It was so cold outside, just looking out the glass vestibule door made me want to cry. There were snow drifts everywhere, light snow was falling, and a biting wind created swirling snow devils in the parking lot. I stared at my smartphone, watching the car icon in the Uber app get slowly closer to my location. I was hoping that he would not drive passed the building like so many others, because then I would have to call him and tell him to turn around.
The building I was working in sat far back in a long driveway off the main road and, except for a small sign with the company name, you would not notice it unless you were purposefully looking for it.
"No!" I yelled. I started dialing.
The driver had zoomed passed the driveway and was heading toward the housing development down the street. I'm not sure why the GPS map doesn't send them to me since I had put the pin exactly at the front door of the building.
Someone picked up and I spoke. "You passed the building. There was a driveway on your left with a red sign."
I heard some unintelligible sounds and music in the background. I assumed he was heading back to me. A minute later he rolled up to the door, no hubcaps – which admittedly is common in Canada, in the winter – and slid to a halt. I left the vestibule and was immediately punched in the face by a bitter cold wind.
I dove into the back seat and slammed the door shut.
"What the hell!" The driver, a man in his early thirties, turned toward me. He was scruffy in that he had an unkempt beard and long hair, a slightly dark complexion, had thick glasses, and was wearing a T-shirt. "Do I smell or something?"
"Why does everyone want to sit in the back?" His face was snarled.
"I don't know," I replied. I was taken of guard by the question and said the first thing that popped into my mind. "I guess it's a taxi ride mentality thing."
"Do I look like a goddamn Arab to you?!" he screamed. "Fine."
He threw the passenger front seat forward to give me room and then we took off for my hotel.
Canada, has a large Arabic population from various countries, mainly Lebanon, but several others as well. Many take jobs driving cabs, or for Uber, because almost none of them speak French, and if you want a "good" job, you need to parle vouz francais.
The interesting thing was that up to this point, all of my Uber drivers had been Arabic, and I assumed this driver was as well. It certainly didn't matter to me. In my head I answered his question as, "Well, actually you do look somewhat like a person from the Middle East." Of course, I didn't say that aloud. It might set him off. At this point I was wary I had drawn a live one from the deck; I just wanted to get to my hotel without a big scene. It was going to be a long 20 minutes.
"Sorry," I replied back. "It's just a habit. No one has ever complained before."
"I'm not complaining. It's just when someone sits up front, it feels more like I'm driving my buddy around, instead of chauffeuring people around all day. Most people just sit there and stare at their phone, they aren't interested in talking. The students are the worst."
He had thrown down the gauntlet, now I had to come up with small talk and conversation points that wouldn't be too controversial or lead down a regrettable path. Admittedly, I would have preferred to just stare at my phone the whole time.
"Did you just start or have you been driving all day?" I asked.
"Started around 11am... Things have been light these days now that the students are gone on winter break." There were three universities in the area, and the students used Uber extensively to go to restaurants, bars, and the other campuses. "I just keep hoping to get a trip to the airport."
"The students are your bread and butter, eh? I would have thought that they mostly take short trips for only a couple of dollars."
He thought about it. "Yeah, mostly that's right. Some even Uber to go two blocks when it's really cold out. I spend 5 minutes of gas to get there and then I drop them off at their boyfriend's apartment 200 meters away." He slapped the steering wheel. "F*ck them! They think I'm their Daddy, take them to their friends house, don't acknowledge my presence…and then at night time they get drunk and puke in my car! I wish the app would let me only pick up riders that were worth it."
He then looked like he had a lightbulb moment. "I know! They should include a breathalyzer test right into the app! You blow into your phone, and if you're drunk, you get a 4 times surge." That is Uber-parlance for charging four times the going rate. "Then it would be worth it, even for a few blocks."
He gloated at his genius. I should have left well enough alone at this point and let him have his moment…but that's not what I do.
"Unless they puke," I answered.
"Yes. Although they will charge the driver $200 if they puke in my car and I send a photo in. But then I have to quit for the night. No one wants to ride in a car that smells like puke."
I agreed. I looked at the app on my phone…Ten more minutes. Christ.
While barely watching the road, he opened his glove compartment and pulled out a can of Campbell's Manhattan Clam Chowder. "See this?"
"I decided that next time I get some really drunk student in my car and he doesn't know where the hell he is or what day it is… After he gets out of the car, I'm going to spill this can in the backseat, chunks and all, and I'm going to send in a photo to Uber." He turned all the way around in his seat to grin a crooked tooth smile at me. "I'll fix his ass. His Dad is just going to pay anyway. It's an easy 200 bucks. I might even put down plastic on the floor so it will be easy to clean."
I sat there silent. I really wanted to get out of this guy's car. Soon, we approached the downtown area. I remained silent for several minutes. Suddenly he waved his arms toward the right window.
"Look at this. Canada's nickname is the Great White North. Do you see any white people? I don't think it's so great."
Actually, there were mostly Caucasian people around. There were the representative Indian, Asian, Black and Arabic minorities too, but you could have counted them on both hands.
"I thought that nickname had to do with the snow," I said smirking, trying to change the tone of the conversation.
"I know that. Don't you think I know that? I am from Canada you know."
I decided I was done responding for the rest of the ride.
When we got near the hotel I asked him to pull close to the door since it was cold outside. He smiled broadly and said, "This is actually warm for this time of year. Hey man, you want to grab a brew or something? I'm done driving for the day. I need another drink."
So of course, the frightening part of the conversation was not that he actually asked me to pal around with him, but that he used the word 'another'. My next thought was that medication and alcohol don't mix well, but maybe he skipped the first one.
"Um, I'm meeting my boss for dinner," I lied. "Thanks for the ride."
I jumped out of the car and went immediately to the hotel bar and ordered a beer. I decided that tomorrow morning maybe it was time I look into the local bus routes.