Senior Editorial: Life Lessons Learned During an Uber Ride

Sometimes when I’m on a plane, especially through extended periods of turbulence, I like to look around the cabin at all of the people. I know it seems pretty stupid, but I do this because I want to know who I’m going to die with in the event of a crash.

It is during times like this that I am reminded of the love that I have for people. Today, I ordered an Uber from Vanderbilt University to the airport. My driver, Pamela, took 20 minutes to get to me, and based on my first impression of her profile picture — taken at an angle only a senior citizen would deem acceptable — I was sure I would miss my flight. But I’m on the flight now, so I guess it all worked out.

Pam told me that she is on the road for 21 hours per day; she does not stop to eat, use the bathroom or rest. Through a year and a half and over 900 trips, Pam has maintained her 5-star rating. I soon found out why.

Pam’s life is so painfully and beautifully American in the way that most can never be. She has a sense of humor about it all, she loves life and she values genuine kindness above all else. In our 25 minutes together, I listened to Pam, and I asked her questions about her life.

Pam grew up in Michigan to a cop father and a Christian mother. She joked that, between the two of them, she could never get anything quite right. As soon as she mentioned where she was from, I knew I had recognized her accent from my Aunt Nancy, who is also from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Pam got married at 18, moved out to Orange County, California and had four children. Her husband was an alcoholic and a cheater. She told me that she had always thought if she loved him enough, he would change. Pam stayed with him for 16 years before she finally accepted that she “just couldn’t change someone like that” and left. She agreed with me that life is too short to waste on people like that. “I had had enough of him,” she said. With nothing keeping her in California, Pam moved to the Nashville area, where she had some relatives.

From what I know of Pam’s vocational history, she was a secretary for an elderly care company, served as a certified nurse aide (CNA) at a retirement home and had recently begun driving for ride-share apps. Pam reminisced about her time as a CNA, taking care of the elderly in the twilight of their lives. Her CNA wages were minimal compared to her secretary salary, but her involvement was never about the money. To her patients, Pam was family. They called her their “angel.” She saw these de facto grandparents, “ancient as they were,” pass away in front of her. She angrily rebuked “leeching family members,” people who never showed up to visit their relatives before they died. The job took a toll on her. She told me that after her shift, she would often cry in her car for 10 minutes straight. This, combined with her emerging respiratory health issues, led Pam to leave her work as a CNA and begin driving.

Pam takes great pride in her driving. She credits her driver’s education in Michigan, her years cruising California freeways and her father –– the police officer –– for bestowing upon her a respect for the wheel. Pam has no qualms about calling out bad drivers or badmouthing the overall intelligence of the people of Davidson County, Tennessee. When I mentioned that there are plenty of unintelligent people in California as well, Pam explained that Nashville’s per capita stupidity sets it apart. While curt with Tennessee drivers, she is always kind to the “out-of-staters,” and always lets cars with foreign plates cut in front of her. She explained that she does this for hospitality’s sake because she wants these people to come back to town. She agreed when I told her I noticed that people seem nicer in Tennessee, adding that she believes that 98% of the people in Tennessee are great people, and only 2% have cruel intentions. She has faith, or at least hopes, that the 98% outweigh the rest.

Pam is 61 years old. When not driving Ubers, she works her other job — taking care of her 2-year-old grandson, Emerson. Emerson’s mother, Pam’s daughter, is a professional welder and is frequently gone for work. “I’m all he knows,” Pam told me. Since Emerson’s mom is always away, Pam does much of the caregiving, but she says that the hugs and kisses that Emerson pays her with are worthwhile. She told me that when she gets ready to leave for work, Emerson always complains and tells her not to go. She responds by asking him if he wants a snack, to which he obviously replies with an eager yes. She tells Emerson that if he wants snackies, “Gammie has to go to work to pay for it.” Pam’s laugh is hearty and true.

I asked Pam what her longest Uber ride was, and her reply inspired me. Pam had once picked up a customer with a destination two hours away. On the trip, she found out he was a drug addict en-route to a recovery clinic way in the Northeastern tip of Tennessee. Pam told me she kept thinking about canceling the fare or turning around because all she wanted to do was spend time with her grandson, but she felt God telling her to keep going. The drug addict had booked Pam for half of the four-hour trip to the recovery clinic, and another Uber for the second half. After arriving at the first drop-off point, the customer was about to get out of Pam’s eco-sport, but the second car was not yet there. Having made it her mission to get this man on the road to recovery, Pam was not letting him out of her sights. Before seeing him off, she stayed with the man, grabbing dinner at a roadside Waffle House while waiting for the next Uber.

In my eight hours at Vanderbilt, I was nowhere near as inspired as I was by Pam. Her struggles, triumphs and wisdom have not only given me a new faith in humanity but also put into perspective the elitist pettiness of my obsessive problems.

Regarding her dedication to her occupation, Pam said she “don’t play” and is “the real deal.” But Pam is also the real deal when it comes to her compassion, her candidness, her charm and her struggles. As I return to Washington and Sidwell, I hope that I can carry Pam’s wisdom with me to implement in the way I view the world going forward.