Interviews | Kenwood

Wizard on Wheels

An Uber driver and a lifelong Chicagoan talks shop

ALLISON TOREM

ALLISON TOREM

Merlyn MacFarland is an Uber cab driver who lives in Kenwood on Drexel Avenue. Before that, he lived in Pilsen for a decade. At the start of our conversation, he gives me a six-page handwritten document he says he sent to Alderman Will Burns, which is full of grievances and suggestions regarding potholes, street infrastructure, and the City’s treatment of Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar drivers and vehicles. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam and has lived in Chicago most of his life. Scene: a table at Valois, where he sits kitty-corner to me and eats a Thanksgiving-style meal (peas, carrots, turkey, potatoes) while he talks. At 68, he walks with a cane and wears a beret; his Uber vehicle is a Chevy Sonic.

I told my state rep, to his face: don’t fuck with Uber. In a nice way. I said they provide jobs, they provide a service for people. We all drive our own cars. [Pauses to eat] I have to make sure I eat ‘cause I took my insulin, otherwise, boom, I’ll fall over. [Eats a carrot] There’s some beta-carotene there. That’s good.

I take my car in once a month. It’s not even time to take it in, usually, but because of all the potholes I take it upon myself to take it to Roger Chevy. I want to make sure the rims aren’t dented. I want to make sure nothing’s broke, bent, messed with in any way, shape, or form. I go to the dealership. I don’t have to go to some bullshit city inspection guy and pay him. I go to Roger and get it done free, because it’s under warranty. It behooves me to take care of the vehicle. It’s my vehicle. I want it nice. [Talking to waiter] Hey, get him a water, too.

You have to stay up pretty late for this job, and you sleep pretty late in the day.

Well, I’m kind of a night owl anyway. I got crazy sleep patterns. I might end up sleeping during the day and deciding, “Oh, shit, I need some money, I gotta go do this. It’s ten o’clock, I gotta get going.” It depends on how I feel. If I feel good then I’ll drive. If I feel too tired, I won’t drive. I’m not gonna endanger myself or somebody else. I pay attention to how I feel. If I don’t feel right, I clock out and that’s it. I’ve worked night shifts and stuff before, it doesn’t seem to bother me. As a matter of fact, I prefer to have my route set up… [To a woman walking by in a graduation mortarboard] Congratulations, young lady! [To me] I haven’t worn one of those since, what, eighth grade? Yeesh.

How late did you stay out last night?

I kind of pushed the envelope last night, but that was to make up for time when I should have driven. My last call was, hm, well, I got home around seven in the morning. I started around 8pm, I think. I reached my goal. I put in the time. It worked out. But then, on the other hand, I put fifty dollars worth of gas in my vehicle. I’m basically running a business. We’re all independent in this.

It can be dangerous, sometimes, late at night, if I go out to, say, Garfield Park. I get an address, I go out there, there’s no building at that address. I say, “Wait a minute, why am I here, am I being set up?” I cruise around, I don’t stay in one spot once I realize a situation. Another time, I ended up behind a moving company. I said, “A moving company? What the hell? There’s nothing here.”

In the wee hours of the morning I got an address on North Green or whatever the hell it was, and the problem was—no, it was Peoria, that’s what it was—there was no business there. I call the customer, which I can do. I hit the name and, boom, I’m connected. This guy was smashed drunk, slurring his words. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, I couldn’t hear what was going on. But he’s too blasted, and his friends are all laughing in the background of course, it’s noisy as hell. He could’ve been in any number of places around that area. Bottom line was, I had the wrong address.

So I cancelled the ride. I’m not going to sit around in a place that’s desolate. That’s asking for trouble. I’ve been around on the West Side, the only white guy in a black neighborhood, and there’s these guys riding around on bikes, checking me out. It didn’t bother me though. Eventually the girl came out, she explained to them. I had my Uber signs on in the car, front and back. She explained what Uber was. She was waiting for me for a ride. They didn’t bother me. She hopped in the car and we took off. I’ll go anywhere, no matter what neighborhood. I don’t want to discriminate against people.

What were you doing before Uber?

Um, just working around the building where I lived. For three years I’ve been in Hyde Park. I study a lot. Buy and sell a little bit, like I go with a friend to Rosemont, where they have the big open-air bazaars, and make a few bucks that way. Prior to my retirement I had my own floor refinishing business.

Before that I lived in Pilsen. When I lived there I was actively engaged in selling at the market, the Maxwell Street Market. I sold there ever since the original market, for like twenty years total. That sort of thing. That was fun, it was interesting. Killer hours though. I’d have to wake up at three in the morning, because you had to get to the site, you had to get there early to get a spot. I’d be really tired at the end of the day. In the winter, really cold. In the summer…you know, heat. But it’s all part of the job. I’ve got a good sense of that area, Maxwell Street, the river, the whole thing.

You’ve lived in Chicago your whole life?

Damn near, except for a little while in upstate New York. The only times I wasn’t here was when I was in the service. That was in 1964, I was eighteen. I’m giving away my age. Well, I can’t lie about that anyway, I look old as hell. In 1964 I went in, and in sixty-five and sixty-six I did two tours of Vietnam. About all my life here, yeah.

What I said about the graduation cap: I didn’t have a chance to graduate high school. [Laughs] I think I lost some time moving around, and so on, and I was also kind of a slow learner, so I had to learn slow reading, sucked at math, couldn’t keep my mind on things. They told me, “Oh, you’re a scatterbrain!” But, despite all that, I made it through just short of graduating. As soon as I hit eighteen, I signed up for the military, and I was gone. February 7 I was eighteen, and February 11 I was in the army.

Everybody in our family served. Everybody. My older brother, the eldest in my family, did top secret work for the government. He was a chemical engineer, so I can only assume they had him on defense, because those were the Cold War years. All of us kids, even in grade school, we had a sense of nationalism. No one fucks with our country, all these little kids saying that. We were very patriotic people.

For me, being in the service was a good thing. I felt like I had to prevent communism from spreading, because it could go all over. In my young mind, it wasn’t a good thing, so I figured, screw the communists, let’s go over there and kick their ass, But I didn’t realize the full scope of what was going on in Vietnam, all the details and all that bullshit.

But yeah, now I’m here, driving. Been doing it a couple months now. I like it, I do, yeah. Better than sitting around.

Do you find most customers to be considerate, or inconsiderate?

You know, I’ve only run into a few really rude customers, out of all of them. One guy, he decided he didn’t like that I had such a small car. Now I have some paper towels in the back, in case someone has the sniffles. It was winter time, mind you. Maybe someone needs to clean their eyeglasses. This guy took my roll of paper towels, and a couple of other things, and he threw it out of the car. It was before we even left. He said, “You have too much shit in the car!” I figured this guy’s got some nerve, doing this. I got out, I got the stuff, and I said, “Hey, this stuff’s for you to use! Sorry there’s not so much room in here.”

Another guy, I had to go on a one-way street to get to his house, and he cancelled me, because I was going north, and he was south. I’m on a one-way street, what the fuck do you expect? You want me to drive backwards to get to your house, you dickhead? And then I call them, and it’s, “Oh, this is Francine, I’m sorry I can’t get to the phone.” What, what are you doing, are you drinking, are you getting fucked, what? You never get off the phone. Young people, I hate to say it, but these phones are like an appendage. They got two arms, two legs, and a phone. It grew out of their arm, or their hands, or their ass or something. They can’t shut the son of a bitch off.

Do you think that, with new phones and all this new technology, the world is improving? Or is it getting worse?

Oh, tough one. Well, I’d say in some ways, for the worse. I look at all the crime that’s been committed using computers and stuff, all the hacking, identity theft, that’s one thing., the fact that people can use a cell phone for good purpose, but also to create hassles for us Uber drivers. You could think of it on that level. I think the dial, handle, whatever, it’s over more to the negative. There’s just so much abuse. Even the government, the police, they use high-tech stuff to spy on people. Can’t even walk down the street, can’t even talk on a cell phone, and have things confidential between you and friends, or your business, or your banking transactions. The government is privy to all that crap. I would say it leans to the negative just a little bit, is how I see it. It’s a shame.

But on the other hand, you look at a lot of high techstuff, you have MRI machines, you have diagnostics you can run on cars. A lot of positive stuff. All I have to do is hit the OnStar button and I have a diagnostic check on all aspects of my car in twenty seconds. But I don’t like the fact that I can shut my cell phone off and the government can know where I’m at. It’s none of their business. I could be in the Jacuzzi with grandma. [Laughs] Hey grandma, don’t drown! Make sure you get your duck on the way out!

But I guess that’s the way mankind has always been, you know. You invent the bow and arrow, you can use it to hunt, but then you could use it to kill people. So that’s kind of a tough call. But that’s the way life is, and that’s the way all this [technology] is.

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