“I need your word you won’t tell a soul about this,” Gary whispered as he gripped my wrist tightly nearly knocking me out of gear.
“You have my word this conversation won’t leave the car,” I responded in a serious tone.
“Right…..good……. pull over to the left,” said the Clooney-esque investment banker, pointing to the empty car park in Rose Bay.
In the five months I have been driving for Uber I have been invited by eager passengers to house parties, illegal warehouse raves, “inside for a billy” and “upstairs for a root.” I declined most of those offers. I did once join a passenger and his mates for a beer at a house party at the end of my shift, only to be paraded among his confused guests like some mythical creature he had captured, tamed and coaxed into his living room with an ice cold VB. “Never again,” I thought to myself as I explained for the third time how Uber works to a group of coked up Uni students with jackhammer jaws. So why am I pulling into a dark, deserted car park at 2am on a Friday morning with a man I had met twenty minutes prior? The reason would need to be remarkable. And it was.
I had never met anyone like Gary. He was in his mid-forties but with the energy of a testosterone-soaked eighteen-year-old. He drew you in from his first breath.
“A pleasure to meet you sir,” he said with hand extended.
“Yeah, you too mate,” I replied, completely aware of the electricity zipping around my car like the Harbour Bridge in a thunderstorm.
Gary was a silver fox with wit as sharp as Gervais, a Stephen Fry vocabulary and Frank Sinatra charm. I wanted his approval before he had even buckled his seatbelt. “To Dover Heights, home of old money, young wives and nepotism,” he remarked, smiling with his China blue eyes.
“Now, what is it you are writing?” Gary asked nonchalantly as he rested a shiny black compendium on his lap.
“Haha! What do you mean?” I responded nervously as my heartbeat quickened and mind raced to work out how he knew I was writing anything.
“You’re writing something….. but what?” he pressed again. “Three-day growth, bloodshot eyes and of course the fact the palm of your right hand is stained in blue ink. So either you’re lazy with hayfever and while away your days tagging toilet doors with profanity, or you’re trying to write something. I’d gamble on the latter,” he stated with confidence.
I felt the blood rush to my cheeks and a nervous smile forcing its way to my mouth as I replied with a stutter, “Ummmm yeahhh I-I-I I’m trying to write but it’s not going all that well.”
“Content and context?” Gary fired back brashly.
“I’m writing about my experiences as an Uber driver actually. When I pick up one of Sydney’s more colourful characters I write a story about it for my blog. I’m also writing a book,” I sheepishly replied.
An agonising five seconds passed before Gary leaned back in his chair and said, “Yes, brilliant, I can see how that could work. You’re obviously terrible at keeping secrets then?” He asked, tapping the compendium on his lap with his forefinger. I guess I am. I have been called many things, from Batman through to Samuel Pepys and Sydney’s answer to Humans of New York. More fittingly a friend recently called me the Sydney snitch and the rat with a WordPress account. Still, I wanted Gary to trust me and so I swore my allegiance to him on that cool September morning with the flickering street lights of New South Head Road as our witness.
And that’s how we ended up here. Parked out the front of Catalina Rose Bay at 1:42 am on a Friday morning.
“I’ve been working on a project these past two weeks,” Gary whispered, looking over his shoulder to make sure we were alone. “It’s going to change the world,” he said, flashing a brilliant smile.
Gary slowly peeled back the pages of his A3 compendium. Inside were intricate sketches of an elaborate machine with two separate compartments joined together by thick piping. Each page was split in two with the headings “present” and “future.” Gary revelled in the look of utter confusion on my face as I turned page after page to find newer versions of the machine with additional components and labels in a language I didn’t understand.
“Tempus Itinerantur!” Gary exclaimed with arms outstretched. “A TIME MACHINE!” he said again with vigour.
I know what you’re thinking. The Uber driver has lost it. Too many red bulls and not enough sleep make Uber driver crazy. Gary wasn’t one of the smack-heads from the men’s shelter on Bourke Street who stole an iPhone, accidentally ordered an Uber, only to throw the phone into the street and scream, “the Government are after me!” No, Gary’s tailored suit and gold Rolex were worth more than the car we were sitting in. He wasn’t drunk and disheveled, he was brilliant. And so I pored through the pages of the genius’ handbook with the unerring belief I was witnessing history in the making. I now knew what it was like to keep the company of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.
I dropped Gary to his mansion in Dover Heights at 3:30 am. We shook hands, smiled at each other and parted company. With one foot out of my car Gary turned to me and said, “I’m counting on you. I’ve kept your number and will call on you again soon.” I nodded my head proudly before driving off – the luckiest Uber driver to ever have lived.
For the next three excruciating weeks I kept Gary’s secret. Each time a friend would ask if I had any interesting passengers of late I would feel the words bashing at the back of my teeth, trying to escape like Lemmings in a cave. Each time I would swallow them, turn my head and say nothing.
And then came the text message, “Hi, this is Gary. I kept your number after our ride a few weeks back. Could you pick me up from North Sydney tomorrow at 2pm?”
It was a Saturday and I wasn’t planning on driving but of course I responded, “Send me the address. I’ll be there.”
A sleepless night. The old Hills Hoist outside my room leaned and lurched in the wind like the Tin Man from Oz practicing yoga. What would I ask him? How could I show him my worth, that I too have a brain?
Bleary-eyed, I drove to the address Gary sent me, parked my car and waited. The address was a large, beige building surrounded by manicured hedges and paperbark trees. The clock struck three and Gary appeared at the entrance. He saw my car across the street and gave me a half wave. Everything was different.
Chin lowered and shoulders slumped, Gary walked gingerly toward my car. Tailored suit replaced by polo shirt, jean shorts and sandals. A pained expression creased his face; the Sunday paper in a cafe at 3pm. He entered my car and sat down but there was no electricity, no spark….. just emptiness. He looked at me and the glistening pools of blue where I had seen the future were now pale, almost grey, like a wounded Husky dying in the snow.
“Just…. a…just….just back over to Dover Heights please,” said Gary as he slowly reached for his seatbelt. I stared at him intently, with an expression that screamed, “Come on mate, I know you’re in there! Where is that rock star genius? The master of the universe?”
I hated the silence. “Gary, what’s been happening mate?” I asked with a tone that made my level of WTF so blatantly obvious. “Where is your folder? Have you made any more progress on the project?” I asked, begged for the information.
He turned his head to me slowly and ran his left hand through his silver, messed up hair. “The book is gone. My wife threw it away,” he said, defeated.
“WHAT?!” I yelled, putting on the breaks a little too hard. “What do you mean yo……..”
“Just stop!” said Gary, cutting my question in half. “I’m sorry, it’s never going to happen,” he continued, shaking his head in frustration. “I thought I could do it but I can’t. I have achieved many things in my life, but a time machine is far from my reach.”
“I don’t understand?” I whined like a child learning the truth about Santa Claus for the first time.
“Let me explain it to you,” said Gary with a touch of authority that told me there was still a beating heart inside his chest.
“The building where you just picked me up is a centre specialising in mood disorders. I suffer from bipolar. When I met you three weeks ago I was at the height of a manic episode. I’m not crazy and I wasn’t lying to you; I believed more than anyone I could change the world.” He paused, then went on:
“People out there can only relate to the depressive side of bipolar because everyone has their days in the shadows. Very few can relate to the manic side of the illness, the dragon sleeping beneath the black dog. Imagine your brain flooding with so much serotonin that you believe you are superman, that anything is possible and you are the man to make it happen. When you picked me up from the city I hadn’t slept in four nights. No drugs, no caffeine keeping me awake, just the chemicals in my brain bubbling away, slicing through any inhibitions or self doubts I ever harboured. Imagine the happiest, the most energized you have ever felt in your life and magnify it ten fold. I had that feeling for two months straight. It’s the highest I have ever been, but it can’t be sustained. When anything is possible, reality evades you. My wife found the book and knew it was time I had a rest for a while. And now we’re here.”
I sat, mouth agape, as Gary unraveled before my eyes. My heart broke for him. I didn’t know what to say and so we sat in silence for the half hour car ride to Dover Heights.
“I’m sorry you believed in me so much,” said Gary with hand outstretched as we pulled into the driveway of his waterfront mansion. I shook his hand and said, “Don’t be silly mate. I hope you feel better soon.”
Before he shut his door he leaned in and said, “Good luck with the blog and the book. Hopefully, I at least gave you a half decent story to tell.” And with that, he was gone. I didn’t feel like Ubering anymore that day so I headed straight home a bit dejected. I had seen a great man at his best and still, it wasn’t good enough. If our moment wasn’t real then I don’t want reality, because the 2 hours we spent together had more magic than every other ordinary day I had spent since.
I still think about Gary often. I don’t think of him as some crazed lunatic, I just know him as a man that is lost. I started driving for Uber because I was, and am, completely lost. I now spend my days, for the most part, completely invisible to my passengers. I experience one small snapshot of their busy lives before they go on to exist in another place and another time. I am grateful to have met Gary. I met a real man, as lost I am, in a world we can’t control.
This story is dedicated to my Dad, John, who turns sixty on Friday.