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Zen And The Art Of Uber Driving

John Koopman used to write for a newspaper. Now he's an Uber driver: "Thanks to Uber, I am not poor. I am just ... nobody."

Zen And The Art Of Uber Driving

[Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

First comes rage. The rage of impotence.

It’s not easy being nobody, especially when you used to be somebody. But times are tough; jobs are scarce. When you’re falling straight down the financial cliff face, you reach out to grab hold of anything available to stop your descent and there, just before you land in a homeless shelter or move in with your sister, is Uber.

MikeDotta via Shutterstock

It’s a little after 10 p.m. on a Friday night. I get called to a home in Pacific Heights. Two women are at the curb, swaying. A young woman gets in and her friend tells me to take the woman to Corte Madera in Marin. Yeah, sure, good trip. Surge pricing.

You know when a burp is not a burp? When it’s followed by vomit. The woman in the back burped. I said a little prayer, "Please don’t let it be throw up." We stopped at her house and she got out. I looked in the back to make sure she hadn’t left a phone or purse. I saw a puddle of something on the seat. No. No! I got out and grabbed some napkins I kept in the glove box. And there I was—master’s degree, 25 years as a journalist, Pulitzer nominee—wiping vomit off the car seat. The napkins were small and the liquid soaked through to my hands.
That's the kind of moment that makes you question your life decisions.

I spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, most recently at the San Francisco Chronicle. I loved that job because there was never a dull moment. I loved writing on deadline. I loved covering fires and murders and wars. The greater the risk, the greater the thrill. I went to Iraq three times, embedding with Marines and army units, and saw a lot of combat. Winston Churchill once said, "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as getting shot at without result." Yes, exactly.

It came as quite a blow when the Chronicle laid me off. I should have seen it coming. The economy was in the toilet and newspapers were yesterday's news. Probably, I could have made the switch to online news, or public relations, or some kind of writing or editing gig. But that wasn't the point: Those jobs wouldn't give me the thrill. They would not scratch the itch.

So I floundered. One day I spotted an ad on Craigslist seeking managers for several strip clubs in San Francisco. Now that was my kind of job.

What I didn't know was that I was in a downward spiral. A lot of undiagnosed depression and anxiety burned at my insides. A fire started deep in my soul and turned into rage as it burst from my head. For most people, strip clubs are bad places. Not because women are naked. Because they snort coke when they strip. Because the place is filled with sociopaths and psychopaths. Guys get drunk and try to mess with the girls, or refuse to pay their bills, or spit on the floor. Every night is fight night and I loved it. For a while, it fed my addiction. Sometimes I provoked a fight just to see what would happen.

But my fuse got shorter and shorter. My rage built like a volcano about to erupt. I had to get out. I started driving Uber, where I had to get my rage under control or lose my job and possibly die.

What I did not know—and could not foresee—was that Uber would bring me to a Zen-like state. It would soothe my soul like a river stone and bring me peace.

hxdbzxy via Shutterstock

I'm driving along San Francisco's Embarcadero, trying to pick up a passenger at the Ferry Building. There's a bike path to my right and I move into it while looking for the fare. Two bicyclists behind me start screaming at me for blocking their way. One slams his hand on the hood of my car.

I slam on the brakes and honk my horn. I get out and snarl, "Touch my car again and I'll kill you."

I see a meter maid coming toward me and I realize I'm about to lose my job and maybe go to jail. I beat it out of there and go park. Breathe, I tell myself. Breathe. It don't mean nothing.

It’s midnight on a Saturday and I pick up two tech bros. One apparently is the boss of the other, but they laugh and joke like buddies. I don’t pay much attention until I smell something horrible. One of them has just let loose a fart that would gag a maggot. They’re laughing; I’m not. But I bear it. We’re only a couple of blocks from their destination, the Fairmont Hotel. I figure I will let it pass and get on with the night.

We pull up. One guy gets out. The other does not. It’s the farter.

"Open the door for me," he says.

I’m incredulous. "You want me to get out and open your door for you?" I ask.

"Yes. This is Uber Black and the rules say you have to open my door for me," he says.

Did you ever have one of those moments where you see a whole world in your brain, an enormous and lengthy narrative of things in your life that you did, or wanted to do, or just how you see yourself? I saw myself in Iraq, dodging rocket-propelled grenades in Al Kut, and watching the statue of Saddam Hussein coming down in Firdos Square. I saw myself speaking to a rapt audience at the Commonwealth Club about the political situation in Iraq. Then I saw myself at the strip club, inviting an angry pro football player to take a punch, hoping he would. What went wrong?

I thought about getting out of the car and slamming the bro's head against the hood. It would feel so good. It would also get me fired. If I did as much as threaten this kid, I knew he could complain to Uber and they would not understand how insulting this job can be for someone who used to be somebody. Even as time stood still, the options swirled in my brain. OK, tough guy, now what?

I got out of the car, opened the door to the backseat and let him out. Somehow he had the good sense to remain silent and not make eye contact.

I told that story to a friend. He was unsympathetic.

"You got your feelings hurt by some rich asshole?" he asked. "Now you know how the rest of the world feels."

I do not consider myself poor. Last year, I made $43,000 before taxes, working about 30-50 hours a week as a driver. And I could have made more. Not a lot more. But more. That’s not a bad wage unless you live in the most expensive city in America. Which I do.

I like Uber. They pay on time and there's no nonsense. A lot of people hate the service, and want a lot of changes. Yeah, whatever. You know what I know? I know that if I drive a certain number of hours at certain times of the day, I will make money.

I drive for UberX, which means the company keeps 20% of all my fares. I pay for gas and maintenance and insurance. When it's all said and done, it's not a lot. But it's enough to get by, just barely in San Francisco if you are lucky enough to have a rent controlled apartment like I do.

I have heard some drivers who drive limos, or own black SUVs, like Navigators and Escalades, work the airport and make $80,000, $90,000 a year. I find that a little hard to believe, but there are always ways to improve your income. You have to be smart; you have to know the best times and places to be. You have an app on your phone, and when a passenger wants a ride, the system finds the nearest drivers and sends an alert. You take it or you don't. Some of this is pure luck, but you can help yourself by knowing where those good fares will come from.

The majority of the drivers at the airport on a Sunday morning are young Middle Eastern men. Uber is these recent immigrants' ticket to the American dream. The rest are older white men like me, along with a few white women, working a second job or in the second or third acts of their work lives. For many of them, the American dream isn't working out so well. A driver I know owns a home in a swanky San Francisco neighborhood, but she has no income. She could sell the home, but doesn't want to. So she rents out a room through Airbnb and drives Uber part time. That gives her enough cash to go on, but I always wonder, for how long?

More and more, passengers ask me about driving for Uber. Figures released last year showed Uber has more than 160,000 drivers in the United States. There were more than 20,000 in Los Angeles, and more than 15,000 in San Francisco alone. Uber doesn't care who you are and what you did in life, as long as you weren't a criminal. If you can drive and keep up your rating, you can work.

I think of Uber as a modern-day version of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Thanks to Uber, I am not poor. I am just . . . nobody.

When I first started driving, I talked to every passenger. I engaged in conversation about the city, life and politics. I told them about my work as a reporter, and as a strip club manager. I felt the need to say, "I'm not really an Uber driver. I am someone too. Just like you!"

Nobody cared.

I found that I could become visible or invisible at will. It’s about the voice. Say "please" and "thank you" and shut up and drive. Don’t make eye contact. People come in with their antenna up and on alert. Once they see you are no threat, they turn you off.

This crushes the ego. As it turns out in my case, that's a good thing. Next comes acceptance. I am a driver. I drive. I work and go home and then work again. I speak less and listen more. People drone on about their work and lives and I nod as if to agree even as I think, mostly, "what a wanker."

Only when they initiate conversation do I join in. It just doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.

And that's when the healing starts. It is Zen and the Art of Uber Driving.

Trip after trip, the miles beat you down. Where I once seethed at downtown traffic, I am now calm. I am now cool. Nothing bothers me. When some idiot is trying to cut in front of me, I care not a bit. I breathe slowly, my mouth open slightly. Sucking in oxygen, feeling the air move across my lips and into my lungs. Breathe. Focus. Feel. This is a moment. See it and be it and experience it.

The mind-numbing traffic. The destruction of ego. The loss of identity. These things teach you that you have no power. You have no control. Whatever power you thought you had was an illusion. That epiphany scares the hell out of you at first. And then it feels liberating.

You can let go.

I don't want to fight anyone anymore. I don't yell, I don't scream. I smile and wave when cabbies honk and flip me off. I let other drivers cut into my lane and think, "Go on, man, run to your meeting."

I don't care. I'm free.

It's late Saturday night. I'm out by San Francisco State University on the far edge of the city. I get called to take a couple to the hills of Daly City. When we get to their destination, the guy decides he wants go to the Mission District instead. But now—big surprise—the Uber app isn't working. I have no cell reception and neither does he. It's dark, it's late, it's isolated in those rolling hills. The guy says he'll give me $20 cash if I just drive them where they want to go. I'm not supposed to do that, but I don't have much of a choice. I agree.

It's about a 20-minute drive to the Mission and the fare would normally be about $12-$15. I pull up to a bar and they get out.

One thing you learn in the strip club world is: always get the cash up front. The guy pulls out a $5 bill and hands it to me. "I don't think that ride was worth $20," he says.

I look at the bill and a thousand thoughts go through my mind.

I laugh and take the bill. Because you know what? It just doesn't matter.

John Koopman is a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of McCoy's Marines: Darkside to Baghdad.

This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project a nonprofit devoted to journalism about inequality, and Capital & Main, a nonprofit covering news and politics in California.

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