Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Uber Diaries: Respect the Grind

(Note: This is a story I wrote for an upcoming book. This one didn't make the final cut, but I still like it.)

Pickup: Sentinel Hotel

The passenger is average height, but an athletic build. He gets into the van with a duffel bag I assume is luggage. I swipe the app to reveal the destination and am a little surprised he’s not headed to the airport. Instead, he’s going to the Nike employee store, so I break out my standard joke for that destination.

“So, are you prepared to lose your NCAA eligibility over this?”

He chuckles a little bit and says, “Yeah, I think I’m okay.”

There is a bit of reality in that joke. At the entrance to the Nike employee store there’s a sign that says, in effect, shopping at the store constitutes receiving a gift from Nike and shopping there could result in a loss of NCAA eligibility.

For most people, that sign isn’t much of a problem. First, it is extraordinarily hard to get an entry pass to the store. Columbia Sportswear and Adidas have employee stores in the Portland area and it’s not hard to figure out how to shop there if you do a little digging. But with Nike, you have to know someone who works there and bring photo ID and proof of current address such as a utility bill. So it’s almost impossible anyone could stumble into the store and, say, accidentally get kicked off the Duke basketball team.

Second, as a percentage of the population, there aren’t all that many people with enough talent to be college athletes. Many people harbor dreams of competing at that level, and most will have to give up those dreams one day. You usually don’t get anything as a reward when you give up your dreams of playing college football. But if you shop at the Nike employee store, at least you get half-price sneakers in exchange.

The passenger is well dressed and looks as if he could easily afford to pay full price for his sneakers. After some prodding, he admits he plays for the NFL. He’s a running back and has been in the league for about 8 years.

It’s April and I ask a few questions about how much training you have to do in the off-season (answer: a lot, it’s pretty much a year-round thing) and then I ask another question:

“You make your living playing a game. It’s a difficult game, to be sure, but it’s a game. And I’m assuming you started playing that game because it was fun. Now that you’ve been doing it as your job for 8 years, how much of it is still fun.”

He thinks for a moment and begins telling a story:

“When you’re a rookie in the NFL, yeah, there’s some hazing, but when you step out there on that field on Sunday morning, it’s as cool as you would imagine it would be. In fact, it’s cooler than that. When you walk out there for the first time… every kid dreams of that, and now you’re there. And it’s cooler than you’d imagine.

“However, if you’re not careful, you can start to become ungrateful. You’ll start to take it for granted, and you can get a bad attitude.”

When the ride ended, I Googled my passenger and discovered he was drafted in the first round and had a few great seasons. Then he got injured and lost a whole season. When he came back the next year, he had lost his form. But he kept improving and, in the season that had ended a few months earlier, he had completed a career-year and was on his way to becoming his team’s all-time leading rusher. I didn’t know this at the time, but it makes sense when you hear the rest of his story.

He continued:

“But if you’re lucky, you can push through that bad attitude and get some of that gratefulness back. And that’s where I am now. It’s a grind, but I see it as a thing that gets me back out onto that field each Sunday. And here’s the thing, it’s still as cool as ever to be out there. That doesn’t go away.

“Now don’t get me wrong, I hate practice. And you would not believe how many boring meetings we have to go to. So is it still a grind? Yes. But now, I respect the grind.”

He hits this punchline just as we’re pulling into the driveway of the Nike Store. He had managed to tell a good story with a beginning, middle, and end, and managed to make it end at the perfect time. And when I see that, I can only have one reaction.

“Wow, you’ve had media training, haven’t you?”

He just smiles and gives a slight nod.

“I can tell you, they got you the good stuff.”

He walks away and eventually vanishes into the Nike Store. Nine months later, he will score a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

Dropoff: Nike Employee Store, Beaverton

Friday, November 11, 2016

Save Your Outrage

Just home after an evening of driving. I usually work a little bit later, but I decided to cut things short. As I write this, police are clashing with rioters in downtown Portland. Shop windows have been shattered. Buildings and street signs are covered with anti-Trump graffiti. Rioters pulled a guy out of his Jeep because he had American flags on his car.

I understand the anger and fear these protesters are feeling because I’m feeling it, too. We have made probably the worst electoral decision in the history of this country, a decision that may well threaten the very foundations of the democracy we live in and the constitutional system of checks and balances that Americans hold dear.

These are scary times. I haven’t had a good night’s rest since Tuesday and I’ve got that “just about ready to puke” feeling in the back of my throat.

But these riots are bullshit.

Let’s start with the name: Not My President. Sorry to inform you, but he is, or at least he will be come January. Trump won the election. Period. Granted, he won on a technicality and more people voted for Hillary, but this is how we elect the president. I’d love to see that change, but for now, we’re stuck with the crappy Electoral College.

One of the biggest sins of the right over the past 8 years was the relentless campaign to deny Obama’s legitimacy as a president by claiming he wasn’t really American. It was notable during the debates that Trump called Obama “your president.” That was wrong. And it’s also wrong to deny that Trump will legitimately be president, no matter how much you want that to not be true.

And while a night of angry but peaceful protest might be useful to send the message that the next president will not have broad popular support, what’s happening now is an adult version of a temper tantrum.

Because the problem is that Trump hasn’t done anything yet. Yes, it’s lead a despicable life and said and done horrible things during the campaign and been basically a walking symbol of everything that is wrong with America. But this is not something we just learned yesterday. We’ve always known this, and despite that fact, people still voted for him. And since he won, he’s done exactly two things: he gave a surprisingly gracious acceptance speech, and he went to the White House and did and said what he was supposed to do. That’s it.

So if you’re out rioting in the streets now, it’s really because you’re upset the candidate you didn’t like won. But that’s not yet a sufficient grievance. Mobs don’t get to overturn an election.

On retaining wall by the freeway, someone wrote in 20-foot high letters: FUCK TRUMP.

Fuck Trump?

Fuck you.

Trump is a terrible person and I have every reason to believe he will be a terrible president. But Portland is great. Why are you trashing our city? It’s not going to make Trump any better, but it will make our city worse. And if things start going really bad with a Trump Administration, this is all we’ve got. We’ve got a great city to live in and we should all put a lot of energy into making it even better because that may be the only thing we have control over during the dark days ahead.

Instead, people can’t go out at night and it will cost thousands of dollars to clean up the damage. And you’re doing this to a city whose population rejected Trump by a margin of something like 10-1. You’re not even punishing the people to did this to you, but instead you’re making things bad for the people who tried to stop it.

My advice: save your outrage.

Trump has promised to do a lot of awful things and at times seems unconcerned with how the government works and the constitutional limits to his power. There are legitimate fears that he will move to limit free speech rights, suppress the free press, and persecute religious minorities. If Trump does (or even tries to do) these things or any other of the scores of terrible things he’s proposed, I will be right out on the streets exercising my right to assembly and peaceful protest.

But for now, save your outrage. You’re going to need it.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Uber Diaries: The Crying Woman

Pickup: Tanasbourne

I pull up to a park and there's a couple waiting on the sidewalk. I push the button to open the sliding door and they're having a serious talk and she's crying. They look over at me and I say "take your time" as I push the button to close the door.

After a couple of minutes, the man walks away and the woman gets in the car. She's crying, and not the type of cry you'd expect when you're riding in a stranger's car. Usually, you'd expect heaving shoulders and muffled sobs as the person tries to hold it together during the short ride. But this woman is weeping loudly like a widow at a mafia funeral.

I have never seen this woman in my life and have no idea what she and the man were talking about or what has her so upset. But I look at the map and I know exactly where we're going, and I know more about the back story than I probably should.

Three months ago, I picked up the man from this very location. We went to the grocery store and he went inside and bought some diapers, then we drove them over to the house I'm taking the woman to now. After that, I took him to work. The ride took 30 minutes, and he talked the whole time.

This happens sometimes. People get into the car and they just want to unload. I'm not bothered by this and actually consider it a bit of a privilege to be able to provide such a service. Once a woman who was dealing with some difficult stuff apologized for unloading it on me, and I said something I've repeated to a lot of other passengers:

"It's fine. Just dump all that crap into this car. Get as much of it out as you can. When this ride is over, I'll drive away with all that crap and find a place to dump it, and you will never see me or that crap again."

I actually said that exact same thing to the man who was standing on the side of the road, but I didn't count on actually seeing him again. And I certainly didn't imagine I'd meet the woman he was talking about.

So I know about this woman in the back of my car... or at least I know some things about this woman.

I know she and the man are both young, maybe 22 or 23. And I know they have a daughter together who's still an infant.

I know he wants a relationship with her (or at least did three months ago) and she does not.

I know she wanted to get an abortion when she learned she was pregnant, but he talked her out of it.

I know things are not good between her and the man on the side of the street.

I know she subtly resents her child to taking her youth away and resents him for convincing her to go through with the pregnancy and not offer the child up for adoption.

I know her parents hate the man who knocked up their daughter, and actually have a restraining order out on him. When we dropped the diapers off at her house he had to leave them on the doorstep and jog away saying, "I'm technically not supposed to be here."

I know she's had  a history of depression.

I know the man is crazy about the daughter they have together and he says it has changed the course of his life, a life that has had more than a few troubled patches.

I know he was a little buzzed as I dropped him off for the graveyard shift at his work. I know he operates heavy equipment at his work.

I know all of this is absolutely none of my business, and mentioning a word of this to the sobbing woman in my car would probably freak her out.

So we drive for 5 minutes, but it feels like a lot longer. I've got all this knowledge, but it's completely worthless at this moment. It's not going to comfort her, or give her perspective, or anything. It's not going to solve the problems or the pain in her life right now.

The only thing I can really offer her is a Kleenex.

She takes the Kleenex, wipes off her cheeks and runs out of the car and into her house.

I drive away.

Drop off: Five Oaks

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Uber Diaries: Uber For Rich People.

Pickup: Portland International Airport.

The guy had airport ID and a "crew"tag on his bag, so I imagined he worked for an airline, but I didn't recognize the logo on his shirt.

"We need to pick up my friend at the Atlantic terminal before we head out to the hotel."

The Atlantic terminal is the place where private or charter planes land. It's not the sort of place a "normal" person would normally go to, and certainly not a place where there would be many Uber pickups. But it turns out, I knew exactly where the Atlantic terminal was because it's where the Timbers landed after winning the MLS Western Division championship last winter.
We pick up the second passenger and are on our way to Beaverton. One person is from Denver, while the other is from California's central coast. It seems like they may not have seen each other for a couple of weeks and they spend part of the ride catching up.

Once that was done, I had some questions about their work. What sort of charter flights do they work on?

"It's a service where you can call up and get a plane to take you where you want to go. It's kind of like Uber for rich people."

I ask how much like Uber it really is. How long do you have to wait between calling for an airplane and taking off?

"It depends on a few things, mostly the level of service you choose, Normally you'll have to wait about one day, but if you've put enough money into this, you can get a plane in a couple of hours sometimes."

The guy from Denver chimes in:

"For us, we get at least two hours notice before we need to take off. So we know we've got this thing going out of Hillsboro and down to California, and we'll probably be in San Diego and Orange County this week, but that could all change."

As I listen, this all sounds very attractive to me. I kind of like the idea of getting a phone call and hopping on a plane to a destination you didn't know at the start of the day. It's like of like driving Uber, where you never know where you'll be in the next hour, but with even bigger distances.

The rest of the ride was spent talking about different sorts of planes, the insane security the Secret Service requires when the President travels, and, of course. the Faroe Islands. Because how can you have an Uber ride without talking about the Faroe Islands.

I like these guys a lot, and as I drop them off, I wish I could chat with them more, and maybe I'll pick them up for another ride one day. But there's pretty much no chance I'll ever meet them at their work. The "private jet on demand" world will probably never be within my financial reach.

As they take their bags out of the back of the vehicle, I offer them each a firm handshake and say, "Thanks for using Uber for poor people."

Drop off: DoubleTree Beaverton.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Uber Diaries: Federal Pen

Pickup: Portland International Airport

As I pull up to the curb, the app sends me a text message saying I should be looking for “a tall Asian man in a Zoo York sweatshirt.” I don’t usually get messages like this. The only time this happens is when a parent has sent me to pick up their kid at a middle school activity (this happens more often than you’d think).

So I sit at the curb and eventually I see the guy. He’s wearing a Zoo York hoodie, sweatpants, and sandals with socks. He has no luggage. I imagine he’s dropped off a friend or works at the airport or something.

“I need to go to Sheridan,” he says.

“The Sheraton by the airport?” I reply.

“No, Sheridan, Oregon.”

“I think there’s a Sheraton downtown. Let me look that up.”

“Sheridan, Oregon.”

“Oh, the town. There’s a town called Sheraton?”

Eventually we work it out and I see that the town, which I’ve never been to or heard of before, is about 75 miles south of the airport.

“I’m turning myself in at the federal prison in Sheridan.”

He explains that he can’t have anything with him when it surrenders, so he doesn’t have his cell phone with him. His wife was the one who set up the ride. As he’s explaining this, a message comes up on my phone:

“Sorry, I shouldn’t be doing this but can u tell my husband I love him very much always and forever so sorry again.”

The drive to Sheridan is about 90 minutes. During the long drive, he tells me about his daughter who’s 10 and the mortgage business he used to run in Central California. It was in that business where the troubles began.

I didn’t ask exactly what he did, but it had something to do with the go-go days of the mortgage bubble when, as he put it, “something was legal, and then one day it’s illegal.”

He says he’s been sentenced to 40 months, but he has 47 months of credit, so there’s a chance they’ll just turn him around and send him right back home. But maybe not. The process seems a little like changing colleges, he’s not sure what credits will transfer or how long it will take the feds to figure everything out. His attorney says it could take 13 weeks before everything is straightened out. So he doesn’t really know what’s going to happen. He just knows he has to show up to prison. Today.

I joke, “So if you’ve been sentenced to 40 months, and you’ve got 47 months credit, you should get some sort of voucher that you can redeem later. It’s like you could go out and commit a crime that would usually get you six months for and you’ve already got the credit.”

Amazingly, he laughs at this.

We get about 10 miles from Sheridan and he says, “I’m told this is the nicest prison camp in the federal system.”

He’ll be in a minimum security prison camp and spend most of his day working on various projects, maybe landscaping, maybe highway cleanup, that sort of thing. At his camp, there will be no fences, no walls, no razor wire. But if you walk off, you end up in the real prison, serving real hard time.

At a nearby town, we stop at a bank. He came with money because he thought he would need it. But upon landing, he learned he can’t bring anything inside with except ID and the clothes on his back, maybe a wallet. So he deposits the money and we drive the last few miles to the prison.

It’s been rainy in Oregon these last few months, but as we pull up to the prison, the sun has come out and it’s a gorgeous late morning. The facility has the minimum security prison camp, and a proper prison, with the fences and the razor wire… I’m guessing medium security.

I don’t know which way to turn towards. That’s when I see the lawn sign that points towards the regular looking prison and says, “Self Surrender.”

I pull into the parking lot and hand the guy my phone. I tell him to go outside the car for some privacy and call his wife. I can’t help but empathize with the guy. We’re about the same age, have kids about the same age, probably about the same socioeconomic status. If I really got myself in trouble and ended up in prison, I imagine this is what it would look like.

 I try not to listen to his phone call, but I hear him tell his wife he loves her and that he’s made a bunch of videos for his daughter on the phone he’s left at home.

When he’s done, he opens the car door, hands me my phone, and thanks me for the call. Then he puts two pens and small note pads down on the passenger seat.

“I can’t bring these inside, so you can just have them.”

They’re now on our kitchen counter. My wife uses them to make shopping lists for me. My daughter scribbles on them, making the lists illegible.

He stands in the parking lot for a moment and is about ready to walk towards the door. Just then, a van pulls up and three guys with shotguns get out. The back door of the van opens and a man in an orange jumpsuit gets out. His legs are chained together and he’s making the slow, shuffling walk towards the door as the guys with shotguns watch.

My passenger decides to stay in the parking lot a few moments longer. I put the car in “drive” and head back to Portland.

Drop off: Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Musical Memories: David Bowie, "Life On Mars?"

Despite being a huge music nerd as a kid, I can only say I liked David Bowie back then, as opposed to being a fan. I knew most of the hits and when the album “Let’s Dance” came out along with its music videos on heavy rotation on MTV, I liked that a lot. I was also aware of Bowie’s influence on most of the music I liked as a teenager (David Gahan’s performance of Bowie’s “Heroes” was what convinced Depeche Mode to make Gahan their lead singer).

But that respect and enjoyment didn’t translate into complete fandom. I didn’t own any David Bowie records and didn’t obsess over the various personas Bowie took on at various points in his career.

That all changed when I was 33. I had gotten a Border’s gift card for Christmas and I used it to buy a “Best of Bowie” CD because it was a little embarrassing that I owned none of his music. About a week later, I started a solo drive from Los Angeles to Washington DC, so I had some time to listen to a lot of music.

I got around to listening to the Bowie CD just outside of Memphis. It started with “Space Oddity” (everyone knows that one), then “The Man Who Sold The World” (oh, that’s right, that Nirvana song was a cover), then “Changes” (great to sing along to if there’s nobody else in the car).

Then came track four, “Life on Mars?” I was caught completely off guard. I’ll admit, my mind was drifting a bit when the song started, but by the time it ended I was entranced. I hit the “back” button on the CD player and listened again, trying to make sense of the inscrutable lyrics and epic scope of the arrangement.

I’ve no doubt there are online message boards where people argue endlessly about what exactly the song means. But like many great works of art, you can see whatever you want in it. For me, it was pretty straightforward. “Life on Mars?” is about alienation. It’s about looking around you in disgust and wondering if there’s anything better anywhere else and fearing you won’t ever have access to it. It’s exactly how I felt as a teenager growing up in Rochester, New York.

I hit the “back” button on the CD player and listen again. I think, “How could I have gone 33 years without hearing this song? Where were you during puberty? I really could have used you during puberty.” Despite this, my teenage years all of the sudden seemed retroactively less lonely. After all, someone else wrote a song about the same thing when I was just a few months old, this sort of feeling must be pretty common.

I hit the “back” button again.

The experience of listening to the song is similar to riding a rollercoaster. In fact, if you close your eyes, you can even see the dips and turns. It starts off quiet and slow, like you’re rolling out of the loading area. Then you slowly creep up the hill. When Bowie belts out “Sailors…” that’s your first plunge. It takes your breath away in the same way. By the time he sings “oh man”, you’ve bottomed out and the momentum is carrying you up the next hill. Then he sings “take a look at the LAW MAN…” and you’re down the second hill. By the time you hit, “Is there life on Mars?” you’re rounding a banked turn. After more twists and turns, you’re returned safely to the place where you started, dizzy, out of breath, and ready to take the ride again.

I hit the “back” button again, and again, and again.

After about an hour, I pause the music and call my go-to guy for all things Bowie: Sam. I ask him about the song, why he’d never played it for me before (I think the answer was something like, “you’ve really never heard that song before?”).

I stop for lunch outside Knoxville. Then I get back in the car, and turn on the song again. When it ends, I hit the “back” button. I repeat this process for another 9 hours as I drive towards Washington. I feel like I need to make up for the last 20 years of not listening to this song.

After that, I went back and dove more deeply into the rest of the catalog and really started to appreciate the staggering influence Bowie had on much of the music I loved and how much great stuff he himself put out. And now, all these years later, I still come back to “Life on Mars?” on a regular basis, whenever I need it.

So now, when the unexpected news of Bowie’s death is in the news, it’s his own song and his voice that’s helping to soothe the sadness. That’s quite a gift to give a stranger. Thank you.

Friday, June 06, 2014

A Letter to Nate

This week, Nate and Will have been having a pretend camp experience at school, complete with tents and shirts that have been worn all week and are starting to smell. As part of that, we had to write the kids letters as if they were away at camp. The letter to Nate went a little like this...

June 3, 2014

Dear Nathan,
Oh, what sorrow we felt when you left us to attend Camp Learned-A-Lot. In our grief, we threw away all of our furniture, painted our house black, and dressed Eliza up in your clothes so we could pretend she was you. (This did not work well, just ask Eliza.)

We simply didn’t know what to do without you around. I had taken to going to the brown chair in the living room and shouting, “Nate, stop sitting on the arm of the chair,” despite the fact that you weren’t there… and the fact that the chair wasn’t there either because I had thrown it away with all the rest of our furniture. This behavior concerned your mom greatly and she advised I take up a hobby to occupy my spare time.

So now I’m happy to announce I’ve turned most of our (mostly empty) house into a dog kennel. A dog kennel is basically a hotel for dogs, except there’s no swimming pool and we don’t put tiny chocolate mints on the dog’s pillows at night. Also, you’re allowed to use the bathroom in the yard, which is generally forbidden at hotels that humans use. Staying with us right now, we have a Scottish terrier named Tiki, a boxer named Cha Cha, a poodle who answers to the name of Congressman Jonesboro, a collie named Briefcase, and another collie named Briefcase 2, Electric Boogaloo. We also have a sixth dog named Eric. We don’t know what kind of dog he is and we suspect he may be a man dressed in a dog costume. We’re not veterinarians, so we can’t tell for sure and we’d hate to kick him out because Eric is, by far, the best behaved animal in the kennel. So we’ve decided not to pursue the matter further.

Eliza misses you very much and she expresses it by saying things like, “I get to use the iPad all by myself” and “let’s watch another episode of ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.’” Sometimes Eliza will express her longing for her big brother by singing songs. One goes a little like this:

“I miss my brother Nate, I miss my brother Nate, I miss my brother Nate, where is my princess doll?”

Right about this part of the song, Briefcase 2 will start licking Eliza and she’ll run away screaming, “leave me alone, Briefcase 2!”

Needless to say, we are all anxious for you to return and to hear stories of camp and to discover what you’ve learned. We have missed having your sweet personality in our home and we love you very much.

With Much Love,


P.S. We will make sure we get rid of all the dogs before you come home, including Eric.

P.P. S. What is 133+465? I’m just wondering.

Unlike his brother, Nate instinctively got it when he read the letter. Nate's reply included an order to "GET RID OF THOSE DOGS AT ONCE" and the P.S. was the answer to the math problem, followed by his own mathematical question. 

A Letter To Will

It's the second-to-last day of school here in The Beav, and the kids are doing a special "Camp Learned-a-Lot" activity. Basically, they pretend they're at camp. There are tents in the classroom, and they all wear the same shirt. That sort of thing. As part of that activity, parents were supposed to write a letter to their kids as if they were at camp. Julie was too busy to write, so it was all up to me. And when it's all up to me, this is what happens...

June 3, 2014

Dear William,
It seems like just yesterday you were sitting in our living room, scattering Legos everywhere, and asking if you could use the iPad. Those were good times for us, and many happy memories remain.

But alas, you’ve run off to Camp Learned-A-Lot and it sounds as if you have been having a great time. While you’ve been gone, we’ve been occupying our time by making giant replicas of you and Nathan. We’ve constructed them out of rolled up newspapers and articles of clothing you didn’t pack off with you. Newspaper Nathan and William are not very good at eating their breakfast in the morning. Our table now has piles of uneaten eggs and honey toast that are starting to attract ants. However, Eliza likes the fact that Newspaper Nathan and William are good at sharing and always want to play princess and watch “Olivia.” So the experiment is not a complete failure.

In your absence, we have decided to rent your room out to a nice family from Latvia. There is a father named Edgars, and a mother named Inga. They have five children, three boys named Ivars, Juris, and little Edgars Jr, and girls named Rita and Scratchy. The rent they pay has made us rich beyond our wildest dreams, but there have been some considerable drawbacks.

First off, our new Latvian friends consume an enormous amount of grey peas and bacon. I’m told it’s Latvia’s national dish, but it looks quite disgusting and grey peas are almost impossible to find in Oregon. Also, they leave caraway cheese around the house. It’s this traditional yellow cheese with little seeds inside. It has a strong smell and I fear our whole house will smell like this cheese by the time you return. They’ve also taken to singing the Latvian national anthem during the early morning hours. While I’m sure their national anthem is a song they’re very proud of, I can assure you it’s not the sort of tune you want waking you up at 3 in the morning.

Needless to say, we miss you dearly and can’t wait for your return from camp. We’re interested to hear about the things you’ve been learning and hope you’ve been having good experiences there. We are proud to call you our son.

With Much Love,


P.S. Don’t forget to write.
P.P.S. Please take at least one shower while at camp.
P.P.P.S. Why is there air?

Will's reaction to this letter was... well... not all that positive, Both in writing, and in person, Will said the letter was "confusing" and handed it back to me, even when I said it was for him and he should keep it.

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