2:41 PM Terminal 1, Departures – Door 10, San Francisco International Airport
955 Oak St, San Francisco, CA 94117, USA
TRIP TIME 00:28:10
FARE BREAKDOWN Base Fare 2.00
Booking Fee 1.55
SFO Airport Surcharge 3.80
Mid blue Cadillac mustang
Diogenes 4.35 stars
The car tentatively slows, crawling along the curb, driver leaning forward peering out the dusty front window. Smiling and waving, Steve steps forward, phone in hand, to open the front passenger door.
– Hi, I’m Steve.
I drag my suitcase from the pavement. As it dumps on the bitumen, the driver appears by the rear door and heaves both our suitcases into the trunk. They land between slabs of bottled water and a forest-green adidas sports bag that may or may not have a small dead body inside. Over-dressed for the surprising warm weather, I peel off my baggy black jacket I carried with me from Melbourne before jumping in the backseat.
Steve always sits behind the driver as the English gentleman in him won’t allow me to get in the car on the road side and naturally as a lady I can’t be expected to scoot over. I allow him these indulgences, quieting my inner rabid feminist. From my position in the rear passenger seat I get the perfect observation point on our Uber driver. Burgundy check shorts, a ‘limp from many years of washing’ indistinct logo t-shirt. Bob Dylan’s version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ plays too loudly on the radio.
And so begins our trip up the west coast of America. For the next month, Steve and I travel up the west coat, fly across the top stopping in Chicago before landing in New York then down to New Orleans and back west to San Diego.
Eagerly embracing the new disruptive paradigms of Air Bnb and Uber, we tasted a previously hidden or hard to find version of America. Staying with an American version of my great aunt and uncle in Bend, Oregon or an ageing Mills-and-Boons-cover-model-turned-bar-owner in New York City, we met many entertaining people whom opened up their cars and homes to us.
From a yurt in a deserted vineyard, yacht in a marina or tiny log cabin surrounded by tall, foreboding pine trees Air bnb hosts welcomed us . Uber drivers in exchange for pieces of gold, similarly opened up their private space to strangers from a foreign land. Unable to retreat to a distant room, our Uber host must find their own space within the metal cage.
– How long you been doing this?
Steve always starts the same way. He doesn’t actually really care how long you’ve been working your car for Uber or been driving today? It’s a hook to hang the rest of the conversation on. It’s a toe dipping into the water testing the temperature. It’s throwing out a line to see if anything bites. Most often, he catches something but occasionally it’s appears to be one of those days you wished you hadn’t’ bothered to buy bait.
It turns out our driver today is named Diogenes. The app tells us so. Diogenes himself doesn’t actually tells us much at all. The fourteen and a half miles over twenty-eight minutes costs a total of US$30.17 which includes a surcharge of $2.00 for pick up at the San Fransisco airport. When you submit yourself to a taxi in a foreign country, there is a fair degree of trust involved. Ubers take this one step further. A private company with little external regulation, car sharing is just one part of a new society we are figuring out as we build it.
But back to that point about foreign-ness. America still is a foreign country. Though it’s distinct turns of phrase may have infiltrated our language and its tourist landmarks may be more easily recognisable than some of my own country. America is still a foreign country. One could argue, since Trump’s election in November 2016, it has become even more foreign.
The language spoken may highly resemble the English language, it is being shaped in ways that Australian English is not. Australia prides itself on its multi-culturalism but in very few places will you find signage in anything other than one language – English. Through my travels across the many states of America, I often saw dual-language signs and advertisements. A high percentage of the population speaks another language – Spanish. Hispanic, latino, Mexicans, these are words that I can only grasp the nuanced concepts of. To look around I can’t perceive who is who. But then why should I necessarily. Why do I feel the need to categorise people? What purpose does it serve? It only divides us, me and them. This idea of otherness is the crux of so many of the problems in the world. To separate people into different groups ultimately leads to a power hierarchy. Some groups say are better than other groups. Some people are better than other people. To use the words ‘us’ and ‘them’ serves no one. It is only perspective that makes me an ‘us’ or a ‘them’.
“Strangers are only friends you haven’t yet met”. Yes, it’s cliched but that doesn’t make it invalid. There is a sweet podcast I listen to on an irregular basis (irregular due to my bingeing tendencies) called Strangers hosted by Lea Thau. Her low, seductive voices narrates extra-ordinary stories from ordinary people. It is this concept of ‘otherness’ that she somehow breaks down, dissolving it away. So intimate is the sound of her voice in my ears that I come to empathise with her US election anxiety. Throughout our journey we hesitantly venture into conversations about the upcoming election. Time and time again, ‘He’ll never get in’ is what we hear. Only once, in New Orleans, does someone tell us that they plan on voting for Trump. That person is a childhood of my partner’s. They grew up in the same working class area of Essex, UK together. They went to the local primary school together. They played football on the field at the bottom of the road together.
It is during the hour long drive across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans to Covington that this comes to light. We’re trapped in his car, him driving us to his place for dinner that it all comes out. His take on ‘crooked’ Hilary being the force behind his decision . I’m only minor-ly heartened by that it is a push away from Clinton and the Democrats rather than a pull towards Trump and the Republicans.
[Months later, back home in Melbourne on the night of the US election, I end up in tears and at the bottom of a wine bottle listening to R.E.M. songs over and over again.]
During that car journey, I look at the back Steve’s head in the front passenger seat while he tries to re-connect with his longtime friend. I have no past history to go on, so this is my introduction to him and all of a sudden the chance of a casual home-cooked meal seems less appealing. So I look out at the scenery. Lake Pontchartrain doesn’t change much in the half an hour we spend driving across it. There’s only so much to look at. The concrete lanes head of me match the ones beside me.
The bridge over Lake Pontchartain is actually two parallel bridges spanning just under 24 miles. Two lanes either way with multiple turnaround points for emergencies, the causeway, as it is known, first opened in August 1956. Lucky us to be travelling on in its 60th year. It has the honour of being the longest continuous bridge over water according to the Guinness World Records. These facts I find out thanks to the smart phone in my hand and an internet search engine. I spend my expensive data roaming dollars distracting myself from the depressing conversation going on ahead of me.
It is only later that I have the distance to be angry at myself for a short-sighted reaction. His political leanings didn’t align with mine and I shunned it all. After picking up my chin, I tuned out. This shallow reaction is how we keep up the ‘us’ and ‘them’ paradigm. This is how filter bubbles get curated on our social media feeds. We turn away from the things that challenge us and we don’t agree with.
I have no answer to this apart from being aware that we are doing it. Awareness is the first step. From there we can take steps to reach out to others because there is only us; there is no them. We are all us.