This was my first two-part column for the Platte County Landmark. It is presented here in its entirety:
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been picking up a few extra bucks by driving for Uber, the ridesharing service that’s cheaper than a taxi, but utilizes regular people to drive you from point A to point B. It’s been a pretty fascinating experience, because you’re treated like a random stranger, but often times you’re treated as a new friend. I guess this would be most similar to being a bartender, where people can sometimes open up, knowing that you’ll never see that person again.
I’ve always been fairly good with people. I can strike up a conversation with just about anyone despite whatever views they might share or mood that they’re in. So Uber driving has been great with very few exceptions. I picked up a couple on the Plaza after a night of heavy drinking – they told me that the day before, their son had just been diagnosed with autism, and they were freaking out. I picked up a young college student heading home to check on her family and wait out a pending hurricane. But the most impactful ride I’ve had so far has been Rahim.
I picked Rahim up at a 7-11 where he was getting $400 from an ATM because his car had been towed. He needed to get across town by 5:15 when the tow lot closed. It was 4:56. The ride was relatively quiet and Rahim was clearly troubled by the fact that his car had been towed. We got to the tow lot at 5:10 and I dropped him off after thanking him and giving him a complimentary bottle of water (it helps get tips.)
I drove off thinking I had completed my ride and was onto the next one, when my Uber app chimed again. It requested me to pick up Rahim across the street from where I just dropped him off. By the time I got there, his mood had changed dramatically. He was disheveled and wouldn’t make eye contact with me.
“Hey, man, I guess it didn’t work out with the tow lot, eh?” I said in as chipper a tone as I could.
Rahim began to sob as he got into the car and closed the door. “The man said he was closed and to come back tomorrow.” Holding back tears he continued, “I told him I worked for the government and that I needed my laptop out of the car. So he took it out and threw it across the street.” Rahim shifted as he began to take inventory of his skidded up backpack. He found some papers and a dented up Macbook pro.
Still drinking the bottle of water that I gave him, he made every effort to try to compose himself as we began our drive.
“He was so mean to me. I don’t understand. I had the money and I got there on time. He didn’t have to be so mean.”
It didn’t take a genius to understand that Rahim’s frail appearance and brown skin factored into the equation. You also don’t have to be a genius to know that the tow truck racket in Kansas City has got to be one of the most corrupt schemes going.
Rahim took a deep breath and I started the trip timer. When you drive Uber, you don’t know what the destination is until you start the trip, and once I did, I saw it would be a 35 minute drive in heavy rush hour traffic. We were going to be in the car for a long time.
What Rahim said over the next 45 minutes both broke my heart and also inspired me.
Last week, I told you about my side hustle driving for Uber and how you meet all kinds of different people. Then I told you about Rahim, who was clearly having a horrible day. We pick the story up as we embark on about a 45 minute drive where I did very little talking, but a lot of listening.
The thing is when you drive for Uber that you honestly don’t know what is happening next. You could take a drive from Olathe to KCI. You could take someone three blocks. They could be quiet or very chatty. Rahim, after he composed himself, began to stream a narrative that was both shocking and inspiring.
Rahim works for the Department of Agriculture as a computer programmer. He said that he wanted to be an engineer, but that in his homeland of India, the only money jobs were in computer programming. So he learned programming and came to the United States in hopes that he could find additional schooling and a job. “You’ve got to do whatever you can,” he said after speaking meekly and non-stop for about 10 minutes.
“But I have ideas, right? I have ideas that my bosses won’t listen. I do my work. I do my programming and I do it very well, but I have other ideas. I have this idea that can change the world.”
I sat up in my driver’s seat and leaned in intently. This 20 year old kid who weighed maybe 105 pounds telling me how he was going to change the world.
“Yes. Cotton. It is all about cotton. Where I come from it is very poor. Very poor. People sleep on the ground because they are so poor. Also, I tried to buy a mattress here and it was $400 so I am also sleeping on the ground here. I don’t know how people can afford a bed.”
Rahim came here and got a good job with the government, but was also trying to send money back home to support his family to the point where he was sleeping on wadded up blankets as a bed.
“India is the greatest manufacturer of cotton. We make so much that much of it is thrown away as a byproduct. We could take that byproduct and make mattresses that are $25 instead of $400.”
So I asked what the barriers are for that to happen. Why can India produce so much cotton that it’s actually given away for free in some cases, and mattresses and pillows still cost so much?
“My bosses. They only want me to do my job. They won’t take it to my superiors.”
Knowing what little I know about the Indian culture, they are very regimented and don’t ever go outside the chain of command. It seems that Rahim’s bosses don’t like him very much.
Our chat continued. He told me about other ideas to take recyclables and help them to fill potholes and other ideas that he had. Guy seemed to be legitimately a genius, but just didn’t have a way to get his ideas to the right people.
But I say all this simply to wonder aloud if there are others that we’re looking to remove from the country or systemically keep down that have an idea that could change the world. Why wouldn’t we be looking for these people and their ideas and putting all available resources towards changing the world, instead of separating it.
But what do I know? I’m just an Uber driver.