What I learned from riding in a STOLEN car
Instead of a number, the license plate just said “STOLEN” in all caps. I got in the car anyway — and learned a valuable lesson.
I recently took a ride in a car marked “stolen.”
Travelling for work at WE, I spend a lot of time taking ride shares and cabs in a dozen different countries. It’s so routine that I don’t always give the rides much thought. However, there was one particular experience that I’ll remember for a long time to come.
On a stop home in Toronto, I called on a ride-share app to take me to a meeting across town. As is custom, I checked the license plate number so I could spot my ride amidst the approaching cars.
Instead of a number, the license field on the app showed “STOLEN” in all caps. Instinctively, I refreshed it, assuming there was some sort of glitch. Nothing changed. STOLEN. I had a number of conflicting thoughts.
Was I about to get into a stolen car? I wondered. On one hand, I marveled at the incredible technology we had available to catch car thieves in the digital age. At the same time, it seemed like an odd way for the app to mark a stolen vehicle. And to keep picking up passengers seemed irresponsible, making for unwilling criminal accessories.
I realized that my curiosity outweighed my hesitance, so I decided not to cancel the ride. When the car pulled up, the license plate said STOLEN in block letters, just as it was listed on the app. I took a deep breath and climbed in.
On long cab rides, I usually pop open my laptop the moment I get in the car to cram in a little extra work between meetings. This time, I left my laptop in my bag and kept my hands folded in my lap. I was focused on trying to catch a glimpse of the driver’s facial expression in the rearview mirror to gauge the situation. To my surprise, driving me was a typical middle-aged man, who looked like a soccer dad.
After a couple minutes spent craning my neck (likely not subtly) my eyes met his in the mirror. Busted.
“Is there a reason your license plate says stolen?” I asked.
He let out a chuckle.
“Ahh — you noticed,” he said. Then he launched into what was clearly a well-rehearsed explanation.
It turns out this driver was one of the first people to apply for a vanity plate in Ontario decades ago. With every possible letter combination open to him, as a 16-year old, he wanted to choose something that would elicit a strong reaction. He thought “STOLEN” would be good for a laugh or two, so on an impulse, he requested it. He didn’t expect that it would lead to much more than just laughter.
He says that over the years, countless tourists and passersby have asked to pose for a picture next to his car. Local police have even pulled him over on a couple occasions — not to give him a ticket, but to take photos. And he mentioned that it was always a bit of a problem with dates, who had mixed reactions when he drove up.
Of course, when he picked the plate at 16, he never imagined that we would join a ride sharing app — and he certainly never imagined that it would become the perfect conversation starter on the job. From the first day he joined the app, he says his passengers couldn’t help but bring up the plate. And once the conversation got started, the opening chat would quickly lead into a much deeper discussion. Now, not a day goes by when he says he doesn’t have at least one truly enriching chat with a passenger.
Over the years, numerous people have offered him substantial sums of money to take the plate off his hands, but he always refuses. He says the conversations that result from it are more meaningful than the profit he would make.
And during the ride, it worked on me, too. Before long, we had chatted about our families, movies we love and the state of global politics. It certainly beat my usual drives spent with my head down in my laptop.
For me, that ride was a powerful reminder of just how important human connection can be — that kind of real, honest communication and curiosity about another person without any ulterior motives. It’s rare, and it’s something we should take more time to pursue.
Robert D. Putnam articulates this perfectly in his trail-blazing book Bowling Alone, which examines the way we are becoming more and more disconnected as a society. Today, we belong to fewer community organizations, know our neighbors less and spend fewer hours with friends than ever before. Putnam’s research shows that as we become more disconnected, the strength of our communities declines, and so does our mental and emotional well-being. It’s a negative trend that we can — and should — push back on.
Nowhere is this disconnection more apparent than in the rise of the gig economy, where employees conduct their work almost entirely solo. With no fellow staff or work community to interact with, jobs such as driving for a rideshare company or a food delivery service can be lonely and isolating.
Personally, I know that I could do more to make connections with the people around me as I move through the world. Too often, I find myself caught up in work, spending my free moments buried on my devices. Before the ride in the “stolen” car, I can’t think of the last time I had an extended conversation with a stranger that wasn’t related to work.
I don’t know anyone else who has a license plate that doubles as a great conversation starter. But we all interact with plenty of strangers and acquaintances throughout our day, from bus drivers to grocery store clerks to delivery people. In each case, it’s not hard to make a genuine connection or two — if you’re willing to reach out. The next time you hop in a cab, perhaps you could ask about the family photo the driver has taped on her dashboard. You could try saying hi to that coworker you’ve seen a few times in the lunchroom when you’re both warming up your leftovers. Or maybe now is the time to really get to know your next-door neighbor instead of just waving as you pass on your driveways. Whatever the connection might be, don’t shy away from it.
And for any readers from Toronto, if your ride sharing app serves-up a STOLEN car, then please say ‘hi’ to the driver for me.