Billings native’s book puts reader behind the Uber wheel


Billings native Tom Vandel, an ad man who moonlights as an Uber driver in Portland, has written a pretty damned funny collection of sketches of the people he’s met on the job.

I have yet to book a ride through Uber, but now I have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to drive for Uber, at least in Portland, Ore.:

“GEORGE—eyebrows grown crazy, like weeds. Don’t these people ever look in the mirror? I can see the wild hairs in my rear view—sprouting out of each brow. Pick him up at Powell’s Books and take him to hotel across river. An old vet (veterinarian, not military) in town for a conference. Hope ya brought some scissors, Captain Kangaroo.”

And this:

“CHARLOTTE—in town from San Diego for cousin’s wedding. She’s eight months pregnant and left party early. I switch radio to classical for her unborn to hear. I’ve heard classical is what to play for babies. But they’re playing Bach who’s a bore, so I change it back to rock station. Talking Heads. Now we’re talking.”

Not to mention this:

“JEFF—take him to work at a local brewery. Left his car there last night and took Uber home. Partied a little too hearty. Bloodshot eyes like two hardboiled eggs in V8. I know that look—from both directions. I turn the radio down. Greasy junk food is the cure I tell him—with a vanilla shake. Trust me.”

These brief, evocative entries, gathered in a book titled “Driving With Strangers: Diary of an Uber Driver,” are the work of Tom Vandel, a native of Billings who has been living in Portland since 1986, where he runs his own ad agency, Les Overhead.

Vandel, who contributed an essay to our Lay of the Land series, said he started driving for Uber last April, two days after the company won approval to operate in Portland.

Uber is the taxi company that is not a taxi company. It operates the Uber mobile app, which allows people with smartphones to submit a trip request, which is then relayed to the nearest Uber driver, who is driving his or her own car. Real taxi companies hate Uber, consumers love it, Wall Street hails its genius.

Vandel graduated from Billings West High in 1973 and worked in radio and advertising here. He also put in a couple of hard summers at the sugar factory, memories of which he says he is still trying to kill with alcohol.

He always thought of being a cab driver, he said, and Uber gave him the chance to see what it was like. He elaborated on the experience in an email: “The money wasn’t as good as they said (more like $17-$20 an hour net—after taking out for gas and depreciation). But better than sitting on my fat, motionless butt. Meeting different folks doing different things and going all over the place has been interesting. There’s a lot of shit going on out there—both work and fun. And I had no idea women swore so much.”

Starting with his first fare, he kept notes on each ride—what the person was like, where they went, what they talked about. He wasn’t sure what to do with his notes, though, until he talked with an artist friend in Portland, Karen Wippich.


Yup, that’s another picture of the book.

She told him she was looking for some way to show the series of art portraits of various people she’d been producing. At first, he said, he wasn’t sure her offbeat portraits would match his little character sketches.

“But upon seeing them together,” he said, “I thought they had an amazingly similar vibe and tone. It was a kick to write once I had the right attitude and voice.”

Vandel said his daughter Ruby also provided a helpful critique (“Uh, pretty boring, Dad.”) after seeing an early rendition of the sketches, which inspired him to write with more personality and a little more edge.

However it all came about, it works, and as Vandel said, his pieces match well with Wippich’s portraits. My middle daughter was over the other day and picked up the book, intending to read two or three entries, and read the whole thing (it’s only 49 pages) in one sitting.

And my daughter is 31. That’s demographic gold, people.

Wippich also designed the book, which is produced and printed by Createspace, the print-on-demand publisher. Vandel and Wippich have been selling them around Portland and the book is also available online.

We don’t have Uber in Montana yet, but there’s no reason this book shouldn’t appeal to anyone who likes good writing and good art. It would make a good Christmas gift is what I’m saying, and Vandel says it also makes a nice cheese plate. But you probably want to read a few more excerpts. Fine:

“MAYUR—a Brit from London. Works as a coffee salesman. I say that’s a long way to fly to sell some beans. I ask for vacation tips. Majorca, Spain, is his go-to spot. He asks me where I like to go. Astoria, Oregon. He’s never heard of it. Good, I say. We don’t need no redcoats invading. He laughs—thinks I’m joking. I’m not.”

“DELILAH—too much perfume, too much perfume, too much perf … losing consciousness.”

“CHERRY—I see her walking towards me as I’m parked just off Burnside. She slides in and I can tell she’s crying. I ask how she is. Better now, cause I just kicked my jerk boyfriend out. Sniffs and sobs. He never paid a cent of rent and all he does is sit around getting high. I can’t take it, she says. He’s a leech. I tell her she was smart to give him the boot, I drop her at a friend’s place. Some guys are assholes. It’s a fact.”

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