WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
By ANDREW MCGINN
When I first heard that a former Jefferson kid is now driving an Uber in Los Angeles, I automatically just assumed that every day for him must be like that scene in “Beverly Hills Cop” when Axel Foley arrives from Detroit in a dented Chevy Nova.
I envisioned him cruising daily down a palm-lined boulevard, past women who look like models and men who look like rock stars, on past the Rolls dealerships and the gated mansions, grinning every inch of the way in this magical kingdom where the sun shines 329 days a year.
The reality of life in California is that Aaron Hawn’s car was out of service for two months this past fall after it was rear-ended by a marijuana delivery truck.
Then there was the time he wanted to get a passenger to L.A. from Santa Monica, a drive of only 13 miles that ended up taking an hour and 20 minutes.
A trip into Compton is always risky business — and, no, the Bloods and the Crips are the least of his worries. Compton has “potholes that the Grand Canyon would be envious of,” Hawn said.
But it’s true that the sun does shine, on average, 329 days a year — it just so happens that the nearly 19 million people who call Greater Los Angeles home have to share the rays.
In the year and a half since Hawn, 52, has been driving for Uber in Los Angeles, landmarks that once might have inspired awe in a kid from small-town Iowa are no more worthy of a second glance than the billboards advertising legal marijuana.
“I don’t even think anything of it anymore,” he said of the Hollywood Sign.
That said, Hawn still watches high-speed police chases on TV in amazement like the rest of us. He said there seems to be four or five of them a week out there.
We watch for different reasons, though.
To us, they’re practically cinematic. It could be Vin Diesel in the car! (And that one time, it was O.J.)
He watches because he’s envious of their ability to slip in and out of freeway traffic so effortlessly.
“I can’t figure out how to get around one car for the life of me,” said Hawn, a 1986 grad of Jefferson High School whose parents, Jack and Joanne, relocated to Southern California in 1991.
The 405 alone — the interstate that runs by Hawn’s condo — is traveled daily by 750,000 cars, he said. The congestion is legendary.
“The carpool lane is just as slow as the other lanes,” Hawn said.
Still, L.A. continues to loom larger than life in our imagination.
Had I heard that a Jefferson grad was driving for Uber in, say, Buffalo, it just wouldn’t have had the same allure. (No offense, Buffalo.) I mean, I couldn’t name a single street in Buffalo even if my life depended on it.
But L.A. has the Sunset Strip, Hollywood and Vine, and Rodeo Drive. There’s Mulholland Drive and Ventura Boulevard — and, yeah, as I typed the words “Ventura Boulevard,” I sang them just like Tom Petty in “Free Fallin.”
Take Sunset Boulevard west from Vine about 6.6 miles and you’ll end up at “Dead Man’s Curve,” as immortalized in the 1964 Jan & Dean song.
Of course, “Dead Man’s Curve” now begs the question — is it even possible to street race in Los Angeles anymore? According to Google Maps, traveling that 6.6-mile stretch of Sunset will now take 28 minutes.
But where you end up isn’t far from the Playboy Mansion, for what it’s worth, according to Google.
In the 10 years since its launch in San Francisco, Uber has become a regular part of everyday life in urban America. The timing was perfect, if you think about it. After all, when was the last time you got a raise at work?
Thousands of people are now supplementing their incomes by turning their own cars into taxis for Uber and its rival service, Lyft. Some even drive for both.
People in need of a ride simply hail an Uber through an app on their phone. Payments are cashless.
Drivers work whenever they want, which is what Hawn likes.
“I may do it seven days a week some weeks,” he said.
He bought a used, 2011 Lexus hybrid with the sole purpose of using it as an Uber.
According to the company, Uber gives 15 million rides every day in more than 600 cities worldwide.
And thanks to Uber Eats, which launched in 2015, you never even have to set foot in a McDonald’s or a Starbucks again — they’ll pick it up and bring it to you.
What an amazing time to be alive.
The company hopes investors agree.
One of the most anticipated initial public offerings (IPOs) in years, Uber is expected to debut this week on the New York Stock Exchange. The company could be valued at up to $83.85 billion, according to reports.
Apparently, Uber even has designs on rural America. Googling “Jefferson Iowa driving jobs” will bring up job listings from Uber — “Supplement Your Cashier Income,” says one; “Get Your Side Hustle On,” says another.
All you need, they say, is a four-door vehicle. The more you drive, they tout, the more you earn.
“Even if you’ve lived your entire life in Jefferson,” the listing reads, “you never know what you could be missing out on. While driving with Uber, you could drop someone off at an amazing new restaurant or music venue that you didn’t know about.”
Do the bots that generate job listings for Uber know something about Jefferson that we don’t?
I downloaded the Uber app and requested a ride from my office at the Bee and Herald to the first place that popped into my head — Dairy Queen, naturally.
The fare (for a trip of 0.4 miles) was expected to cost $5.41. Alas, “no cars available,” I was told.
I have my doubts that Uber can make a go of it in rural Iowa.
But at least there are no marijuana delivery trucks to contend with.
Hawn drives for Uber in L.A. merely as a way to get out of his condo three or four hours a day. He retired early from a state job up the coast in Washington after a series of health problems, including kidney cancer and a couple of minor heart attacks, not to mention arthritis and Type 2 diabetes.
He’s been in L.A. ever since a separation from his wife, looking after his folks in Orange County.
“I haven’t had one passenger yet that I’ve just been like, ‘I can’t wait to get this person out of my car,’ ” Hawn said. “I specifically don’t do 2 o’clock in the morning.”
But in a place like L.A., weird happens round-the-clock. It was, after all, L.A.’s very own Mr. Mojo Risin’, Jim Morrison, who once sang, “People are strange.”
One time in Long Beach, Hawn explained, he and a passenger observed a woman who was “just flat-out stark naked” along the side of Anaheim Street.
Then again, Hawn is arguably a bit more prepared to deal with crazy stuff than most.
After graduating with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Nebraska Omaha — following a stint at Ellsworth Community College, where he played football for a year — Hawn investigated cases of child abuse for the states of Arizona and Washington.
A handful of cases involved fatalities.
“I tell people that 80 to 90 percent of the time it was like any other job,” said Hawn, a father of two daughters. “Then there were those days you wondered what you were doing in that job.
“You learn to compartmentalize.”
He thinks the job ultimately may have taken a toll on his health.
Greater Los Angeles itself is a land of contrasts.
Disneyland is there, but so is the porn industry.
Los Angeles County is home to more than 250,000 millionaires, but it also has the highest population of people living in poverty of any other U.S. metro.
Most of the people Hawn picks up are just regular people, and locals at that. He’s yet to take anyone to the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.
“I’d just as soon pick up someone in Compton than Newport Beach,” he said, describing Newport Beach’s Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Porsche dealerships.
Conversation with passengers in Newport Beach is almost always “much more superficial,” he said.
“The people in Compton and Watts just have real-world problems,” he added.
But every so often, Hawn will find himself in a situation that can only be experienced in Greater Tinseltown.
Thanks to a DUI she had gotten, Hawn was giving frequent rides for a while to an ex-wife of Def Leppard’s bassist.
“She said he was very much a mama’s boy and it drove her up a wall,” Hawn said.
One other night, Hawn rolled up to an Italian restaurant to take a waiter home from work.
The waiter climbed in and noted how long of a day it had been — his last table of the night was Cameron Diaz, her mom and sister.
“Cameron Diaz was probably there five or 10 minutes before I showed up,” Hawn said.
Apparently, she’s a regular — and, as it so happens, he’s now single.
“I keep telling myself I’m going to dress up,” Hawn said, “and hang out at that place for a month.”