A view from the driver's seat

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The most obvious thing about his was that he didn’t have an arm. But you never talk about the obvious. I picked him up by a local college, so instead I asked him what he was majoring in. Geology, he replied, and then he told me he was going to the VA Hospital. So chances were, he lost his arm doing service. But as curious as I was, I wasn’t going to ask. He had to offer.

We chatted about rocks, what interested him about this area of study, and what it was like to be an older person going back to college. He obviously wasn’t a fresh faced kid anymore, so that was safe territory. Then later, he did offer something. That he was on a navy boat somewhere in Asia during the tsunami back in 2004/5. And when they got the distress call, his boat headed to Indonesia. He said first they saw palm fronds. Then they saw entire palm trees. Then they saw entire towns, cars, dead bodies until you couldn’t even see water anymore. I could see it so clearly through his eyes, the way he described that experience. Being on deck, leaning over the rail with thousands of your shipmates, the giddy chatter falling away into shocked silence.

His stop came up sooner than both of us expected. “Hey,” he asked, “I only have to be here 15 minutes, then I have some other errands I have to do if you want to drive me.”

“I would love to but unfortunately I have to be in Hollywood in 30 minutes.”

“Ok, well nice to meet you. Hope we run into each other again.”


I really wish I could have waited. I wanted to know about the elephant in the room and I could feel that he wanted to tell me. It was his story, a turning point, the kind of cataclysmic event that colors everything about a person. But when you only get 10 minutes with someone, chances are you don’t dive in that deep. You get a question but not the answer.


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The Big Tipper

He wasn’t from around here. A female friend had called in the ride for him and she texted me where I was taking him. He was late 20’s perhaps with thick-lashed heavily-lidded eyes and he had on the Eastern European uniform for young men of his age: graffitied T-shirt and artfully tattered jeans. “Sister!” he bellowed. “No speak English!” He jumped into the car and we headed for Glendale. Ah, probably Armenian. I had to make a complicated left turn onto Western that involved pulling out into traffic praying that other cars would stop followed by a bout of apologetic handwaving (Driving in LA Tip #23: It’s better to apologize rather than ask for permission) which made him laugh. The only other time he spoke was to ask “Cigarette Ok?” “No sorry,” I shook my head. “OK OK.” When I got to the parking lot to drop him off, he pulled out a stack of crisp new bills. He bypassed the hundreds, I saw a few twenties, then a one. He hesitated. Then pulled out a twenty. “Sister! Thank you!” He kissed my hand. “Brother,” I cried. “Welcome to America!”

Later that day, I picked up a trio of ghetto fabulous boys in Weho. One had to be over 6′ 5″ and at least 300 pounds, dark chocolate, and with a soft high voice that could only belong to someone that big. The other queen had auburn curls, big fake tits, and she skipped to the car, defiantly perky, the world her runway. They were just going to the grocery store a few blocks away and they wanted me to wait for them. Sure. They sang me directions, each one trading off in a call and response. Make a leeeft, stay right hereeeeee, right hhhhhhhereee — up and down, with tremolo, a little trill at the end. Not surprisingly, they could all sing, and not fake talent show sing, but CHURCH SING. I couldn’t help but join in with my barely-good-enough-for-drunken-karaoke voice. “Is this where you waaaant meeeee tooooooo stoppppp?” It was a $5 ride and big boy added $20 tip. Awwww…

Every once in a while you get a tipping angel. I got two. Must have been my lucky day.

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When I dropped the girls off, there was an ambulance, a fire truck and a police car in front of their building. “Someone’s having an awesome Friday night,” I quipped. The second I went back into driver’s mode, I got a request from what seemed like the same building. Since there was too much action out front, I pulled over into an alley and texted the passenger that I couldn’t stop at the actual pick up request because there were too many vehicles there. He texted me back, “I’m actually the reason that everyone’s here. Can you pull up in front of the ambulance please?” OK… I headed towards the front of the light parade and there, sitting on the wall, was a teddy bear of a guy, baseball cap pulled deep over his eyes. A crowd of firefighters (all ruddy and blonde and thick of bicep – sigh) surrounded me barking out instructions. “Back up more! All the way! You got room!” They helped him hobble into my car, then told me where I was taking him: the emergency room. Down this street, 2.5 miles, make a left. Apparently he didn’t want to take an ambulance — too expensive.

Usually I wait for the passenger to give me a sign that he or she wants to talk. But I couldn’t help myself. “Oh my god, are you OK?”

W sighed, then told me the whole story. His girlfriend went bat shit crazy, started to destroy the apartment, then she blocked the door so he couldn’t leave and picked up a frying pan. He didn’t want to get into it with her so he opted to jump out the balcony. It was only from the 2nd floor, but because he hit a weird driveway dip, his heels hit the ground at a weird angle and he heard a crack. He was afraid that he broke them. Tears started to spill out his eyes. “I feel like such a dirtbag. Look at me, my shirt’s ripped, I’m in these ratty clothes, and…” he gestured at his tear streaked face.

I reassured him that no one would think anything about it, that it was noble for him to choose jumping over hitting her. And I told him of a fact that I had heard: that domestic abuse isn’t just about men hitting women, that men can also be the victims. And actually, female to male domestic abuse is the most underreported because of the shame that men feel over being on the short end of the stick so to speak.

He told me he refused to press charges, that he called his girlfriend’s dad so that she wouldn’t have to spend the night in prison. The relationship was definitely over. Or so he claimed. He tried to switch the subject, “So how’s your night?”

When we got to the hospital, he tried to get out of the car himself but I pushed him back. “Don’t be macho. I ‘ll get you a wheelchair.” So I ran inside and beckoned for a nurse to bring one. Then they shifted him from the car to the chair and he disappeared inside, still polite, still thoughtful. “Thank you,” he called out. “Drive safely!”

The Babysitter

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The Babysitter

She was a Latino woman in her 20’s and she had two kids with her. The eldest boy was 2 and full of energy, the other was another boy, only a month old. As she tried to strap the older one into his seatbelt, he kicked and whined. She sighed, tired, and asked me to make sure the childproof door lock was on. While she put her baby in the middle, I found a packet of fruit gummies in my glove compartment and handed them to the boy in an effort to keep him occupied while his mom was busy. I drove them down the street to the bargain grocery store, Food For Less. The boy kept kicking the seat, bouncing up and down, making periodic shrieking sounds. The mom sighed, tired.
“Handful, huh?” I offered.
“Yeah. You don’t even know.”
When we got the store, she asked, “Do you mind waiting while I get a few things?”
“No problem. I’ll park over there.” I pointed to an empty space.
She got out and unbuckled her son, then dashed into the store. Oh wait — you want me to… Oh I guess I’m watching the baby.
At first, he didn’t make a peep. But the lack of his mother and motion and any sound woke him up. He began to make those plaintive newborn mewling cries. I reached back and began moving his car seat from side to side, hoping to stop the volume from rising. It seemed to calm him a bit. He didn’t get louder but he didn’t stop. So I sat there, rocking him, singing him Beatles songs until Mom came back 15 minutes later. The kid had two handfuls of candy that he tore right into. “I had to get them for him. He wouldn’t shut up,” she offered, knowing how it looked.
I helped her get groceries into the car, I helped her get the groceries out. I helped her get her kids up the stairs. She said thank you. Then I went back to my car to check if she got everything. Now I saw there were gummies everywhere, on the seat and floor. Plus the body heat coming off the kid had smushed them deep into the seats (Cloth! Yeah!). And on top of that, the candy trash lay scattered everywhere. It was a $13 ride in total. Minus the 20% Lyft commission. That means I made about $10. She didn’t tip. All in a day’s work.

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The Scam

She was a college sophomore going back to campus after visiting her family for the weekend. A sweet quiet Mexican girl wearing her college’s sweatshirt and a Jansen backpack. Somehow we got on the subject of summer plans and she mentioned that she was just gong to go home this year, that last year had been kinda crazy. Oh really? How? She said she got her first job last year, well an internship, and had been living away from home on the East Coast. I asked what it was. She said it was for an educational company that had her going door to door selling their products. I shuddered. Memories of being forced to sell Girl Scout cookies to the same neighbors year after year came flooding back.  Knocking. Waiting. The inevitable dismay/hostility on the face of whoever opened the door. Oh god — the smell of those strange houses. Soup. Sweat. Old bacon. Moldy carpet.

“Wait — that doesn’t sound like an internship. Did you get paid?”

“Well it was a commission thing. I made some money but other people ending up owing the company money because they didn’t sell enough and they would end up driving around looking for places to sell and that used up gas.”

“This sounds awful.”

“It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.”

“They made you go all the way across the country to sell door to door? How did you get there? Did they pay for your flight?”

“There was a van. They picked us up.”

“It sounds like you were a migrant worker.”

“I guess. Kind of.”

“Where did you stay?”

“Well that was kinda weird. We had to ask people that we were selling to if they had an extra room.”

I nearly spit. “What??? You asked strangers if you could live in their house??? DId you parents know?”

“No, I didn’t tell them because they would’ve worried. And the company asked us not to tell them anything because they said we would be homesick and our parents would just make us come home.”

“Oh my god, this sounds illegal. How did you get this ‘internship?'”

Turns out her COLLEGE actually passed out an innocuous seeming summer survey that was turned over to this company run by an alumni. When she marked that she had no plans, they contacted her with this amazing offer. Why a college would endorse a company that would ship 18 year olds thousands of miles away from home without a place to stay or a per diem and then send them door to door asking strangers if they could live in their house, I just don’t know. 

She reassured me, “I learned a lot. I made some good friends. And this woman, when she found out that I was paying this guy to live in his house, she told me I could stay with her for free. So I learned there are some really good people out there.”

Wait — you had to pay the boarding fees yourself? Oh don’t get me started… 

I ran home and looked up the company. This is what I found.


I suppose there’s two sides to every story. I’m sure some strange twisted mind might enjoy this particular kind of torture. Might even say it builds character. But me, I think it sounds like pure hell. 


I drove a cheery Santa Claus sized young Latino male in a fedora to a bar in North Hollywood. He told me he worked on a reality show. I asked for more details. Oh, it’s about terrible tattoos? What’s the worst you’ve ever seen?

His answer: A guy lost a bet in which he had to get something stupid on his arm. Drumroll please…

It was a mailbox with a penis in it. That’s right. A penis.

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A Warrior

The first thing I noticed were the piercings. How could I not? There was a silver sliver of a bone through his nose, then studs on both sides of his nose, some complicated piece that wound through and around his ear like something out of a sci fi movie. There were tattoos on his neck, his hands, peeking out from the edges of his all black outfit and his black porkpie hat. But he didn’t seem like a tough guy. No, his skin was pale and his voice was soft with a Slavic accent, and when he spoke it almost sounded like purring.

We got on the subject of listening to rain fall on trees, a sound you miss in in LA, and he mentioned he was from New Zealand.

“Really? You don’t have a New Zealand accent.”

“I’m half Maori, half Ukranian.”

“Wow. That’s a mix.”

He told me about his mother, a fierce Maori woman with tattoos on her face and an animal intelligence but not a lot of education. She had been dancing in a touring Polynesian band where she met an Ukrainian guitarist. They had their children in the US to give them citizenship but when she divorced her husband, fearing a custody battle, she kidnapped the boys and went back to New Zealand. For years, he was certain his father was looking for him but when he was finally able to go to the Ukraine, he found to his dismay that his father had moved on to a new family and had never sought out his two sons.

I offered lamely, “Some people, they can’t face the mistakes they made in the past. The only way they know how to survive is to try to forget everything and just move on.”

He nodded, nothing more to say about this subject. This hole.

Half man. Half boy.

Half hard. Half soft.

Half Maori. Half Ukranian.

Wholly himself.

Hole in his self.



Big in Japan

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Big in Japan

I picked them up a cheap hotel somewhere downtown. “Where you guys going?
They replied in unison, “West Hollywood.”
Oh so it’s like that. “Where you boys from?”
I thought they were making fun of me, seeing as though I’m Asian. “Ha ha, where you guys really from?”
“Japan! We’re stationed there.”
Ah!!! Military boys. I interrogated them about being in Japan, the military, heading towards the obvious — what’s it like to be gay in the military? I approached the question gently. “So… do you get along with the other guys?”
The one in the front seat wrinkled his nose. “Not really.”
I nodded sagely. “Yeah, it’s because you’re gay, right?”
“No, it’s because they’re all boring and they just want to sit in their rooms and play video games all the time.”
Oh. So being gay doesn’t really matter? The afterschool movie in my head of them versus the homophobic establishment dissolved into nothingness as they chattered on about going out and exploring Japan — the festivals, the museums, the bars –while everyone else stayed on base. I interrogated them about the Japanese gay bars — what are they like? Do they get hit on? I mean come on, 6 feet of pure hot boy? Dimples! Shiny white teeth! Exotic dark skin!!! How could they not be an instant hit in every bar they entered?
But they demurred. “No, we never get hit on. Most of the time, they won’t even look at us.”
I couldn’t believe it but as they explained the eccentricities of Japanese men, I soon got it. Of course they’d be intimidated by these boys. The sheer bulk and height of them must be overwhelming. And all those weird societal codes of behavior, the repression and resulting perversions, then add gay on top of that…
I dropped them off the Abbey, ground zero for gay life in Los Angeles. No problem getting hit on here. In fact, if I were them, I would have brought armor.

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Coke vs. Hansens Natural Soda

So what’s the difference between Uber and Lyft? Mainly, it’s the concept of back seat vs. front seat. Uber, people tend to sit in the back which makes it feel more car service-y. Lyft, people are encouraged to ride shotgun, making it feel more like the Lyft slogan, “Your friend with a car.” Guess which I prefer? Not to say that I haven’t met some nice people doing Uber.

-The gussied up, hot Latina schoolteachers going to a wedding in Beverly Hills that tossed me a $20 as a tip. One was a Denver Broncos fan and nervously checked her iphone for updates the entire ride. 

-The cynical suit going to a Hollywood Hills charity event who broke down the real reasons for these types of events. Apparently rich single Persians and Jews need a vetted venue to meet other single rich people of their ilk, online dating and the bar scene being beneath their social status. And pretending to care about education or feeding third world children is the perfect disguise for their thinly veiled self interests.

-A burly grandfather with a Jewish blue collar PA accent who told me about his son dying on Father’s Day while driving to see him and falling asleep at the wheel. Some things you never get over. Some things you never have words for.

But for the most part, Uber is like Coke. It’s a behemoth that everyone knows about. It’s the easy choice. And there’s a fancy aspect to it — a black car image. So even if I’m driving a Toyota Camry hybrid and the prices are as low as Lyft, people seem to want to buy into the mythos. They don’t want a pink mustache car picking them up or dropping them off at their fancy party. They want to seem like they’re being serviced. So suddenly, I’m all over rich areas like Beverly Hills ferrying rich kids around, something that never happened with Lyft. (The closet was dropping off a half black/half Indonesian nanny at a tony Palisades mansion where she was one of 4 nannies watching a brood of 4 half Jewish/half Korean children) I took one androgynous scowling teenage boy to the top of a dead end street way up in the hills, the mansion at the top, while he listened to dubstep on headphones full blast. I picked up three scantily clad bright, chattering girls at a mansion, security watching as a parade of cars, Uber limo to Uberx, came to fetch the teenagers at the end of the night. They were startled when I asked them what was going on, like I wasn’t supposed to ask. And they reluctantly told me that it was a party for their school (they went to a famous expensive prep school in the area), that there was security, no not sure about parents. On the surface, these kids, they do everything right. They say thank you, please. But they don’t really mean it. Their gloss of self entitlement cannot be punctured and everything and everyone slips off its shiny surface. Teenagers in general are already a self absorbed bunch, but give them some money and some power… fuggedaboutit. I’m staying out of BH. 

The other odd thing about Uber is that customers often seem surprised that one, I’m a woman. Two, I have a personality. Because Uber doesn’t have much of a community for their drivers (no Facebook lounge or regular meet ups like Lyft), plus on the driver’s app, you can’t see any other cars out there, you have no idea of who these other drivers are. In the weekly newsletter, they do choose a Driver of the Week and list number of rides and rating. They’re always older men, foreign men. Ular or Avag. Double chin. Thick eyebrows. The kind of guy you’d see driving a regular cab. Probably rocking an ugly sweater and khaki pants. Sometimes I’m a pleasant surprise and women will squeal — I’ve never gotten a female driver before! Or the young black guy with a Kid N Play fade will exclaim over my radio choice of KDAY (Back in the day!), “I like your music!” And then sometimes it feels odd, like the teenagers, or two dudes in the backseat who can’t figure out how to treat me, like the hired help or a lady, so instead, settle on an awkward quiet.

I’ve talked to other Lyft drivers who did some Ubering. And they all say the same thing — they prefer Lyft by far. I also mentor new drivers for Lyft and I’ve gotten quite a few Uber drivers who want to try out something new.  So I believe Lyft will thrive, despite all the money that Uber is pouring into recruiting drivers. Me, I don’t know how much longer I’ll drive for Uber. These past weekends, I’ve done both, dashing in and out of my car to tie and untie the pink mustache. It’s a pain in the ass but when I’m in the Valley or Torrance or someplace out of the hotspots, I can’t afford to sit around waiting for a ride. But in those instances when I get a request from both Uber and Lyft at the same time, I’ll take the fruity flavor every time.


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The Dark Side

So I had to take a short break from driving while I got ready to direct my first short, If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Already. I got a small grant to make it from Visual Communications, an Asian Arts organization that has a talent development program called Armed with a Camera and the short will premier at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. While extremely grateful for the opportunity and support, I was woefully unprepared in every way to make this thing. When I directed promos, I had a staff of people who executed my commands and did all the dirty work — the money stuff, the calls, the organizing and bargaining and contracts. But I have learned through a daily roller coaster of follies and shifting plans, nothing, not even a 5 minute short, is easy to make. Nor is it cheap. My lil ole grant wasn’t gonna be enough — I needed to hustle up more cash.

A few weeks ago, I picked up J on a busy Hollywood corner. She was a pretty young female with piercing light eyes, showing off her form in a tight tank top, leggings. She asked me how long I’d been driving that day, if it had been busy. Then she asked how long I’d been driving for Lyft. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then she offered, “So I’m an Uber recruiter and they’re offering Lyft drivers a great deal. Complete 20 rides and you get $500, no commissions for a month. I can help you with your application and get your approved right away.” I was too astounded to really hear the details of what she was saying. I mean, the nerve!! This was her job — standing on the corner calling Lyft rides and trying to turn them over to the dark side? It felt like a violation, this stranger in my car (MY CAR!) trying to upsell me. What was in it for her? Who was this person? But I did hear $500. I heard that loud and clear. She asked me for my number, said she would text me so that I had her number, I could think about it but not that long. The promotion was going to end in a few days. (Why is that all these GREAT AMAZING deals are always ending in a few days?) I dropped her off about 5 min from where I had picked her up, another busy Hollywood corner, and she disappeared into a frozen yogurt place. But when I drove by 5 min later, she was standing outside, on her phone again. Probably calling another Lyft. 

I wasn’t going to call. The whole thing felt dirty and weird. But $500… $500… $500. The clarion call of easy money weakened me. I admit it. I called J and made plans to sign up to drive for Uber. I’m sure I’ll get an earful from other Lyft drivers who think I sold out. I’m a traitor! A turncoat!! But Werner Herzog said that you should do whatever you need to do to make your film — whether it’s working as a bouncer at sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum. I hardly think Uber will be as colorful as either of those. But it’s what came along at the time I needed it most. In the words of a wise, venerated 20th century poet, “Go on take the money and run. Hoo hoo hoo.”