looked out a window and saw my car being hit by a student driver. I ran out into the street yelling as the car pulled away, but the driving instructor made the student pull over and wait for the police to show up. As I came back into the house, I got more glares from my party mates and saw their shaking heads. It felt like I had some pretty bad karma during my drunkenness that had brought this bizarre retribution to my car.

I told the rider that it could be worse. He could be in rehab explaining to his case manager why he came back late – and why he shouldn’t be thrown out on the street. His buddy might have had that conversation with his case manager. The rider agreed with what I’d said. I told him I haven’t had a drink in years, and I didn’t miss it.

One of the strangest and, initially, most tense experiences I’ve had as an Uber driver, was driving an alcoholic to pick up a beer on his way to work. He was a Latino man probably in his late 30s. He asked me to stop at a gas station minimart so he could buy a tall can of beer. After doing so, he asked me to find a parking space while he sat and had his beer.

He told me about having more than one DUI and being on restrictions with his drinking – as a driver and as an employee of his company in the South Bay area. He told me that his boss liked him enough for the good work he provided to the company that he was willing to be flexible – like having him showing up late for work smelling like beer.

He wanted to know if I drank, and I told him that I’d had a few antics years ago and had to stop drinking. I mentioned that it was good for him and other drinkers to have an Uber ride rather than get behind the wheel. He appreciated Uber for that service.

As we drove up to his office, his boss was standing outside the front door with his arms crossed. He looked like he’d been waiting for his employee, and my passenger acknowledged that his boss was definitely standing out there impatiently waiting for him. The supervisor walked his employee into the building, shaking his head and looking like a disappointed father. I was glad to see he’d made it, and had mixed feelings about facilitating him getting a drink and going to work.

While Uber management and MADD leadership might praise me for driving drunks and not letting them drive, it hasn’t been something I’ve been proud of. These two men that I just wrote about seemed to have felt alright about telling me about their drinking problem. It’s almost like HBO’s “Taxicab Confessions” where passengers feel safe and comfortable revealing their private lives. While we’re making a contribution by taking a few intoxicated drivers off the roads, we’re also down in the trenches – finding out what’s going on with people and their drinking and sometimes their drug use. If any of us drivers ever feel like drinking too much, or going back to it years later, these young men, and occasionally women, shine light on the cost of living that way.

There’s always the possibility of at least one rider being drunk and surly right in the backseat of my car, especially if I drove late at night. Uber management has seen enough of these hostile and dangerous episodes with drinkers in the car to send out the following guidelines to drivers in September 2015:

“The following is a guide to help you address a situation where the rider may have had too much to drink and it is negatively affecting the trip. Please note, these are merely compiled suggestions, while we encourage driver-partners to use them, you are under no obligation to do so. 

1. Uber strongly suggests that you try to remain calm and professional throughout every ride.
2. If a rider is attempting to provoke a confrontation, it’s best to remain cool, use non-threatening words and even a friendly tone of voice.
3. If possible, try to enlist the assistance of a sober (or less drunk) friend of the inebriated rider.
4. Try to strike up a friendly conversation with them - ask them general questions about themselves, offer to play their favorite music etc. Breathe and Smile! ;)
5. We do not recommend confronting the rider physically. 
6. If at any time you feel that your personal safety is threatened, we recommend calling the local emergency services in your area.”

In May 2016, I had another experience driving a drinker that really got on my nerves. He got in the backseat of my Prius with his girlfriend about 8:00 on a Saturday night. They just left a party in the suburbs and wanted to be taken to their condo in downtown Long Beach. During the ride, they went back and forth stuck in a dysfunctional dynamic. He was drunk enough to be making jokes and teasing her. Eventually she’d get overly assertive and demand that he stop talking.

If she was assertive and hardline enough with her intoxicated boyfriend, he’d drift off into somber silence and she’d get hooked into it. She became apologetic and tried to bring him out of his sullen, resentful state. Then the joking would start from the drunk boyfriend, usually some cutting comments about her friends at the party. She would get enough and drop the bomb on him again. That would lead to him going on and on about how much he loved her, and how great and beautiful she was.

His girlfriend would attempt to divert and calm him, like she was dealing with a little boy, by bringing up what they’d be having for dinner once they got home. He was fascinated enough to go on and on about what restaurant should deliver the food, and what they’d be ordering. Then he would suddenly change his mind, and want another meal from another joint. By that point, she’d have enough of him. Then it would start all over again. It went that way until they got out of my car, and the drunk tried to make nice and compliment me. I didn’t buy it for a second.

For the driver, driving drinkers brings up firsthand experience with social issues. We’re not therapists or rehab counselors (though I can’t speak for every driver). We do get drawn into the drama while driving. It would be impossible to ignore it; and there’s always the possibility of vomiting, screaming and yelling, and fighting taking place in the car. There’s also a level of tension over what this drunk person might be saying next, which the drinker sometimes plays with to his or her manipulative advantage.

Some of the Uber drivers I know say that you have to drive on Friday and Saturday nights for long hours to see any real money. As for me, I prefer early morning driving during the work week and doing something else on the weekend. That could include driving for Uber and coming home around midnight. I don’t want to deal with excessive drinkers who stay out late.

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