I’m down and out in sunny Queens on Tuesday afternoon. Far from my Brooklyn home, I’ve made the trek here to become an Uber-mensch.
Standing in line outside the TLC, I’m pitched by a white lady working for Cliqcar, an Uber clone with an all-BMW fleet. She is recruiting drivers, talking to South Asians, Middle Easterners, Sub-Saharan Africans, a Chinese national…and me.
The tender, loving care is coming on too strong. Inside is a bazaar of sorts. A Polish guard who must be five feet tall is yelling, roping people off in groups. The others echo barely with slow movements. Everyone’s angry, stressed and late for work, well underpaid and miserable.
The sweaty men (there’s not a single woman in the line) are jostling to get up the stairs. Whether from Bangladesh or Pakistan, Honduras or Morocco—or from Eastern Europe—we all want one thing…a license from the Taxi/Limousine Commission to drive an Uber or a cab.
My eyes do not deceive me. It’s just like in the DMV. We’re shuttled in like cattle, sweaty and impatient, to get a ticket and then wait some more. One nice attendant sends me to another to begin a file. The others wait to argue away tickets, summonses, complain.
What am I doing here, one might—quite rightly—wonder? I’m not reporting and I’m not an anthropologist. Ivy League grad, lawyer by training, worked in finance, started out in neuroscience.
Driving a taxi’s the New Black, you see!
Not quite. It is a source of extra cash to feed the hungry monster, Uncle Sam. My future—and my family’s—is sabotaged by a cool quarter million ransom due—for student loans. A mortgage under water, with no house.
After I stand to plug my iPhone for an hour in the back, I’m finally called in for fingerprints. Quickly, efficiently, I’m processed and spit out by the bureaucracy. Freedom is mine.
Freedom, that is, to fulfill more requirements—a drug test and wheelchair-access training. The health exam already happened at the Uber office in Manhattan. There, I was poked by stethoscope and took a vision test wearing my hipster glasses, all inside 3 minutes.
A twist—the doctor was employed by a new startup that’s competing with my own. The founder of our rival also started Uber beforehand. The two of us—and others—are reverting medicine to house calls. This way, you and your family will never have to leave the house to get your care and meds.
That’s how my worlds collide. Tech master by the day, I will be willing tech slave by night. That is, an independent contractor. Together, we are building an economy of sharing, caring and of utter laziness. Indeed, we are the “Uber for Pediatricians.”
Next afternoon, I’m back in Queens for more. The line is out the door to give a urine sample and I’m rightly pissed. No time to queue for hours today. I’ll have to trek back here tomorrow at a better time.
Next destination is a Taxi School (“Academy”) to learn to handle wheelchair passengers.
I could have taken Uber, but I walk to clear my head. I head across a massive bridge (Honeywell Street) above the rail yard. It might as well be River Kwai or Rubicon below—or maybe Styx; it’s hard to tell. The fences scream of danger down below. You’ll die if you decide to touch the wires—or jump.
There’s not a soul around just past midday. The city churns around me at a distance, underneath, ahead, behind, above. I’m at the tempest’s core, suspended between worlds, ideas and brute reality.
Make plans, G-d laughs. And laughs, and laughs. The clever jester learns to laugh along—or perish.
Eleven New York years flash by in microfilm. I’m still on stage despite poor casting and forgotten lines.
Today is twenty-three years since our emigration to the States. Yes, life is strange and circular this way.
Inside the taxi school, we have recruits from Pakistan, Niger, Morocco, Bukhara, Latin America—and me. Later, I learn that half the class is named Mohammad. Most of them drive black cars or hold medallions—both a dying breed. I am the only Uber guy.
The teacher’s Greek-American, Harambopoulos or like. A taxi driver for a hefty 30 years; his brother’s up to 37. With an exaggerated slowness in his speech—he’s used to recent immigrants—he forces intros from around the room, makes comments bordering on bigotry. A cheap and easy lawyer joke escapes. I keep my quiet. A condescending bastard, he dumbs down the class but gets his points across.
Once it’s my turn and I say “Russia,” he warms up, my new Greek “brother.” Charming, but clearly xenophobic sibling. Before too long, he mentions how the Spanish “freno” (brake) was “stolen” from the Greeks. Big Fat Greek Wedding rings a bell.
He says that dying in America is expensive. And if you’re Greek, you have to pay out for the meal (150 people!) after getting buried and then after 40 days again—it never ends! Nor does his folksiness throughout.
Over three hours, we run through intricacies of good etiquette and fares, political correctness in communication and avoiding lawsuits, fines, the works. The Greek machismo’s spilling out at every turn of phrase. He’s in his element. A room of men from sexist, xenophobic places means he’s mostly free to share the things he says with gusto at the kitchen table. Astoria is but a short drive north.
He peppers his instruction with sage notes. “In Greece and Niger, no one gives a sh-t about the handicapped. They’d probably just kick them down once more.” Inevitably, with an eye toward me, Putin’s mentioned at one point.
According to his gospel, all the rules and regulations, over-sensitivity and lawyers (always lawyers!) are the real problem with America. Alas, poor Yorik. Too much jest.
Now, we proceed to practicals. Our dear instructor hovers, watching and correcting the maneuvers.
We chat before my turn. He asks me if I’m Orthodox. “Not in the way you think,” I let.
He doesn’t pry, but now he hesitates, suspicious. I take my turn, fasten the notches and pull through each belt, then tighten them. I ask Mohammad (from Morocco) if the belt is comfortable, then unbuckle.
Each of us does the rounds, first in the chair, then in the cabbie’s role. Empathy can be taught, some say. These days, the threat of fines and lawsuits goes much further.
Upon completion, each of us receives a “Pass,” a business card to keep that says we’re authorized to take on wheelchair passengers.
Then, oddly, our professor calls each name, then shakes the hand and gestures to the camera in the back. “Say cheese!”
I jokingly call out, “Hi, NSA!” and go.
* * *
It’s raining out, an autumn mess developing. I run to catch the N train. Under the overhang, I call my Mom and wish her happy anniversary of immigration. For Russians, it’s a thing. She isn’t really in the mood, but thanks me anyway.
I go to get my daughter from her daycare back in Brooklyn. We walk home through our little slice of hipster-ghetto heaven. The gritty, teeming underbelly to the north is but a memory. The tired, poor huddled masses of that raw New York can stay in Queens.
So thinks each immigrant who’s “made it”—to the suburbs, schools, professions of the “True America.” We all look forward to the mythic refuge from abuse and helplessness, poor housing and our former selves. But fate has other plans sometimes.
Each of us carries hopes and dreams of absolution from our traumas, habits, bosses, bills—and just as much, our parents’. And yet each morning, we repeat and rinse. Inside the sparkling third-world country that’s New York, we’re simply happy to survive another day.
* * *
Next morning, I am back to do the piss test. The lab’s inside a fancy building full of startups, hipster joints. There is a donut plant. Need I say more?
The patient load’s much smaller in the morning. Maybe because it’s Friday or not lunchtime yet. I notice folks here from the TLC. Some of these drug tests will be positive, no doubt.
I take a call from EverBliss (who wouldn’t? Google it.) and knock myself out of the line. I pace around outside the door a bit, discussing coaching on their platform. My phone is nearly dead, but it is just mid-morning. I plug it and sit down.
I look toward the counter of a place called Stolle. My hunger’s starting from the smell. Funny, I never thought that Germans would export their fruitcakes as a hipster café chain.
The call goes well. I’m almost in nirvana at the thought of partnership. Inside, the lab assistant gives a sterile cup. After a minute, she has proof of my inadequate hydration. I bid her a good weekend and stop by up front.
I ask about processing times. Two weeks for this, but 7-8 to get the license in the mail. Son-of-a-bench. That’s missing the whole busy Christmas season. Useless.
Disgusted, but too tired to verbalize, I’m glad at least it’s over.
Hungry as anything. I stop at Stolle. A customer is chatting with the counter girl. First, I presume it’s Polish that they’re speaking. Then, narrowing my eyes, I hear it’s really Russian. Interesting.
The customer’s a handyman in full regalia. He’s schlepping five pies with him somewhere, waiting for the boxes to be tied. Odessa-born and here for 30 years. My peeps. He says these pies are unbelievable. Let’s see.
The counter girl is from St. Petersburg, an FOB. She tells me that the bakers in the background all were master-trained by grandmas flown in from the mother country.
I look down at the goods, my eyes agog. I haven’t seen such gorgeous baked goods since I was in Paris. The pie crusts’ latticework is straight from illustrated children’s books in Russia. The leaves and flowers of the crust are raised as if impasto on a canvas, simply stunning. What a fairy tale!
I take a piece of cabbage pie and ask about the chocolate-covered rolls off to the side. They’re filled with poppy seeds, then dipped. Good Lord! Indulgence, Russian-style. I’m shocked to hear they’re just $1.50 each and buy the four left over.
When I bite in the warmth of cabbage with the egg and onion, I am back in childhood. It’s not a feeling all that common, even with the food on Brighton Beach. It’s rare to say that food as art can trigger overwhelming satisfaction of the brain and gut. Yet this most clearly does.
I kvell to Mom and to my wife and little one at home. Tonight, we’ll gobble up the chocolate poppy rolls like no one’s business, with aplomb. It’s wonderful to share the pleasures of my youth with them.
And so, two decades and three years have passed since we flew in from Moscow on a Delta flight to JFK. Yes, we continued to our old Kentucky home right then, but I was always meant to be here in NY.
Sixteen moves later, two degrees, four industries, recession, mile-high debt, plus the two novels, here we are. Life’s unpredictable, it rains, sh*t happens, but you live. Writing can be salvation.
My moment of the madeleine-in-the-tea is past. Nietzsche would marvel at this speed of human progress.
A roll in hand, I can’t help but take stock (must be the opiates at work).
Stories like mine seek out their tellers. This is no exception. To be an Uber-man is nothing but a brilliant detour.