My Most Interesting Uber Passenger

After driving for Uber and Lyft in Denver for eight months, I expected to have had so many stories from interesting passengers, but so many of these rides ended up being mundane and forgettable. There was one, however, that stood out.

The ping was National Jewish Hospital at Colfax and Garfield. Uber’s exact address led me to a service entrance that did not include a way to the front one.

I texted ‘John’ to let him know I came in the wrong entrance, but would be at the front one in a couple minutes. Was pretty sure I spotted him from the service entrance, standing outside with some black pants, a black sweatshirt and an oxygen tube under his nose.

Pulling up to the front of the hospital, I saw he was a larger man who was still ambulatory, but not moving very quickly.

“Should I sit in front or back?” he asked.

“Either works. Whatever you feel like.”

He moved the front passenger seat all the way back and got in, putting his oxygen tank/backpack on the floor in front of him. I checked the destination and saw it was a hotel about 15 minutes away.

“Is that the new hotel they put right off of Central Park and 70?”

“Yeah, that’s where they’ve been putting me up.”

“Gotcha. You in town just for, uh….”

“Lung surgery,” John said. “It’s one of my last ones.”

“Dang,” I said, turning onto northbound Colorado Boulevard.

We chatted about the weather and made some other small talk that led to him asking how long I’ve driven for Uber. I told him ‘only a couple months,’ and that I do it to help pay the bills since I’m an adjunct instructor at different colleges.

“What did you study?”

“Rhetoric and composition. So, pretty much English.”

“Oh. I’m actually working on the last chapter of my doctoral dissertation on forensic science.”

“Awesome!” It was rare for me to get a passenger who was familiar with academic life.

“Yeah, the first few chapters were tough, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel with just one more chapter to go. I’m actually a retired cop from New York and New Jersey.”

“Sweet. My first career was trying to be a reporter in Chicago.”

“Oh, Chi-raq?” John chuckled.

“Exactly. After being a reporter there, I’ve got a huge respect for cops.”

“Yeah. Chicago had to be wild. It’s like, uh, who was it, Chris Rock , I think, said that if bullets cost a thousand bucks each, there’d be no black on black shootings.”

I chuckled at that.

“I know there’s good cops and bad cops out there. But so much of the shootings in Chicago are black on black. And I know this isn’t a popular opinion, but what can you do with that?”

My mind went to Spike Lee’s most recent film, ‘Chi-Raq’, which I mentioned to John. “That’s the set-up for the movie; there’s so much crime and violence that one of the women starts a movement to withhold sex from her man until the violence stops. It’s actually based off an some old play where a wife does the same thing.”

“I know they just canned the police chief, McCarthy, because the shooting rates were so outta control. “

“Yeah, I’d heard that. I know that may have happened because Emmanuel needed someone to take the blame.” My time as a reporter came rushing back into my mind like someone had plugged a flash drive into it. “And when the mayor of Chicago needs a scapegoat for anything, there’s always high up officials who get canned.”

I turned onto Martin Luther King Jr. Drive as an alternative to I-70, which would be jammed up.

A gray Benz suddenly slowed in front of me to make a right turn without a blinker, forcing me to suddenly slow, too. I stopped in time, but was very worried about giving John a rough ride after having lung surgery. I apologized for the sudden stop. “No worries,” he said. “That guy was stopping outta no where.”

After a few moments, John said, “I haven’t done much policing since 9/11.”

A surge zipped through my brain, piecing together the different bits of info that John had just told me.

Wait a minute, I thought to myself. “Were you a first responder?” There was shock and awe in the tone of my question.

“Yes.”

I was speechless.

John went on to tell more about the surgeries, including how they had to open him up multiple times, taking out part of his lungs and diaphragm. “This surgery was number 11 for me.”

John kept telling me more about his health issues as I just sat there somberly and in awe, while trying to pay attention to traffic. “They send a lot of us to National Jewish since it’s the best place in the country for lung surgery. I’m doing better than so many of my buddies who weren’t able to get better. “

I was able to put words together again and said, “Thanks for what you did.”

He was silent for a couple seconds. “I was just doing my job.”

Shock and awe once again silenced me for a bit.

The conversation naturally turned to what else I like to do, and how driving for Uber was. I told him about not really driving late at night and, because of this, how I’ve had pretty much positive experiences.

“I get a lot of couples in town for the pot. They go on tours and stuff. One time I took a guy to the airport after coming to town for that. He wanted to tip me, but said he was out of cash. ‘You want some pot?’ he asked me. I laughed and told him ‘Sure.’”

John nodded and smiled. “A lot of cops usually say, ‘Once I retire, I’ll try some pot.’ That’s a normal thing for them.”

“Makes a lot of sense,” I responded. “I’m not a smoker at all, so I’m giving it to a friend who does. If I’m gonna try it, it’d have to be an edible.”

“Me, too. I can’t really smoke too well.” He pointed to his oxygen tube.

That made me smile.

Blocks passed, and the normal pause in a conversation between people who don’t really know each other occurred. I really felt like saying something else or reaching out to John, but I balked. I thought I found a sort of middle of the road approach that wasn’t prying too much and seemed like it would be appropriate for a guy hired to drive another guy around. “So, did you say that things were getting better for you after this surgery?”

“Yeah. They really are. I’m starting to breathe better, and I also just have to get better. I got married later in life, and now I got a five and a two year old who are waiting for me back home. “

Damn, I thought to myself. “That’s great to hear.” The poignancy of his story was hitting me hard.

I turned into the hotel lot and parked in front of the entrance.

“Do you have change for a ten? I wanna tip you…”

“Oh, man. You don’t have to tip me at all…” My mind was wanting to say, “You’re the hero who’s already done so much.” But my sense of boundaries stopped me.

“Okay. Well, here’s two bucks anyway. You can get yourself a nice beer or something.”

“Thanks,” I said as I took the two dollars from him. “Hey,” I struggled to say something genuine that wouldn’t be too gushy or overreaching. “I’m really glad to hear you’re doing better. That’s, uh…”

“Thanks,” he said. “It was great talking with ya. Good luck with the teaching.” He was already stepping out of the car and reaching back in for his oxygen tank. “Have a good day.”

I pulled out of the entrance and into a spot in the parking lot. I rated John with 5 stars on my app, turned it off, and then just sat for a few moments.