Editorial: Overheard in the Uber

“So, how long have you lived in North Fork?” is the most frequent question passengers ask as they buckle themselves into Ubers to be whisked from one winery to the next. 

Our editor, also an Uber driver, reflexively bristles every time, the reflex of all islanders, we would imagine, except for those islanders stranded on the isle of Manhattan, whom you will never catch saying they live On Manhattan. 

Everyone who lives here lives On The North Fork, don’t they, not in some mythical town from “The Rifleman.” The “The” is as important as the “On.” We don’t live on North Fork. And what can be a more important way to distinguish ourselves from the South Fork than the simple word North?

A lot has changed since our editor began driving for Uber on the weekends about five years ago, when passengers needed reassurances that they wouldn’t be mugged before venturing to Riverhead — they now grill her about whether Riverhead is actually part of The Hamptons or the North Fork, and they coo over what a cute downtown they’ve stumbled upon there, as if they’d discovered the place for the first time. They are ready to move in.

“Discovery” is such a strange and loaded term. Everywhere in the world has been discovered now, and with discovery comes conquest, conquistadors with Away baggage, Mac laptops and Airpods that stubbornly try to connect to the drivers’ phone every time a new batch of riders enters the Uber.

Her favorite passengers are the private flight crews, with their white shirts and epaulets, whisked to the Hilton Garden Inn from Gabreski Airport, all engrossed in both their 5G devices — checking weather apps, flight paths, fútbol scores, showtimes for “Top Gun — and at the same time tuned in to on-the-ground practicalities, checking her fuel gauge, tsking at her wonky tire pressure monitoring system, asking how the heck one can walk across the street to the Tanger Outlets without getting killed.

Every time they touch down safely at their hotels, she breathes a sigh of relief. 

“You’re a real Harry Chapin,” says her partner, shaking his head, every time she head out the door for another Uber adventure. 

If you weren’t born on Long Island before 1970, you might not remember Harry Chapin’s song “Taxi,” about a dreamer who wanted to be a pilot who meets an old flame when she hails his cab as it flies through the Long Island night. 

In a few succinct lines, Harry captures the essence of the arc of a relationship — from infatuation through conflict over shared and unshared dreams, to the void that can grow so quickly when two lovers’ paths diverge.

The anonymity of the Uber driver life can be a beautiful thing. In the back seat, parents discuss their children’s futures, their neighbors’ philanderings, their friends’ cancer diagnoses, the ins and outs of climbing the Fortune 500 ladder, the bitter and sweet truth about each wine they’ve sampled that day, the erotic reasons Los Angeles is doing away with pear trees in public spaces, the troubles facing local restaurant kitchens, how to pay the rent or deal with eviction, the fresh hope of an interview for a new job and, of course, the location of every secret AirBNB on the East End.

While it’s easy to make a case that short term rentals are destroying affordable housing in our community, it’s more difficult to make the case that other internet-driven services have changed our lives for the worse.

So many people apologize for being drunk when they get into an Uber, but of course that is one of the primary reasons this service exists. It does its own little part to make this place safer. It’s true, the Harry Chapin Taxi life is something, and it’s difficult to quit, even through the too many miles, and the too little smiles. 

Each new day can give you fresh eyes for how this place looks to everyone who hasn’t seen it all already, and to everyone who’s seen so much of it that they never want to see any more. It’s like waking up and becoming a new person, every day. But to still remember what you know, deep in your heart, about this place and what makes it so special — that’s the key to it all. August is a great time to reflect on all we have here, and all we could lose.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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