David Shawn Klein
My Uber customer rating was somewhere between pedophile axe murderer and Trump supporter, so I decided to go on a quest to resuscitate my good name. Plus, to be honest, my feelings were hurt. I didn’t even know I could get rated until the tiny animated cars on my app began to stop, spin around, and race away. It was like Tinder for taxis; I was being judged wanting by dozens of left-swiping Uber drivers. I was stuck at 4.55 and worried that Uber and Lyft shared the equivalent of a No-Fly List to banish incorrigibles to ride-app purgatory, where lost souls wander around in search of a yellow cab during the worst rainstorm in recorded history.
It made me regret driving my regular Uber guy Jesus so crazy he started drinking out of a brown paper bag. Jesus was the only melancholic Dominican I’d ever met. I liked him because I’m the world’s biggest introvert, and he never made eye contact. Instead, he always greeted me with a grudging hello that sounded like air escaping from a flat tire. He constantly wore a bright blue Moana baseball cap and the same jacket with the logo of the Jackson Heights Stingrays. It was great to have Jesus as my regular driver because he played Arturo Sandoval and Kenny G on an endless loop, and if you’re like me and find it easier to binge-watch a C-SPAN senate hearing than ask a stranger if he’d mind turning down his music, even Kenny G is a lot less traumatic than bands like “Hammer On My Thumb,” or “Driven By Spite,” after a long day’s work.
And I really wanted to have the same guy take me around the city. Part of the reason was that I’m so addicted to routine that I need to pop half a Xanax just to change toothbrushes. But also, to pay the rent, I have to lug these giant suitcases filled with marketing stuff across the five boroughs. At first, using a car and driver seemed like the kind of extravagance reserved for Instagram stars or sixteen-year-old tech billionaires, so my suitcases and I hoofed it on the subway.
But even though they were on spinners, the suitcases seemed to have a life of their own, and the central purpose of that life was to humiliate me in front of as many people as possible. I regularly brightened the commute of thousands of over-stressed New Yorkers who stopped to watch the giant doofus get hopelessly stuck trying to force two suitcases through a turnstile. And God knows how many cell phones were switched to camera while I flailed after man-sized Victorinox as they rode further and further out of reach down the up escalator. So it was clearly time to retire from YouTube’s “Idiots on Subways” and spring for an Uber whenever I needed to hit the road.
It was also a trust issue, wanting the same driver. Trust and anxiety. There are places in Staten Island so remote they have their own weather systems—would Uber really have a car ready at the tap of an app? Could I have faith it wouldn’t leave me stranded on a frigid night in an outpost of Queens, a mile from the nearest subway? So I made a private arrangement with the first driver, who seemed to be inclined toward a touch of larceny. That was Jesus. The deal was that Jesus would take me to my destination, wait off the app, and I’d give him cash for hanging out. It was a small price to pay for the assurance that, when I needed him, Jesus would be there.
But he turned out to be the start of my dismal customer rating. It probably had to do with my traffic-induced meltdowns and the effect he thought they had on Liz of the Purple Heart. My Victorinox and I travel the city teaching free legal clinics for unions and day labor centers. Many of the people I teach are Spanish-speaking, and my Spanish is limited to “Soy abogado,” which would make for a very brief evening if it weren’t for Liz. But Liz does more than translate—though, in truth, she barely does that. You might say she freely interprets, but it’s more like she says whatever she wants and I’m just along for the ride. She does it to make me “less boring.” The class will often laugh after I’ve said something like “severe injury” or “prolonged hospital stay,” so I know she’s told a joke at my expense, usually about my age or how boring I am. Liz’s wardrobe is from the house of Carolina Herrera, and she wears it like Carolina designed it exclusively for her. She’s great with people: warm, earthy, and outgoing. It makes a welcoming contrast to my personality, which is closer to that of the lost tribe of Scandinavian Jews. I tend to look like I’m thinking deep thoughts about how to roll back global warming or fend off the zombie apocalypse, when in truth, I’m fretting over my Uber customer rating or how my Facebook photo makes me look like Gollum from “Lord of the Rings,” or why my Twitter campaign for a national Lawyer Appreciation Day got only four likes and one follow. In short, Liz has the charisma that says give me a hug, pull up a chair, and let’s shoot the breeze, while I have all the approachability of a crime scene.
In my early days with Jesus, I didn’t know about Uber’s rating system. I believed he and I were on good terms. But I was living in a fool’s paradise because trouble was brewing in his Lincoln Navigator.
That trouble was me. And I had no clue until the day Liz gently persuaded me to help her find all the tropical fruits in her kid’s version of Dell’s Official WORD SEARCH. “Look at you,” she said. “How did you manage to find ‘guava’ so easily? And on a diagonal!”
Suddenly it hit me that I was being played by a master.
The reason Liz had to treat me like the Bengal tiger that ended the career of Siegfried and Roy was this fetish I have about never being late. I’ll get to the airport two hours before my flight leaves and nurse a twelve-dollar cup of coffee while men in yellow vests wave in the airplanes. If I have a doctor’s appointment at ten, by nine-fifteen I’m in the waiting room, flipping through Colostomy Bag Monthly.
But Jesus’s dicey grasp of his GPS and the tendency of New York City drivers to park their cars in the middle of major thoroughfares meant that we faced the threat of being late on a regular basis. I handled it with my usual grace under pressure.
“We’re not going to make it! This city is hell. It’s literally like living in hell.”
Liz would brush me off with a wave of her hand. “We have plenty of time.”
That would mollify me for ten minutes while I stared out my window at the same burly dude in a Bob’s Furniture truck texting and sipping from a keg-sized container of Coke I’d been staring at when Liz first assured me we had plenty of time. At that point, sweat would begin to ooze across my hairline. “God hates me. I’m like Job, only worse.”
Meanwhile, Liz never faltered from her serene belief that all would be well. “Calm down. You’re going to give yourself a heart attack,” she’d say, with the tone you’d use to pacify a colicky four-month-old.
In my fever of claustrophobia and cuckoo-clock anality, I was lost in a dreamscape where we were buried under an avalanche of motor vehicles. That usually signaled my inventory of fucks. “Fucking city!” Fucking traffic!” “Fucking life!”
Then the two imperturbable Dominicans and the histrionic Jew would have a cultural-philosophical exchange concerning the true substance of time.
“Look,” Jesus would say, pointing to the GPS that often led us to a highway in northern Queens when we were shooting for the Bronx. “We’ll be there ten minutes.”
“Only ten more minutes,” Liz would add as if she were feeding a piece of fresh liver to a German Shepherd.
At this point, I’d glance over to catch the guy in the Bob’s Furniture visor giving me a thumbs up.
“How can you say we’ll be there in ten minutes,” I’d ask with a strangulated cry. “If it was also ten minutes, ten minutes ago?”
It was abundantly clear that, on this trip, there would be no crossing of the cultural divide.
I never imagined that, through it all, poor Jesus thought I was blaming him for the traffic or that he was harboring a chivalrous concern for the unfailingly gracious, exotically perfumed psychiatric nurse trying to calm the maniac in his back seat. It was around that time, I believe, that Jesus began to picture, the way an insomniac counts sheep, a long row of liquor bottles in various shapes and flavors, sized to fit your standard brown paper bag. I’d especially never imagined that he might be right about Liz: in her private thoughts, she was, like Jesus, measuring brown paper bags and humming under her breath, “Stolichnaya, Tanqueray, Chivas Regal, Captain Morgan.”
Not, at least, until the day she opened that Dell’s Word Search and, with a tone that resembled a scale played on a child’s xylophone, said, “I’m really having trouble finding the word pineapple; wouldn’t you like to help me?”
All at once, I understood that, like Oedipus In a Lincoln, I was the cause of my plunging Uber rating. And that, much worse, I was driving poor Liz of the Purple Heart to nervous distraction. It was too late to salvage my relationship with Jesus. He took her aside one evening to plead, with tears, I imagined, of chivalry and madness, “How can you work for that guy? He’s irrational.”
But he hadn’t reckoned on her loyalty or my affection for her Purple Heart.
And that brings me to my plan for joining the world of perfect fives. Liz suggested that I should simply ask my Uber guy for a good rating, but she didn’t understand that there are two things men don’t do: ask for directions and beg for Uber ratings. What Liz’s Word Search gambit and Jesus’s meltdown taught me was that an hour in the back seat of an SUV in New York City traffic is a pretty short prison sentence when you think about it. And how all memory of your suffering disappears before you know it. If not a trace of misery gets recorded in your hard drive, how important can it be?
So now I’m docile as an old dog. Also, I always remember to be courtly and solicitous toward Liz. In fact, I make a parade of it—with one eye on the driver to gauge his reaction. And as for the men and women who shuttle me around the city in place of good old Jesus, I had this idea that groveling might work. I thank them profusely, even when they take me from lower Broadway to Times Square by way of the Bronx. I tap my jacket pocket, “I’ll get your tip on my phone,” I assure them. And I do, big time, and give five stars, always five stars. And watch, with a small measure of relief, as my rating climbs another tenth of a point.
About the Author
David Shawn Klein’s first novel, The Money, won the 2021 Book of the Year Award from Best Thrillers. His children’s book, Sherlock Mendelson and the Missing Afikomen, was published in June 2022 by Black Rose Writing. Two chapters from The Money were published as short stories in The Hudson Review.