Flat out of luck

Attorney by day, Uber driver by night. UberEsq. began her career as a successful lawyer working at  top-tier firms in New York for over 15 years. Today, through a series of unusual events, driving an Uber through the heart of Los Angeles is her current addiction. Wild adventures and misadventures meet her at every turn as she is exposed to a side of Los Angeles she’s never known. As both a lawyer and mother, her skill set ends up helping people in ways she never imagined. What started out as a temporary job has turned into an obsession. She needs a fix almost every day, but keeping her secret has proven to be a daunting task while she begins her new law practice and works to keep her children on task. 

March 29, 2015 –11:51PM

L.A.’s warehouse district, just southwest of downtown, isn’t the kind of place I spend a lot of time. Especially at night. Though dozens of tech and other sort of new media start-ups have upgraded the neighborhood from the seedy, dingy feel it had for decades, the transformation’s only visible while the sun’s up.  And, at a few minutes before midnight on a Sunday night, it felt every bit as scary as it had been for decades. Plus, tonight, not only was it dark as hell, far worse: I was practically alone.

I was standing in some dirt parking lot on God-knows-what street. I just knew that, in my almost-forty years in Los Angeles – since the day I was born – I hadn’t ever stopped on this block before. Ever. And I could be sure of that without even thinking. Six feet away from me was a man, flat out on his back, stretching under my car to try to change a flat. And, until about an hour ago, I’d never laid eyes on the tire changer before. About an hour earlier, my two teenagers and sixth grader had all been in their rooms studying, or at least I’d hoped that’s what they were doing. I was in bed, indulging my nightly news addiction.  Suddenly, I had an impulse to check the Uber driver app. It was only my second day on the job, and I was still trying to figure it out. I knew my Palisades neighborhood often had late-night surges, mostly due to teenagers with fat allowances rushing their way home before curfew. Within seconds of turning on the Uber app, my phone started beeping. The request was coming from the corner of PCH and Sunset, not too far at all. And the surge was registering a 3.2, meaning that, because of high demand and low supply, I’d get over three times the usual fare. That high a surge was too good to resist so I accepted the ride request, and, within seconds, I was flying down the stairs. I hoped my kids heard me through their closed doors as I shouted that I needed to hit the ATM and pick up some milk and eggs, forgetting that I’d just restocked the fridge with both items earlier that day.

It was just a few minutes to PCH, and the Uber navigation system would take me within yards of the rider, whom I could call at the number that came up on the app if I still couldn’t find him or her. But there was no need for any call this time.  A tall, striking young man was standing at a gas station on the corner of PCH, and he waved to me as I reached the end of Sunset. “Thanks for picking me up at this late hour,” he said in a smooth accent that I guessed was Nigerian.

“My pleasure. Where are you headed?” I said.

“Alameda and Sixth Street, please” he answered as he climbed into the front seat.

Downtown LA? Shit! Getting there and back would take me well beyond anything I could claim was a reasonable time to have gone to the ATM and market, both of which were within two miles of our house. One of my kids was almost 17 and the other two were 15 and 12, but still, I didn’t like the idea of the three of them alone in the house while I high-tailed it downtown at 11 p.m.  On the other hand, it was a 3.2 surge, so the ride downtown should net me close to $70 – a real score in the Uber world. I wondered where he’d come from, since there were no homes within a half mile of the gas station. Must have been Gladstone’s, I guessed, though he didn’t strike me as the touristy Gladstone’s type, and that wasn’t a typical dining destination for someone who lived downtown. It crossed my mind that there was some risk involved here but I wasn’t going to bail on the rider or pass up the 3.2 surge.

The rider was quickly lost in his phone, his fingers deftly tapping the keys.   After a polite, “I hope you don’t mind if I just chill,” he popped on his head phones, and he was lost to his music, something, as the mother of teenage kids, I knew all too well. Fine by me, especially at this hour when I’m talked-out. I admired the nighttime skyline of West LA and felt a pang as we crossed the 405. My gaze lingered on the majestic Twin Towers lighting up Century City. For nine years I’d sat on the thirty-third floor of the South tower, with an ocean view and all the resources at my disposal necessary to bill sixty hours a week. And, look at me now, I thought forlornly. But then I remembered how desolate the high-rise felt at this time of night, when I’d been there toiling away on some memorandum that had to be on a senior partner’s computer in the New York office by 8 a.m. the next morning, their time … Maybe I didn’t miss it all that much, after all.

Whatever my thinking, it all came to an abrupt end when my rider surprised me, suggesting, “You should stay right as we approach the Harbor Freeway and then take the Alameda exit. That way, we’ll miss all the pedestrians from the downtown clubs.” I still couldn’t believe how many things had changed downtown since I had worked here my first year out of law school. Unlike the graveyard it had been after 7 p.m. back then, it was now teeming with nightlife virtually every night of the week.   “Sure, no problem,” I responded, thrilled that we’d sailed downtown in just twenty minutes. At this rate, I’d be back to my kids in another thirty minutes, making this fare almost easy money.  But my delight was quelled just as we reached the end of the Alameda off-ramp. A jarring thump rattled the whole car and nearly ripped the wheel from my hands. Then, before I could say a word, the driver in the car next to me confirmed my fear: the front, right tire was completely flat. Dammit! Here?! At this time of night?! How the hell do I take care of this? And now how long would my kids be home alone?

Just a year ago, a flat tire anywhere would simply have meant a call to Peter, who would have taken control immediately. Or he would have at least called someone who would have. But, then again, if I were still married to Peter, I wouldn’t be south of downtown at close to midnight with some stranger in my car. If I could have kicked myself right then and there, I would have. Why had I paid my son’s soccer club dues, instead of renewing my AAA policy? Yes, that was before I knew I’d be using my car professionally, yet still stupid! But now was no time for self-recrimination. It was time to come up with a plan and fast. But, before I could come up with anything, my passenger took control.  He directed me onto a side street and into a parking lot beside a small homeless encampment. Through a chain link fence, I could see faint flickers of small red lights among the tattered blankets and balled-up clothes. I wondered if it was crack they were smoking, and it all hit me all over again.  Jesus! Where was I? How different — how alien, really – was every part of this from anything, everything that I knew. While I was busy lamenting my downward spiral, my rider had bolted into action. Like Clark Kent, he’d yanked off his sports coat and pulled the spare tire out of the back of my car. I stood there, almost speechless, as he switched the spare for the flat and had the jack disassembled and back in the trunk. In less time than it would have taken me to get an Auto Club agent on the phone, the crisis was averted.

Superman was standing there, dusting off his slacks and hands and apologizing. … Apologizing!   “Sorry about the dust I’ll leave in your car,” he said with complete sincerity.  As I stood there uselessly, he very subtly looked me up and down with a distinctly puzzled look on his face. Feeling more than a little self-conscious, I managed to sputter, “Probably too late, but anything I can do to help?” He paused and then in a particularly polite tone responded,

“I’d like to hear how a woman who looks like you is driving an Uber, let alone solo, late at night, but that seems like an inappropriate inquiry.”

Maybe coming from another complete stranger with such an imposing physique as his I’d have been taken aback or even frightened. However, after practicing law for close to 15 years, I consider myself not only astute, but a quick judge of character. I was fairly certain that this was not only an elegant character but also a kind, decent one. So I smiled while my mind raced, searching for an appropriate response.   As if a cosmic force had intervened to spare me from mortification, my phone rang. My home number was plastered across the screen so, by force of habit, I pushed the answer button, regretting it, as I remembered I was not alone. My youngest son was practically screaming into the phone – “Mom! Where are you?”

I wasn’t sure if the rider could hear the alarm in my son’s voice, but I suspect he did, since he quickly opened the driver’s door for me and then hopped into the passenger seat.   He silently directed me back onto Alameda, as I assured my son I’d be home soon and ordered him to go to bed.

As we rolled up to an opening in the fortress-like wall that surrounded the converted warehouse that was his destination, he gave me the do’s and don’ts of driving on a temporary spare. Returning to the Palisades via the 10 freeway would be risky, he warned, unless I could stay under 40 mph the whole trip. During the day, of course, that wouldn’t be a problem on the 10, but I’d been hoping to sail home at 70 mph. I forced a smile, thanked him profusely, and then proceeded down a dark, deserted street I’d never seen before in my life, desperately hoping my navigation system would take me to the closest onramp and a quick escape onto the safety of the 10 fwy, if that’s not an oxymoron. I was just twenty miles from the privileged enclave I’d called home for the last twenty years, an alternate universe under these circumstances.

I made my way west on the 10, careful not to exceed 40 mph, praying I wouldn’t get pulled over for impeding traffic, and desperate that the donut tire supporting me would hold up. I breathed deeply and tried to concentrate on the task at hand: returning safely to my kids. Once I’d done that, I’d prepare to withstand my kid’s’ cross-examination tomorrow morning about my whereabouts until well past midnight. As long as they didn’t clue into the larger, life misfortune that I’d been desperately trying to hide from them, it would be fine.

As I pulled into my driveway, I realized that the house was all lit up. So the cross-examination wouldn’t wait until tomorrow morning. And there were no eggs or milk to unload.  “Let’s hope my story holds up,” I muttered to myself, as I fumbled for the garage-door clicker. Then, all of a sudden, it hit me: the flat tire! It explained everything. I didn’t need to reveal that I wasn’t really on my way to the grocery store when it happened or that the kindly stranger who’d changed it was really my passenger, not some passerby. That worked! It made sense, and it was true, or, mostly true. In any event, it was going to have to work.

Maybe I’m delusional to think I can actually pull off this gig as an Uber driver without my family or friends ever learning … But, right now, I was back home, I was safe, and I was undiscovered … for tonight anyway.

* The names of people and places have been altered to preserve anonymity.


  1. This was a great article. I had a lot of similar experiences during my time as a Lyft driver. I’m guessing you’ve already figured out the terrible risk of getting into an accident while driving and the legal mess that would ensue. After an incident last year I gave up the gig. It was a lot of fun and adventure for a few months. I hope you don’t need the money, because it’s not worth the risks in my opinion.

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