Too Close to Home

So how did a part-time lawyer and middle-aged mom who spent most mornings and afternoons shuttling my kids to their private schools and endless extracurricular activities end up as an Uber driver, transporting complete strangers all over LA? Well, no surprise, a pending divorce is part of the story but that’s just the half of it: as my marriage headed south, my long-time job fell out from under me in record speed.

About five months ago, during one of my daily driving marathons, Mike, my soon-to-be ex, called to tell me that his latest real estate development project—a problem-from-the-outset shopping center in Inglewood—had hit another snag. Construction had fallen behind, and the lenders wanted Mike to invest more of his money before they’d agree to fund the last few draws. “It’s only for a few months until the permanent funding comes in, and I’m not going to take all of our savings,” he assured me, as I tried to conceal the upshot of our conversation from the kids. “I promise to make sure there’s still a few thousand left. Enough to cover an emergency. Plus, there’s still the decent money you’re making at the law firm,” he added.

Life with Mike was a white-knuckle ride, but he always found a way to pull things together. Such was the nature of his business; Mike was only as successful as his last deal. He made great money from projects that sold, but each one demanded that he invest practically everything we had. So, to the outside world, we may have looked like a family that had made it, but truth be told, we were often leveraged to the hilt. Our relationship had been sliding for awhile, so I was hardly shocked when he told me he wanted out. In fact, I’d been debating the same thing for a couple years, despite having three young kids together. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t taken aback when a few months after he moved out, he moved in with Gigi, a 27-year-old assistant to one of his project managers

I was dealing with rush-hour traffic and my kids’ squabbling in the back seat. I didn’t want to blow up at Mike. That never helped. Plus, Mike hadn’t missed on many deals before. Besides, if I’d turned him down and he failed, we’d probably both be at risk of losing everything so what choice did I have?

After I’d picked up the kids later that afternoon, I cajoled my best friend and law-school classmate, Gracie, to meet me for a glass of wine so I could vent a bit. Gracie is a highly-regarded Assistant District Attorney in the white collar crime unit, but I can still entice her to play hookie once in a while, so long as it’s after 4:30 p.m., when most government employees, even the powerful ones, wind down, apparently. Gracie’s divorced with a young daughter and a fortyish ex who’s still in school, pursuing yet another graduate degree, but mostly just postponing adulthood as long as he can. Despite my situation with Mike, Gracie still believes I have a near-perfect life. After what I suspected might be the last glass of really good Brunello I imbibe for a while, I told Gracie about my decision to allow Mike to deplete virtually the last of our savings. “You’ll be fine with the income from your practice,” Gracie assured me.

Gracie is known for her spot-on instincts in the court room, but she had that one dead wrong. When I arrived at the office the next day, I heard yelling coming from the conference room. I mean loud yelling, even by lawyers’ standards. Emotions can run high in lawsuits, and my former firm, was known for handling messy, high-stakes partnership disputes, particularly family run business partnerships. But this time it wasn’t a standoff between enraged family members, but rather, a showdown between the senior partner in our firm and the son of one of his biggest clients. The argument spilled out into the hallway, where the son raged at my boss, accusing him of masterminding the dispute between father and son and of embezzling funds from the family’s company. Before I knew it, law enforcement and State Bar investigators were descending upon our offices. The next day, the story was front-page news, complete with shots of our fearless leader being led away in handcuffs. Before I could catch my breath, I was out of work, with no severance, and a taint that’s likely to keep me from landing a job with another law firm anytime soon.

My frantic calls to Mike only made matters worse: the bank was still dragging its feet, so he had to use our money to pay contractors and subs to stop them from walking off the job. And then he delivered the real humdinger: “I’m not even sure I’ll be able to cover my portion of the kids’ expenses next month.”

Talk about feeling like you’re in the eye of a storm. My parents have been sliding into dementia in tandem, which meant more of my time and resources going their direction, especially with my brother, a perpetual free spirit, spending his days studying sea turtles in Costa Rica. I called Gracie for an emergency lunch. We considered my options and agreed that anything in law is out for the time being. And, given the scandal that my boss caused, most businesses probably wouldn’t touch me, at least not until some time had elapsed since the front-page scandal. But I needed a job – and money – right away to keep things afloat for my kids and me. Just a few thousand per month, enough to replace some of what I’d been making practicing law part-time, and just for a few months, until Mike pulled through again.

I knew I didn’t have time to throw myself into some new career, and the kids have always been my priority, which I wasn’t willing to change, even in the face of the crisis. So that pretty much left unskilled jobs that I could do part-time, paying a fraction of what I’d been making. I was confident I could grit my way through the demoralization, at least for a few months. But my biggest concern, by far, is what this might mean for my kids. How will they react if they learn that their mother — the hard-working lawyer with the fancy degrees– is now working some menial job? And what would happen if word leaked to their private-school friends?

I reconvened with Gracie and vented about how I felt like I was on the edge of a cliff and playing by all the conventional rules had landed me there. Gracie got me to stop wallowing and focus on solutions. Food service and retail wouldn’t work, we decided. The hours are long, and I’d probably have a full month of training before I’d pocket anything more than minimum wage. And then it happened. Gracie looked at her smartphone and suddenly had an idea. “I’ve got it! You can get paid for driving! God knows you’re an experienced driver since you seem to spend your life on the streets of LA! I’ve been using Uber to get around downtown. It’s brilliant – I can deal with emails and avoid parking hassles as I shuttle from meeting to meeting. And it’s so easy. I just downloaded the app onto my phone, and I can beckon a driver 24/7 who shows up within minutes. I have heard some complaints about how low-paying it is, but the drivers I’ve met seem fine with it – a lot of actors in training, writers, and graduate students. It’s almost too good to be true yet mobile app ride services seem to be one of the next big things.”

Initially, I wanted no part of it. But after doing some due diligence on Uber, I was a bit curious. Plus, I felt like it was my only immediate option: there’s no eligibility barriers – only a background check and an acceptable car. I have a clean record, and my Range Rover is a good set of wheels, albeit four years old and a gas guzzler. Most importantly, the hours are flexible, and I know L.A. as well as anyone. I could drive for Uber from the moment I dropped the last kid off each day until the time I picked the first one up. No commuting to an office. All I had to do was just turn on the app from wherever I happened to be. Of course, I thought that there had to be a better way. I mean I didn’t go to law school so that I could end up driving a digital age cab.

That day, it seemed as if financial fate was intervening. I pulled into a gas station that advertised the lowest price I’d seen for weeks. I slid my credit card I usually use for gas into the pump, but it was declined. Mike obviously hadn’t paid the bill. Then I tried another and another with the same result. I had to shell out my last two twenties and God knows that didn’t fill my tank.

At half-time of my daughter’s lacrosse game an hour later, I found myself studying the Uber website, while carefully shielding my phone screen from the other parents in the bleachers. Maybe this is my only real choice, I lamented. Okay, I thought, I can do this. But, there was no question about it – I had to keep it from my kids and virtually everyone else in our world.

The next day, I submitted an Uber “Partner” application online and, the day after that, I received an email directing me to a vehicle inspection center at a vacant parking lot in West LA. Two days later, I received another email notifying me that I’d been approved as an Uber-X driver. I followed the instructions for downloading the driver app and set my phone in the dashboard mount. Feeling sort of like an alien had entered my body, I started to drive aimlessly, for once. Within minutes, I was jolted by a loud, relentless beeping. A signal of a ride request. I was definitely rattled, and it took me a minute to operate the ride request software. I made it to the address of the rider in less than three minutes. That was the bad news! I hadn’t thought about the fact that I can’t sign on to my driver app until I’m far enough away from any place where I’m likely to know anyone, anyone at all. (Little did I know then how dicey that would prove to be, no matter where I might be Uber driving in LA.)

But there I was: I’d blown it on my very first ride! But instead of simply canceling the trip and pushing the “No charge to rider” button on the app, I sat there virtually frozen, my car parked at the curb of a stately Cape Cod traditional just a mile or so from my own home. The risk of exposure making my heart pound like it hadn’t since I’d made my first dive off the high-dive at summer camp. And sure enough, my worst fear seemed to be materializing right in front of my very eyes. The woman gracefully gliding across her front lawn, clad in designer wear from head to toe, looked familiar, too familiar. And then it clicked: her son had attended a tennis clinic with my son a couple years ago. Shit! I’m cooked, I fumed, as I desperately grabbed for my sunglasses and threw on one of my older son’s baseball caps. But she eyed my efforts at disguise as she approached the car. She seemed suspicious as she slid into my backseat. She asked if her destination address had registered on my driver app. I struggled to process what that meant and tried not to knock my phone out of the dashboard mount as I checked to see if her destination was displayed on the screen. “Yes, it’s there – the Fairmont Hotel, right?” I asked in as nonchalant voice as I could muster. For a moment, I was freed of my panic as I wondered why she’d be taking an Uber to a hotel a few miles from her home in the middle of the day. Meanwhile, she was busy eyeing the stickers from our country club and my kids’ prep school.

“Who do you know at The Caldwell School?” she asked in a tone leaning toward one I may have used on a cross-examination of a witness in my real job. “No one,” I said a little too anxiously. “The stickers were on the car when I bought it at a used car dealership recently. I just haven’t had time to peel them off.” I lied, while feeling grateful for all the years of experience I had at thinking quickly on my feet.

But she had already spied my old but expensive Italian handbag, and didn’t seem to be buying any of it. She peered around the car for clues and craned her neck, trying to get a better glimpse of me. Apparently undeterred by basic social etiquette, at least when it came to a lowly Uber-X driver, she wasn’t letting up on the interrogation. “Where’d you find that beautiful handbag?” She asked.

“I don’t remember,” I responded. Jesus, you’re an experienced trial lawyer – don’t let this condescending bitch rattle you, I chided myself. After that thought, I was able to manage a genuine laugh and added, “But it had to have been one of the outlet malls since that’s the only place I shop.” I’d found my footing, and she seemed to sense I wasn’t as easy a prey as she may have assumed. She retreated and gave me a compliment, although probably one that was intended to be somewhat snide: “I could never manage to afford a designer handbag, let alone a Range Rover, on a driver’s income.” Please tell me how you do it?”

I decided the best strategy with this one was to beat her at her own game. So I spent the rest of the thankfully short ride asking her about the lovely landscaping in her front yard and her children. When she alighted from my car at the hotel valet, I almost had the sense she wanted to be friends. In my real world, I would have feigned a friendly interest, maybe even suggested exchanging contact information so that we could get our kids together. But need I even tell you that I was as likely to give away my identity to this woman as a CIA operative would be likely to blow their cover. Well, maybe that’s a little melodramatic, but trust me when I tell you it felt just about that dire to me at that moment.


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