If you don’t have a car, Rhode Island is not always the easiest place to live.
Over the years, I’ve spoken many times with someone who’s moved here from a place like New York or Boston where it’s possible to get everywhere you could want to go using only public transportation.
Those people seem to manage all right for a time, until they realize how many people commute in and out of Providence, making it more of a hub than a one-stop shop.
Living outside the city without a vehicle can be even trickier, although these days, you might find yourself without many places to go.
When I found myself in need of a ride to Providence recently, it occurred to me that I had not taken advantage of Lyft or any rideshare option since the pandemic began. Even though we’re now slowly returning to something that will never quite resemble normal, the idea of hopping in a stranger’s car still made me a little apprehensive.
But I had an interview to do with somebody downtown for this very column, and with my car in the shop, it was time to catch a ride. I do have an army of friends and family who were always happy to take me places the last time I didn’t have a car, but it still feels like an imposition, and when the trip is a short one, it seems simpler to just get on your phone and enjoy the fact that modern technology can get us anywhere and bring us anything except for a cheese plate at 3am, and I really hope somebody fixes that fast.
My Lyft driver was a woman in her early 60s. I know that, because I told her that I write a column about nightlife in Providence, and she asked me what the hell there was to write about lately, and I said, “Not much,” and she laughed, and then I asked if I could write about her, and she said, “Go right ahead,” and so I started to ask her things about her life and what it’s like being a Lyft driver when not much is going on in the way of nightlife.
Of course, nightlife aside, there are plenty of reasons people need rides and plenty of reasons people need to give them. I don’t typically identify people in this column, because I think anonymity tends to lend itself to both openness on the part of the subject and creative license on the part of the author, but since we’ve already dovetailed away from the usual format, let’s name this woman “Beth.”
Beth started driving for Lyft about a year before the pandemic started, because she recently retired from a manufacturing job, and she was bored out of her mind. She would do an hour or so a night, and whatever she made, she made. Then, in January of last year, her son lost his job and moved home. In March, Beth stopped driving for Lyft out of concerns for her safety. Then, her son fell ill. Despite the fact that neither one of them ever left the house except for a quick run to the grocery store, he tested positive for COVID.
Living in a small house with someone you have to isolate from isn’t easy, but somehow Beth managed to avoid getting the virus from her son. The trouble is, her son wasn’t able to look for work, and she found herself needing to support two people now, which meant what she used to do as a hobby now became a necessity.
That summer, she went back to driving for Lyft, and there was a notable difference in the brief relationships between her and her passengers.
“People used to like to talk and I like to talk. I don’t bother people if they don’t want to be bothered, but a lot of people like to talk, and I’m happy to talk with them, and you can get to know someone pretty fast even if you’re only taking them somewhere for 10 or 15 minutes. I’m a mom. I give off that mom vibe, and people– Not everybody has a mom in their life, and they get that vibe from me, and they start telling me things. I like it. It passes the time better than the radio does. When I started driving again, though, and it might be the mask, because we both wear them, but nobody wanted to talk as much at first. That’s starting to change again, but for a long time, it was quiet in the car.”
She tells me that she loves it when her last drop-off of the night is in East Providence, because she loves driving with the walking path and the water on her left-hand side. I tell her my grandparents used to live in Riverside before they moved to Florida, and I like that area as well, because it reminds me of going to their house as a kid.
When she drops me off downtown I wish her luck with the rest of her night and with her son. The city feels surprisingly buoyant again. My interview is near the library, but I ask to be dropped off near the mall, because it’s nice enough to go for a walk, and I haven’t had as many reasons to be in Providence as I usually do over the past year.
Beth says that her routine is the same every night when she gets home. She checks on her son, who’s still feeling the effects of the virus. Some days it’s just lethargy and some days his appetite is shot. The night before, he’d been feeling good, and she made him his favorite meal: baked chicken and rice.
“He likes to DVR ‘Jeopardy’ and when I get home we watch it together and eat. I try not to get home too late, but he stays up and waits for me. We didn’t have the best relationship when he was growing up. I had some things I was working out, and I couldn’t be there like I wanted to be there for him. I hate that he’s sick, but I was looking– For the past, oh god, I don’t know, seven or eight years, I’d been looking for ways to get closer to him, and let him know, you know, that his mom is there for him. I think he knows that now, and I’m glad for that.”
When I ask her if she’s any good at “Jeopardy,” she tells me she’s good, but her son is better, but this week, she’d won more times than he had, and he got stumped by the last round three nights in a row. I tell her that I’ve never been any good at Jeopardy, and that I’m equally bad at game shows where you have to figure out if somebody might be lying or not. She tells me that one time in the ’90s, she and sister almost got on “Supermarket Sweep” and I want to stay in the car and ask her a million questions, but I know she must have a long night ahead of her.
If you don’t have a car in Rhode Island, and you’re lucky enough to have the means to pay someone to give you a Lyft, you might notice the added benefit of what it looks like pulling into the city from the backseat of a car. From my house to downtown, you get the full effect of the skyline coming into view, and while it’s not as pretty as it looks from the east, it still gives you a little bit of a thrill when you’ve been away from it for awhile.
As I walked past Kennedy Plaza and on toward Washington Street, the heightened activity in the city meant cars were whizzing right by me. In some, music was blasting. Some had passengers in the backseat just like I was, most with headphones on, just trying to get to wherever they were going. Some seemed to be in a rush, and some just seemed glad to be out and about.
I didn’t start driving until pretty late into my freshman year of college, and I don’t think I’ve ever stopped appreciating how useful it is to have a car when so many people don’t have that luxury. During the times when I haven’t had one, I’ve always been touched by how quickly a community springs up around me to help me get around when, again, that’s something not everybody has available to them.
This time around, I felt a much deeper gratitude knowing I could still have a bit of independence available to me and that eventually I would be mobile again. It’s possible that a year ago, I would have just found the whole ordeal to be aggravating and focused on the inconvenience of it, but it’s hard to get worked up about that kind of stuff now, isn’t it?
It’s a lot easier to just sit back and enjoy the ride.