The Uber Drivers of the Big Apple - Kayla Branstetter
I love traveling, and there is no place like New York City. The more I visit the cosmopolitan city, the more I fall in love with it. There is much to enjoy and appreciate in New York City. However, I have yet to navigate Big Apple communal travel on my own, so I defer to the Uber Driver to help me go from destination to destination, especially when my friends are unavailable.
I am in an Uber leaving La Guardia International Airport on a Thursday afternoon, heading to my friend’s apartment in the Upper West Side, Manhattan. My driver is a gregarious, proud, patient, and older gentleman named Samuel. Unfortunately, I didn’t arrive in the city at the most convenient of times, late afternoon, which meant rush hour. Still, he navigated the traffic in true New Yorker fashion—impatiently, patient—honking, complete with facial and hand gestures, and maneuvering the black Honda with ease around trash and delivery trucks on narrow streets.
He opened the conversation, “Where you from?”
“Missouri,” I said.
“Oh, Miss-our-ee. Where that?”
“In the middle of the country,” I explained.
“Are you here for pleasure or business?”
“A little bit of both. I return home on Sunday,” I said.
“You have fast trip,” he recognized.
“Yes, I do. How long have you lived in New York City?” I asked. His accent revealed he wasn’t a native New Yorker or a natural-born American. My experience as a seasoned educator taught me never to ask, “Where are you from?” To some people, this simple question may imply, “why are you here?” versus a question out of curiosity.
“I live fifteen years. I’m from India,” he answered, “What do you do in Miss-our-ee?”
“I’m an English professor and a writer.”
“Oh. My daughter go to college. She going be a speech therapist,” he explained with a smile stretching from ear to ear. He beamed with pride.
He turned left from W 97th Street and onto Central Park West. I glanced at the street numbers, W 96th Street, W 95th Street, W 94th Street. I knew we were inching closer to my friend’s apartment on W 86th Street. I glimpsed to my left and recognized Central Park.
“Central Park,” he uttered, breaking my trance.
“Yes, I love Central Park. The trees are absolutely gorgeous. Autumn is my favorite season.”
“Yes, yes, the trees,” he agreed.
Samuel continued to drive and shifted the conversation to the issues surrounding COVID. “People are afraid.”
“I agree. People fear the unknown.”
We recognized the fear conquering the globe, but our conversation shifted to hope as he explained he and his family were planning on visiting India for fourteen days in January. He hadn’t seen his 82-year-old mother in over two years, and he could hardly mask his excitement.
Samuel parked the Honda on W 86th Street in front of my friend’s apartment building, turned on his emergency lights, and popped open the trunk to retrieve my carry-on suitcase. As I exited his car, he graciously handed me my suitcase and said, “It was a pleasure to meet you. Stay safe.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you as well. I hope you have an amazing visit with your mother in January,” I replied.
He smiled again before returning to his Honda and driving away. I smiled as I watched his car approach the stoplight before turning left on Columbus Avenue. His jovial and hospitable personality was contagious.
When I entered his Honda, I didn’t expect to find myself in his life and engaging in conversation about our kids, the pandemic, and even hope. I discovered how much I truly missed New York City and the exposure to the world in a small, confined space. In the rural Midwest, where I am from, driving is a necessity and oftentimes isolating. My goal is to travel from Point A to Point B. I have a finite opportunity to interact with the community during that transaction. Geography makes interacting with people difficult because I pass by several farms and livestock on my way to dropping off my youngest daughter at daycare and walking into my office. I thrive being in a culturally diverse environment and finding the humanity among different types of people.
The next morning, I awoke around 6:30 a.m. because I had an appointment in Queens at 9:00 a.m. I had planned on using my friend’s MetroCard to travel from Manhattan to Queens. In fact, the subway station was a two-minute walk from his apartment building. I opened my City App, checked the times and the transfers I must make to arrive at my destination—a combination of four transfers (subway and bus). I placed the MetroCard in my wallet, opened my Starbucks app, and ordered my morning coffee.
I stepped out onto the sidewalk to an unusually mild and humid November morning. I inhaled and could smell the looming rain as I walked to the nearby Starbucks. My anxiety grew with each step because I had never navigated the subway and bus by myself. This trip was my first time in New York City where I was truly on my own—at least for the first fifteen hours or so. Out of fear, I opened my Uber app and ordered a car to take me from Manhattan to Queens. An expensive choice, but one that settled my nerves.
I’m glad I chose Uber because I was introduced to Jose, a young man in his mid-to-late twenties. Unlike the afternoon before, I was able to beat the morning rush hour traffic. Jose was calmer than Samuel, and the New York traffic didn’t faze him at all—at least while he was an Uber driver. He presented a more thoughtful demeanor. As we engaged in conversation I recognized his passion for life and alluded to enjoying New York’s nightlife.
I depended on him to get to my destination, but he gave me more than a ride. He gave me a free guide into the life and opinions of some of our immigrants, specifically, the issues surrounding the Haitians at our southern border.
Like Samuel, I asked Jose how long he had lived in New York as he braked and plotted through the morning traffic. He told me his family moved to the Big Apple ten years ago from the Dominican Republic. I found myself engrossed as he explained the difference between living in New York City versus the Dominican Republic. I mentioned I taught Julia Alvarez’s writings to my classes, and within those lessons, introduced students to the horrors of Raphael Trujillo. We bonded over a writer before shifting the conversation to Haiti.
These people have suffered earthquakes, an assassination of their leader, political and social unrest mixed with poverty—the perfect recipe for desperate individuals to flee for the chance at a better life.
As Jose and I became more comfortable with our conversation, he admitted the Dominican government requested help from the United States government to assist with the Haiti crisis. Knowledge I did not know.
“My heart breaks for the Haitians,” I admitted, “I don’t know the solution. If I were in their position, I would leave too.” I stared outside, observing the moving traffic and studying the buildings—a complete contrast to my own life in the Midwest.
We continued to talk about life and the importance of education until he neared my stop. I knew he was a dreamer like Samuel, and he arrived in this country chasing that vision.
“Nice talking to you,” he said.
“Same. Safe driving,” I returned before stepping out.
I left my appointment in Queens to return to my friend’s apartment in the Upper West Side. I was driven by a woman with gray hair in a ponytail who was anywhere between her mid-fifties and early sixties. Her personality smiled through her eyes, and she was a proud, single, and independent woman named Norma from El Salvador.
“ꜟHola!” I said.
“Oh, you speak Spanish?” she asked.
“Aw, very good.”
She asked if I had children, and I explained I had two young daughters. She proceeded to tell me she had two daughters herself, thirty-two and twenty-two years old. One worked in finance on Long Island, and the other was completing her bachelor’s degree. Her daughters completed their education with Norma being a single mom.
“I have no husband. I divorced thirteen year. He no work, so I say bye,” she said. I smiled at her confession and reflected on my own mother’s sacrifice with me. I liked Norma and her outgoing spirit.
“Do you like the New York winters?” I asked, shifting the conversation.
“Yes, I like snow, but too many people. I want to move back to El Salvador to my family. It just me and my girls,” she said. I grew silent and gazed outside the window. I noticed old, worn brick apartment buildings with air conditioners sticking out from tiny windows. Norma caught me studying the area.
“Those are the projects. You don’t work in this city, you get paid. You do work, you struggle. I never go on government money,” she declared.
I’m not surprised by this attitude because several Americans share this mindset. At one time in my life, my mother received food stamps, and I was on Medicaid until my mother graduated with her bachelor’s degree and began a career in social work. For the second time that day, I found myself stumped because I didn’t know the solution to government assistance. There are people who take advantage of the system, but there are more, like my mother, who depended on those programs to raise her children. Most Americans struggle to afford basic health care, something I personally feel is a human right, not a privilege. I lacked the willpower to continue this conversation, so I simply listened to Norma.
She parked her Nissan in front of my friend’s apartment on W 86th Street. Before stepping out of her car, I complimented her on being a strong and independent woman. Twenty-four hours earlier, I watched Samuel turn left on Columbus Avenue, and I found myself in the same spot, seeing Norma disappear along the same avenue.
I added up my Uber experiences. I had spoken to a proud father from India, an intuitive young Dominican, and an expressive woman from El Salvador. Not bad for just twenty-four hours in New York City, conversing about COVID, immigration, and government assistance. I experienced kindness, passion, and love, and an accurate portrayal of New York, a city of people who will take care of you.
Kayla Branstetter is an English professor for Crowder College, a mother, writer, artist, and photographer from Missouri. She holds a MALS degree in Art, Literature, and Culture from the University of Denver. Her creative nonfiction, poetry, art, fiction, and photography have appeared in the following journals: The Kansas City Star, New Reader Magazine, The Write Launch, the Crowder Quill, Light & Space 'All Women' exhibit, Light & Space "Abstract" exhibit, The Human Family--Human Rights Festival, The Paragon Press-Echo: Journal of Creative Nonfiction, 805+, High Shelf Press, The Esthetic Apostle, the gyara journal, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Buringword Literary Journal, The Poet's Choice, The Sheepshead Review, and a former contributing writer to a regional magazine Ozark Hills and Hollows. Recently, her art piece, 'Life's Dance' and "Aurora" were featured in exhibitions for M.A.D.S a contemporary art gallery in Milan, Italy. She has received an art award from Rome, Italy and in 2022, she will travel in Florence, Italy to receive another art award. She is currently working on her first book. This essay is nonfiction.