**This Part 2 of the First Impressions Overturned series, following last week’s post “Partying Police Officers, A Socially Conscious Bro, and a Misconstrued Pedestrian” ( https://bit.ly/3bAkJ8V ).
When Sean* gets into my car outside the apartment of a hilly San Francisco neighborhood, he asks if I’m okay with driving down to Palo Alto (a city fifty minutes south).
“I know some drivers don’t like to go that far, so I wanted to check,” he explains.
I tell him sure, and our ride begins. It’s quiet for the first portion of it, with Sean’s attention on his phone while mine stays exclusively on the road. Not minding this, I relax into the silence, assuming from our seemingly mutual implicit agreement to forego talk that ours will be one of those unremarkable Lyft rides–definitely not one that will be remembered, much less provide any kind of fodder for a future Lyft Tales entry.
Twenty minutes into the ride though, I cough– thereby breaking the silence and igniting a dialogue that overturns my initial assumption.
“Bless you–if that was a sneeze,” Sean says.
“It was a sneezey cough,” I specify, after thanking him.
In the small talk that follows, I learn the reason for our trip down south.
“My girlfriend—that’s whose place I was just at—and I got tickets to Bottle Rock this weekend. I realized I left my ticket bracelet down at my house though,” he explains.
Sean then shares that he and his girlfriend moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast three months prior– her with a job lined up in San Francisco, him with one in the South Bay. To cut down on commute time, they’d both sought housing in the cities they worked in. Neither anticipated the added challenge this would pose for their relationship.
“When you look at a map, South Bay and SF don’t seem that far away,” Sean points out, “But then you factor in traffic, and it becomes more of a trek. It’s felt a lot more like a long-distance relationship than either of us wanted it to.”
On emotional burnout and our world’s emotional illiteracy pandemic
Sean’s asking about my profession (I’ve just transitioned from social work to driving Lyft and freelance translating) leads to us talking about the emotional burnout that’s common to helping careers.
His mom had lost steam working for several years as a speech pathologist in medical environments. She now works in the educational field, where she’s found a healthier work-life balance.
“I think no matter how healthy you are, if you’re putting your heart into your job and opening yourself up to what’s happening around you, other people’s emotions will affect you,” Sean comments. “You can’t stay completely impermeable. Most of us can’t at least.”
We get to talking about the U.S. tendency to handle emotions in much the same way we treat many other problems—by focusing on symptoms while ignoring root causes.
“I remember the other day a friend was telling me he had anxiety,” Sean recalls. “So a psychiatrist prescribed him Xanax. Which he took, and it went away. And I was like, ‘Man don’t you want to understand why you had the anxiety? It’s there to tell you something, Bro. All our emotions are. Little messengers.”
I nod emphatically. This man is speaking my language. His words bring to mind a passage from Savala Nolan’s book, Don’t Let It Get You Down:
“I was only 24. It didn’t occur to me that my anxiety wasn’t something to medicate but wisdom I should heed.”
Sean continues, his chin in his left hand now as he looks out the window.
“It’s so much a part of our culture– trying to make things go away before understanding them. Or without ever understanding them.”
I piggyback off of what he’s saying: “One-hundred percent. Especially in our capitalist society, it’s like we’re taught to see our emotions as liabilities or inconvenient distractions from productivity. So we learn to just stuff them down.”
Sean nods. “People here get so used to doing that,” he adds, “Saying, ‘I’ll just deal with them later.’ And then they don’t. And then years down the road when ‘later’ comes and marriage happens and families form and problems come up, they still haven’t dealt with them.”
He pauses briefly. “And we wonder why the divorce rate is so steep in America. There’s completely a link. This stuff, these…emotional blind spots, absolutely affect your relationships.”
Arrival and Pit Stop
Talk segues back to careers as I exit the freeway. Sean acknowledge that even though he likes his job, he sometimes wishes he could be doing work that’s “more impactful.”
“I go to the office every day,” he says. “Earn a solid paycheck. My girlfriend and I can travel and spend money on concerts like these”—he taps at his phone screen, opened to his Bottle Rock E-ticket receipt— “and afford long Uber rides when we need them, like right now.”
After a pause: “But then I have these days where I’m like, Is this all I’m gona do, for the rest of my life? Who am I really helping with it?”
A few blocks later, we’re in front of his house.
“I’ll be right back,” Sean promises before getting out and racing past the well-tended lawn to the front door.
Three minutes later he re-appears–bracelet in hand, face triumphant. A “mission accomplished” expression lights up his face.
I’m about to head towards the freeway when an earnest request on Sean’s behalf shifts my course:
“Could we get Inn ‘N Out?” he asks me– promising that the meal’s on him if I say yes (which, hungry and in the mood for impeccable fries, I do).
Despite it being one in the morning (or maybe because–the Friday night after-bar crowd tends to be a hungry one), Sean and I arrive to a long line of cars queued up behind the drive-through.
“I tried Inn ‘N Out for the first time a few months ago,” he reflects as we wait for our turn to order, “And it was phenomenal. We don’t have it on the East Coast so it was a first time for both of us. Even my girlfriend who’s a total health nut and doesn’t eat much fast food–she runs cross-country and all that– makes exceptions for this place.”
Rolling down the window when we reach the intercom, Sean orders a double cheeseburger and a Coke for himself, and fries and a milkshake for me.
On sibling relationships and coming out as LGBT
As they prepare our food we get to talking about Sean’s siblings, who also live in the Bay Area (while his parents remain on the East Coast). Tomorrow Sean will be seeing his younger brother, who recently came out as gay.
“I think he knew back in college,” he reflects. “But he was in a frat and didn’t feel like he could be open about it. Now he’s in SF where anything goes.”
Sean expresses regret at having maybe pushed the “guy bonding stuff” too hard.
“I remember I’d take him to bars to have ‘guy’s night’ super often because in my mind that’s just what brothers did. That was their main way of bonding. While we were there I’d encourage him to pick up on girls and all that.”
He pauses, looking out the window onto the shiny yellow arrow of the Inn ‘N Out sign in front of us.
“And like now sometimes I wonder if my trying too hard to have a brother-brother relationship with him– instead of just being there for him as a sibling— is part of the reason we’re more distant now.“
He opens his black leather wallet and thumbs through the bills, then closes it before tapping it against his thigh as he processes these thoughts out loud.
“We’re making strides though,” he continues. “The other day my sister sent a selfie of the two of them at a concert with this guy he was on a date with. So that was cool–that they tried to include me. Maybe I’ll be invited next time,” Sean laughs.
“That could be you in the next selfie,” I gently and jokingly encourage, while also trying to be casual about it (so as not to get his hopes up in case it doesn’t happen).
“Life goals,” he replies, pumping a hopeful fist in the air.
The Inn ‘N Out Feast and More Gay Talk
Once we have our food, I fumble trying to one-handedly open the ketchup packet (while my other hand clutches the steering wheel), which results in ketchup squirting onto the adjacent passenger seat. I make a mental note to clean it as soon as I get home.
An unexpectedly sharp turn onto the freeway also sends Sean’s food flying from the seat to the ground. Luckily, he’s able to salvage it pretty quickly.
“Burger’s still edible,” he announces upon retrieving it, with the same jubilant satisfaction he’d displayed when returning to the car with his concert bracelet earlier.
For the next ten minutes, a chorus of crunching and slurping fills the air. Straws squeak. Paper food bags crinkle. The thump thump thump of my car passing over the bumps and slats in the freeway becomes more audible.
When the munching ceases, conversation resumes.
“So when did you know you were gay?” Sean asks me.
“Honestly, as young as twelve,” I reply.
“Twelve’s young,” he comments.
“It is. But I wasn’t ready to admit it back then. Like, at all. Not even to myself. So I’d just write about it in my diaries, but like in code.”
“What does gay code even look like?”
“Like when I liked a girl I’d talk about how awesome she was and how much I wished we were best friends. But I wouldn’t blatantly admit it was a crush.”
“Were your parents religious or something?”
“Oh no, they’ve always been wonderful about all the gay stuff actually. I just wasn’t ready. I already felt like I didn’t fit in with the people at my school and I thought acknowledging something like this would just intensify that feeling for me even more.”
I pause. “How were your parents with your brother after he came out to them?”
Before he responds, I watch as his last fry— one of those perfect ones that’s just the right balance between crispy and soft– disappears into his mouth. He seems to have saved the best for last.
“Let’s see–my dad said something along the lines of, ‘I’ve got thirty years left on this planet and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna spend it giving two shits about what gender my son sleeps with.’ My mom though, it was harder for her. Her reaction was more like, ‘This isn’t the life I imagined for you.'”
“I hear that a lot,” I say. “Many of the moms of girls I dated and friends of mine from the LGBT community reacted similarly.” I pause to eat a fry. “Have her feelings changed at all since then?”
“A little. It’s kind of hard to tell. We haven’t all been together, like physically, since he told them. And I haven’t talked with her about it in a while. She could be saying anything to my dad,” he replies honestly.
Sean looks out the window like he’s lost in thought, biting at his straw the way some people chew on cigars.
Last leg of the journey
The LGBT conversation continues as we draw closer to Sean’s end point. Downtown San Francisco’s high-rises come into view while he speculates over what dating must have been like for gay people before the era of social media.
“Like what did they do?? How did they meet??” he wonders aloud with wide-open eyes.
He seems genuinely curious and intrigued, like these are questions he’s never thought to ask before (and I don’t blame him because why would he have?).
As my car ascends the hills of Pacific Heights, Sean scrolls through his phone.
“My girlfriend just said she’s about to go to sleep,” he announces, “But that she left a key in the plant.”
Looking up from his screen with an overwhelmed expression on his face: “There is like so much foliage in that thing though– I dono if I’ll be able to find it. Might have to sleep outside tonight. We’ll see.”
Before getting out he quickly scans his seat and the floor for any remaining fries, explaining that he doesn’t want to be remembered as “that passenger.”
Thanking him, I tell him that worse things have been done inside my car. “A vagrant fry or two won’t earn you that title,” I reassure.
“Okay good,” he says, performatively relieved. “Anyways, thank you. Super fun Lyft ride. Get home safe.”
Many rides remind me why driving for Lyft, despite its downsides and less glamorous aspects, can be such a unique and at times even enriching experience.
One that gives you the chance to talk to people you never would have otherwise interacted with. One that exposes you to perspectives that generally fall outside your daily orbit. One that regularly overturns ingrained assumptions (which in this case was “White tech bros and I probably don’t have much to talk about and will only ever have surface-level banalities to toss back and forth”).
While driving across the Bay Bridge towards home eating lukewarm fries following our ride (which clocks in at a total of two and a half hours), I think about how tonight’s in particular reminds me of this.
As it turns out, I don’t remember Sean as the sloppy passenger, nor as the guy who left behind soggy fries on the backseat floor. Our rides does, however, register as both the longest one I’d given up until that point, and by far one of the most engaging.