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April 13, 2016

CARL DIGGLER EXCLUSIVE: What Talking With Uber Drivers Taught Me About Immigrants

In my town of New York, I have over 9 million neighbors. At the same time, urban dwelling can be cripplingly lonely. People seem more concerned with their iPhones than their friends, more into their apps than their available romantic partners, more committed to their careers than their family.

But technology is a blade that cuts two ways. Whenever I feel lonely, I’m a touch of a button away from feeling better. Yes, I’m one of many who use the cutting-edge taxi service Uber for something more than a ride: your Uber driver can be a friend for hire if you’ve got the credit line and a destination in mind.

On a dark night on a slow newsweek when I am not allowed any unsupervised custody visits, I like to call a taxi ride and shoot the breeze with my new best friend for an hour. Just shooting the breeze while the city lights illuminate the BQE is enough to turn my mood around. Some people have therapists. I have ridesharing.

Making friends with Uber drivers is second nature to a veteran journalist like me. Or so I thought. One day I decided to check my passenger rating on the app. To my shock, it was a pathetic 3.9 … out of 5.0.

That’s not even a B-. That’s sub-Nate Silver.

Perhaps these drivers had gotten something wrong, I thought. After all, many of them don’t even speak English, and thus are not capable of reading my witty, tightly-written Uber Passenger Profile (in which I discuss my many awards and qualifications as a rider).

It is no secret that we journalists can be seen as imperious. We spend the whole day hunting for the truth, talking to the most powerful people on the planet, and searching for the correct opinion to give. But at the end of the day, we may be plain exhausted, with none of our emotional labor left for the common driver or doorman who wants only to serve us.

Several drivers were probably excited to pick up the famous journalist Carl Diggler, and were so disappointed by my terseness that they rated me poorly — almost like scorned lovers.

But I’ve never accepted being like anyone else. Growing up, my influences were as much David Bowie as they were Tom Brokaw, so I’ve always known what it’s like to stand out.

I decided from that moment on that every driver would be my friend.

I remember when I called a ride after storming out of the R train to prove a point (I had told a particularly raucous breakdancing crew that I would leave the train if they didn’t start respecting the MTA’s rules), but realized I was only halfway home. On that freezing night, I saw a handsome mid-30s man clearly not from this country pull up. 

I jumped into the backseat, closing the door seconds before a street sweeper came to crash into me.

“Carl Dick?” came the voice from the driver’s seat.

“Carl Diggler,” I corrected, “veteran journalist and one-time Polk Award nominated Beltway insider, as you have probably heard of. And where are you from, my new friend?”

“White Plains, sir,” he said.

“No, really,” I persisted, “where are you from?”

“I’m Indonesian,” he mumbled, obviously left nearly speechless by such perceptive questioning from a down-to-earth writer.

Before he finished his sentence, we were zooming off — me and my interlocutor.

What I love about Uber is there’s no Taxi TV, broadcasting its perfumed concoctions of viral SNL skits (without the vital context written by veteran writers like me) or Today show segments featuring home-wrecker anchors (don’t ask). No, in an Uber, it’s just you, the rider, and him: the man driving the vehicle who wants nothing more than to be your friend.

From the backseat I yelled to Raharjo, “take out your earpiece!” It seemed he was too shy to stop nattering in a different language and address a person as notable as me. As an experienced Uber rider I was not going to let that happen. I reached over into the front seat (no plastic divider! score!) and pulled his earbud out, signaling that I gave him permission to hold a real man-to-man conversation with me.

Over the course of the ride, I talked about the weather, Miley Cyrus, and labor relations. While most of the threads of this conversation were sewn by me, I did get something out of Raharjo. He told me that Uber doesn’t necessarily compensate him for all the hours he works, and that he can’t find any health insurance plans per his employment, all while suffering from diabetes.

This was shocking to me. The next day, I had to immediately write about what I heard. If you remember my “The Indonesian Century: Why A New Culture Of Immigrants Who Don’t Need Pampered Millennials’ ‘Legal Protections’ Will Change The Economy” piece from last September, you can thank Raharjo for that.

But I’m not just a student during these conversations. I’ve taught multiple younger Uber drivers about love from the perspective from an older man. I like to think that a life covering politics has given me a special insight into the compromises inherent to intimacy. Other times, I’ve told them about my epic battles with injustice in family court.

These trips always seem to alleviate the blues, for one simple reason: you’re helping yourself the most when you’re helping others. By my own count, dozens of men have been able to please their wives, or explain the earned income tax credit to their children because of me.

Quizzically, none of this has actually helped my rating. Actually, it’s lower–a painful 3 out of 5. I’ve also had trouble getting rides due to frequent cancellations. This is all an unfortunate consequence of New York’s overregulation of the service; drivers feel afraid of friendly passengers because they believe them to be undercover cops who will bust their company for victimless crimes like stolen wages.

It is clear to me, as the pamphlets from the Patriotic Livery Deregulation Committee support, that these drivers suffer from too much anxiety about whether they’ll sufficiently impress VIP riders like me enough to deserve their fares. If anything, Uber drivers should be paid less so there’s an even playing field.

Carl “The Dig” Diggler has covered national politics for 30 years, and is the author of “Think-ocracy: The Rise Of The Brainy Congressman”. Got a question for the Dig? E-mail him at [email protected] or Tweet to @carl_diggler.

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