I am used to the drunks. They don’t bother me any more. Most of the time they are harmless people washing away the week’s worries with a pint, a bottle or a shot. I am unfazed by the mutes. The men and women glued to their iPhones on my back seat not saying a word. Sometimes I worry they aren’t breathing, so I brake harder than I have to and look to my rear-vision mirror for a reaction. I am even used to . . . actually, I welcome the wealthy eastern suburbs mums who hire me for an entire afternoon. They have all been fantastic company. Polite, friendly and usually with a decent story to tell. There is one aspect of driving for Uber, however, I don’t think I will ever feel entirely comfortable with. The moments of invisibility. I am not always invisible to my passengers: usually we chat the days and nights away about anything and everything. But at least two to three times a week a group will enter my car and chat away as if I am not there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have been privy to a number of conversations in my time as an Uber driver. Only recently, I was given an insight into the personal struggles of a group of women who are part of a culture they can’t relate to any more. I could never have anticipated, on a rainy night in Sydney town, I would overhear a conversation so raw, so passionate, it would impact the way I look at the world and those around me. A conversation heard by few, perhaps thought about by many.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Sarah – 7 minutes – The Rocks
“I’m at the very front of the taxi rank. Can you see me?” asked Sarah, her muffled voice straining above clinking glasses, beeping horns and desperate men. I could see Sarah leaning over the kerb, phone to ear. She had an accent I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Dutch, maybe?
I flashed my lights at Sarah and she acknowledged my arrival by dragging another woman by her necklace away from a group of men she was talking to on the corner. Sarah’s prisoner trotted back toward my car desperately trying to stay upright. She looked like a Clydesdale performing at the Royal Easter Show. High knees, neck perfectly still, her long, brown mane bouncing rhythmically. Sarah released her catch, before yelling, “What the fuck, Aliya! Our Uber is here!” as Aliya fast-forwarded back to the group of men who clapped, cheered and whistled the return of their pub-side princess.
“Grrrrrrrrrr!” Sarah growled in frustration as she sat down beside me. “Girls! Hurry up and get in! I’m paying for this!” she screamed into the bustling crowd chatting away on the cobblestone footpath. The crowd parted and two young women in their early-twenties strolled elegantly past Aliya toward my car. They looked like twins. Both over six feet tall with heels on, their long black hair sparkled in the neon lights of the nearby restaurants and bars. They had large, brown, almond-shaped eyes that took me from a Sydney street to Cleopatra’s Egypt in a heartbeat. They calmly entered my car talking among themselves, completely immune to Sarah’s frustration, which had reached boiling point. “Aliya! Get in the fucking car now! Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re going to get his number tonight and never call him again, blah blah blah,” she said mockingly from my passenger seat.
Aliya, also seemingly immune to Sarah’s words, casually took her phone back from the tallest man in the group before smiling, turning around and walking to my car.
Aliya was a miniature version of her compadres, with slightly darker skin. She bounced into my back seat and squealed excitedly: “WHEEEEEE! I got the tall one’s number, did you see? The tall one I said!” she announced, waving excitedly at the men as we pulled out from the kerb.
“Play it cool, Aliya! Stop waving, hahaha!” said the woman sitting directly behind me.
“He was really hot though, Salma, don’t you think?” asked Aliya.
“I honestly have no idea. They all look the same in their checked shirts. They all had identical hair, too. Short on the sides, long on top,” Salma replied coolly.
“He gave me a kiss! I think it could be love!” Aliya announced to the group, clasping her hands to her chest and closing her eyes.
“Yes, yes, the first boy you kiss in Sydney and you’re in love. You will forget about him after the next one,” said Sarah, shaking her head and smirking to herself.
“Uh-uh! It’s love!” argued Aliya, raising her pointer finger in the air triumphantly.
The next five minutes involved the girls in the back seat trying to work out how to save the number of Alex, the well-dressed giant with the sweeping fringe. In their drunken state they passed the phone along, each trying their best to work it out.
“Screenshot it and send it to me, Aliya. I’m so relieved I don’t have to do that shit any more,” Sarah interrupted as she checked her make-up in my rear-vision mirror.
“Do what?” asked Aliya.
“Bother with all that crap! I have my husband waiting for me at home. The thought of having to spend all night flirting at a bar to get a number just isn’t my idea of fun,” replied Sarah.
“I have a husband, too,” said the woman sitting between Aliya and Salma, speaking so softly her comment almost wasn’t heard.
“You do not, Maya. Yours doesn’t count,” Sarah replied coldly.
“Mr Uber, can you please drop me off near Town Hall? My husband is meeting me at the next corner. Then can you please take the girls to Parramatta?” Sarah asked politely.
“Not a problem,” I replied. “Hey, Sarah, your accent, where are you from?”
“I’m an Israeli Jew out drinking with two Syrians and a Yemeni. Go figure,” she said as I pulled over to let her out.
As Sarah left my car and fell into the arms of her husband standing on the corner with an umbrella, she turned back and yelled, “See! This is a husband!”
I shot a quick glance in my rear-vision mirror, expecting to see a collective roll of the eyes from the Persian princesses in the back. There wasn’t even a hint of disdain for the slightly abrasive Sarah. My remaining passengers bade her a warm farewell and we continued our trip. Next stop Parramatta.
For the next fifteen minutes Salma and Aliya recounted their evening through giggles and hiccups. They poked fun at Maya, who had bought the first round of drinks for the group of men, chasing phone numbers and approval.
“Hahaha, Maya, you idiot! You spent like fifty dollars on that round! Why did you do that?” said Aliya with a chuckle.
“Ha, I don’t know. I never go out, I don’t know how this stuff works. They looked thirsty,” she replied as Salma and Aliya burst into a fit of laughter.
I had never driven such happy passengers. It was one in the morning and I was tired and had been ready to call it a night before picking them up. Now I was interested and alert. I couldn’t help but laugh at their interactions in my back seat. The mood was fluid, my car awash with coloured lights from billboards overhead, the conversation bright and uninhibited.
The atmosphere then quickly sobered, as did my passengers, as we reached the turn-off to Parramatta. Their conversation lapsed then Aliya spoke with a tone of seriousness in her voice.
“Will you stop looking at your phone, Maya. He’s not going to call. Sarah is right, he’s not a husband. When are you going to wake up to yourself?”
Maya put down her phone and let out a deep sigh. “But he is my husband. I don’t know, I just wish he would call,” she said.
“But he treats you like shit! He will probably be angry you are out tonight even though he is partying as well,” said Aliya, turning to face Maya. “Seriously, when are you going to end it?” Aliya pressed again.
“Ahhhh, kill me now!” Maya exclaimed, resting her face in her hands. “Seriously, Mr Uber can you please pull over so I can jump from the overpass? Actually, take me back to the city. If I’m going to jump I want it to be from something more romantic. The Harbour Bridge or maybe the Opera House?”
“It’s not as easy as just leaving him, Aliya, you know that,” said Salma, putting her arm around Maya who still had her face in her hands.
“Why not? He doesn’t love her? He’s thirty-eight and she’s twenty-two! If he still treats a woman like this at his age, there is no hope! He has moved on, but he won’t let her do the same. He thinks he owns her!” said Aliya defiantly.
“It’s our culture, Aliya. You know how hard it will be for her if she leaves him. She won’t have anyone,” Salma replied softly, rubbing Maya’s back.
Aliya shook her head dismissively, paused, then said:
“Our culture, Salma, wouldn’t approve of us going out tonight and having a good time. Our culture is making Maya miserable. It suffocates her, makes her feel awful for being here with us right now. Our culture would shame me for kissing a boy tonight. It strips us of having any real chance of finding true love. Our culture stifles love, it takes away the beauty of it. Love should be free and fun and the unknown, not forced and dictated to us by ancient laws and traditions. And who created those laws and traditions? Our culture is decided by men, for their selfish purposes. To keep us down, to keep us as possessions with no say and no way out. We can’t let the same messages be passed down to the next generation. I won’t be passing it down!”
“But we should love our culture, Aliya, it’s important,” Salma replied.
“Well, if you love that part of our culture then you can’t possibly love yourself, Salma,” Aliya declared, turning away sharply and staring out her window.
I felt privileged to be hearing this impassioned speech. I was playing her words over in my head when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I jumped in my chair, surprised by the hand touching me. I turned my head to see Aliya leaning forward, her deep brown eyes beaming straight at mine. She opened her mouth and whispered, “Have you ever been in love?”
This was the second time I had been asked this question in my time as an Uber Driver. Once again, I was rendered speechless. That question, unlike any other, is so disarming and so unexpected. Just as I started to find my words I was interrupted.
“Hey, this is our street!” said Aliya, pointing out the window to her left.
I pulled over and said goodbye to my passengers. They politely thanked me for the ride and disappeared into an apartment block, talking amongst themselves.
I then started the long drive home at two in the morning. I was thankful for the time alone. I was blown away by Aliya’s speech. It was the first time I had heard a woman from that culture speak about her feelings.
I was also completely floored by her question. I don’t share the same culture as Aliya, Maya or Salma, so I can’t relate to their experience. I have been in relationships I shouldn’t have been in, though, when I felt trapped and insecure. I don’t know, maybe that’s why it floored me. I kind of knew how Maya was feeling. Whatever it was, I drove home playing songs on Spotify about broken hearts and stolen love.