A picture is worth 817 words. Original art courtesy Richard Escasany.
I don’t think “Cassie” was her real name. It could have been the name she used on an Uber account, not the one her mother gave her.
Her location was the address of the Rodeway Inn on the northern edge of San Clemente. The guest entrance is down a steep hill and up a narrow lane behind the building. I parked and waited. I always assume that I am not in the right location, never thinking that it could be GPS or passenger error. After seven minutes, I called Cassie.
She answered on one ring. I was in the wrong place. She was in front of the hotel. I did my Uber-Turn. [I don’t think “no-U-turn” applies to Uber turns, as the law interferes with my brand of customer service.] I pull around the corner and I see a woman, in cut-off jeans and torso-hugging, torn sweatshirt. Two bulging backpacks are leaning against her legs, like bookends. She’s holding an iPhone. Must be Cassie.
My black-and-silver U placard is affixed to the passenger side of my windshield. Occasionally, passengers bend down to peer at me, as if to assure themselves that Freddie Kruger’s mother isn’t their Uber driver. Cassie was no exception. I rolled down the window.
“Yes, I am Jean, your Uber driver, not Jane Fonda.”
That’s good, Jean. So your passenger looks like she could use a joke?
Cassie thrusts the backpacks onto the back seat. I notice that her left leg has a swath of scabs and angry scrapes, as if she’d had an unfortunate encounter with a gravel back road, not so long ago.
“Good morning. How are you?”
Oh, yes, Jean. Rhetorical queries, emanating from my hardwired autopilot. Unsuitable on so many levels.
She whispers, as if her voice would shatter if she spoke louder, “I want to go to the DMV, please.”
“Ok. Yes! Right away.”
Great, Jean. Now you sound like a chirpy waitress in a Midwestern coffee shop.
The San Clemente DMV is a visual oxymoron, a cold gray building planted on a blacktop parking lot, across Pacific Coast Highway from an expansive, brilliant white, private beach. I check the rear-view mirror. Cassie isn’t moving. She is staring at the three people lined up at the entrance.
“Maybe this is a good sign, only a few outside. I hope the wait is not too long.” She opens the door, slides across the seat, dragging her backpacks out behind her.
Before she closes the door, I turn toward her and say, “Who knows. You could be lucky.”
For God’s sake, wasn’t it obvious that luck hadn’t been a part of her life for days, maybe months? Or years.
I watched her sling her backpacks up over her shoulder and trudge toward the entrance. I gave her a five-star rating. My Uber app flashes. Another fare.
I switched gears, focusing on tracking the Uber GPS to Tony, who was waiting in his driveway. He was late for work. We didn’t go far. I needed a break, but the Uber-app flashed before I could click ‘go offline’.
It was Cassie. At the DMV. I didn’t see her when I pulled into the parking lot. Something urged me to stay put. Seconds later, she opened the back door.
“I’m sorry. It will take too long in there. I was wondering if my Uber driver would be you,” she said as she loaded her packs into the backseat.
“Lucky you. Yes, it’s me. Where to?”
“The San Clemente pier?”
I must be a sociopath. I am no better than the upper one-percent and their callous politicians whom I despise. There is only one pier in San Clemente. It could have been worse: I could have asked, “I hope you’re not going to jump.”
As I maneuvered through the streets that snaked down to the pier, I heard Cassie’s voice. I thought she was talking to me. I turned. She was on her mobile phone.
“Can you at least bring me a blanket?” Silence. It could have been a few seconds, but the wait was long enough to be uncomfortable.
“I have no place to go.” Silence. “Thank you. I’ll text you when I get to the pier.”
More than once, before I wake up, this scene races through my mind – a chilling, stop-motion endless loop, audio included.
“You are cash-strapped, driving for Uber, when other people your age are comfortably retired, living within their means, whatever that means. You have blankets, Jean. You could have offered to find help. You should know where to get help. You could have done something, said something. Anything.”
I had done something: I gave Cassie another five-star Uber rating. Other than that, nothing.
Now, I think of ways it could have been worse. It could have been raining. It could have been eight o’clock on Christmas Eve. Yes, that would have been worse.