Christmas Cheer — or Not

It was interesting driving for Uber the Friday and Saturday before Christmas. I miss having family around, so with nothing else going on, I went out to hit the road to spend some time with strangers during the holidays, be part of their stories, and make some money.

Oh that precious family time

I picked up a passenger from a bar in Chandler around 5 p.m. A big, athletic-looking white guy, he was in his mid-twenties, dressed decently with hair pulled into a ponytail and a neatly-trimmed beard. Smelling of hard liquor, he poured himself into the front seat.

During the ride, he told me he was on his way to a family holiday dinner at his parents. His buddy, who he’d known forever, was back from the military on leave and they’d met at a bar so my passenger could prepare himself for what lay ahead.

“My family is insane,” he said. “No way I was going into this shit show sober. In fact, I’m heading straight out to another bar to meet my buddy the minute we’re done.”

He explained that his family was fairly dysfunctional and not easy to deal with and then launched into a tale about his uncles. One had not married till later in life and had paid for a young Russian bride who already had a kid and there were some shenanigans early on. The family had not approved and there had been tension and finally a serious falling out. His other uncle had legally changed his name to Squid Liquid sometime in the 1990s and had apparently tried suing the creators of SpongeBob SquarePants over the character Squidward Tentacles because, according to his unconventional uncle, the character’s original name was supposed to be Squid Liquid, a clear violation of his privacy.

I nodded. Weird uncles happen. Shit, I’m probably one of them.

There was one thing from the conversation that chilled my blood. When I’d picked him up outside the bar, he was smoking and talking to a young black guy, a good friend from his youth who had joined the military and was back home on leave. An officer had told him and the rest of the men in his unit to be ready to ship out in the new year, probably to Korea.

“We’re going to war. I guarantee it,” said my passenger. “We have to end that asshole Kim Jong Un and his whole regime. And I don’t care what it takes in casualties. Gotta be done. Fuck Kim Jong Un and his fucked up haircut.”

We pulled into a nice neighborhood. His parent’s house sat on a large circular loop and he had me drive the long way around the backside of it out of sight of his parents’ house. He needed one more smoke to steel himself before walking down to dinner. We shook hands and wished each other a Merry Christmas.

My next ride was a high school kid, maybe eighteen and I was driving him across town. In contrast, he was tight with his family and he talked about how his dad had just died from smoking. I told him my dad had died from smoking-related illness too. It was a long ride and we had a good chat about a lot of different things. Poor kid would have given anything to have another Christmas with his dad. He shook my hand, and I wished him good luck.

To 9-1-1 or not to 9-1-1? That is the question.

Later that night, I’d accepted pickup for a long-distance ride and was hunting for an address in an older, shabby neighborhood in east Mesa to collect my rider.

So, the passenger was in a gated community. Of course, I didn’t realize this at the time, though if I lived in that neighborhood, I’d want as many gates as possible between me and the locals. God, I hate gated apartments and condos. Occasionally, the passenger forgets to text me the gate code and will get pissy when I call for it. To complicate things, sometimes they forget to put their unit number and the pickup pin on the app can be inaccurate. Typical needle in a haystack stuff.

Anyway, I was just creeping up and down the street trying to find what I assumed was a house but there was a gap where the pin on the map was showing it should be. I didn’t realize there was a tiny complex there and thought it might be storage buildings.

The street was not well lit, and the gate was flanked by bushes and set back in the shadows so that I drove past it twice without seeing it. I finally spotted it and pulled over; I was about to call the passenger when a car pulled up and the driver activated the gate, so I rolled in after it. Behind the gate was a small compound with neat, single-storey detached dwellings; it was a well-tended oasis hidden from the sleaziness of the rest of the neighborhood.

I started squinting as I looked for the unit numbers, but I realized something was off: what I’d thought was the unit number on my phone screen was actually the two-digit address for the complex, which was weird because most addresses were four digits, so I called the passenger, who didn’t answer right away. I thought it was going to voicemail when a really drunk woman who sounded middle-aged answered. Great. I love drunk passengers. Luckily for me, it turned out she wasn’t the passenger and had booked the ride for someone else. Unfortunately, she didn’t know the unit number so she fumbled with her phone and we soon had a three-way call going. The second woman who was the prospective passenger was not very talkative and was kind of evasive. Shit, this had all the hallmarks of being a difficult ride. She told me to go to unit 47.

Outside of unit 47, I waited. And waited. And waited. Maybe I’d misheard her. Unfortunately, the drunk woman was still on the line with me. Goddamn, she was hammered. She asked me what was going on. I told her I was waiting. She suggested I go knock on the door. I told her due to liability reasons, I wasn’t allowed to — I have no idea if that’s true, but I had no intentions of knocking on some stranger’s door to urge them to hurry the fuck up. As I waited, the drunk woman tried to set up another three-way call but failed.

I was just about to cancel the ride and move on to a better neighborhood when the door to unit 47 opened and a young woman came out, probably in her late twenties, and I told drunk lady we were in business. Then I noticed a man with the young woman; he was in in his late 30s early 40s. This guy was big, like Paul Bunyan big — seriously, maybe 6′ 7″. They both moved over to the driver’s window and I rolled it down.

“Are you the Uber ride?” she asked. No, I thought, I’m just some random guy, sitting here in front of your dwelling, idling my car at 10 p.m. for the hell of it. She sounded like she’d had a few adult beverages, but she was nowhere near as shitfaced as the other lady. I confirmed I was the Uber ride. Then the giant spoke up.

“Sorry, she’s not going to need a ride. You can take off.” He said it matter of factly, but with a lot of authority; he was someone used to being listened to.

Huh? Okaaaaaay. I’d been sitting there for 5 minutes — plus the time finding the gate and the unit. I was going to get a cancelation fee, but I would miss out on the long trip fare. I looked up at the young woman for confirmation but she wasn’t paying attention to me.

“Babe, babe, I have to go,” she groaned as if they’d been through this already. She seemed uneasy, like someone on a frozen lake who isn’t confident about the thickness of the ice.

He told her she wasn’t leaving and she said she needed to, but her conviction sank into the quicksand of his determination.

“No,” he said to her and then to me:

“She’s not leaving.”

“But…”

“If you are going anywhere, I’m driving you. That’s it.”

She sighed quietly. He leaned down and looked in the window.

“You can leave. Thank you,” his tone was firm and dismissive, polite only on the surface.

I glanced at the woman for a sign that she wanted me to leave. I felt like I was pressing my luck, and I really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Paul Bunyan since he could squash me with his thumb, but he wasn’t the passenger and I was waiting for the woman to tell me to leave. She didn’t say anything and reluctantly walked back to the unit with the giant, leaving me sitting there.

“What’s going on? Did you guys leave yet?” A voice slurred over my speakers. Oh geezus, I had forgotten the drunk woman was still on the phone. I told her the ride was off and explained what happened.

“Oh God! He’s so controlling,” she lamented. The lady kept babbling to me; half of what she said was unintelligible, and I struggled to get her off the phone.

sign m
Technically, I was loitering. Oops.

As I left the complex, I wondered what I should do, if anything. Was this woman trying to escape and afraid to leave and being coerced? Should I call the cops? Was it any of my business? That was the easy way out, a route I could walk in my sleep. I pulled over to the side of the road to give the situation some thought. Then I went and got a Coke Zero and a candy bar at the gas station about 200 yards down on the corner.

Inside, a dude was counting out many dollars worth of change for gas and the old Sihk behind the counter with a beard down past his belt sighed and looked resigned to his fate. I paid and went outside to make a decision. There was a motel on the other side of the fence from the gas station and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a sign announcing what kind of scumbags weren’t welcome. This was definitely not an area for high property values.

Getting back in my car and locking the doors suddenly seemed like a very good idea.

I started my car so I could head to greener pastures and then just as quickly I turned it off again. Was Paul Bunyan a scumbag? What if something happened to her? I would feel terrible — of course, I’d probably never know, but what if a woman I knew was in trouble and some stranger could have helped but didn’t?

But what if I made things worse? Maybe she had shitty friends and Paul Bunyan was actually an okay guy and trying to protect her and here I was about to fuck up his day. My brother used to have questionable acquaintances back in his drug and alcohol-fueled days that I tried to keep him away from. Whoever the drunk lady was, she didn’t seem like a paragon of virtue. But then again, maybe she was a hapless boozer doing her best to help out a friend in distress. Fuck…

I sat there weighing my options for many minutes. As time ticked by, finally I thought Geezus Layton, she could be beaten to death by now. Get a grip and quit temporizing you wishy-washy bastard!

In the end, I didn’t call 9-1-1 because it seemed like overkill since there was no overt threat of violence. But I did call the Mesa police dispatcher and explain the situation and asked them to do a welfare check. The dispatcher asked for Paul Bunyan’s description and then said she’d dispatch an officer. I felt like telling her she’d better send at least three; seriously, the guy probably weighed at least two-fifty, probably more. And there was an outside chance he’d be pissed (I know the address and will not be doing any pickups there in the future just in case he’s got a good eye for faces). She asked if I wanted the officer to call me back with an update. I was curious as to how it would turn out, but I already felt too much a part of their story so I declined unless the cop needed to talk to me. Before I hung up, she told me I did the right thing.

And then I went on my way.

Someone is on the naughty list

Around 1 a.m., I picked up a young man from his house and we drove a few miles to pick up his wife. She was sitting on a curb behind the restaurant she worked at, her hoodie pulled up, smoking a cigarette.

“There’s she is,” said the guy with an edge to his voice.

She got in the back with him and they asked me to stop at a gas station and I said sure. As we drove along, he began talking about some social media account with her name on it he’d found. She said it wasn’t hers, that she’d closed it a long time ago. He said he found it linked to someone she knew, and she said it must belong to someone else with her name. Protesting, she began scrolling through her phone, trying to prove her innocence by showing him all the women on Facebook with her name.

He wasn’t backing down and kept countering her protestations and while things stayed civil tension was building. Something had happened in the past. I didn’t know what it was, but her hubby was doing his best Sherlock Holmes. As much as being a voyeur can be entertaining, it can be downright uncomfortable at times. Like at that particular moment. It’s crazy what a couple will talk about in my car. I kind of hate when people treat me as invisible. Wait till you get home to fight about this stuff. Maybe this is what an aristocrat’s butler felt like back in the day. I felt like leaving them at the gas station but didn’t. Even though the ride was only a couple miles, it felt like forever. It was long enough for me to wonder if there would be divorce proceedings in the new year.

After the gas station, I dropped off the unhappy couple at their house.

Christmas cheer

In spite of all the anti-holiday drama, my Christmas weekend was full of holiday cheer. I didn’t have family around, but I did have lots of places I was invited to and I made the rounds as best I could and was thankful to spend some drama-free, quality time with my friends.

What more could I ask for? (Other than the bottle of port a friend got me. Cheers!)

Copyright: jackf / 123RF Stock Photo
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