SLO Insider Vol. 1 Issue 01 "The Founders"

Danger Zone On A Saturday Night In Uber SLO

One cool thing about Uber driving is it produces what I have dubbed the “Ping Effect.” True, it might not be an actual clinical term describing an actual physiological response to stimuli, but it could be, as it seems to have every characteristic of the Pavlovian experiment we all learned about in school. To understand the Ping Effect, though, you should understand what a “ping” is.

In the Uber world, a call from the ether is announced with a loud sound– a high-pitched single note repeated for 15 seconds – “ping … ping … ping …” Okay, now that you understand that, here is what that ping does to me, and to my wife as well, as she has reported having the same sensory responses to the ping I am about to describe to you. Note: the “home ping” effect is different than the “car ping” effect.

When the first ping sounds at home, my brain immediately becomes alert, as the first order of business is to locate the source of the ping … my phone (quit smiling – anyone can forget where they left their damn phone.). Anxiety then overcomes me briefly but powerfully because I know I have to get to the phone before the 15-second time out. Focus then replaces anxiety as I understand if I don’t get to the phone ASAP, the mysterious and highly-desired pax will find someone else in less than a blink. There is no loyalty in the Uber world.

My ears zero in on the location and my eyes sweep to search. Adrenalin kicks in as I spot the phone and move fast to the origin of the ping. The moment my eyes capture the phone screen, I see a pale blue ring pulsing outward from a dark blue background surrounding a bright map inset. Inside the pulsing lines is a still lighter electric blue ring moving counter clockwise and disappearing with each ping (think sonar on a submarine). Without conscious thought and with great precision, my right pointer finger forcefully taps the vivid map image inside the emanating circle and the pinging stops.

Instantly, the image changes from the dark, mysterious background to a bright off-white rectangle depicting the route to your pickup. At the top of the map is a bright, over-sized orange box with an address in it. As the image explodes onto the screen, the pinging is replaced with a loud electronic-sounding chime that lasts for about 1.48 seconds. The orange image then disappears as rapidly as it appeared as the pickup address melds into the map background.

And just like that, the previous intense 7-10 seconds of my life are over, and in that very instant of culmination, when the flow of energy contributing to the intensity of the experience dissipates, I feel two things – curiosity and anticipation. These two positive sensations combined form the basis of one cool thing about Uber driving – you don’t know who you’re going to meet and you don’t know where that person will take you. It is a highly condensed and very short version of a book with an introduction that drives you on to the next page.

Sometimes, the book fulfills the promise and sometimes it does not, which is much the same as an Uber drive. Unlike a book, though, which I rarely seem to have time to read these days, an Uber drive provides opportunity after opportunity to experience the kick of the first ping, and after that thrill is gone, the drive presents excitement and anticipation, no matter if the ride fails the promise in the end, which many do. Plenty are flat, run of the mill, even dull.

The enlightening and interesting ventures, however, inspire The Uber Files, and I have one for you today. Wait! Hold on a minute. Mrs. Uber Driver just informed me the Ping Effect description is not complete.
She feels it is important you know the ping also initiates another reaction from me (not her, mind you). She calls it “panic mode.” I call it, well, okay, um … well, “not panic mode.”

After the ping and before the excitement and anticipation part, there is the brief minute or so of me searching calmly for my Bluetooth ear piece (and my hat, wallet, and key). She labels this “freaking out.” A bit extreme, mind you (Helloooo … labeling is not cool.).

Anyway, I think the best place for my ear piece is in my pocket, right? Somehow, though, the tiny little thing often ends up left where I absentmindedly removed it from my ear. Okay, so while my eyes are engaged in “the search” my inner vision sees Mrs. Uber Driver smiling, and I am sure she is thinking, “Okay, here we go again.” By the way, this could happen to anyone, right? …

Last Friday night was slower than usual and the following Saturday evening looked to be the same. Steady pickups, but the night seemed off, lackluster, maybe even a bit boring – rider after rider sitting in the front or back, silent, not willing to engage with energy, or not at all. When the doldrums set in, irrational thoughts gather in my head like cumulus clouds building for a storm. As the clouds darken and stack one upon another ominously, my body aches in my seat. I squirm, adjust the temperature, think about calling it a night, going home, getting in bed, having a night cap, playing online poker…

Usually, to break through the darkening veil, I blast the music, the kind of music that recalls unfocused memories, fun times, and it helps that I know the words to so many of the songs, and it helps even more when in the solitude of my car, I sing the songs with full force, trying to actually have a decent voice, trying to find my key, to stay on pitch. Station Q-104.5 does the trick for me, although the pop currency of Wild 106.1 can work too, even if I have no long-term relationship with that music and I know few lyrics.

Yeh, good music can blow apart the dark clouds and bring new energy to the night, not just for me, though. It can also work for the dullness weighing on my passengers, as it did for the three boys I picked up around 8:30 on that listless Saturday night.

After giving me the location of their destination, the party-bound boys lapsed into virtual silence. Occasionally I heard quiet words between the boys in the back, but the one to my right said nothing, not a word, not a smile. He just directed his eyes forward and sat still.

“No more,” I thought. I reached for the volume dial to turn up the music on my favorite station. Normally, when I have the younger crowd, I tune into Wild 106.1, but this time it was on Q-104.5. I decided to leave it there, but in order not to lower the mood even more with oldies music, my music, I only turned the volume up slightly, just barely enough for me to hear it. It was not satisfying, though. I wanted more.

“Do you guys mind if I turn up the music?” I asked with mild trepidation.

I heard a positive mumble from someone in the back, which I interpreted as, “Sure. We don’t give a $%@#.”So I did, but just a bit. Now, the music flowed lightly throughout the car, and then I heard more from the back.

“That’s cool. We are going to an 80s party.” The song on the radio at that moment was “Danger Zone,” the 1986 highlight from Top Gun and one of Kenny Loggins’ biggest hits. Now, understand in that moment, the clouds forming in my head were even more stacked, threatening total boredom, so I knew I had to do something or that ride would be my last ride for the night.

When it happened, it surprised me as much as it did the boys, but none of us regretted the unconscious movement of my hand, and the absolutely perfect timing of my next words.

“Okay boys, let’s get primed. Let’s party!” As loud as my energetic voice was in that somnambulant-like car, the noise coming from all speakers quickly overwhelmed it. My hand had cranked the volume up to almost max. Abrupt for sure, but the shift from what it was, to what it became, was also incredibly energetic and alive.

“Dude, that’s perfect!” One of the boys from the back was yelling at me. The other boy in the back was rocking in his seat and both were loudly singing along.

“Highway to the danger zone/I’ll take you right into the danger zone …”

Each was smiling broadly, and now quite upbeat. Even more impressive than the two boys in the back was my seat mate up front. That stoic guy was experiencing a profound mood change. He was singing quite forcefully, rapidly moving his hands timed to the beat, his bright smile lighting up the car. We were all having a damn good time.

The song ended about two blocks before we arrived at the drop-off spot, and I turned the volume down, but the high spirits in that car did not end as quickly. In fact, when the boys spilled out of the car, they had plenty of vocal energy to give me, and, I am sure, they brought the rest of it right into that 1980s party.

Me? My unthinking response to the storm building in my head gave me a lift as well, enough of one to keep on truckin’ through the night. It didn’t hurt that I cranked the music back up as I drove away to my next ride … if you ask me, my voice sounded pretty darn good.

Tune in and don’t drop out.
Mr. Uber Driver

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