The Savage Mountain, or, The Perils of Driving Lyft at the RNC

In my earlier and more vulnerable hours the lobbyist from Dallas gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Go back to the warehouse party,” he told me, stepping unevenly from the back seat of my purring Dodge Avenger and toward his University Circle hotel. “There’ll be no shortage of rides when that thing lets out.”

That thing, Christ. I'd dropped him off at 3:30 a.m., the fair and well-feathered lobbyist from Dallas, so in truth I’ve only been turning over his advice for the better part of ten minutes. On one hand, I know he’s right. As a part-time local Lyft driver at the RNC, this is what I ought to do. I ought to maximize my take with fares that surge when the bars excrete their last. Moreover, it’s what I’ve been assigned to do. Much like Tom Chiarella, who’s been recounting his daily Uber adventures for Wired, my aims are editorial, driven (no pun intended) by a quest for material. Unlike Chiarella, though, I’m not working the transporter beat exclusively, and the late-night shift would seem to perform best on a graph whose X and Y axes, in my mind, are titled “Quality of Story” and “Expenditure of Time.” Plus, who am I kidding, it takes some heat off me. Nothing improves bush-league interviewing chops like boozy delegates and media personnel loose-lipped after last call. That’s where my head’s at anyway.

It’s no longer technically Wednesday, but it still counts as Day Three of the Republican National Bacchanal, a bacchanal that’s thus far been marked by militant rhetoric (inside) and hordes of out-of-state police officers so seemingly redundant that they’re playing ping pong on Public Square (outside). And tonight’s the first night I’ve managed to haul ass out of bed and into the Avenger. Here’s why: It became clear pretty early on that, for my purposes, the real benefit of the RNB was social, i.e., an unprecedented concentration of journalists, many of whom I admire and am keen to share beers with. Unfortunately, the socializing tends to begin in earnest at around 11:30 p.m., and driving staffers for Republican judges or Republican delegates themselves or party-hardy children of Republican delegates’ or the children of their executive assistants or the one delegate from Wyoming with what would certainly appear to be his mistress, or correspondents from the hippest of for-millennial-by-millennial online-only media outlets or international editions of men’s general interest magazines, or the one emergency room tech who proselytizes absolutely non-stop on the merits of Pokemon Go, from one end of a heavily barricaded downtown to the other while my reporting comrades are crushing kegs of metalloid regional domestics en masse stokes my FOMO something fierce.

As such, Sunday and Monday I’d managed only three and two fares apiece, not one of which netted more than $10 in base fare, i.e., the fare as it appears on the phone, before tips and Lyft’s siphoning of 25 percent, and both outings had been sidetracked by brief, tense confrontations with a hyper-alert Federal Bureau of Investigation. Armed and bulletproof-vested agency envoys had approached my parked Avenger with flashlights dancing on my windows and asked for my license and registration while demonstrating an utter unhipness to the logistics of ride-sharing.

“Who are you here to pick up?” An agent wanted to know, when I told him I was with Lyft.

“No no no, I’m just here waiting for my next ride,” I explained, presenting my phone as evidence.

The man looked confused. “So you’re an Uber driver?”

“Lyft, but yeah, more or less. Same thing.”

“Do you see that you’re in a No Stopping zone,” he said, gesturing to my starboard telephone pole and flashing his flashlight’s beam at the orange sign thereupon.

I most certainly did, and though my case was weak, I pleaded with him that every street downtown seemed to be a no stopping zone, and believe it or not I was trying to get out of the high-traffic areas over by the barricaded Secure Zone and instead was just sort of chilling here, on Lakeside. But now another man, sans uniform but also most definitely avec flashlight, was jogging from a gated complex across the street pointing hard and often at my vehicle.

For Pete’s sake. This was Monday, and I’d been stopped here the night before in almost precisely the same circumstances. The running, pointing man briefly confabbed with the agent to whom I’d been talking — a super considerate guy, when all was said and done — and the agent came back to my window and asked once again for my insurance information and ID.

It was then that I felt obliged to mention that, go figure, I’d been stopped in this very same scenario Sunday.

“And you came back?” The FBI guy wasn’t following. Surely I’d been informed that excessive precautions were being taken in this vicinity specifically.

“I was told that,” I confirmed. “But I honestly thought that was because of the big Welcome Party, down at the Harbor.”

“Sir, you’re parked directly across from an FBI building.”

Only then, right then, was I putting two and two together. “I’m just now putting two and two together,” was what I said.

The FBI guy believed me, praise God, but still needed to take down my information in the interest of documentation. And so, after a few scary minutes — there’s nothing quite like the powerless fear of being misinterpreted by law enforcement — he returned, handed me my stuff with apologies, and advised that I drive a few blocks east, where the orange signs subsided.

“But don’t go too far down this street,” he said. “There are some shady-ass people down that way.”

Roger that and thank you. It was only as I drifted eastward, and in fact called it quits for the evening after an unproductive two-hour shift and the police encounter just endured, that I registered how easy and non-perilous the interactions had been, both that evening and the evening prior. Sunday, I’d inadvertently kept the Lyft app running as I was being questioned, and it dinged while the officer stood outside my window.

“See!” I’d sort of yelped, validated, I’m just here doing my job. The officer seemed satisfied and consented to let me go.

And then again Monday: As I’d reached for my wallet when asked for my ID, I did so without fearing for my life. Far from it. And maybe for the first time, really, I recognized this lack of fear, this ability to fully explain myself in what was in retrospect a very suspicious situation, and furthermore to be perceived throughout as totally trustworthy, as a privilege. The enormity of that privilege struck me as a cruel and deeply deranged sort of thing...

On the other hand, I’m dog-ass tired, and even though the fair and well-feathered lobbyist from Dallas was my first fare of the evening-slash-morning, I had an idea that it should also be my last. I’d seen a 10 p.m. screening of Star Trek: Beyond and taken a two-hour nap afterward to recharge the old batteries from a week that already felt like it’d been ongoing for six or seven years. At 2:45 a.m., having snoozed for 15 minutes, I was sucking back a Sugar Free Red Bull, trying to amp myself up for the sleuthy brand of journalistic research the wee hours presumably held in store. And though the fact remained that I could barely keep my eyes open, I also recognized that, having gone out drinking Tuesday night and intending to drink heavily Thursday night, this was what might be deemed my Only Opportunity.

The so-called warehouse party, or Warehouse Party, was not a reference to Cleveland’s warehouse district, it turned out. At least I don’t think it was. I’d picked up the fair and well-feathered lobbyist at the corner of Winslow and Center St. on the West Bank of the Flats, and he said he’d just emerged from one of the biggest RNC parties around — in a Republican National Bacchanal, by the way, characterized by a nightlife so non-bacchanalian that the New York Times actually described it as “meh.” John Boehner is something like the host and guest of honor down there, but the dance floor doesn’t start bumping until almost two a.m. and it’s done by four. “All kinds of tail,” my lobbyist avers.

After I drop him off in University Circle, having arrived via the Shoreway, past the protest campsite at Kirtland Park — “That must be where the smell is coming from,” he cracks — and then down through the Cultural Gardens, I tell myself I’ll head back downtown. If I get hailed en route, I’ll go ahead and tak—

Sure enough, I am summoned. And just as the lobbyist from Dallas promised, it is the warehouse party summoning me. What do we have here? It's a couple headed back to their downtown hotel — which is chump change, by the way, as far as fares go, even with the 100 percent surge charge now in effect — and they are gushing about Cleveland.

“I’ll eat my words!” The delegate is announcing. “I’ve said some unkind things about this city over the years, but I will eat my words.”

They are both pleasantly buzzed, and both profess to quote unquote "just love" the buzz’s effects on their partner. And though they seem eager to hit the sack, but pronto, they’re channeling their fervor into rhapsodic commentary about their experiences in town. They just can’t thank me, me personally, enough for the kindness and generosity of Cleveland’s citizens, and for that matter for the very nice Mayor, who, despite being of the Democratic persuasion, kicked off the RNB itself with an invitation to delegates to spend lots and lots of money while in town.

“Now that was class,” the woman says. “Now that was savvy!”

It’s getting on past 4 a.m. now, and I drop them off on Euclid Avenue. They wobble gleefully out and onward, having struggled, to their credit, only minimally with the decisions about who would exit the vehicle from which side. The Avenger’s digital clock says it’s 4:11 and I’ve now completed two late-night rides, plenty of good material. So when I’m summoned to an address on E. 141st St., way the hell outside the flickering surge zone, which has already dwindled to 25-50 percent in the span of 15 minutes, I can’t shout “No thank you!” loud or fast enough. I make up my mind to call it a morning.

But just then the Lyft app dings, a summons, as fate would have it, from two men in such close proximity that I can already see them, standing on Euclid, dressed in black from head to toe. The 15-second countdown begins and in those 15 seconds I must make up my mind. What the hell, I think, I’ll do one last ride…

As they step into the car, sly bastards, not even delighted by my instantaneous presence at their side, their destination pops up on my phone’s screen, accented grotesquely in Lyft’s trademark pink. (I simply cannot overstress the immensity of this revelation). It’s the motherfucking Kalahari Resort, in Sandusky, locally infamous as the distant site of the RNC’s California delegation; home to Cedar Point and beloved former Ohio City Inc. maestro Eric Wobser, but still a God-forsaken hour away. The word that’s been most often associated with the California delegation, and their Sandusky lodgings, is exile. I’m speechless, but I try to collect myself for these men who are now my clients.

“You guys are with the California delegation?” I ask, unconsciously shaking my little Red Bull can, a la pauper, to see how much remains. (Very little!)

“Not with the delegation,” the older of the two says, getting extremely comfortable, I take pains to note, in the Avenger’s passenger seat. “We’re not delegates. But yeah, we’re staying out there.”

Terrific! I’m involuntarily put in mind of the numbers from two pertinent equations: 1) At best, now, I make it home by 6:15 a.m., (which I've arrived at by adding one hour + one hour), which means that when I try to get back to sleep, the sun will already be up, which totally effs up my ability to fall asleep. The prospect of driving these dudes to Sandusky when I’d already mentally prepared to call it a night, and then driving back, solo, is a mountain in my mind, a savage mountain that will test the altitude of my psychic will and mettle. 2) This ride could net me $100 on its own (which I arrive at by guessing), more than double what I’ve made all week, and that would go a hell of a long way toward recouping the expenditures of my own ride-shares and metalloid regional domestics purchased these few days past.

It’s not like I’m in any position to say no, and anyway the older of the two, who turns out to be the father of the younger guy sitting in back, and who owns a toy company out in California but who lately has been pitching a screenplay to every major studio in Hollywood, is talking about the Hold ‘em tables at the JACK Casino, where he was down $350.

“I got back up, ended the night down $60,” he’s saying. “That’s just how poker goes. You’ve gotta ride the cards when you’ve got ‘em, and if it doesn’t go your way, that’s all you can do.”

He’s sort of a Bill Nighy type, stubbled in white, jeaned in black, and earringed in a way that generally presents as very Californian indeed. This is relevant because I’m now thinking I might be chauffeuring high-rollers, types who might throw me an extra $100 on behalf of the California delegation, or just for the hell of it.

“It was just so fun to play poker with my son,” he says, the fatigue making him sentimental.

Somewhere past Westlake, they learn for the first time of the Norovirus that has lain waste to 11 members of the California delegation. Dad is scrolling through news reports, reading snippets from articles about how the insidious sickness works — diarrhea is a key symptom, he is terrified to uncover.

“Twenty-seven hundred people in one weekend,” he’s reading about an outbreak in the Northeast, “All from wedding cakes. Boy could that really overburden a sewer system.”

They decide to return to Kalahari anyway — they haven’t any other realistic option — but they do so with grave reservations about their breakfasts. They manage to fall asleep before Huron, just before the digital clock flicks from 4:59 to 5:00. 

I’d heard reports that after the Cavs Game 7 victory and the Cavs Championship parade, surge charges were so extravagantly high that you couldn't find a ride from downtown to the inner-ring suburbs for less than $100. Still, when I see the reality of my $110 fare, (never mind the Lyft percentage and the taxes that'll be levied down the road), I'm not in any mood to compare and contrast. I fill up the Avenger's trusty tank as a Bob Ross sunrise bleeds up and out over the lakeside trees and I know I've summited my Mountain. The fact that, on Mount Everest, for example, the greatest number of deaths occur near the summit on the descent, is frankly an element of the metaphor that I'd rather not consider, just now.  
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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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