You learn a lot about people when they’re in your backseat. When so many people pass through your vehicle on a given day, the sheer exposure to humanity makes you introspective. Everyone has their individual story, but taken as a whole, you can only see the same thing so many times before you start to draw conclusions about society.
The past year of the pandemic has taught me that the human mind has an infinite capacity for both cruelty and kindness, self-delusion and empathy. When the pandemic first started, I made a post on Twitter that you might have seen:
There was a massive outpouring of support from people who knew nothing about me. Through donations, I was able to stop driving for quite a while. Inevitably though, the need for money returned, and I was forced to get behind the wheel again.
Being a rideshare driver during a pandemic is harrowing. With the constant churn of people in my backseat, even a single infected person could turn into a disaster for my entire community. Put some Smash Mouth on the radio, and my car is a one-man Sturgis rally waiting to happen.
I take as many precautions as I can. I drive with the windows cracked to improve airflow. I enforce mask-wearing in my backseat. I keep a box of disposable masks in the car to provide to passengers who all-too-frequently “forget” to grab one on their way out the door. I sanitize constantly.
But I am still shocked at the attitude of many people who have lived through more than half a million Americans suffocating to death as their lungs fail and still can’t be bothered to learn that the mask has to go over their nose to be effective.
Here in Tallahassee, rideshare is focused on Florida State University. FSU students party nearly every night. They pack into bars during Happy Hour and dance the night away at nightclubs. They line up, chest to chest and unmasked, just to secure their spot in bars with cheap drinks and dubious ID-checking.
When many Americans were shocked to see the raucous partying that triggered a state of emergency in Miami last week, I was unsurprised. The scenes in South Beach could easily have been any given weekend in Tallahassee. The danger somehow still isn’t real for many people despite 54% of Americans saying they know someone who was hospitalized or died.
I’ve given up trying to reason with the riders who don’t want to follow the rules. I’ve been yelled at, called slurs, and threatened with physical violence for refusing to allow 5 unmasked college students to pack into my vehicle (rides are supposed to be limited to 3 passengers, but college students routinely ignore this). Uber responded to this incident by giving me $6 and making a note in the customer’s file.
When I finally lost my temper and asked a different drunken, unmasked teenager why she thought it was okay to put me and other people in danger, she was outraged by the question. Her screaming protestations were muffled as her friends dragged her away from my window. It is easier to cancel the ride and drive away than try to convince someone to spontaneously begin caring about other people.
I’m struck by the ways that so many people are unused to being told they cannot do something. The people who protested their inability to get a haircut or eat at a restaurant experienced a sliver of the indignity that comes with being poor, and they found all too quickly that they could not stand to be told no.
You see, when you’re poor enough that you’re working 60+ hours per week at two jobs just to make ends meet, there’s not much difference between a restaurant being open or closed because you can’t afford to eat there anyway. It doesn’t matter if the gym is open. Who has time to exercise when you’re trying to find the money for groceries? You learn to accept “no” as the default answer because there is no other option.
I know that there are huge numbers of people out of work and suffering because of the economic cost of the pandemic. If anything good can come from such immense deprivation, I hope it is a sense that a person who has fallen on hard times may not have done anything wrong. Even if they have, no one “deserves” to be left hopeless and struggling.
There are better options than a society that shrugs its shoulders at mass death. There is a way that values individuals while ensuring that everyone is given a chance at success. Getting there will require embracing a shared identity as human beings that overrides selfish temptations.
Great masses of Americans, confronted with something that required a shared sacrifice to address, chose selfishness instead. They denied that the disease was real, they refused to do anything to protect others, and then they went about their business, either blissfully ignorant or callously indifferent to the fact that their choices were extending the suffering of others.
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There are many who have done their best during this past year. They are the people who listened to public health experts and did everything they could to prevent becoming the reason that someone else died. They are the quiet, unsung heroes of the plague year. It is the blackest shame imaginable that their sacrifice was hamstrung by the inability of others to think beyond themselves.
I do not know how to respond to a society that is so divided on the basic merits of human life and dignity. Faced with minor inconvenience, too many people chose their own self-righteousness over the lives of others. I hope that they are outnumbered by those who have chosen to turn towards other people instead of away.
I look forward to the day when I can pick up passengers without the fear that I am inviting death to sit shotgun, when the biggest argument I have with passengers is trying to convince them not to go through the Taco Bell drive-thru at 1 AM (there’s always a line; it’s never worth it!). Maybe then I can rediscover a little more faith in the decency of everyday people.