Jesus and the Uber Driver

THE OTHER KIDS who attend my daughter’s public school live within two blocks of it, but our home is a mile away. Most days, we enjoy the walk. But this winter has made riders of us.

Nobody in this town owns a car. Many, like me, don’t even possess a license. When you have to go fast or far, and a subway won’t cut it, you lift your finger for a cab, or, lately, tap your screen for an uber. An uber has the edge when it’s 7:55 AM, and every cab on the street already has a passenger.

The school doors for fourth and fifth graders close at 8:20. If you arrive at 8:21, you need a late pass. Even in the worst weather. Even if the president is visiting, half the avenues are blocked, and the other half are under construction. Too many late passes in fourth grade, and your child won’t qualify for an appropriate middle school. Ridiculous? Undoubtedly, but this is New York.

It’s 7:55 AM and we haven’t brushed our teeth. But I have this winter uber commute down to a science. I pick a car that’s four minutes away, and conduct the toothbrushing race, shoe race, and jacket race that my daughter always wins, and that get her out the door in four minutes or less.

As we don our jackets and I help her with her zipper, I notice that our uber driver is now six minutes away. He had a straight shot to our apartment — a lucky break, given New York’s famous one-way streets and avenues, “no left turn” signs, bus lanes, bike lanes, and other anti-car measures — but somehow, he has gone bumbling off from one pointless self-inflicted detour to another.

Baffled by the strange twists and turns we see his vehicle taking on the uber screen, we head outside so as not to overheat in our double jacket layers. It’s now 8:06, and uber shows our driver trundling down Second Avenue. This is perfect, as our destination is straight down Second, and we no longer have time for him to pick us up in front of our home and navigate the one-ways and U-turns that would be needed to get us from our apartment back to Second Avenue. I text the driver and ask him to wait for us on Second Avenue below our cross-street, on the left hand side. He texts back, OK.

A minute later, running to the appointed spot, we see an uber car turn left off Second onto our construction-addled sidestreet. “I hope that’s not him,” I mutter to my daughter.

But it is him. Instead of a six-minute straight shot down Second Avenue to our destination, we will now have to take the FDR, if we can get to it through the bumper-to-bumper tunnel and construction traffic. But we can’t do anything about it. There’s no way to make a U-turn, no place to begin making a series of lefts.

The driver is an elderly gentleman. He shouldn’t have to work. He looks a trifle bewildered, as if his previous driving experience was confined to a midwestern parking lot. We greet him warmly (my daughter is polite and sincerely kind). I explain where we must be by 8:20, and why, and ask him to take the FDR. Then we sit in traffic without moving for about four minutes.

And sit.

The driver senses our silent, rising panic, and pulls into the empty right lane — empty except for slush and snow. As he speeds toward the light, a baldheaded white man in an expensive car comes barreling out of a parking garage, heading straight for the side of our vehicle.

It is apparent that someone will have to brake, or there will be an accident.

The other driver keeps heading for us, undeterred by the visible presence of a ten-year-old child in the rear passenger seat.

Our driver keeps going, blind to the luxury car that is about to tear into us.

Not wishing to be impolite, I refrain from screaming.

Until I have to.

“Look out,” I shout at the last second, “stop, look out on your right, car!”

Our driver jams on his brake. The other driver brakes as well. Fortunately, no one skids in the snow.

The other driver honks and curses us. It is funny to watch his lips silently form the usual Anglo-Saxonisms.

Our driver blinks and sits.

This goes on for what seems like a long minute.

I realize our driver needs to feel supported, or we will all sit here forever.

“Back up, you maniac!” I yell. Then, to our driver: “I mean him, not you. He’s the maniac.”

Eventually the other driver backs up a hair, and our driver inches forward toward the red light. But the other driver somehow pulls ahead of us before the light changes, to show us that he won.

“Why did that psychopath curse us?” my daughter asks. Meaning the other driver.

“Men do that,” I say. “Probably he was scared. When men are scared, they curse instead of crying.”

“That’s sexist,” my daughter says.

“No, it’s just social training,” I say. “I cried one time in school, and I was humiliated for it an entire year. The kids called me OB, for Overgrown Baby.”

My daughter loves stories about my childhood, and we both love discussing women’s issues. She’s a wise and mature ten-year-old. We don’t talk about almost getting killed. Our conversation lasts a while. We are still not on the FDR, although it is tantalizingly close. It takes five minutes or more to travel the single block that leads to the FDR’s entrance.

I suggest a couple of alternatives to the FDR, and tell our driver I’m worried about our 8:20 deadline. “Don’t you think, if the on-ramp is this busy, the FDR will be bumper-to-bumper too?”

The driver says the FDR will be fine.

It isn’t.

At every juncture where it’s possible to make a good decision, our driver makes a bad one. The FDR clears after 25th Street. We could sail down to the 23rd Street exit, or we could exit early, onto a side road that is already packed with cars that have not moved in minutes. Our driver exits early.

He almost takes us to 20th, where we wouldn’t be able to make a left onto 2nd Avenue, but I persuade him to take 23rd, where we can, and do. He misses a couple of lights sitting behind a stalled van instead of pulling around it.

It’s now 8:25. The fourth and fifth grade back door to the school will be closed. But the front door will still be open, because the school is more lenient toward younger children. We hop out together. I’m hoping my daughter will be able to sneak around the front-door guard and run straight to her classroom without getting a late pass, which would go on her permanent record.

Unfortunately the school principal is at the front door and sends us to get a late pass.

Our school principal is normally a sweetheart. She’s one of the best public servants in New York. Had we been on time, she would have delighted in the sight of my daughter wearing blue, because today is School Spirit Day, and kids are supposed to wear the school color. I tricked my daughter into wearing blue by handing her an awesome blue tee shirt. Once she was wearing it, I told her blue was for school spirit day, and she laughed that I’d gotten her to conform. Had we been on time, the principal, who knows every kid in her school, would have noticed my daughter the rebel wearing blue, and would have been pleased.

But we’re late.

If I’d moved faster this morning, we would have left earlier, and walked, despite the weather. Or left earlier and caught a different car, driven by someone who knows how to navigate this tough city.

On my phone there’s a text from my brother about mindfulness.

My concern, after hugging my daughter goodbye and sending her to her classroom, is what to do about rating our driver on uber’s star system.

Our driver nearly got us killed through not driving defensively, especially while changing lanes. Whenever there was a chance to make good time by making a good choice, he made bad choices that have consequences to my daughter’s permanent record, and possibly to her ability to attend the right middle school. Even when I advised him on the path (“We’ll meet you on Second Avenue”), he made a different choice, largely through inattention.

Based on the above, I should give him a four star rating. (You can’t give less than four stars; it would be tantamount to firing the driver. Don’t get me started about middle class people “rating” poor people.)

But our driver is an old man who clearly, desperately needs this job. If his poor driving causes another passenger to be late, well, uber’s passengers are middle class and will survive showing up late. This man is poor. He doesn’t appear to have a retirement package, or a family that can look after him. And he is African-American, which means, especially at his age, that he’s faced decade after decade of racism, of opportunities denied, of self-esteem withering away.

What would Jesus do?

Jesus would walk.

Jesus would home-school his kid.

Five stars it is.

Designing and blogging since 1995, Jeffrey Zeldman is the publisher of A List Apart Magazine and A Book Apart, co-founder of An Event Apart design conference, and founder and creative director of studio.zeldman. Follow him @zeldman.