About two years ago, I broke my leg and ankle in a fall. Recovering required repeated surgeries, which knocked me off my feet for months. When I finally could leave the house, I couldn’t drive. I still can’t. And metro Atlanta, it turns out, is not a good place not to be able to drive.

Then I discovered Uber.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle.

Uber, for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to social media (or unsocial media, for that matter) is a product of the smartphone era. You press a black-and-white button on the little computer in your pocket and a stranger soon appears wherever you are and gives you a ride in his or her car to wherever you want to go. A few hours later, money magically disappears from your bank account to pay for the ride. There is a competing service called Lyft, which I’m told operates pretty much the same way.

Deprived of the use of my car, I have become a repeat Uber customer, what you might call a regular ride sharer. I take Uber just about every place I need to go. I’ve Uber-ed to the office, to various doctor’s offices, to story interviews spread from Duluth to West Cobb and Sandy Springs to Peachtree City. I’ve taken about 20 Uber rides in the last three months alone, according to the email receipts I’ve saved.

I enjoy sharing rides. Not because the cars are fancy – most certainly aren’t, although I have had ridden occasionally in limos, Mercedes-Benzes and at least one Cadillac – but because I find the drivers to be fascinating. Meeting Uber drivers has given me a new, and totally unexpected, view of metro Atlanta and the people who live here.

I’m a ride-share talker, a chatty passenger. Some people tell me they keep to themselves during shared rides, but I don’t see how that’s possible. I like to hear the drivers and other passengers tell their stories.

And what stories they tell during our 30 minutes to an hour together. One, for instance, said he’d started a career in community work and moved to Atlanta in the late 1970s to work with families involved in the Atlanta Child Murders cases. The work was so distressing, he said, that he quit and became a long-haul truck driver for the rest of his career.

Some drivers say they work for Uber (and many drive both Uber and Lyft) to pick up a little extra cash while they try to launch new businesses. Others have lost jobs and are looking to pay bills while they look for new ones. Still others see Uber as a full-time job.

Some use their time in the car as a sales opportunity. One driver was a real estate agent looking for new clients who gave me a 20-minute sales pitch.

Another was a proud papa who played his 20-something daughter’s newly recorded CD in the car to show how talented she was.

Many of my drivers have been immigrants who are steering their way through a new country and culture. I’ve met new Atlantans from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean and who somehow ended up maneuvering a Toyota Camry or a Honda Civic through bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Sometimes they tell me stories of the old country. Many left their homes because they wanted to try living in a new, freer and richer place where they and their families could prosper. They talk of how their parents or brothers and sisters emigrated, often one at a time, and gradually reunited in Atlanta or some other American city.

Once, I was in a car driven by an immigrant who said she had come here from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We stopped in Brookhaven to pick up a second passenger, who said he, too, came from the Congo. That set off an argument about which of them really called Congo home because neither could believe there could be another Congolese immigrant in Atlanta he or she didn’t already know.

Not every Uber ride is a treat, of course. Mostly, it’s just a way to get around town. And during one ride, I found myself a witness to a family’s private horror story when the driver’s grown son kept calling her to say another of her sons, who had been drinking, was angry and was trashing her apartment, which was a good hour’s drive from our location. She finally said someone would have to call the cops.

I hope I’ll be able to drive again someday, so I don’t know how long I’ll be a regular Uber user. But I know now, after months of pressing the little black-and-white button on my phone, that when that next driver comes, I’ll be in for ride.

Joe Earle is editor-at-large at Reporter Newspapers and has lived in metro Atlanta for over 30 years. He can be reached at joeearle@reporternewspapers.net

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