The young guy with dreadlocks emerged from the apartment building in Brookhaven dragging a rolling suitcase. I figured he was headed to the airport.
The Uber driver, however, focused on the pillows he carried: His girlfriend might have kicked him out.
We were both wrong. The passenger wanted to be driven to a truck stop on I-285 on the south side. He was a long-haul truck driver headed for California.
Wednesday’s morning passenger was another in the continuing education of fledgling Uber driver Larry Schall, who has spent a couple of weeks learning that people — and situations — often aren’t what you’d assume.
It’s an educational lark for Lawrence M. Schall, who is an Ivy League Juris Doctor, a Doctor of Higher Education and president of Oglethorpe University, the Gothic Castle on Peachtree Road that is sandwiched between a Costco and a funeral home.
Schall, a former civil rights attorney from Philadelphia, thought the Uber experiment would give him insight into jobs performed by regular people. He thought it would let him see life through the eyes of the modern equivalent of blue-collar workers: freelancers who are piecing together fares while driving their own cars, trying to make a living.
He did not anticipate that he would also be learning from the workers sitting in his back seat.
Schall didn’t come up with the idea.
Back in the early 1970s, he was a student at Swathmore College and heard that John R. Coleman, the president of nearby Haverford, had gone undercover for a summer to perform blue-collar jobs. Coleman worked in a Boston oyster house, hauled garbage in Maryland and dug sewer lines in Atlanta.
Coleman wanted to observe “the widening divide between academia and regular folks.” He learned that restaurants are fast-paced and loud, people don’t want to talk with the garbageman, and digging ditches is hard but can be satisfying. (Especially when you know you’ll soon return to the tweedy confines of academia.)
Coleman himself didn’t invent the genre, a young George Orwell worked as a dishwasher in a fancy restaurant in Paris and wrote all about it.
So enter Schall, a spry 61-year-old who has headed the college for a decade and has considered the idea for a while. Schall passed on picking up a shovel or a dish rag, choosing instead to experience his job-swap from behind the wheel of his Volvo S60.
The idea came to him after getting a ride via Uber and marvelling at the operation’s efficiency. Uber is one more game-changing business based on technology, one that allows almost anyone to become a professional driver. And a model that threatens the livelihood of another band of Regular Joes: taxi drivers.
“It seemed like an opportunity to experience how a growing number of Americans experience work,” Schall said.
Uber is efficient. “Five minutes after starting the on-line registration, my cell phone rang,” Schall said. The voice on the other end asked if he was ready to have his car inspected.
Minutes later, a man arrived to look over the car and get some background info. The man had driven for 17 months and clued Schall on how to best snag riders — skip the big events, hit “hot” neighborhoods and hang around the Buckhead bars, North Atlanta MARTA stations and the gentleman’s clubs on Cheshire Bridge Road late at night.
Schall’s first call for service was a young man who wanted to head to Duluth, 15 miles to the northwest. The passenger in the back seat kept looking at the driver’s reflection in the rear-view mirror before saying he was a student at Oglethorpe. The passenger listed his favorite teachers, although he never let on whether he knew his chauffeur’s identity.
“I’m sure he was thinking, ‘Wow, Oglethorpe doesn’t pay its president so much,’” Schall recounted.
Shortly after dropping off the student, Schall’s phone beeped again. It was a woman at a convenience store near Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85. She had picked up some smokes and other essentials. After a $6 fare, there was another beep. The next passenger wanted to go to the Doraville MARTA stop.
After a few more Uber rides, Schall had a revelation. The expected stream of professionals heading to dinner or Millennials coming home from the nightclubs turned out to be mostly working-class people fulfilling the obligations of their daily lives.
I rode with Schall one morning last week. Soon after we met, he was called to an apartment complex on Clairmont Road, where we picked up an older middle-aged man who was legally blind and needed to get to work. The man sometimes uses MARTA’s Mobility, the program for disabled passengers, but did not want to wait around for it this morning. Ten minutes and a $6.61 fare later, the man was at work. (Schall is donating the money he makes to the college.)
Minutes later, Uber summoned Schall back to nearby apartments to pick up the dude with the pillow.
Mikael Pierre has been a long-haul truck driver for about eight months. He has finally gotten the feel of driving an 80,000-pound chariot, but said, “I’m still on the edge all the time.”
Pierre, a pleasant, chatty fellow, hails from Florida and likes the prospect of making good money, although he badly misses his wife, being away from her sometimes for months at a time. He wants to write some letters from the road, saying it’s a vanishing art. His goal is to one day own his own rig. It’s the American Dream.
The truck driver uses Uber often and feels a kinship with the drivers.
“Every Uber driver I have met was down-to-earth,” he said. “It feels homey to be in a person’s car instead of a taxi.”
Half an hour and a $23.16 fare later, Pierre was retrieving his pillow and heading off to the waiting 18-wheeler bound for the West Coast.
And Schall was back to his regular life, heading off to lunch with a big-wig from Chick-fil-A.
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