“Gender roles just aren’t that important to my wife and me,” explains the 40- something male passenger, who’s just plopped down in the backseat of my car with a giant green shopping bag that he says is filled with gender-neutral toys for his daughter.
“More than anything we just want her to have fun. And be a good human to others.”
I ask him which toys he bought, and he shuffles through the bag.
“Let’s see here…we’ve got kinetic sand, a build your own musical instrument set, a stomp rocket, and a jar of rainforest animals. Oh! And a Tree Fort Supersaver. She can build her own little village in a tree.”
He holds them up so I can catch a glimpse in the rearview mirror.
As he shows me his purchases I recall how as a kid, I gravitated towards a mix of toys that might be considered both stereotypically masculine and feminine. At the same time that I loved my Hot Wheels car wash, for instance, I also put effort into tending to the unique needs of each of my stuffed animals.
Now though, there seems to be less differentiation between the marketing of girls’ and boys’ toys. No longer are entire shelves dedicated to exclusively pink or blue things, which I see as a positive change.
After dropping this ‘woke’ man off in front of his charming Victorian home, I pick up my next passenger, a Latina woman who looks to be in her early 40s.
The owl on her red sweater is wearing a green Santa hat, and its eyes are half-closed, perhaps from too much spiked eggnog. She and I get to talking about reindeer.
“Me ENCANTAN,” she exclaims (“I LOVE them”).
“Mis hijas y yo fuimos al día gratis en la Academia de Ciencias para ver a ellos y educarnos sobre ellos. Aprendimos que es muy importante la Vitamina D para los renos. Les ayuda a construir sus cuernos. Y aprendimos que los varones pierden sus cuernos en noviembre.”
(“My daughters and I went to the free day at the Academy of Sciences earlier this month to see them and learn about them. We learned that Vitamin D is very important for them. It helps them build their antlers. And we also learned that the males lose their antlers in November”).
“Así que los renos de Santa, todos son mujeres! Tiene que ser asi, porque los hombres no tienen sus cuernos en diciembre. Y todos los renos de Santa tienen cuernos”
(“So Santa’s reindeer, they must all be ladies! Because the males don’t have their antlers in December. And all of Santa’s reindeer have antlers”).
Mid reindeer conversation, a man with fuzzy reindeer antlers on his head joins the car as part of Lyft Line.
“I stole these from my niece,” he announces while pointing up at them. His left hand holds a thermos that he says is filled with eggnog.
We drive by a bushy tree decorated with lights and ornaments. It seems to subvert the Christmas tree stereotype, eschewing a trim and lean physique for a rounder and more voluminous one.
Reindeer Man remarks that it looks like a monster.
“A pretty, friendly one like from a Doctor Seuss story,” he clarifies after taking a sip of egg-nog. “But still a monster for sure.”
Later in the ride he gestures towards the front seat with his open thermos, offering the Latina lady and me some eggnog. We both politely decline.
After I drop the two of them off at their respective homes in Hayward, a request comes in from a few blocks away from a young African-American woman, probably about 17 or 18.
I pick her up in front of her friend’s house, where Christmas lights line the path leading to the front porch and an inflatable Rudolph crouches in the front yard. She comes in with a Tupperware of what she describes as ‘moose drool.’
Shortly into the ride, we get to talking about her life and career ambitions.
“Oh man,” she exclaims. “There are SO many things I wanna do. I want to be a criminal investigator, and I also want to work with old people, and I also want to help people with Down syndrome. Lately I’ve been thinking about awkwardness too, just as a general concept. And about how fulfilling it could be to have a job where I’m helping people deal with uncomfortable situations.”
Speaking of such situations, before my next passenger gets in, here’s a question for you readers: What’s the last uncomfortable or contentious conversation you’ve had with your family? Are there any topics that you stay away from them because you know it will end badly?
Politics tends to be for a lot of people. It was for my next passenger, who’d gradually fallen out of touch with his conservative Latino family after they helped Trump get elected back in 2016.
After a full year of minimal contact though, they’ve just shared a Christmas dinner.
Berto* says the meal, and the evening in general, involved a lot of suppressing on his part.
“Could you grab the bread for me please, Berto?” one of them would say to him.
You voted for a man who would’ve just grabbed it, he’d say back in his head.
Now that he’s made it through, he plans to go home to his chosen family of two Siberian cats Coby* and Maura*.
“Maura’s probably napping under the Christmas tree right now,” he predicts. “Furry little angel.”
It’s also possible that he will return home to find the Christmas tree overturned. This has happened before— the result of Coby pawing on the low-hanging ornaments.
The final passenger of the night—a college-aged girl with red streaks in her long brown hair—is headed to the airport dressed in black and red checkered pajamas bottoms. On her sweater, reindeer down carrot juice at a bar while Santa gulps milk from a pint glass next to them.
“I always wear PJs to the airport when I’m about to take the red eye,” she explains. “And I had a lot of peppermint schnapps tonight. So I’ll pass right out.”
Sometimes airport runs mean forty minutes of silence, with conversation petering out after the obligatory exchange of social niceties and initial small talk. Other times they mean space for uninterrupted conversations that meander into deeper territory than they might otherwise.
This ride falls into the latter category. Jessica* tells me about the newly formed chasm between her and a friend from the holiday gathering she attended earlier in the day.
“We got along, there was no bad blood on the surface,” she starts off, “but on the inside I felt resentment towards her. She’d be talking and a voice inside me would start saying, ‘you don’t understand me and didn’t even try to.’”
She fills me in with the necessary context: This past summer, Jessica had been falling in love with a guy she’d met on Bumble. They’d seen Hamilton together. They’d eaten from the same salad at Souvla, shared sushi-ritos, held hands across the table in various public places. They’d spent almost every single day together.
The only problem was that Doug* would soon be returning to school on the East Coast. Jessica confided to her friend Carmen* that she wanted an LTR but was worried Doug didn’t. Even though they’d grown close that summer, what if Doug was a “right here, right now” kind of guy?
Before waiting for Jessica to ask, Carmen offered her two cents: “It’s never going to work out. I know from experience.”
Her prediction came true. Doug went back to school a week later, and after keeping in touch with Jessica for two weeks, slowly filtered himself out of her life. Jessica was devastated.
“I’ve tried asking myself why I’m resentful, like—wasn’t Carmen just being a good friend? Trying to keep me grounded and realistic?
“But I guess it’s because even if her response was realistic, she didn’t validate my feelings. She skipped the empathy component that’s so important to me in friendships. It feels like she didn’t try to identify with me or imagine how she might feel if she’d been in a similar scenario.
Her saying this reminded me of a passage I’d read in the book Honor by Elif Shafak:
“When you hear the news that the wife has walked out on a friend, you don’t say, ‘Yeah, I knew all along that was bloody going to happen.’ You’d make him feel like a dick-head. A public failure.
But if you say, ‘Bummer, when did that happen? You just never know with women, do you,’ or something along those lines, then you’d share your mate’s pain.”
The passenger shakes her head and continues:
“I wanted her to say ‘Gosh Jessica, I know you’ve gotten attached. I’m sorry this is happening.”
She pauses again, then resumes.
“I’m more mad at him and then I am at her. But he’s not in my life anymore so it doesn’t matter. I guess I should tell her I’m feeling this way at some point. Tonight wasn’t the right place to. But I will soon.”
On my way home at the end of the night, I spot a single fuzzy reindeer antler off to the side of the road. It looks like the reindeer passenger’s headband, only split in half.
How ominous and sad, I think, and also: What happened to the other one??
Hope all you readers had a safe and merry quarantine Christmas. I’ll be back with more Lyft stories soon!