The driver doesn’t turn around; he only shifts his gaze in the rearview mirror and monotonically asks a name to confirm he’s got the right person.
“Hihowareya?” Collin gets in and asks more as a reflex than out of actual curiosity.
“Good’n’you,” the driver responds. He takes a sip of his coconut water, puts it down, and lets off the brake. He’s almost too familiar with this formulaic interaction, to the point it has become an almost involuntary reflex.
When he first started driving for this app, he tried to really chat with the strangers that got in his car. Actually, having conversations with new people was one of the biggest reasons he started driving. He enjoyed being in the car just fine, but he was also looking for some company and a little lighthearted small talk.
He’s a seasoned vet with hundreds of completed rides, hundreds of star ratings, and knows most people now just want to get in the car and then get lost in their own little world until it’s time to get out.
He knows these first greeting phrases are mandatory. Maybe a confirmation of destination, but even that isn’t entirely necessary since it’s all programmed in the app. So, gone are the pleasant conversations, and now he mostly just sits and observes. It’s a letdown, but hey. A job is a job. So, he occupies himself with oral fixations like his coconut water even when he’s not really that thirsty. He switches to gum or mints at rush hour to avoid costly bathroom breaks.
As a driver, he knows that from the initial greeting, it’s a coin toss as to whether his passenger will entertain the pleasantry or ignore it, and that the decision to engage or not will set off a unwritten chain reaction of commandments between strangers, much like the commandments followed by people in elevators. Thou shall face the doors at all times. Thou shall be silent the whole ride. Thou shall not make any sort of eye contact.
If the passenger doesn’t say anything, both driver and passenger shift their attention elsewhere and agree to pretend to be occupied. The remainder of the ride will carry on in a silence because it is intensely awkward to start up a conversation after a short period of silence. It’s a social commandment that no one wrote but is unequivocally accepted: if there is to be conversation, it must happen at the beginning.
Collin gets the awkward feeling of being watched and unpeels his eyes from his screen for a brief moment. His eyes meet the drivers’ in the mirror, and immediately he looks down, then out the window, then back to his screen.
He watches the driver reach under the seat and then, without turning his head, proffer the contents of his hand backward to him.
“Put it on,” he says with a tone that is more a demand than a question.
Without a sound, Collin takes the red foam ball with a slit cut in it and puts it on his nose. He shifts his attention back to his device, and the car fills back up with the comfort of the empty silence increasing as time passes.
Four eyes watch the screen mounted to the air vent as the app indicates it is running through its algorithm and will be right back with further instructions. The route changes as does the time to destination. The driver picks up his coconut water and takes another sip. He screws the cap back on and puts the misshaped square box into the circular cupholder again while silently puckering his lips.
They arrive at the new passenger’s location. Collin looks out the window as the car slows to a stop beside a twenty-something woman with a red foam sphere already donned on her nose. She’s applying an extravagant amount of red eyeliner, but he doesn’t think much of it and resumes life on his screen. The car picks back up in speed and his destination is displayed back on the phone mounted on the driver’s air vent.
The car turns a couple of times. The new passenger looks over at Collin and then back at her mirror. The driver again looks at Collin and then over to the woman. Collin looks up again to see them both looking at him.
He stays stoic and steady as she swipes and dabs his eyes. They don’t exchange a word. She indicates she is satisfied with a relieved exhale. The driver takes another sip of his coconut water.
She starts back on her own face with a new blushing pad and white face powder. She dabs herself for a moment or two, pauses, and then starts back on Collin without a word or facial expression besides the wide red smile painted on her eyes and mouth.
Both engulfed in her work, neither Collin nor the woman notice the driver’s phone chime and redirect the silent car again. The woman finishes brushing and blotting just as the car arrives at its third location to pick up another passenger. The driver picks up his box of coconut water and shakes it, takes another sip, and sighs again screwing the cap back on and putting back with a freshly whetted whistle.
What’s more is that he is wearing puffy white pants, a fat belt and buckle that spans from his navel to his pelvis, a big puffy shirt with oversized buttons, and a big fat red hat.
As he sits down, he shuffles his backpack to his lap and unzips it. He starts handing out the contents to the other passengers and they instinctively start putting on the articles.
The driver’s device chimes again, as the passengers continue to robotically put the clothes on until the backpack is empty. All three of them stare out their respective windows in the back row, the woman in the middle staring out the windshield and the car rolls to a stop again.
She sits in the front but has trouble maneuvering her oversized green shoes to fit in underneath the dash. They let out a high-pitched squeal as they compress to fit in the space. The driver exhales and lifts the remaining contents of his coconut water to his lips. He flattens the box before screwing the cap back on and places it under his seat.
Silence again fills the cabin and the car rolls off. A moment (or two) after she settles, she reaches into her pants and hands out matching sets of shoes to the other three.
The screen on the air vent chimes again. The driver is now the only one who acknowledges the sound and redirects the car accordingly.
Three more stops in the queue and not an open seat in the car. As the car slows to its next stop another body piles in. Same attire, same lack of emotion.
Another chime, another stop. And another. Chime… stop. The phone goes off and the car rolls on for hours until everyone in the car has forgotten where they wanted to go in the first place. The app has been driving the car for hours now, and there’s at least two dozen people in the sedan, all in matching suits and make-up.
He reads the text message and realizes he is late to get to where he was going in the first place. He snaps out of his trance and types out a reply:
How’d we all get in here?He hits send as the car slows to a stop in the center of the huge stadium. All he can hear is the crowd roaring with laughter. The driver gets out first, and Collin can’t recall when he put on the clown suit—whether he wore it the whole ride or put it on without Collin noticing in the crowded melee.
They point and shout and laugh louder. One-by-one the car is evacuated each body getting its own ever-increasing cheer.
Collin is the last one remaining in the car now. The act is about over and the curtain will draw soon after he steps out to the crowd⏤wild now, anticipating a grand finale.
He looks at the door handle and realizes his mistake, he shouldn’t have put the nose on in the first place. He can see that now, but it’s too late to go back. He didn’t know he had a choice, he was just going with the flow, just following what he thought were the unwritten rules. A frog in a pot of slowly boiling water. A clown stuck in a car while others piled in. Just shut up, get to where you need to go, don’t think, enjoy the distraction.
Perhaps there was another next to him. Perhaps the car was full. He wasn’t sure after all, he wasn’t paying attention. He didn’t know he was supposed to be paying attention. No one told him he needed to be paying attention.