There are some absolutely terrible people in this world who are fools for prestige, suckers for any shiny bauble or deplorable frippery that might permit them the despicable foppery of believing themselves to be somehow better than their fellow men for the least justifiable of reasons.
I am one of those terrible people. I wear Kiton suits even though I am so breathtakingly ugly that no manner of haute couture can make any possible difference. I have a “Black Series” toothbrush. When I saw a fellow racer who happened to be a hugely wealthy fellow from Hong Kong pull out an “Infinite” series Visa card to lay down next to my “Signature” series Visa, I did not rest until I was also in possession of an “Infinite” Visa that was stamped from actual metal instead of merely molded out of plastic. When my plans to acquire a European noble title from some down-and-out distant relatives around the turn of the century foundered, I actually purchased a barony from a (very small, not quite legitimate) country.
There is no activity or purchase too ridiculous for me to undertake in the name of perceived prestige. Or so I thought … until the day I paid $78 dollars to ride in an Uber Select.
This was the situation: I had just driven a 29-year-old car from Los Angeles to Houston over the course of two days. Normally that’s not a tough drive, but this particular vehicle suffered from a wide variety of transmission and suspension maladies. Keeping it on a crosswind-heavy road at the 70 miles per hour it required about three-quarters of a minute to achieve was somewhat more difficult than getting a Porsche 997GT2 though the Nelson Ledges Kink at 125 mph.
The trip was totally worth it, and you’ll be seeing some of the photos and commentary from said trip in the near future. But it left me absolutely knackered, as the Brit-journos would say. So when it was time for me to take the 45-minute ride to Houston Hobby Airport, I did what I had never done before: I skipped past the UberPool and UberX options, all the way to UberSelect.
Readers who do not regularly avail themselves of Uber’s services might not be aware of this, but what was once a single product — the “Uber” rideshare — has exploded into a veritable cornucopia of over-branded choices. Oldsmobile’s misuse of the “Cutlass” name circa 1984 has nothing on the way Uber has become UberX, UberXL, UberSUV, UberPool, UberBlack, and UberSelect. I think that’s all of them, not counting the food and shopping stuff. Surely “Uber Prostitution” cannot be far behind; people already use Uber to send their side pieces and escorts on a ride of shame the morning after the party.
The always-changing Uber app, which never presents me with the same look, choices, or order flow twice in a row, told me that the ride to the airport would be $34 with UberX. Or it would be $77 with UberSelect. I considered this briefly, and thought about the last few UberX rides I’d taken. A lot of cramped, weary Toyotas, trunks and hatch areas full of grime that threatened to befoul my custom-color RedOxx bags, drivers whose command of English was both minimal and surprisingly malleable depending on how the conversation was going.
For an extra forty bucks, I could skip all that. I’m now at the age in life where I’m willing to spend money to avoid misery. I park at the $16/day garage that is connected to the airport instead of at the $6/day shuttle lot because I hate the uncertainty and the noise and the crowding of the shuttle. That’s where I am as a human being right now; willing to drop $10 a day so I don’t have to ride for 10 minutes in a bus. Thirty years ago I earned two and a half dollars an hour scrubbing pizza pans after midnight so I could pay six-dollar entry fees for Saturday morning BMX races. My childhood self doesn’t understand this extended dream I live now, an endless progression of travel and attractive women and Kimpton reservations and $50 filets. Certainly he wouldn’t have spent a month’s worth of pan-scrubbing income to ride in a different kind of car to the airport.
Yet that is exactly what I did. The app told me that there was a BMW 5 Series on the way. Eight minutes later, it arrived: the undifferentiated bulk of a scratched-up black 2011 535i. The driver got out and to my amazement he was a body and face double for Skip Sudduth’s “Larry” in Ronin. He was wearing a very bright pink polo shirt. On a man who easily out-bulked me by 50 pounds, it was a spellbinding effect.
“Let me get that trunk,” he said. “It’s a little sticky.” The trunk was littered with trash and leaves, a dead ringer for the last Corolla trunk I’d put my bags in. Then he insisted on holding the door open for me and Danger Girl, one at a time.
There was zero room to be had in the seat behind this giant dude. The tan leather of the seats featured an intricate intaglio pattern of caked-in dirt, similar to the fingertips of a shade-tree mechanic in the afternoons.
“You can put the center armrest down,” the driver said. It made a crackling noise. “Going to Hobby?” he asked.
“Uh-huh,” I responded. Then, to my amazement, he started asking me about which route I wanted him to take. This is the kind of bullshit you get from Las Vegas taxi drivers who want to “long-haul” tourists. “I don’t care which way you go,” I said. “I’m not from here.”
“Well, it’s just that …” I made a hand motion to Danger Girl, who seamlessly picked up the conversation and engaged this fellow for the next five minutes as to whether or not a particular tollway should be involved. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized what had been happening: he was trying to avoid taking the tollway, since Uber wouldn’t reimburse him.
Once we were well and truly underway, the fellow started rapping to me again. Where was I from, what I was doing, and so on. I completely understand that some people like to make conversation, but part of what I was trying to buy for my $40 premium was some peace and quiet. Yet I am too much the inmate of middle-class sensitivities to forego at least a politely terse response to this kind of talk, so about half of my two-dollar-a-minute trip was spent telling this guy about Ohio while the level of his inquiries slowly ratcheted up from “polite” to “casing the joint.”
Just before we got to the part of the conversation where he asked me for my mother’s maiden name and the first street on which I lived, the tired old Bimmer struck a massive pothole. KERRANG! went the unibody. “Jesus!” the driver yelped. “Uh, sorry about that.”
“I’m sure you had no choice,” I responded. Behind us, a semi-truck carrying the blade for a giant wind turbine nimbly avoided the pothole. The next 10 minutes went relatively smoothly, except for the part where we drove straight at a minivan in a kind of Man Vs. Food showdown for a space at the airport.
“I’d better get the door,” our driver said, jumping out and tugging fruitlessly at Danger Girl’s handle until it finally crackle-popped open. By this time I had a very solid sense of why the taxis in Germany are Benzes and not Bimmers. But I still had no sense of why this pleasant, successful-looking fellow was using this car to do this particular work. Had he bought it cheap? After all, big BMWs don’t retain much value after five years. You pay used-Avalon money and you get something that’s eligible for a higher Uber class.
Yet the situation in no way struck me as similar to the Uber-by-choice setups I see in California all the time. Rather, I suspect that our driver was using the car he’d bought in happier times to make ends meet in the present. Everything pointed that way. The trunk full of leaves: a clear sign of a personal car. The driver’s curious, embarrassed manner, combined with too much curiosity; someone who finds their new position as a member of the service class to be both confusing and disconcerting. And the ragged shape of the BMW itself; somebody who didn’t ever plan on having a flood of casuals in the back seat and therefore hadn’t really prepared for the wear and tear that would occur.
I hope things get better for our Uber Select driver. But they’ll have to get better for him without my further assistance. Compared to UberX, UberSelect offered me no benefits whatsoever. I had no more space than I would have had in a Prius, no faster of a ride, no more pleasant of an experience. Having paid twice as much, I got nothing more. That’s the kind of deal that even the most idiotic of status-seekers can easily avoid. If you need to be seen to arrive in an old BMW, then UberSelect is for you. Everybody else should take the Prius.