It’s Saturday night… not even late. A few minutes after nine. I’m at Mission and 7th. Get a request for an address on Market, a block and a half away. I take a right on 7th and pull into the far left lane. As I turn onto Market, a girl in cut-off jeans and a tank top waves me down. She’s practically in the middle of the street. Grabs my door handle before I can even stop. Climbs in the backseat.
I ask if she’s Andrea, the name of the person I’m supposed to pick up. She mumbles something and rolls down the window. The rider destination has already been added in the app so I start the ride.
“We’re going to the Richmond then?” I ask, anticipating a nice long ride with 1.5x surge. Cha-ching. She says nothing. I look over my shoulder. She’s curled up against the door, passed out. I start driving, hoping and praying she isn’t a potential puker. Turn off Market onto Hayes and then right on Franklin.
As I approach O’Farrell, I get a text from the generic Uber number: “I’m on 8th and Market across from Chase.”
I immediately pull over. What the hell? I wake up the girl in my back seat. “Hey! I think you got in the wrong car.”
She comes to, but her eyes are blurry. She’s not all there. It’s obvious she’s wasted. I don’t smell alcohol though.
“You got into the wrong car,” I tell her again.
She’s confused. “Uhhmmm… I can get out…” She has an accent. As her voice trails off, she looks around. She has no idea where she is.
Oh man… I feel my pulse accelerate as the reality hits me. I picked up the wrong passenger! And she’s not even sober enough to share my distress!!
Besides losing a profitable fare, I was hoping to make the $38-an-hour guarantee Uber’s offering this weekend. And the only way to accomplish that is by staying online for the entire hour. With the Treasure Island Music Festival and several other events going on in town, business was supposed to be “off the charts,” according to the numerous emails I’d received from Uber about it all week. With rent on the horizon, I really need the money from a busy weekend. But I can’t just leave this very intoxicated girl on the street in the Western Addition.
“Where do you need to go?” I ask.
She tells me an address on Battery Street. I assume that’s what she probably said when she first got in the car. I have her repeat the address a second time, just to make sure. Ask if she’s okay.
“Yeah.” She curls back up against the door.
I cancel the original ride and tap the fare review link. Select the option “don’t charge — wrong client.”
At least the Financial District isn’t that far away. If I hurry, I can get her home fast, get back online and maybe still score some of the Uber guarantee for the hour.
As I’m about to pull out, my phone rings. The generic Uber number. It’s Andrea, the girl who actually requested the ride. I explain, as apologetically and calmly as I can, that I picked up the wrong passenger. I tell her that I’ve already canceled the ride and will make sure she doesn’t get charged. And that I’ll send a follow up email to Uber. She asks what to do next. I tell her to request another ride. Apologize again. All the while, I resist the urge to tell her what really happened. Maybe she’s willing to help me? I could use some female assistance. What if I have to drag this girl’s unconscious body out of my car by myself?
I don’t even want to think about that scenario!
With growing trepidation, I begin my via dolorosa to Battery Street. Fighting traffic and shitting bricks. I can’t help but wonder, What if something happens along the way? What if I get in an accident? How do I explain to the authorities why I have some random chick passed out in my backseat? Is my conscience really that guilty? Or have I just been reading way too many news articles lately about rapes and assaults and all kinds of horrible situations in Uber cars? I mean, how can I not be paranoid, now that it’s happening to me? After all, who am I but some guy in a gypsy cab?
I try to take deep breaths. My fear has become sentient. It’s talking to me. Trying to convince me that I do, in fact, really need to freak the fuck out. Yes, old friend, I know… This is some serious shit. Best to get it over with as fast as possible.
As I’m rushing through Nob Hill, another request comes in. Damn it! I forgot to go offline. I let the request time out. Make sure I’m no longer in driver mode. I don’t need to screw up my acceptance rate too.
When I finally reach the address, I heave a sigh of relief. There’s even a place to pull over in front of the high rise with a glass lobby and storefronts. Finally, the universe is throwing me a bone. I take another deep breath and wake the girl up.
“Hey! We’re here!”
I’m surprised how easily she comes to. But she’s still really out of it. I ask if she needs help. She says no. Reaches around the seat and floorboard, seemingly for her purse or phone. It doesn’t look like she has either. I notice there are twigs in her hair. I ask if she’s okay. She says that she is fine. There’s a tinge of annoyance in her voice, like she’s sick of me asking. Opens the car door and careens into the street, in the opposite direction of the apartment building.
I yell after her, “You’re going the wrong way!”
Fortunately, there’s no traffic. She spins around and heads towards the right building.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I call out.
She comes back towards me and reaches for my hand.
“Thank you so much.”
“You’re going to be okay, right?”
But I’m not convinced. She walks to the building and struggles to get through the door. A guy eventually opens it for her. She moves aimlessly through the lobby and then gets into an elevator. I can only hope this is where she lives and that she makes it into her apartment. I hesitate before taking off. Tell myself, At least she’s safer here than in the Civic Center.
I pull into the first parking spot I can find and contact Uber the only way I can: a support ticket through their clunky website. After clicking through a bunch of drop-down menus that encourage me to check the FAQ before contacting them, I explain in my message what happened, how I picked up the wrong passenger and had to take the girl home. I’m also worried how this mix-up will affect my rating. Since I have to rate Andrea before I can go back online, I’m sure she still has the option to rate me, at least until the fare has been reversed. I’ve worked hard to maintain my 4.9 rating. I’d hate to get dinged for what was essentially an emergency situation.
Why were there were twigs in the girl’s hair? I checked the back seat after she got out and discovered an enormous amount of crushed leaves on the floorboard. Way more than usual anyway. The girl could have been drugged at a bar on Polk Street and fell into some bushes as she wandered through the Tenderloin looking for a way home. With the influx of frat bros in San Francisco, GHB is floating around everywhere now. A few months back, the Wife and her friend were drugged at a hipster bar just a few blocks from our apartment in Temescal. The wife managed to stumble home, but her friend woke up the next morning in the emergency room. This shit is real.
More than anything, I wish there was a way to find out if she had actually requested an Uber and mistook me for her driver. Or was she so fucked up that she just saw the U in my window and expected me to take her home? The use of rideshare cars in San Francisco has become second nature for most people. Maybe, in her incapacitated state, she just followed instinct.
Uber, of course, would have some of these answers. They have the ability to see, in real time, all the Uber activity on the road. This isn’t the first time I’ve picked up the wrong passenger. It happened once while driving for Lyft. But that was several months ago and I was able to talk to somebody on the phone who told me he could see that the guy I was supposed to pick up had gotten into another car. Of course, that’s not an option with Uber. They have no telephone support.
The fact is, we are hardly protected if we get into an accident under normal circumstances. We are told to use our personal insurance, which won’t cover damages while engaged in commercial activity. And without a number to call, we can only email Uber afterwards and hope their insurance company decides to cover it. They also charge us a deductible. Had there been an accident while I was driving this girl home, I could have tried to use my own insurance and say she was a friend, or that I was just helping her out. But it would be difficult to explain why she was in my back seat unconscious. And I’d have to hope she would play along, if she remembered anything the next day.
It’s alarming to think how alone we are on the streets. This time, a disaster was averted. But what about all the other times? I’m not the first driver to face similar circumstances. This exact scenario happened recently in Boston and the driver raped the woman after forcing her to withdraw money from an ATM.
Every week there are new reports of Uber drivers assaulting and sexually harassing passengers. It seems Uber doesn’t worry about the negative publicity, as long as Uber is in the news cycle. Despite a storied history of erratic drivers, ridesharing continues to become commonplace. For each person who decides to avoid Uber because of a potential violent driver, there are others who see the counterpoint that one could just as easily be attacked by a cab driver. Still, it’s kind of ridiculous that when they have a chance to extoll the positive aspects of ridesharing, Uber is just as nonresponsive.
At the very least, they could have emailed me back. Told me something. They email me daily with deals for car loans and wake me up first thing every morning with texts about signing up my friends who drive for Lyft and Sidecar. And yet, I can’t even get a canned reply?
As it is, for all my effort, I’m just left with a potential low rating and an overwhelming sense of how vulnerable we are out there.
Every single one of us.