Tales from the Front Seat
An Uber Driver’s Day and Night on Frederick’s Streets…and Beyond
It’s a Friday, a little after midnight on a hot summer night, when I pull up to the light on the Golden Mile. My passenger, Rick, rolls down his window and yells to the driver of the Mustang on my right, “I bet you can’t spin those wheels!”
The driver, window down, can hear the taunt clearly. He looks our way but doesn’t say a word, then looks back at the road. Undaunted, Rick pushes: “You got a car like that and you don’t even know how to drive it.”
I feel like I’m in a bad movie with bad dialogue, but it’s just a bad situation. Does Rick expect me to race this guy? I’m an Uber driver, I’m in a Kia Sportage, and—no small detail—I’m in the left-turn lane.
The driver of the Mustang looks back, more menacingly this time, and Rick tries to defuse it. “I’m just joking, bro! That’s a dope haircut, though.”
Dude, shut up, I think. I just want to move on to the next ride. The light turns green and the Mustang peels out. “He did it! He did it!” Rick yells, pleased with himself. I breathe a sigh of relief. And turn left.
Rick is my 16th trip of the day, one that started at 2:30 p.m. and will last a little more than 12 hours.
It’s 95 degrees out and I’m counting on the heat to persuade people to pay for an air-conditioned ride. My instincts pay off. One minute in, I get pinged for a pickup at an apartment behind Boscov’s on the Golden Mile. It’s a mother who wants a short ride to a nearby summer camp—an easy walk on most days but not in this weather.
I drop her off. Hoping she’ll want a ride back, I park nearby, close but not so close that it seems creepy.
I see her walk by with her kids, so instead I wait. Chasing rides uses gas and time. But waiting doesn’t pay at all. The secret is in finding the balance. I’ll struggle all day to find it.
That was too long to wait. Things are going to have to pick up to make sitting behind the wheel all afternoon and all night worth the time.
I start the next trip like I always do: “How’s it going today?” How the passenger answers is the difference between silence and conversation. Some people like to talk the entire trip, but nobody loves an Uber driver who doesn’t know when to shut up. And I want to be loved. It can be the difference between a one-star rating and a five.
My rating is a 4.93, but it took me a long time to bring it up from my first night of driving three years ago. Still learning how to use the navigation app, I made a wrong turn. My passenger, full of more alcohol than patience, gave me one star, a nearly lethal blow.
This passenger and I ride in silence. It feels—and sounds—like a five-star ride.
After the drop-off, I pull into a nearby 7-Eleven to wait and a taxi parks nearby. My car, clearly marked as an Uber with magnets on both sides, is the competition.
I feel a little guilty and sometimes a little nervous when I see taxis working the same area. Mine is truly a side hustle, a few hours here, a few hours there. I have a regular job with good benefits; driving for Uber is gravy. I wonder if it’s the same for him.
The taxi driver gets out of his car. He looks like me, a middle-aged short man with a belly more suited to driving than walking, wearing comfortable driving shoes, loose jeans and a plaid, short-sleeve shirt. He could be me. But he’s driving a taxi and I an Uber.
So I brace myself for a one-finger hello. He glances in my direction and heads inside. He doesn’t seem to care at all.
I pick up my passengers, a father and three sons, at a car dealership. I ask the obvious, “Buying a car?”
“No,” the oldest son, who looks about 21, says, “we dropped off a rental car. We are tourists from Bangladesh.”
He speaks in slightly broken English. The two younger brothers are speaking Bengali. The only words I understand, words repeated often, are “Six Flags.”
So I ask: “Headed to Six Flags?”
“We already have been to many places in America,” he says. “We drove by car from California.”
“Wow, great trip,” I say, “but not Six Flags.”
“Soon,” he says.
She comes out of her house wearing her fast food restaurant uniform. Her job is more than four miles away. It’ll cost her more than $10 just to get there and that much to get home. She’s not alone; many passengers are hard-working people who just can’t afford to own a car.
I think about turning off the app and letting her ride part way for free. I think about this all the time when I pick up passengers like her. I never do, though, and I don’t this time either. This is my job and that’s hers.
I get pinged for a pickup in the Lake Linganore area, about 17 minutes away. Will it be worth the drive? Does the passenger need a ride back to Frederick or will I be stuck out there. Many Uber drivers would decline the trip. I take the chance.
As I pull up to the pickup spot, I see that it’s a beach access parking lot. Nobody is waiting, so I text the rider, “I’m here.”
“Be right there,” the passenger texts back. “Getting my towel.”
That’s not a good sign. And as soon as I spot the teenage girl in her wet bikini, no shirt, no shorts and no shoes, approaching my car, I know I’ve made the wrong decision.
She gets in and I swipe the app to start the trip. I knew it; she’s going less than a mile, too hot or too lazy to walk home. Or she really needed to get to a toilet.
Either way, now I’ve got a decision to make: sit out here at Lake Linganore and hope for a trip back, or head back on my own? I’ll wait. I’ve brought a book, The Boys in the Boat. Gotta kill the time and it’s either that or Facebook.
An hour passes. The Boys in the Boat have done a lot of rowing and I’ve done a lot of waiting. I give in and head back to Frederick.
It’s about time for happy hour to finish up, so I head for a microbrewery. Ten seconds after I pull up, I get a ping.
This will make up for Lake Linganore. My passenger is going to Rockville. A quick trip on the highway and a $5 cash tip almost makes me forget a lazy teen and a wet car seat. Almost.
I pick up a woman with a small child and a car seat. She’s chatty. She apologizes for the car seat, smeared with sauce. It happened on the way back from the beach, she says, when they stopped for barbecue. She got into a fight with her sister and they didn’t talk for weeks, but now they’re back on speaking terms. That’s good, she explains, because her sister has a child about the same age as hers, and it’s important to have them in her life because the baby’s father isn’t, which, she says, is “a blessing.”
Like I said, some people like to talk.
My passengers are a couple dressed for a night out. She speaks Spanish, I don’t, and he doesn’t care to speak at all.
I let the radio fill the void. Abba’s Dancing Queen comes on. The woman sings along at full volume. I sing along in my head. Abba is the universal language.
A couple of teenage boys are headed home. Heading to their neighborhood in Spring Ridge, we drive by a gazebo outlined with twinkling lights. There’s a small group inside.
“That must have been a proposal,” one of them says.
“That’s cute,” says the other. That defies the stereotype, I think, and for a moment, I’m pleasantly surprised.
Their conversation whiplashes into a discussion on the attributes of some of the young women they know. Yeah, that’s more of what I expected.
The two women who get into my car are old friends who were “hanging out at my parents’ house like we’re in high school” and about to “raid the liquor cabinet” when they opted for a bar instead.
I ask if they’re in college. “You flatter us,” one of them says. That’s a $3 tip.
The trio of young women who get into my car outside a bar on Market Street are not happy. “The boys” who were supposed to pick them up at the end of their night were no-shows.
Girls complaining about boys. Boys complaining about girls. It’s a common theme. Sometimes it ends in tears and I try to play therapist. My go-to line is one a driver once used to soothe my niece after a rough night out: “Someday, you’ll be his one that got away.” It’s gold.
I listen to them vent. “Not cool,” I offer in solidarity.
We arrive at the house and the boys and their trucks are waiting in the driveway. It’s not going to be pretty.
I drive off before the fireworks begin. It’s been a long drive and I’ve been a good listener, but there’s no tip for this amateur therapist.
This is when I pick up Rick, my Mustang-challenging passenger. He’s standing outside a bar and tosses back the rest of his beer when I arrive. But he’s not ready to get in yet. He lights up a cigarette, takes a couple of long drags, tosses it aside and climbs in. He’s fired up. He’s had an argument with a friend over a woman and wants to know if I agree with him. Of course I do. I always agree with the customer.
After our encounter with the Mustang, Rick asks me to stop at the GetGo. I agree and he goes inside, only to come out seconds later.
“Can you buy me a beer?” he asks. “I don’t have my I.D.”
“Can’t do it, boss,” I tell him. I’m so over Rick.
I’m in a parking lot Downtown and looking for my passenger. This is where the app says he should be, but there’s no sign of him. This isn’t unusual. People drop their pin in one place, then wander off, usually to Pretzel & Pizza Creations.
Suddenly, he’s at my back door.
“You scared me,” I say as he climbs in the back.
“I was around the corner,” he says.
The scent is unmistakable. Yeah, I know where you were, buddy.
The group is rowdy, typical at this time of night, and then silent.
Except for the hiccups. Incessant hiccups.
Is somebody about to throw up? I’ve stockpiled airline sickness bags for just such occasions.
No worries. It was just hiccups after all.
My passenger tells me about a business plan he has for a drinking tour of Frederick.
“Don’t tell anybody,” he says, pretty sure he’s the first to come up with this idea.
I promise I won’t.
He takes a call from a friend who wants him to come over and drink. He declines.
“I’ve got vodka at home,” he tells me, “and there I can pass out on my own couch.”
It’s time for the surge. At about 1:40 on weekend nights, Market Street is a scene of blinking hazard lights as Uber drivers wait for their passengers to find the way from the bars to the cars. This is the best time to make money, as the demand for cars outnumbers the supply.
I drop off my passenger, but I’m about seven minutes away. I’ve got to hit greens all the way down the Golden Mile if I’m going to hit the surge. I make it just in time.
The couple gets in the car. He’s extremely friendly. She’s extremely intoxicated. We’re almost to his house when he realizes he’s lost his wallet.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “but can we go back?”
Back at the bar and no luck. He checks the street. No luck. Pretzel & Pizza? Still no luck.
“It doesn’t look good,” I say to the girlfriend. She doesn’t’ respond and I look at the back seat. She is horizontal, asleep and unaware.
He gets back in, pushes her into a sitting position, and tells her, “Babe, I lost my wallet.”
She won’t remember a thing.
I’ve driven 216 miles and earned $208.41, including tips. My gas has cost $25.24. Twelve hours, for a little more than $15 an hour, not including the wear and tear on my car, can wear a person out.
But I don’t do this to get rich, or even to make a living. If I did, I’d have quit a long time ago. I do it to put a little extra money in my pocket and for the people I meet.
It’s enough to get me out there again next week.
Editor’s note: Some names and locations in this article have been changed to protect the identities of the passengers.