I drive down an industrial part of Route 1, the road that was once one of the most important roads in the United States, a road that connected Maine to Florida. It and the once-thriving towns that developed alongside it are, for many stretches, dilapidated and forgotten. Where I live, most of the businesses along Route 1 are older, more industrial and certainly less swanky than might be found elsewhere nearby.
I see an utterly strange sight, a shape and movement that my brain can’t comprehend. Not in the least bit. I see a grey-colored, human-sized shape that looks a bit like a Michelin tire man. Is it a mysterious new superhero, Concrete Boy? Or someone sporting a gray hazmat suit? It’s 57 degrees F and even a light jacket can feel warm this evening. This person is half in the road, half on the grass, on his knees, trying to get back up in this bizarre outfit. I cross my fingers that we’ll come back down this road so I can get another look. This doesn’t happen.
I turn down an industrial road off of this industrial part of Route 1. And I keep driving. There are no soft lights emanating from homes. This is not a residential area. At all. The road is long. It’s dark. I start to feel a little excited in an “Oooh, what’s coming?” way. It’s not quite creepy what I’m feeling, but I am certainly curious as to where I’m going.
I pull into a large industrial area with many trucks and bright lights. I text my rider, Here. She calls and tells me that the Uber/GPS system often has drivers go to the wrong building. She knows exactly where I am. While she’s close enough to walk to me in two minutes, I have to drive over a mile to get to her. The industrial buildings here are mostly fenced and she can’t cross through the fenced area to get to me. We stay on the phone together and she directs me, turn by turn, to exactly where she is standing.
She gets in my car, in the back seat. She’s white, maybe early 30s, broad-backed, overweight by a good 50 or so pounds and her hair is pulled up in ponytail under her baseball cap. She’s wearing no makeup, and I imagine she would probably still look fairly plain even if she were dressed up with makeup for a night out.
We head toward her home. I miss a turn in the dark back roads of this industrial complex, and she says she doesn’t want to go to jail. I’m thinking I’ve made some egregious mistake, and I’m going to get in trouble. She laughs and says the prison is straight ahead. I like her sense of humor. (I note to myself that I felt the prison in some sort of way; I felt something different driving down this road; something sort of exciting in an “I shouldn’t be here” sort of sense.)
We take the back roads to her place but come across four fire engines, a line of traffic cones, and a uniformed woman who is making sure that we turn around and away from the accident. What do you think happened? I ask. Someone going fast around the sharp curve in the road, she answers matter-of-factly. She seems to know this area well, and I’m inclined to believe her.
She works at a mega pharmaceutical fulfillment shop that fills about 30,000 prescriptions a day for nursing homes in the area. Orders come in every day as new patients arrive in the facilities. They work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, even Christmas, even in the recent blizzard that had most people snowbound for four or five days.
She’s been there eight years and now works in a chicken-wire caged area with the OxyContin.
She likes working with the OxyContin much better because more can go wrong, and she has to be on her feet, so to say, and to be more attentive. Many of her coworkers don’t like working with the OxyContin because the environment is more stressful, with rigorous controls for counting inventory every day, many cameras on them at all times and extra layers of supervision.
She explains the picking, the labeling, the packing, the quality controls, the pharmacists’ roles. She tells me she doesn’t work with any customers and that she’s happy about that. Four years with Starbucks and she has had enough customer interaction for the rest of her life. I tell her my prior passenger worked at Starbucks and that it’s her first job. Starbucks was her first job too.
She asks if we can stop by the 7-11 convenience store before I take her home, and I oblige her. She’s incredibly sweet and she’s been so forthcoming in explaining what she does at her job and answering my questions. She never got upset with me when I made a wrong turn, and I’m happy to do a little something for her.
She asks me if I want anything when she goes in. No thanks, I’m good. That’s kind of you to ask.
She comes back with, in her words, a stash. Two bags: hot dogs in one and ice cream in the other. Ben & Jerry’s Banana Split. She reads the key ingredients to me: banana and strawberry ice creams, walnuts, fudge chunks and a fudge swirl.
She tells me she plays online games and that one night, on her headset, she told one of her gamer friends that the best thing about being an adult is that she can eat ice cream anytime she wants.
I tell her that my favorite snack food to eat is popcorn. Chomp-chomp-chomp. I love it. She tells me that a friend of hers used to give her bags of microwave popcorn but that she didn’t have a microwave so she never knew what to do with it. Then, one time, when she was really low on everything (by this I assume she means food), she wanted to eat the popcorn but didn’t know how.
Another friend explained to her how to take the microwave popcorn and pop it in a pot. It worked.
We’re close to her home now. Does she usually uber to work? No, a pharmacist usually drives her. That woman is underpaid and undervalued, she tells me. The pharmacist’s schedule shifted by an hour this week so she has to take Uber to get to work. Her ride home costs her $18.44 in after-tax dollars.
Key experience: While we are all equal in the eyes of God, and while with incredible will and determination, some of us find our ways to great accomplishment, I sense that this woman’s life will probably hover in what some may call lower levels of accomplishment. I pass no judgment. I observe. Nay, I witness.
I’m navigating out of her parking lot. Uber tells me I have a rider request, but I get this information in the form of a text message rather than a beep. I don’t know what to do. I’ve yet to figure out how to navigate to this elusive rider-request screen that sometimes shows up. This last ride, while it didn’t deposit me at my doorstep, didn’t take me too far away from home. For this I am grateful. My Beep! addiction has me keeping my app open as I drive 21 minutes home, though, truthfully, I hope no calls come in. None do.