It’s a beautiful Tuesday afternoon and I turned my Uber driver application off for a minute while I go into a Starbucks to use the restroom. I notice two guys talking, not at the same table talking but talking across the aisle like they maybe just met and struck up a conversation.
After I use the facilities, I went back outside to sit in a chair and read a book until I get my next passenger. Less than two minutes my phone dings. I have one on the hook. And he (I assume by the name) is right inside Starbucks. Weird.
I text the passenger and tell him I’m outside waiting. Fifteen seconds later he pushes the door opens and starts doing the typical Uber rider thing and starts scanning license plates. He finds me. Opens the front door and throws his backpack on the floor. He shakes my hand and introduces himself.
His ride is 12 minutes away at a Dairy Queen. Bold move going from a Starbucks to a Dairy Queen but when a man gets a hankering for a Dilly Bar or a Belt Buster, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
“You don’t look like an Uber driver,” he says. “You’re not an Uber driver.”
“I don’t know. Some say I am,” I tell him.
“What’s the matter? Is the government not paying you enough?”
I try not to be offended. It seems like he’s insinuating that I’m some type of government assistance or something. Strange.
“What do you do?” he asks.
“I’m an unemployed writer,” I say.
“I’m a writer too,” he says.
“Oh really. What are you writing?”
“The Book of Life,” he says. “Scary huh?”
“Yeah, that sounds like a scary idea,” I said.
“So where did you work?” he asks.
I tell him about my last stop in the newspaper business. I’m about to explain how long and what I did, etc. when he interrupts again.
“You ever think about Albuquerque or Santa Fe?”
“No I haven’t,” I said. It’s a strange question but this guy said he was a writer so I thought maybe he had a friend who had a friend or something.
“Let me show you some pictures,” he says and opens his phone. “Hey you want to do something a little extra? We have time. Turn here.”
I hit the brakes hard and make a right into a business complex. The complex is a series of white nondescript buildings situated around a giant circle drive. I’d been through there before and it always seems to be a little bit confusing.
“Turn left up here and let’s go behind these buildings,” he says.
Okay, I thought. Ignoring the map, I follow his directions. I look back to see the photos of New Mexico when he hits me with another story.
“I have a story for you. Do you know they don’t have a homeless shelter for men in Plano [Texas]?”
“No,” I said. “I did not know that.”
I’m starting to think something is wrong but I thought this guy was just spacey, couldn’t focus, wanted to make small talk, a whole lot of small talk.
“They have a place for battered women,” he continues, “and a place for teenagers but nothing for men. Not that I’m homeless.”
“Well, technically, I am, but it’s because my dad’s mad at me right now.”
It’s getting weirder. Not that he — maybe — lived with his dad or that he was homeless (hey, we’ve all been there), it’s that these topics seem out of place a little bit.
“Let me see … where am I,” he says. “Turn left up here.”
“You would think that they would want all the sex offenders in one place so that they could keep an eye on them,” he said.
I’m starting to wonder where we are headed. I’ve never really been scared of somebody in my car as a driver but we are driving behind a lot of buildings with nobody around. I pay attention and keep driving. We pull up to another stop sign with a large building in front of us and a heavy barrier keeping us from going forward.
“That’s Homeland Security,” he says.
“Turn right. Those bushes there,” he points. “Those are all thorn bushes. You’re not climbing over that fence.”
I wouldn’t want to. I’m not much of a fence climber. Where is this all headed?
He leans up in the seat as we approach the building’s front parking lot. “Let me see if Mike Hill is working,” he said. And then he continues his story about the County having enough money to build a shelter but they won’t.
I notice the company’s name on a sign in front of the building: Blank and Blank Technology Company of some kind.
“Says it’s a technology company,” I said. “Is that a front for Homeland Security?” I was trying to make a joke.
“You should know,” he said.
What the fuck did that mean? It’s a glancing blow. He just talking. He’s a joker. He’s trying to be funny.
Turns out there was nothing extra. That was it. I guess he just wanted to show me a building in this complex. He said he worked there when he was younger laying cable for the technology department. We get back on route and he keeps talking about different topics: his education, his first and fourteenth amendment rights and how they have been violated by a justice obstructing cop, and how “they are listening to everything we say.”
This is the second or third time he has mentioned this ambiguous “they.”
“Who are they? And what are they listening to? I ask.
“They are using this phone to listen to everything.”
“Who is listening?” I repeat.
“The government,” he said.
Okay, now I know what’s going on. I’m being punked. There’s a camera crew following us and this guy is miked up to see how far he can get me to go. I’m not buying it.
“Did you get a degree?” he asks.
“No, I did not,” I told him.
“Do you have press credentials?”
I take a glance at him to see if he’s joking again. “No I don’t.”
“Ha … I caught you didn’t I?”
The picture is started to become clearer now. He wants me to think that he thinks I work for the government and I’m undercover somehow working with Uber in the off-chance that I might pick him up and spy on him. Why I needed to spy on him in person when he has his phone is beyond me, but I play along for the cameras.
“Yeah I guess you did.
He goes on to tell me about his Christian experience and living by guidance from the holy spirit.
“Go ahead and say something against the holy spirit,” he said, “see what happens.”
“I don’t have a problem with the holy spirit,” I said.
“If Jesus can get his ass kicked by a bunch of guys and hold no animosity, I can do it too,” he said.
“I guess so.”
“People say I’m crazy,” he said.
Okay, now this has gone too far. I don’t see any car following us so maybe the camera is in his bag or something. Or maybe he’s a method actor getting ready to play a strange guy who takes Uber rides all over the city and he’s using me for research. Something is going on. It’s gotta be something.
I continue with the game.
“Who told you that you were crazy? Do you believe them?” I asked.
“Now you sound like a psychologist or a therapist or something,” he said.
“You don’t have to believe what they tell you,”I said.
We less than a minute from his destination when he changes topics again.
“Do you know where I can get a haircut around here?” he asks.
“No,” I said, “I’m not from this neighborhood but I’m sure there are places around here.”
It was pretty obvious. Everyone knows that every shopping center in the suburbs has a donut place, a dry cleaners, a nail salon and a Great Clips. It’s called urban planning.
He goes on to tell me that in addition to the shortage in homeless shelters, there’s also a dearth of laundromats in the suburbs. That makes sense.
“I have to take my clothes to a cleaners,” he said. Then he points to the cleaners in behind the Dairy Queen. I guess he isn’t going for Dilly Bars after all. He’s going to pick up his jeans and t-shirts.
“If you want to hang around I’m about to call another Uber,” he said. “If you want to make a little money.”
In fact, I do, I thought. So I pull up in front of the cleaners and close out the ride and turn on my Lyft app too. I’m going to get a ride quickly.
“Where do you go to church?” he asks.
“I’m multi-denominational,” he says. “Some people are non-denominational, I’m multi-denominational. You know what that means?”
“It means I believe in the Catholics, the Lutherans, the Methodists. It also means 1 dollar, five dollar, ten dollar and twenty dollar.”
“Oh, I see.”
“If you want to make some more money, I’m about to call another Uber.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To get a haircut,” he said.
About that time, my phone dinged again. “Oh look there, I have another ride.”
He opens the door and grabs his backpack. “I was thinking about going to the airport.”
And then he shut the door and walked off. I never saw the camera van but I’m almost convinced that he was indeed a method actor working on his next role.
I wish him well.