I recently read a humorous yet telling piece on the state of the world these days, specifically, the current status of the shrinking middle class, and how many families would like to think they’re firmly situated in the middle socioeconomically speaking, but they are probably only a missed paycheck or two away from having to cash in retirement accounts or the kids’ college funds in order to put food on the table and pay the heating bill. Wages, for many, haven’t kept up with the cost of living, so here we all are, closer to the brink than we’d all like to think. And we’d better stay healthy, too, or we’re all packing up the U-Haul for the sad, devastating drive to Abyss City.

    So what do we do, the writer opined? What must we resort to doing? Well, we vacation at home, lovingly known as the “staycation.” When we do leave our homes, it’s so that we can rent them out to actual leave-cationers while we’re gone. And when we’re finished with our regular job, we give people rides after hours in our own vehicles.

    But, whether or not you think it’s depressing, this new transportation phenomenon that has people getting rides to and fro from people just like them in privately owned, non-taxi cab vehicles is revolutionizing the way people get around. And it just happens to be just about the best thing ever.

    “Uber” has achieved ultra-lofty status, in that the word is not just a noun (a proper noun at that), it has become so ubiquitous that it is also a verb, like Google. When you’re at Point A and you need to get to Point B and you’re debating your transportation options, you don’t say, “I’ll contact an Uber driver.” You simply say, “Let’s Uber.”

    We spent last weekend in and around Duluth. There were going to be some cocktails involved, and, although you don’t want to drink and drive anywhere at any time, you absolutely, positively do not want to drink any alcohol and drive in Duluth in February, during a winter in which the city has received mountains of snow. Streets that are always narrow and vertical are now narrower and vertical-er.

    Add that to the fact we stayed at the Holiday Inn, and I didn’t want to drive anywhere. While many hotel parking ramps are a claustrophobic’s nightmare, the Duluth Holiday Inn ramp takes it to a level unseen in the world of parking engineering. Driving a pickup through the winding maze, I couldn’t help but think that if I added merely a couple more pounds per square inch of air pressure to my tires, I’d peel the roof off our rig. In order to turn down a couple aisles lined by parked vehicles, I had to stop and back up repeatedly in order to create the proper angle necessary to navigate the turn. By the time I found a spot to park, I didn’t want to drive again until it was time to head back toward home on Sunday.

   Thanks to Uber, the pickup only moved once, for a scenic drive to Two Harbors for breakfast at Betty’s Pies.

    Uber is awe-inspiring. Spark up the app on your phone, enter your location and destination, and the Uber drivers start offering their services. You instantly know their full names, the kind of vehicle they’re driving, its color, and their license plate number. Once you pick a driver, you receive constant updates on their progress in getting to you. When they arrive and you hop in, you’re instantly engulfed in a sea of pleasant small talk. Our first driver, from India, recently had his first book published, a non-fiction piece on Islam and Christianity. I told him I write, too, just not books, we exchanged business cards and told me he’d send me a free book if I wished. He said he’d love me to read it and give him some feedback.

    Another Uber driver, Terri, was working a marathon Uber shift Friday night because her husband was coming off a long stretch at the factory and they were going to enjoy their weekend off together. Empty-nesters for a couple of years, they were making plans to move to someplace warmer than Duluth, until her son who lives nearby called and informed her that she was going to be a grandma for the first time. “Now, we’re not going anywhere. You couldn’t drag me away,” Terri said. “I want to be around that grandbaby.”

    The finances involved with an Uber ride are largely settled before the ride starts, through the app. The idea is to avoid money exchanges during or after the ride, so there’s no chance for confusion or even confrontation. All that’s left to determine afterward, again, through the app, is the amount you want to tip your driver, and what rating you’ll give on a scale of 1 to 5.

    We tipped our Uber drivers handsomely, and we gave all but two of them the highest ranking. The other two we assigned rankings of 4.     

    During what happened to be our longest ride of the weekend, one dude cranked the “Turbo” channel on his XM Radio. It was one thrash metal song after another. Our driver, Christopher, even hummed along to the songs. On one hand, I dug his confidence in his musical preferences, but that didn’t add up to a 5 ranking.

    Tony picked us up in a Ford F-150 quad-cab. He was less chatty, but that didn’t bother me in the least. But then his slam dunk ranking of 5 dropped to a 4 with one simple request: “Would either of you care for a mint, or a Werther’s Original?” he asked in a particularly soothing voice that made my heart briefly flutter uncomfortably. No thanks, we said. If we changed our minds, he said, there were mint candies and plenty of Werther’s in the cup holders in front of us.

    Admittedly, I stealthily snatched a smooth, butterscotchy, caramel-icious Werther’s as we exited at the end of our ride, but Tony’s offering of candy still had the hair on the back of my neck standing up. If he’d have offered something like mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I’d have filled my pockets, and given him a 5.