Life in pieces

It’s been a few years since I hosted a radio talk show and a few decades since I hosted one every morning. I miss the challenge of open lines, the shows where you don’t have a guest booked, so you have to find something interesting in the people who call to hold the listeners’ attention.

For that to work, you have to be interested in the lives of people just living their lives. More so than any story that actually makes the news, theirs actually is the best snapshot of who we are.

Fourteen-hundred rides ago, I started driving Lyft. You make a few bucks, sure, but the attraction for me is the stories. Six months ago, for example, a guy got in my car in Woodbury. He’d just bought an Anytime Fitness franchise and was heading to the local tap room.

In the course of mile, and as the result of a few questions, he told me a story about my father, I’d never heard before. Nearly sixty years later, 1,200 miles away, and 15 years after my dad died, a “caller” told me something new about my father.

It’s like doing a talk show.

Some stories you forget; some won’t let go. This is one from Sunday morning.

Let’s take our next call…

She needed to go to the county jail, the Lyft app said as I waited for her to come out of her apartment building in an affluent suburb of the Twin Cities. This would be awkward, I figured, because I usually confirm the destination before we start driving, yet I didn’t want to create an opportunity for any embarrassment.

Maybe she’s a corrections officer, I figured. Cool. So is my daughter in law.

“You’re going to Chaska?” I asked when she hopped in the front seat. She didn’t have a uniform on. Awkward.

As a driver, you take the temperature when a rider gets in. You can tell who wants to talk, and who wants to be left alone with their phone.

She had a personality; she was engaging; she was funny. And so we talked about life in her suburb, her journey to Minnesota, the aircraft factory my mother worked in during World War II in my rider’s hometown.

I never ask why riders are going where they’re going, but eventually a rider will volunteer the information.

“I’m going to get my keys and pick up my car,” she said, not an unusual plan on a Sunday morning for rideshare drivers because more people — Gen Z and millennials mostly — are making good decisions on Saturday nights.

But she didn’t make any decision on Saturday night. Her friend did. He took her car after an argument and it somehow ended up in a rural part of Minnesota; he ended up in jail.

“I’ll only be a minute,” she said as she dodged a heavy rain to run inside to get her keys.

Fifteen minutes later she came out with her friend. He jumped in the back seat. He was crying. This was not her plan. It was not mine.

She got the name of the town where the car was from him. It was 17 miles away. She panicked.

“It’s going to be OK,” I said. “Life is too short to panic.”

We started driving. Her. Me. And the guy sobbing in the back.

I liked her very much and I wanted her to not be embarrassed by an obviously embarrassing situation, so we didn’t talk about it except in the code a parent learns while raising children. I told her stories of raising kids, how teenagers are the worst, how they grow up and change and the memories of painful arguments slip away. How your parents get smarter the moment you have children. How life is unpredictable and good things happen even if you think you don’t deserve good things.

For a half hour the city life slipped away outside the windows, rolling farmland inspired amazement.

“I can’t believe they took you way out here,” she said to the backseat. I never asked who or what.

We ended up in a typical Minnesota small town with a lumberyard, a biker bar, and a gas station. Her car was at the gas station.

“You’ve been a blessing to me today,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“I hope your day gets so much better that I’m not the highlight of it,” I replied.

She didn’t know where we were or how she’d get back home (her phone battery was dead), so I told her to follow me and I’d lead her back.

Before she could get out of the car, the friend jumped out and into the driver’s seat of hers. He still had her keys.

She said something to him as she closed my door but I couldn’t hear. He slammed his hand on the steering wheel, a cigarette in his mouth. She got in the passenger side.

They drove to the gas pumps and I figured I would too, since they had to follow me to get home.

He let her get out and pump gas in the rain.

I wanted to tell her she could do better than this, that she clearly deserves better than this. That she’s bright and funny and there are people out there who are bright and funny and somehow life has a way of bringing them together.

“Highway 7 is just a half mile up the road,” I said to her as I pointed north.

She thanked me again, finished pumping the gas, and got back in her car, her friend waiting barely a second to hit the gas and careen out of the parking lot at high speed.

They headed south.