Uber drivers have created a startling new art form in the America of the 21st century. Want to understand Americans? Talk to Uber drivers.
Uber drivers: Jonathan
When I climb into an Uber driven by Jonathan (not his real name) in San Diego, he is playing reggae. I comment on this. He tells me, silencing the music as he does so, that he likes reggae because the music speaks for the downtrodden and left behind of the earth. The world would be better, he said, if we could get rid of money.
Unfortunately, the credit card payment has already gone through.
San Diego has many beautiful features. This is the beach at La Jolla
Learning about “The Americans”
Visiting California in 2019 for the first time in 40 years, I discovered from numerous Uber drivers that people’s certainty about everything, together with their openness, friendliness and confidence that it is reasonable to explain their views, their religious beliefs, their financial situation, their relationships and their medical history to total strangers has not changed one iota from my 1979 hitchhiking trip around the United States.
Uber drivers and American stories
In 1979, too, I heard many confident and confidential explanations of how the world really worked from people I met hitch-hiking. One young man in Seattle of profoundly liberal views, including on the legalisation of narcotics, argued passionately that numerous events which I regarded as historic facts had not in fact taken place. A truck-driver with whom I shared a ride in Arizona regaled me and others in the vehicle with an account of his miraculous escape when girders projecting from the trailer of another vehicle impaled the driver of the vehicle in which he had been riding. He told us of his subsequent stranding in the desert; his wandering in the wilderness; and his eventual escape to be with us on the ride.
Jonathan, continued… and continued…
Was I wrong to mention my love of reggae to Jonathan? I was only on a 20-minute ride. But he had a lot to explain. Money did not come about organically, he told me, but was created by the Sumerian civilisation. Everything would work better if, rather than using money, everyone simply helped each other; shared things – automobiles, for example, or hand-drills, which not everyone needed to own separately; and used barter as needed. This was only a matter of time – soon, perhaps at the next economic crisis, the great minds of the world would get together and abolish money. The system was designed to keep the third world – countries such as Angola and Mozambique – impoverished. Why were 2 billion of the 7.5 billion people on earth poor? Abolishing money would solve the problem.
The ride with Jonathan passed the USS Midway, now a museum
Jonathan said that the world could be better fed by building hydroponic farms in stacks 150m high, liberating land from monoculture and grains, which were not good food for humans, to enable ruminants to live there – ‘cows, sheep and deer’. When I expressed concern that this might increase greenhouse gases, Jonathan replied that studies had shown there to be no causal correlation between CO2 and climate change – climate changed independently of human activity. Indeed, the Thames and the Bosphorus used to freeze in the past. The myth of human-induced climate change was simply another device designed to prevent economic growth in certain countries and maintain the status quo.
I asked Jonathan who was responsible for such alleged myth-making. What was their motivation? Jonathan said studies had shown that the CIA brought about the counter-culture of the 1960s in order to destroy the family. Before that, a man and a woman would get together to have children. The 1960s had destroyed the family as people became more career-oriented. Gerry Garcia and other members of the Grateful Dead were, he said, closely linked to the CIA. The collapse of world morals had also had its origins in the debauchery in Germany in the 1920s. When wealth collapsed following the Versailles Treaty, so did morals. This connection was demonstrated by Ukraine and Russia. Their economies had collapsed and they were now famous for their prostitutes world-wide.
I asked Jonathan if he had any religious beliefs. He said he had not, although he believed in an entity which created the world. Rather, he was interested in how syncretism could show that all religions had common traits and origins. This could provide a common understanding of world affairs.
Juan – 28 years in California
24 hours later Juan, a Mexican Uber driver who took me to the Bali Hai restaurant for some of the world’s best Mai Tais, told me he had lived for 28 years in California. He was either a bit deaf or could not understand my accent. In fact, he didn’t respond to any of my attempts to ask him questions. He talked knowledgeably about the Rosecrans National Cemetery, through which we passed as we left the Cabrillo National Monument. He said that it contained many Second World War graves and that the site, overlooking the water on both sides, was dignified and fitting. It reminded me of my visit to Arlington National Cemetery in July 1979.
Juan also spoke about the huge amount of money and people flowing between Mexico and the US. No-one could stop this, he said – anyone visiting the border between the US and Mexico at Tijuana could see it. Any such visit would also make it plain that President Trump was not building a wall. ‘Go and see, Bush built a wall, this one didn’t, it’s a fact.’
In 1979 I took many rides with trucks like this magnificent Peterbilt – pic from 2019
Uber drivers: Pedro
Pedro, another of the Uber drivers, came here from the Philippines 28 years ago. He met an American woman: ”Come and get me if you want me,’ she said. ‘So I came. I said when we retire, we’ll go back to the Philippines. She said OK. When the time came, I said: ‘Come and get me.’ She said ‘Bye!’ I told my wife, when we marry, we get three rings. ‘That is the engagement ring,’ she says, ‘and the wedding ring. What is the third ring?’ Pedro turns and asks – do you know, what is the third ring? You don’t know? I tell her, ‘the third ring is suffer-ring!’ Is that funny? Did I make you happy?’ He chuckles heartily.
Passion, vigour and confidence
The passion, the vigour (or vigor) and the confidence of Uber drivers – and their 1979 equivalents – strike me as uplifting and life-affirming. This is true even if they sometimes conflict with my own understanding of how the world works, or leave me keen to escape the vehicle. Where some other nationalities might stay silent, or hesitate to express an opinion, in case they upset or irritate their interlocutor, US citizens appear less reticent.
Clearly, we should beware stereotypes. Plenty of Uber drivers, and Americans, are quiet and inclined to hold their counsel (step forward, Armando, another of our Uber drivers in 2019, silent from pick-up to drop-off). But the proportion of those – whether Uber drivers, waitresses or passers-by, ready to engage in a conversation and to state their views on everything from politics to religion and the meaning of life seems remarkably high. Even if I sometimes disagree with them, the readiness of Uber drivers to tell their stories strike me as a good thing – and good for the prospects of the USA. I plan to return to this theme as I work more on “The Americans“.
What do you think?