Nicolas Poynter is a graduate of the Red Earth MFA program of Oklahoma City University. His work has appeared in many publications including North American Review, Citron Review, Chagrin River Review, and So It Goes, the journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He is a high school dropout (not quite completing the tenth grade) who is now returning to teach physics in South America, after a three-month stint driving for Uber.
Big Truck Tacos, Fuzzy’s Tacos, Ambassador Hotel, Lake Hefner parked facing west: I’ve been here, sweating because it’s still summer, for an hour without getting a call. With the sun going down and its reflection off the water blinding me, I get the sensation of being lost at sea, floating in a post-apocalyptic lifeboat. If I had any empty bottles, I would stuff them with these notes and hurl them out of the
passenger-side window, in case I don’t make it. I need five thousand dollars to start over somewhere else. This lifeboat needs to hold tough until then. But the engine doesn’t sound right. The tires have almost no tread. I think I need new brakes.
Guyutes on 23rd: Big kid calls me during rush hour to battle five blocks of traffic and asks me to stop at the corner store and wait because he wants beer. I say sure. I always say sure. It takes me twenty minutes to get him home, the air conditioner running like a nuclear reactor to keep him cool. Three bucks, two if you subtract the gas. He doesn’t tip me, but tells me he is a bartender and that I should come to his restaurant. I’m thinking that I have no money for restaurants. Every dollar is precious to me now. I will need to take twenty-five hundred big kid bartenders who don’t tip me home to escape the gravity of this black hole I am being sucked into.
Flying J Truck Stop on I-35: Truck driver sounds like he’s bragging when he says he hasn’t taken a shower in a week, something he really doesn’t need to articulate. He has worked an entire week behind the wheel, like me, but this guy has made thousands, he says. I run errands with him—liquor store, post office, grocery store. I do feel good that I can help him get around town without his rig but I would feel better if he tipped me because I don’t get compensated for waiting for him outside of these places, or, if I do, it is so little that I don’t notice I’m getting paid for it. After he leaves, the smell is so bad I have to spend an afternoon disinfecting the car. Truck driver owes me for a half bottle of Febreze.
Norman, parked outside Walker Tower: I’m waiting for the rush of college kids when I hear on the radio that a train has hit a pedestrian on Boyd and traffic will be a mess for the rest of the afternoon. I’m gone. I just can’t be here right now, but it’s not the traffic. It’s because I’m sure that the train didn’t hit the pedestrian; the pedestrian hit the train. I went to school here myself and stood at those tracks many times as trains thundered by. I know all about them. Those trains don’t care about you one bit. They will roll through this city whenever they damn well please, come to a complete stop in the center of downtown just to see the cars pile up on both sides. And they will grind you into hamburger without a second thought. But sometimes that is all you have left. Sometimes you have to call their cruel bluff.
Deep Fork Grill, Jazz Lab, Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse: These couples on date-night never tip me. I think maybe Uber is sending them anti-tipping propaganda, telling them we drivers already make enough and that the tip is included in the fare. We don’t. It isn’t. Or maybe I am just a victim of technology and the transformation to a cashless society. Maybe without the exchange of paper money, the idea of tipping is being lost. Many of them tell me that they want to tip me but don’t have cash. They say they will add the tip on the Uber app. But nobody ever has. Either all these people are forgetting about me or it is not possible to add a tip through the Uber app. Or maybe they just don’t believe in tipping here.
September 17th—The Great Rape of The Ohio State Fans: I knew, everybody knew, where they were and that they would need to get from their hotels to the stadium and precisely when this would need to take place. What other option would they have besides Uber? I parked on Sheridan, my car like a fist centered inside the scatter plot of downtown hotels, and waited, the train-whistle moan echoing off the brick façades of theme restaurants, signaling that somebody was about to get fucked. We must have all been there with the same idea—wait, wait as they called and called with no luck, wait until they were desperate, until they didn’t care how much it cost, until the “surge” began. I didn’t go online until the surge was 4.5X and if it dropped below 3X, I turned myself off until it went back up again. I made five trips to Norman that afternoon and more money in one day than I had made in any previous week.
Greyhound Bus Station on Reno: They moved the bus station in this town. It was in the heart of the city. But they picked it up the way you would pick up an insect-infested piece of rot and tossed it to the edge of the city. The new spot is on a busy street where you can’t really walk, not like before. Now, if you need a bus in this city, it has become much less comfortable for you, so that other people, who have never and will never need a bus, don’t have to look at you. Sometimes I take a truck driver there when his rig breaks down. There is always some guy smoking a cigarette on the hood of a yellow cab. I wonder if he ever leaves that spot, ever goes home or takes a break for lunch or gets a call. He always glares at me when he sees the truck driver get out of the backseat of my car, I guess because he is being slowly murdered by Uber and feels that I’m complicit. That bus station is his last stand, the last place on Earth where somebody still might ask him to take them somewhere.
Hideaway Pizza, Deep Deuce Grill, Whiskey Lounge, mansion in Nichols Hills: I don’t reject any calls. Even if I am driving through the ghetto, I take those calls, the calls nobody else answers, because I need ghetto dollars too. But if I were to reject calls, it would be the calls from Nichols Hills because they are the worst ones. Four guys get in without saying hello. Dollhouse in Bricktown. They immediately start talking filthy about women and taking all the gum I have for people, but I’m sure they won’t tip me. These types think life is a game and that they are the winners, and they have no empathy for losers like me. But these rich guys simply don’t understand the dynamics of the train, the reality that most of the time our fates, winners and losers, are tied together, like now, because as I listen to them, the thought of taking us all over the freeway guardrail at high speed occurs to me.
Will Rogers World Airport: I drive circles around this city and note the jets as they ascend into the sky, their designs so colorful and their motion so slow that they seem like children’s toys. I like driving people to the airport even though I never leave with a rider and therefore it is half as lucrative, almost worthless from a business perspective. I like taking people to the airport because sometimes, for a moment, I think I’m leaving too. Teams of salesmen, mega-important business owners who spend the trip talking on their cellphones about million-dollar deals, bigshot lawyers, couples going to Mexico—none of them tip me, even though the Uber fare is less than a third of the price of a taxi. I’ve started hissing at them as they get out of my car, but not like a snake would hiss. These people are turning me into a fire-breathing dragon.
Edmond, The Wolf Trap: It’s odd to pick up a lone girl from a bar. Maybe she is going home after her shift but something tells me she’s not and also that she has been injured somehow. She sits in back and doesn’t want me to talk to her. I don’t. We are about halfway when I begin to just hear her voice singing along to the sad ballad on the radio. I turn it up for her. But not too much. When we get to her house, her hand and three dollars reaches for me from the backseat, startling me because it has been so long.
I usually never see them. They get in and get out and I never see them. Even if we talk, I never see them because I am fixated on the road. But I watch her walk away and I see her. I’m sure she saw me too, saw the humiliation marking me up and down like dirty hand prints, maybe like her. Maybe this city has broken her heart too. Maybe she is planning her escape as well.