Lots of people ask me when they get in my car and notice my gender. Aren't you scared to drive at night? Not really. Most people are pretty cool and I don't mind so much. The rewards have been pretty significant. I'm interested in humans and when people get in my car, I get a piece of their story, little by little.
Here is a snapshot of several stories of women I have driven.
They often open up and they open up in so many interesting ways. Sometimes we tell deep truths, sometimes the deep truths are beneath the surface and we never speak of them.
I picked up two women around 11 pm. They were sharing the ride and going to work in different places. One was going downtown to waitress at a Hookah Bar and the other was going to the Hustler Club to strip. I spent many years as a waitress, so we had a long drive and a nice discussion about the benefits and perils of waitressing. I was not really clear on the relationship between the women but I noticed there was complete acceptance for one another's work situations.
It was very much "gotta make a living" going on.
The fact that the stripper was so open about where she worked with no measure of shame was interesting to me. I have never felt the extreme need to hide my profession but I have often felt a little bothered by working in places I considered beneath my overall skills.
One time a girl I went to high school walked into the restaurant I worked in and happened to see me behind the bar dropping off cash for the bartender that night. She looked pityingly at me when she said "oh, you work here?" and I said "Yeah, I'm the manager."
At those words, her face physically brightened. This was a more acceptable job for my exclusive private school education, I guess? I was upset and humiliated. She has no idea that bartenders more often make more money and work fewer hours than restaurant managers. Sigh. And she had no idea I bartended twice a week to bump up my earnings.
But somehow, the title made HER feel better. Which bothered me. And I guess it still does. But mostly, I'm beyond caring about someone else's definition of me. Those jobs, they humanized me in a way that make my writing better, richer and give me more empathy to people than working higher up ever will be. So, while I will get where I want to go career wise, this was never a waste of time.
So, I try not to judge people by their professions so much. I know I am going to find people working at McDonalds that have genius level IQ's and probably can't get a job elsewhere. And I know that there are just a whole lot of regular people out there making a living and we are more than the definition the job gives us. We are humans.
We all have to make a living somehow.
After I dropped the waitress off, I had another twenty minute drive with the woman who worked at the strip club. I asked her how she was treated. She had a few stories. "I wish guys wouldn't be so gross with me all the time. I don't want to hear how they want to lick my asshole."
And I was thinking-- damn, that's not so far off from my waitress days, where I heard statements like that every day from some drunk fool.
Except I'm not naked while they're saying it to me. I try to imagine how vulnerable and tough she has to be to stand up to that, and to deal with being kind to people that don't deserve her kindness.
Still, she said she didn't mind it most of the time, that she was able to find gratitude in the many good people that worked there and all those who stuck up for her and held together to protect one another. That she always felt safe and protected by so many people.
I find I want to poke through her statements with my own pre-conceived notions about stripping. But I fall silent. I don't know enough about this world and I realize what I need to do is just listen to her and accept her and even support her decision to work there. Though I want to smash the patriarchy that allows this to continue to exploit women while old white men make money off their naked and vulnerable bodies, still I support the choice a woman makes to go into sex work. Though honestly, I wish it could be something different. When I think of the damage it does...but I let that go in that moment, and decided to just be there with her.
I told her this as I dropped her off.
"I want you to know that every man or group of people that I drop off at any strip club, I say these words 'I want you to remember to tip well. Tip your bartenders, your servers and your strippers well. And I want you to remember that every single one of these people who wait on you and strip for you, they are human. And you should treat them respectfully and decently. Don't be a dick.'" She laughed at that, and thanked me for the ride.
It really was the only way I could sit right with myself for driving people to the strip club to participate in something that I don't sit right with was to remind them of our shared humanity.
The second story I want to share with you is a woman I picked up from a dive motel at around 11 at night. She was nervous to get in my car, it was her first Uber ride.
I smiled big at her and said "Aren't you glad you got a girl to drive you for your first time?"
She said yes and smiled a little more easily.
I assured her I was going to treat her really well and get her to where she was going and make her first uber ride really great. I had wondered briefly at the location I was picking her up. It was a no tell motel, the kind you know you can rent by the hour.
This in itself was only one piece of evidence, so I tucked it back in my mind as I spoke to her and asked her about herself. We landed on the topic of her son, as so often happens with women, we discuss our children. In there are our hopes and dreams and how we define ourselves because our children change and shape who we become. They alter us in little ways. This woman found so much joy in her child and it made my heart happy. She talked about her divorce and the shared custody and when her boy got really good at video games. She spoke of how he excelled in school and was put in the gifted child class. She glowed when she talked about his future, the one she knew he would have.
And in that, I could see she was burying herself, but I loved her joy and her pride and the smile in her voice.
She began to prepare me for the journey we were taking. It was a long drive, forty five minutes out to a little town in Missouri I had never been before.
The ride was not on her credit card, but on a mystery man paying for her journey. He had texted me instructions and a cell number to let her know when I had arrived to pick her up. This was not unusual in itself either. I often gave rides others would pay for. But there was something about the two pieces of evidence that clinked together. She began to speak of the mystery man and his wealth and affluence.
She described how many cars he had and how fast he drove in them and her first trip out to his house.
"What does he do for a living?" I asked.
She was not really sure or she had asked and it wasn't really clear, but he was super loaded-- that was what she knew. She also mentioned he was nice to her, that he treated her well and was a pretty good guy.
She talked to me about the first time she went to his house.
"I was terrified." She said.
Huh, terrified? That seems an odd reaction to going to someone's house.
"We kept getting further and further away from everything and we started going deep into the country. Finally we get to this really thick woods and we keep going further and further into the woods and the further we went, the more scared I was that I wasn't going to make it out. He was driving really fast and whipping around every corner."
And I wanted to ask why. Why did you keep going?
But I didn't because after all, I knew the answer. You do the things that scare you when you talk yourself around the fear. When you try to convince yourself you're being crazy, that there's no reason to be afraid and your instincts are wrong. And when your instincts are dead on, you berate yourself and when your instincts are hyped up and it turns out okay, you tell yourself you were just crazy all along. Even if you aren't. You convince yourself. It's pure survival. Sometimes our fight or flight is out of proportion to the situation and other times it is not.
And as I drove through the night and we started to get further and further away from civilization and the lights of the city and the perceived safety...I began to feel the little fingers of fear creep into my stomach and crawl around and begin to wrap around my heart and squeeze.
But this third and fourth clue in the little mystery was starting to cement my theory. And I knew at this point that I didn't have to ask this woman what she did for a living because there was no doubt I had picked up a prostitute on her way to servicing her client.
I briefly considered asking her. I thought about it, hard because I wanted to know, and I had a thousand questions to ask her about what she did and what led her to this point in her life and the curiosity distracted me from asking myself too strongly-- what are you driving into?
I decided to refuse the curiosity and deny it satisfaction. I wanted this woman to keep her dignity and let the stories of her brilliant boy and her pride in him and keep her warm with safe and good conversation. I liked her and I didn't want to shatter this moment and make her wonder if I was judging her.
As we drove through the last leg of the journey, through those thick and dark woods, I turned on my brights and kept the conversation witty and light to take the edge off the fear. She said "He wants you to go down the driveway and wait for a minute so he can bring you a tip."
"Oh, how nice." I say out loud but those fear fingers are working overtime squishing my heart.
My heart beats strong, throwing off the fear. Got your stun gun on the ready? yeah you do, Vanessa. This guy won't know what hit him...
I see him open the door and the anticipation is a tangible crack of light streaming from the door.
She gets a text.
"oh, he's not coming out. He wants me to come get it. He's such a dork."
I breathe relief. He's afraid of ME seeing HIM.
Good. I feel safe. She comes out with a ten dollar bill and thanks me for the ride, the company, the conversation and for making her first uber ride a good experience.
I want to hug her, but I don't. Instead, I smile brightly at her and wish her well. She's going to be one I remember.
These conversations, these connections-- they mean something to me to have this human experience in that short time I get with people. Every ride is its own story.