Uber, Juno and Me

by Sharon Lewin

I was full of regret about my decision to have foot surgery last March. I had pain for many months afterward and could walk only short distances. We had recently moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan but all my activities—orthopedic surgeon, classes, dentist, friends, hairdresser—were in Manhattan. Taking the subway was out of the question.

I started taking Ubers. Mostly, I took Juno, a popular ride-share company based in Brooklyn, but people are less acquainted with Juno. I use the term “Uber” generically because Uber seems to have become the Kleenex or the Xerox of car services.

I learned a little about the ride-sharing business. Juno drivers are mostly happier than Uber drivers because:

  1. Juno pays them more per ride.
  2. Juno gives them a free Samsung cell phone their first day on the job.

I had never seen cell phones as big as these Samsungs. They appear to be a hybrid of a cell phone and an Imax.

However, Juno drivers are almost all Uber drivers too because Uber has the most riders. One driver told me Uber takes 30% of every ride. Juno used to take only 10% of every ride but raised their cut to 16%. Uber also makes the drivers provide their own cell phones. After each Juno ride, I receive a message from the driver saying, “I made $3.08 more driving for Juno than I would have driving for another company.” Obviously, it’s not always $3.08. The amount varies commensurate with the fare.

I found that most drivers had two cell phones. I would hear, “Police activity ahead.” Then on instant replay, “Police activity ahead.” Also, “Red-light camera ahead red-light camera ahead.” Sometimes drivers had both cell phones mounted on their dashboards but I began to notice that some had one phone mounted and the other in their laps. Not uncommonly, they were looking down at the phones in their laps which made me concerned they were texting. I would ask, “You’re not texting, are you?” Not a single driver admitted to texting.

My younger son lives in Crown Heights and likes to walk. He works in Manhattan on the very far west side. He has walked the Great Saunter four times, an organized but poorly publicized 32-mile walk circumnavigating Manhattan, sponsored by a group called Shore Walkers. Their web site calls their annual event an “epic urban hike.” The walk takes about twelve hours, after which you receive a paper certificate of completion and four Advil.

This son will often walk home from work across the 59th Street Bridge into Queens and then down into Brooklyn. Or he walks across the Manhattan Bridge. The distance from his job to his home, according to Google Maps, is nine miles with a walking time of three hours. As I said, he likes to walk. I, who could at that time not contemplate more than twenty careful steps, felt jealous.

In the course of taking frequent rides with Uber and Juno, I found myself engaging in conversation with my drivers. If my driver was voluble, the conversation flowed smoothly. If the driver was sullen, I was prepared to put in the work to extract information.

When Uber upgrades me to a better vehicle (at no charge to me, they like to point out), the app tells me so. Juno does not let me know ahead of time. This particular Thursday, I ordered a Juno, expecting a Toyota Camry. So, imagine my surprise when a huge, white, luxury SUV rolled up Fulton Street. I needed a footstool to climb into the car. The SUV was eclectically decorated. To start, the back window was painted with bold white Arabic calligraphy in large letters. Inside the car, the front bucket seats were covered in fitted, quilted camouflage fabric with a cut-out for access to the seat adjustment levers. There were two bucket seats in the back as well, one in which I was comfortably seated. These were covered in poufy, tufted black synthetic leather. Behind the back seats was a bench seat and behind the bench seat was a vertical string of blue lights, insouciantly hung on the inside of the calligraphied window.

The driver, a young man, had two hairstyles: lower and upper. The bottom half was shaved. The top half was poufy, similar to the tufted back seats. An elastic black hairband, the kind women used to pull their hair back to wash off their make-up, separated the hemispheres. He was wearing a tunic which is known as a thawb or dishdahsa.

I asked him what the writing on the back window meant. He answered, “God is Great.” For most people, that might have been a conversation stopper, particularly if you believe, as I do, that if there is a God, she’s a woman.

I plowed ahead, undaunted. I told him his car was very beautiful and asked if it was his. He said, tersely, it was. I asked him if he was proud of his car. He didn’t answer. I asked if he just drove for Juno or for other companies and he said, “Juno and Uber.” I pressed on. “Is driving your only job or do you other work?” He said, “I work with my father.” I would have liked to know what work he did. I imagined it was a family business, perhaps manufacturing padded camouflage seat covers.

One steamy summer night I took an Uber home from the upper east side of Manhattan. The driver, age 50 he told me, was friendly and open. He said Uber does not treat drivers fairly. He was a big fan of Juno because the company vets drivers carefully and only hires those with an excellent driving record. He was a divorced father of two teenagers and had been a teacher but driving made him more money than teaching had. He was working 16 hours a day to help support his kids. The driver told me he lived in Harlem. Sometimes he would be unable to find parking near his home when he was done for the night, so he would sleep in his car. When he awoke, he would just start driving again.

One night after driving for many hours, he needed some exercise. He walked into Morningside Park where he saw a strange animal he described as a cross between a fox and a raccoon. The animal stopped and stared at him, so he stared back. As he recounted this, we were crossing the Manhattan Bridge but he called it the Brooklyn Bridge. I knew it wasn’t, because the subway runs across the Manhattan Bridge, but I felt it would be wrong to correct such an exhausted person.

For the rider, there is a bait-and-switch aspect to both Uber and Juno. The original interface on the app always shows tiny cars congregated around your pick-up location, instilling deep optimism that a car is nearby. But as soon as you commit to your ride, the tiny cars dissipate and the app tells you, “We’re looking for your driver.” Time passes, sometimes minutes, then the app says, “We’ve found your ride.” The driver is often “just completing a ride” and is only 13 minutes away. I don’t understand where all the tiny cars went.

During my months of pain, I looked forward to being able to resume subway travel. The subway is fraught with crowds, train delays, exceptionally boring and redundant advertising and freezing air-conditioned cars. But it’s inexpensive and fast. Actually, it’s only fast sometimes. My least favorite aspect of riding the subway is people who board the train to perform. One day a performer sang the alphabet. Four times. Off key. I don’t mind performers in the station because I can listen or not, but on the train, it’s intrusive. Many performers appear to be religious. They say, “God bless” or, “Have a blessed day.”

In 2018 there were many articles about the hardships of New York City cab drivers since the advent of ride-sharing. I worried about the taxi drivers who were struggling to survive the competition. I told an Uber driver my concern and he said, “Taxi drivers aren’t nice, the way I am.” He said, “Don’t worry.”

I wanted to support taxi drivers, so when I was traveling within Manhattan, I tried to take cabs. One taxi driver complained that Uber drivers don’t have to pass all the tests he had to pass. Then he asked, “Why are you going to 57th and 12th?” I said I was going to a movie theater. He said, “There’s no movie theater there.” An argument was narrowly averted because we pulled up to The Landmark right as things could have gotten ugly. While I was paying, the cabbie said he had not seen a movie in 20 years but he heard Beirut was a very good movie and advised me to see it.

All those months when I was riding in an Uber, Juno or taxi, I would look longingly out the car window and see so many people effortlessly moving their upright bodies through the city. Some were strolling, some were walking with great purpose, some were carrying parcels, and most were wearing headphones. They made it look so easy.

Now that I have been able to resume subway riding, I miss my conversations with my drivers. Happily, I can walk several miles a day, although I’m not quite ready for the great Saunter this May. But when I’m returning to Brooklyn, tired, after a late evening in Manhattan, I feel torn. Should I just walk to the subway station? Most of these nights, I pull out my phone and order an Uber. Or a Juno. I can ask the driver a few questions. Perhaps I’ll get some answers.


Sharon was an internal medicine and infectious diseases doctor, first in Greenwich Village for five years and then on the Upper West Side for thirty more. She retired two years ago and was determined to join the IRP, take piano lessons, exercise every day and write. She has accomplished the first. This essay was inspired by the ride-share drivers who were generous enough to engage with her in conversation.