May Web Feature
The Ping Not Taken
– Storey Clayton
In 1998, the year I graduated high school, Gwyneth Paltrow starred in a movie called “Sliding Doors.” The basic premise of the film was to illustrate the momentous differences in one’s life that can hinge on a comparatively small matter of timing: e.g., making it through sliding doors on a subway train or just missing them. While the movie (spoiler alert?) illustrates a literal life-or-death difference in the ultimate outcome, Hollywood couldn’t resist making a cutesy ironic point about destiny in the end, since Paltrow’s protagonist ultimately leaves her boyfriend in both storylines, loses her baby in both storylines, and ends up in love with the same new guy in both storylines.
Real life, of course, is probably not governed by such an attachment to destiny. When you just miss the train, certain experiences you might have had thereon are forever lost, while new possibilities are created through the later train. The odds of this being a life-changing decision are probably lower for any given train-ride than they are for, say, jobs offered and taken or not, or the college one chooses to attend. In 1998, I myself was choosing where to go to school and at one point became utterly overwhelmed by how much of my future life would stem from this single choice. I had full rides to Brandeis and UC-Berkeley and realized that all of my new friends for the next four years, plus the path my life would take geographically and professionally, would all be traceable to this one binary decision. Internalizing it was so paralyzing that I had to will myself not to think about it. I ultimately chose Brandeis. And while I regretted the decision at several junctures (it’s an aesthetically ugly campus filled with Stalinist architecture and many of the first classmates I encountered seemed sad to be there, preferring colleges I’d declined to attend that had not admitted them), I ultimately think I made the right choice. If nothing else, reconsidering the decision also means erasing many of my closest friends and immediately becomes unimaginable. Even if those friends would be replaced by other (perhaps equally good) friends who went to Berkeley, the counter-factual seems impossible to retroactively entertain.
Admittedly, which Uber rider is paired with which driver is a lot more like a mundane train ride in its import than where one goes to college. And yet I spend a little bit of each night fascinated by the amount of willful randomness involved in letting an automatic app match me with riders and arrange the constellation of my travels. The app is not really in the driver’s seat, so to speak, since I control where I steer my vehicle and, importantly, which pings to accept. I, like most serious drivers, accept almost all pings that don’t involve driving well out of my way and prioritize those which offer significant surge. But there are times when I’m barreling toward an area of surge on the map and, just on its edge, get a ping that is offered at the regular fare.
Sometimes I take these fares and sometimes I don’t. There was a period when three straight pings I accepted in these circumstances all ended up giving me a significant cash tip (at least $5 each), overriding the potential difference in fare that the surge would have given. After the last of these, I felt like I was being karmically rewarded for not insisting on surge in my rides and started taking these rides at all times. Needless to say, the pattern did not persist. But it was an important reminder that surge is not the only factor in the bottom line of one’s night, much less the quality of the overall driving experience. After all, riders are less likely to tip the more surge there is on a fare, understandably noting that they’re already paying more than normal for the same ride.
Of course, driving a car in the best of circumstances is still a high-stakes activity. Car accidents are a frequent reality and often result in fatalities, not all of which can be prevented by unilaterally safe driving. Are there rides I could have accepted that would have literally led to my death? And then there are the rare but existent nights when a shooting hits Bourbon Street, one of the most common places for me to pick people up. Or the night on the Saturday before Mardi Gras when a drunk driver plowed past a barricade and into a crowd of parade-goers at Endymion (one of the season’s largest parades). My fiancée, Alex, called me minutes after that happened to ask if I was anywhere nearby. I wasn’t; I was on the other end of town. But our first thought in the developed world when a car goes awry and hits people is now terrorism, so it took more than an hour before Alex felt comfortable with me driving near the parade route. Miraculously, no one died that night.
One night on Halloween weekend, six freaked-out West Virginians asked if they could all cram into my car to flee an incident on Frenchmen Street, one that might be labeled “a series of unfortunate events.” It’s one of the best examples I know of a story where everyone involved made the sequentially worst decision, which led to escalating mistakes. In their dramatic retelling, a car made the poor initial decision to drive on Frenchmen Street, which was packed elbow-to-elbow with costumed revelers celebrating the holiday weekend. It’s unclear if he had to scoot past a barricade to do so or if it was just obvious to all other drivers that the thronged mass of humanity made this an inadvisable plan. At one point, the driver almost hit a person standing in the street. The people in the street then started gesturing rudely at the driver. The driver then accelerated slightly, tapping a couple people and knocking them over. The people then started hitting his car, with a few people sitting on the hood and jumping up and down on it. The driver then got out of the car with a gun in his hand and started brandishing it.
Our heroes the six West Virginians did not stick around to discover the rest of the story, not wanting to become a statistic in exchange for witnessing the end result. But we can be pretty sure there was some sort of de-escalation since this story didn’t even make local news, much less national. I don’t think any damage ensued, other than minor injuries to the people and dents to the car. But all six individually said how lucky it was that I was just around the corner so they could avoid getting shot that night. They gave me a $20 cash tip at the end of the ride, expressing gratitude for my willingness to ferry all six of them from danger at once.
On one of my own Uber rides, heading home from the airport after a trip back to New Mexico, my driver told me that he thought he’d met the love of his life the previous week while driving. He said he’d kicked himself for not getting her number, but he was pretty sure he could find her again. He explained that he was spending most of his time on Uber hanging out near where she worked (the initial pickup spot the week before), hoping to grab her going home again or even going to lunch. He would still take other rides in the area, but he was always rushing back to that part of town trying to find his would-be love. While I can’t imagine that Uber corporate would interpret this story as anything other than creepy, the driver insisted that his feelings seemed reciprocated, that she was really flirty and interested on the ride, that he’d just lost his nerve at the end because she seemed out of his league, but after a week he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He planned to play it cool if he finally did get her again as a rider, and asked whether he should lay it on thick about destiny if so.
“How much is too much?” he asked me sincerely. “Should I just say ‘I’m so glad I got to see you again’? Or ‘I knew we’d find each other again’? Or should I just ask her out on the spot ’cause it was meant to be.”
Maybe this is what the sports commentators mean by “controlling your own destiny.”
How many relationships start in an Uber ride? How many eventual marriages? There are all sorts of reasons that Uber doesn’t advertise itself as a dating site or the next Tinder, but I have no doubt they’d have enough material if they chose to pursue this angle. I can just see the stream of too-pretty huggy couples with that peppy eHarmony beat in the background, telling the condensed stories of their whirlwind ride-share romance.
Of course, being engaged, this is not an angle I care to pursue. I can detect audible, almost physical, relief from women riding solo when I mention my fiancée in passing conversation or in answer to a question about how I ended up in New Orleans. Usually mentioning this early can be the difference between a stilted, stifled exchange of a few words and an extensive friendly conversation.
What I am after, really, are good stories, good conversations, and (sure) good tips. Those are the difference-makers in my night. And ideally to avoid the belligerent drunks, the arguing couples, the vomit (knock on wood), and the awkwardly silent. A vast majority of my riders fail to fall into any of these undesirable categories – I have been pleasantly surprised at how much friendlier, more appreciative, and positive most riders are than I anticipated. But I can’t help but wonder after each unfortunate experience whether I should have stopped for gas first, whether I shouldn’t have run through that last yellow light. Driving is full of constant near-misses and split-second decisions, all of which lead to a computer app pairing me up with one request instead of another. And, of course, I have the same series of random and barely chosen processes to thank for every story I’ve told about Uber, every great and heart-warming interaction, every person I’ve met and connected with for the first time in my car. Far more often, I look back on my driving decisions thankful that they led me to this precise series of riders and no others.
I took a couple on their first date the other night. They were flirting in that shy, tentative way of asking permission to say something risky. They were dressed in overly formal clothes for a night of dancing in the bars of New Orleans, an activity they admitted they both thought would be fun. They were bright and bubbly and optimistic and promised me that I’d be a big part of their long-term story if they made it, if they got married. They’d send me their wedding invitation and say remember when we had that Uber rider who took us to Bacchanal and gave us advice.
But I could tell, from the front seat, that they weren’t going to make it. She took a second too long to laugh at some of his attempted jokes, like she wasn’t sure they were supposed to be funny. He talked about himself too much, rarely reciprocating when there was a clear opening to ask about her. Ditto his response to her attempts to touch him quasi-innocently. I was struck by how easily I could know their fate as an objective observer, a stranger, a fly on the steering wheel, before either had internalized it themselves.
Sometimes I like to think of the Uber app and its algorithm as a self-aware intelligence, seeing who will connect and who won’t, as it deploys pings to drivers and acceptances to riders. That it is the omniscient technology that creates order from anarchy and links us all to a future where we have the opportunity to find new or reassuring experiences as we make our way home at night’s end. And yet, every time, it is really my choice whether to tap the phone and accept the latest suggestion. In the end, all we have is these simple binary decisions in the cacophonous chaos of riders and drivers traversing the streets of the city.
Where are you headed?