It is Sunday afternoon, and Jimmy is dancing a slow drunkard’s shuffle in the general direction of my car. His hand-eye coordination is severely compromised. He’s also not wearing a face mask.
I am the Lyft driver sent here to collect him from the Hillsboro Bar and Grill in Hillsboro, Oregon. And no one gets in my car without a mask.
Jimmy surprises me by opening the front door and moving to take the seat next to me. He smells like one of those bars where drunks once smoked many, many cigarettes. I don’t want him in my car. But I take my second job as a Lyft driver seriously. I give him a chance.
“You gotta wear a mask,” I say. “And not in the front seat. You have to get in the back, and you have to wear a mask.” I am taking yet another stand against these unmasked men (and women) who want me to drive them.
Jimmy tries to say something, the gist of which seems to be that he has a mask – somewhere. He places his right hand in his right shirt pocket and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. And then – I have not seen this one before – he places the pack on his face, where a mask would go. He is hammered, and has mistaken in earnest the object he now holds over his mouth for a face mask. He reaches for the handle of my car’s rear door, passenger side. “That’s not a mask,” I say. “It’s a pack of cigarettes. No mask, no ride.”
Jimmy looks confused and says something I can’t understand. He is indicating he will get a mask in the bar. I don’t wait for him to emerge with a pint glass pressed to his face. I cancel the ride and drive off, after indicating in the app that the rider refused to don a mask.
I receive $4.71 and cold comfort for wasting half an hour of my life.
Most of my passengers wear masks by default. Those who don’t fall into three categories. Mostly, they’re either drunk as skunks or they’re anti-maskers. A third category of riders wears their kids’ masks, which I only notice if I look in the rear-view mirror and see their nostrils peering at me like a second set of eyes. I ask them to please cover their noses as well as their mouths, but it’s hopeless: their masks are just too small.
The drunks are predictable. They are the Jimmys of the world. But the anti-maskers give me the creeps. They want to talk pseudoscience, trying to convince me from the curb that the pandemic is a hoax, and they’re as weird as the shit they talk.
I arrive to pick up Zack on a cold Sunday night in Troutdale, Oregon. His request included a long note about how I’d better pick him up at a very specific place by the pool at his apartment complex or he’d be late for work.
I find him wearing Speedo briefs and a T-shirt, and he reeks of patchouli oil. He is not wearing a mask.
“You probably want me to wear a mask,” he says before I can speak. He tries to get into the car, and I tell him he has to wear a mask. I make the mistake of referencing Covid. He is ready for me. He is going on an anti-mask rant in the freezing cold, in a Speedo. He lectures me on “leftwing media hoaxes” and then delivers a mind-numbing spiel of statistics and what sounds like pseudo viral sequencing data. I have learned to not respond to these riders other than to tell them, “No mask, no ride.”
Zack says he’s not going to wear a mask just to ride in a car, and he is getting really worked up that I’m going to make him late for work because I’ve been taken in by the leftwing media. Really, I hate the smell of patchouli oil and am about to drive off.
But then he sticks his hand inside his Speedo and pulls out a disposable face mask. Now I have to listen to him for 10 long minutes from the back seat of my car. Listen to his virus-as-hoax tirade interspersed with demands to drive faster or he’ll be late for his shift in the colossal Amazon facility. I cannot help but ask whether Amazon requires masks. (I know they do.) “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Twenty-six workers tested positive there and they were all back in three weeks. It’s no worse than the flu.”
I am grateful to get him out of my car. Afterwards, sickened by the smell and all, I spray sanitizer all over my back seat and drive fast with the windows open for 10 minutes before picking up another passenger.
I pick up Bridget at the Portland airport. She’s a mechanical engineer back in town after a conference. As I drive her home to Wilsonville, Oregon, she says my car smells clean. I cannot help but tell her about the guy who just 30 minutes ago, Speedo and all, was sitting where she is sitting now. She laughs.
I tell her I have to check: people like Zack are not normal, right? The pandemic is real? I’m not crazy, right? Sometimes these riders make me wonder whether I’m crazy. Bridget validates my feelings, assuring me that, no, I’m not the crazy one. What I just witnessed was not normal. And Lyft and Uber drivers and teenaged grocery store clerks should not be placed in the position of policing the wearing of masks during a pandemic.
During the next week, I talk about Zack with my mask-wearing passengers. There is a consensus that there should be a federal mandate to put on a mask every time you leave your house. I admit to asking leading questions, but many of my passengers are “essential” workers who get the mask thing, and are all-too-aware that the pandemic is no hoax. I suggest we call our elected representatives and tell them we want to make people wear masks. To protect us.
A couple of nights later, I pick up Juan at a WinCo, not far from the bar where I left Jimmy. Juan has included a note with his ride request. He wants me to know he is blind, wearing green, and to please look for him.
He’s easy to spot. Neon-green rain jacket, a cane – and he’s wearing a mask and rubber gloves. He says two other drivers pulled up and drove off, cancelling on him, rather than helping him get his groceries home in the rain. He’s apologetic. I tell him he has nothing to be sorry about. I put on my gloves and load his groceries in my trunk. I help him get into my car. It’s only a three-minute ride to his home, but who would leave a blind guy with a cart full of groceries standing in the rain?
I ask Justin, a fellow Lyft driver, about it all. I’m driving him to a bar. “Yeah,” he says, “The mask thing sucks.” He says he has to drive as many drunks home as he can each night from Portland strip clubs home to Vancouver, Washington, where he then picks up more drunks and drives them back to Portland. This is what he does each night, back and forth, until there are no more drunks to drive. He is against a mask mandate. “I need the rides. I don’t have time to deal with it,” he says.
But I do. Wear your masks, and wear them right. And get ones that fit. I want to see your nostrils sticking out at me about as much as I want to see Zack’s Speedo.
The author is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. The passengers’ names have been changed to protect their privacy