Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you.
-Adapted from a Joseph Heller quote
-Adapted from a Joseph Heller quote
This is a story that happened my first few months of driving Uber in 2016. Somehow I managed to both get rousted by the cops and lose my privilege to drive all in a 24 hour period. At that time I was working out of Santa Barbara California, a medium sized, central coast city. Occasionally the work brought me about 45 minutes north of the city to a place known as the Santa Ynez Valley. It is a hot, arid community famous for horse ranches and for giving the world renowned Napa Valley a run for its money in the wine producing department.
I went to go online one morning and was unable to do so. A generic error message stated that there was a “problem” with my account. A problem? What could this be? I emailed Uber support but the only additional information reported was that a complaint was under investigation. How could this be? I had not the slightest problem with a fare in recent memory.
It would be three days before the problem was resolved, at the cost of $500 in lost revenue and a bit of shock and awe. In retrospect it all started when responding to a ping to the actual town of Santa Ynez. I pulled up to the main house of a sprawling ranch. The fare had signaled that they were in a B&B guest house somewhere on the property, so I had requested they walk up to the main house to keep things simple. The day was warming, so while waiting I took my vest off. I placed my wallet from the vest on top of the car FOR 30 SECONDS while stashing the vest away. I opened the hatchback, threw the vest in, closed the hatchback, and got back in the car.
Yep. That’s right. I had instantly forgotten about the wallet. So now my fare is coming down the drive. I get the two ladies secured in the car and off we go to the destination. Hours later I needed my wallet to pay for something at the store and discover it’s gone. Uh oh. My first thought was that losing my wallet twice in one month might be too much for the lost item fairies that usually help me out. You see my wallet had dropped out of my trousers in the restroom of a Trader Joe’s a few days before. A kind customer had ferried the wallet to the customer service desk, and it was sitting in a drawer waiting a few hours later, money intact, when I retraced my steps. This was not an unusual outcome. I have had very good fortune when it comes to getting lost/forgotten items back.
But losing a wallet a second time in less than a week was really pressing my luck.
Again I retraced my steps and discovered that the last resting place of the wallet was on the roof of the Prius back at that ranch house. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. This was not going to be an easy retrieval. How far had the car gone before the wallet flew off? Difficult to say. The house where I picked up my fare was in an extremely quiet neighborhood. The street was only about a lane and half wide, and it was a dead end. That was all favorable. I doubted that the wallet lasted much longer on the roof than where the lane turned onto the main road. I started the search at that intersection, assuming that the centrifugal force at the corner would have thrown the wallet clear if it had been still clinging to the roof at that point.
A twenty minute search of the area turned up nothing. The next step was to search the lane leading to the pickup point. The distance was about a mile, and after slowly canvasing the area by car –with no results- I ended up exploring the street on foot over a period of several days. I would walk a section of the road until a ride request came in, then return sometime later and continue. There was no real hurry. For one thing, if the universe was going to deal me back my wallet it would do so. There was no need to get in a panic. You have to kind of let the magic happen in these cases. Plus, after the TJ’s incident I had pulled one credit card out of the wallet and stashed it in the center console, along with cash tips as they accumulated. This was before Uber allowed tipping in the app. So I wasn’t completely screwed.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t even feel 100% comfortable searching for the wallet past that initial recon in the car. It was kind of pushing on the situation, rather than letting it percolate on its own. Such a notion may not make sense but life has taught me when you push too hard, things break. And indeed, I would later pay for my obsessiveness.
Over the course of the next few days I explored further and further down the lane, checking thoroughly in the many shrubs lining the street, which took some time. No results. On one occasion after rooting around for a while I felt tired. I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before and it was catching up. So I simply sat in the car with the seat tilted back and snoozed for about twenty minutes. It was a very quiet street, I had seen only the odd neighbor walking their dog, so felt quite comfortable sneaking a nap on the shoulder of the road.
I woke up groggy and decided not to search any more that day. I swung the Prius onto the lane and headed back to the intersection. As I approached the crossroads an ambulance, followed by a huge county fire truck was turning into the lane. “Wow. I wonder what’s going on?” As the ambulance passes me the female driver stops. I stop. She leans out the window and says
“Were you just sleeping in your car a few minutes ago?”
“Yes”, I reply. “Well this is all for you”, she retorts. Yikes. “Sorry”. She has nothing further to say so I speed away.
Gee whiz I sure am sorry to put y’all out like that. But I was only napping! I concluded that rather than come up and tap on the window of a stranger’s car, one of the neighbors had simply called in about the sleeping stranger in a brand new Prius. That was understandable. It’s nice to know that if I had been in trouble there would have been help.
So now fast forward a bit. I’ve just returned to the valley for the first time in a couple of days. There was a final 50 ft. section of thick bushes leading up to the house where my fare had boarded that still needed to be searched. Once that was complete I was going to give up. It sounds counter-intuitive but I had not canceled my credit cards. This was purposeful. Keeping credit cards active in such cases is a marker as to whether someone had found the wallet. Consumers are not on the hook if someone fraudulently uses a lost card so the risk is low. The first email indicating a charge had been made on any of the cards would have indicated someone of dubious reputation had found the wallet and that it was not likely to be returned. Of course the credit cards would then be immediately reported lost.
There had been no charges thus far. Nor had anyone called the number of the Uber business card in the wallet.
The search of the last set of bushes takes maybe half an hour and produces no fruit. There was nothing left to do except either wait for the wallet to magically make its way back into my hands, or replace its contents. Either way, time spent in this neighborhood had drawn to an end. While driving back toward the intersection two spectacles drew my attention. One was a cluster of people about 50 feet ahead on the left, standing at the end of their driveway. Perhaps a woman and a couple of children. There may or may not have been a male. I barely registered them. What diverted my attention was the police car that had just turned down the lane. “Huh”, I think. “Something amiss in the neighborhood?” Proceeding down the narrow lane I give plenty of easement to the cop car, but he is not returning the favor. We reach an impasse so I stop my car on the shoulder. He stops his car, blocking me. I remain in the Prius. He gets out of his vehicle and walks right to me.
Me: “Hello. I was just trying to get down the street… unless you’re here for me…??"
Cop: “I’m here for you.”
The officer conducts a short interview. He wants to know what I’m doing on the street. I inform him that I drive for Uber and lost my wallet nearby when retrieving a fare. Now a second cop car turns into the lane and parks behind the first car. There are two cops in that car. They are all deputy sheriffs. I will refer to the three deputies by size, which was medium, large, and extra-large. The deputy speaking to me, officer Large, has gone over to the people standing in their driveway. The other two cops, both males, join the party. I remain seated. The cops confer for a moment and then the pair from the second car come over. Officer extra-large stands a few yards away from the Prius at about 10 o’clock to my position. He is fully in my view. Officer medium takes up a defensive position just behind the driver’s door of the Prius. He’s leaning right up against the car for cover, one hand close to his holster.
I’ve seen enough cops shows to know that the stance taken by the officers was to protect their lives. I had to crane around to get a look at the cop next to the car, whereas he could look straight into the car at me and see where my hands were. In the meantime the cop in the street had a clear shot at me. I’m not saying I was worried about that. I’m just saying they were taking precautions. I understood, and was not offended at their posturing. After all, they could have yanked me from the car and placed me spread-eagle face down on the pavement. So the deputies were being pretty cool, relatively speaking. I would have preferred to exit the car and have a face to face discussion with both the cops and the people who had apparently called them in, but the days of getting out of the car when being pulled are long gone.
Officer medium: “Hey, what’s up?”
Me: “I’m not sure how to answer that. Do you have a question?"
Officer medium: “Well my Sergeant there (pointing to officer Large talking to the homeowners) told me to come over and find out what’s going on."
I decided to take him at his word, foregoing the possibility he was trying to engage in some kind of cat and mouse game. I gave him full cooperation and answered all his questions, even the ones I wasn’t legally obliged to. I told him the whole story about Uber, the lost wallet, my luck at getting lost items back, and my insistence on canvasing the area thoroughly before giving up (it didn’t occur to me to mention that today was the final search outing).
Both officers have been listening to all this with a standard issue look of unwavering suspicion on their faces. They reminded me of how a hawk gambits that its shadow continually cast on the ground below will sooner or later flush its prey. The deputies showed no signs of buying my story, but neither did they seem to conclude I was likely a mass murderer hiding in the bushes till nightfall and thus throw me on the ground spread eagle. So my head was still above water.
There was some further questioning regarding if I had any registered firearms, had I ever been arrested, so on and so forth. I had good answers to all the questions and was able to provide the vehicle registration, proof of insurance, and even a picture ID (an old expired license I had retrieved from my sock drawer). I was pretty clean.
The cops confer again and this time Officer Large (the sergeant) comes over. Keep in mind that the concerned homeowners, ostensibly the ones who called 911, are now fully briefed as to why the stranger has been coming into the neighborhood. There is in fact a reason this older single man had been repeatedly visiting the street and nosing around in the bushes.
Officer Large -who has tripped out a couple of times on the fact that my Prius makes no noise while running- tells me that the family apologized for calling the police on me, and now that it had been determined why the stranger was hanging around they were all going to help me out. Mom. Dad. Kids. Everyone. “We’ll find your lost wallet!”
Actually, that’s not what happened. What happened was the cop told me the people standing in front of their house wanted me to leave and never come back. He pointed out that the street we were on was actually private, and marked thusly. He adds “They said they would get in touch if they find your wallet”.
So now Officer large retreats back to the family and Officer Medium takes charge again. He politely inquires what I’m planning on doing now. I had no choice but to go along with the homeowner’s wishes. As I later learned, the street was indeed private. Many streets in that valley are. It’s a byproduct of larger parcels of land being subdivided over the decades. They had cut roads to all the subdivided parcels but the easements remained in private hands. So I told the deputy I would respect the people’s wishes to not return and that I would go about replacing the contents of the wallet, starting with my driver license, which I was politely informed technically left me illegal to drive.
The cops liked my plan.
I have to wonder what a reader would think of this story so far. It seems to me one could take either side of the argument. On the one hand I was quietly going about looking for a very important lost object. Especially when you factor in identity theft. There had never been a conversation, a confrontation, an exchange of hard looks, nor even eye contact with the home owners. I didn’t even know I was being observed!
On the other hand who could blame the homeowners for not simply coming out and asking what I was up to? The man of the house may not have been home, and there were the children to think of. I had come into the neighborhoods several times. And when you consider the prior ambulance incident, my presence there probably looked pretty weird.
So, my feathers were ruffled but I really couldn’t fault the 911 callers. And although the cops showed no signs of having advocated on my behalf, they could have been a lot tougher on me. They could have towed my car, since technically I couldn’t drive without a valid license.
The story’s not over though. Because I haven’t told you about why I couldn’t go online. This is the day after tangling with the police, which was a Thursday. So I’m offline all day Friday, clueless as to why. I made no connection whatsoever with the prior day’s events. Saturday morning comes and still no word from Uber. Saturday evening an email finally comes in, but it’s time stamped Friday at 12:30AM. That was nearly a full day earlier. Weird. Something delayed the email. The message is from Uber and relates to why I’m offline. Uber is inquiring as to whether I’ve have had any problems with fares recently.
They are fishing. I reply back stating that there have been no issues other than not being able to go online! In short order I receive another Uber email. They are asking permission to call me. Of course! Call me. Please, for the love of god, call me.
Uber rep: “Do you recall giving a ride at such and such address in Santa Ynez?”
The rep was referring to the Airbnb pick up where I lost my wallet!
“We have a report of an Uber driver behaving inappropriately after the fare.”
Me: (as the reality of what has happened finally clicks in) “Oh my god. That report could not have come from the fare. They are long gone. Someone else must have filed a complaint.”
Yeah, “someone” else had. The rep did not offer the complainant’s name and I knew enough not to ask. I was shocked at the reveal and explained how I had come to lose my wallet and had been combing the neighborhood for it. That was the reason I had been behaving inappropriately. Fortunately the rep was a sharp guy and got it. He said he would take the information back to his “team” and that I would be hearing back shortly. He asserted there would likely be no problem getting me back online. The Uber rep also added that in cases having anything to do with safety, the driver is automatically taken offline while an investigation is held.
Sometime the following morning I’m able to back online. I calculated that the downtime had cost me an estimated $500 in weekend earnings.
What is one to think of this second event? I had to assume that the family who called the police on me had called Uber later that day as well. But why? They had gotten what they wanted earlier. The stranger had promised not to return to the neighborhood. They had gotten full cooperation with absolutely no sass. Why not let it go? Especially since I had demonstrated a reason for being in the area. And again, there had been no close encounters. I was never even near their property line. Their children had not walked by while I was searching, I was clearly not a vagrant. In fact, I was driving a new car. The car that gentle eco people drive. Hello?! What were you thinking?
I’ll never know what those folks were thinking. I suspect they were one of the many SoCal transplants that have migrated to the valley seeking a simpler lifestyle. I don’t think someone who grew up in a low-key community like Santa Ynez would have reacted like that. Perhaps the family moved from an area with a high crime rate. From their point of view there was this dude who kept coming into their neighborhood who didn’t belong. Still, they had won the battle so why contact Uber? That strikes me as unreasonable fear, and there’s a name for that.