The day Uber gave me a ride in a helicopter

On February 12th, I received an email from Uber that said the company would be providing free, 15-minute chopper rides for two— ‘you and a special someone’— the following day. Two days after the email would be Valentine’s Day, so such love-centric promotions this time of year aren’t uncommon. However, free helicopter ride promotions are incredibly uncommon, always, in every season. I had never even heard of them and wasn’t sure they really existed. What intensified my doubt was the fact that everyone I asked— namely my brother and my boyfriend— said they had not received an email about the free chopper ride from Uber, despite being fellow Chicago Uber users. What made me so special? Or, more likely, what made me so susceptible to such scams?

I wasn’t sold on the idea, but my boyfriend was saying how cool it’d be and how we should try it, etc. etc. I thought that if he was excited, then I was allowed to be, so I mentally prepared myself for trying to get this free helicopter ride. It wasn’t guaranteed, and the availability would be severely limited. But if my guy was down, why not?

The deal was that Uber would provide a free ride to the helicopter launching pad, where the helicopters would be waiting to provide free rides. I told my brother that the catch would probably be that the riders would have to pay for an Uber back home, but the launching pad was right next to a subway stop. Smart riders wouldn’t have to pay anything. I planned on being one of them.

The next morning, I went through my normal Saturday yoga/cleaning/laundry routine, only with a knot in my stomach. I was nervous. I knew that even if we never got the ride, my boyfriend and I would be able to go back to my place and spend time together. Nothing would be lost. But then I got the text from my boyfriend that said he wouldn’t be coming into the city that day, and I realized I would have to go it alone. All of the sudden the stakes were raised. Of course I couldn’t not go just because he wasn’t going, but now I wouldn’t have someone to wait with while praying that the request get accepted, or someone to laugh at the awkwardness of going on a helicopter ride with, or someone to point to the Bean in Millennium Park so far below us with. I would have to do all of those things alone.

So I made my way downtown to the eligible zone for requesting the chopper ride, and I realized I had to pee. While the ride was being requested on my phone, I decided to run into Union Station to use the toilet and then run right out to—hopefully—catch my ride. The bathroom I use in Union Station is always clean and rarely has anyone else in it. It’s sometimes not even open for public use, so I was quite surprised to see that the first stall I entered had an unnecessary amount of toilet paper in the toilet sticking out at strange angles. I stepped in to push the paper into the toilet and flush so I could use it when I realized that the toilet paper was not the real issue in this scene: the soft, cappuccino-colored pile of human feces on the ground—mere inches in front of the toilet— was. I tiptoed backwards out of the stall and into another, wiped off the tiny amount of poo that had made it onto the bottom of my boots, peed, washed my hands (because, ew), and ran back out to the sidewalk to keep requesting this elusive helicopter. As if nothing had happened at all.

After about four minutes of waiting in the cold on the street corner, a young Russian driver picked me up in his black Audi. ‘It’s just you?’ he asked. ‘Do you know where you’re going?’ To the couples helicopter ride, duh. I just happen not to be a couple. Whatever. It was a short, silent drive to the launching pad, and even my driver wasn’t sure if he was dropping me off at the right place. When I walked in what I hoped was the right door, I noticed only one other couple inside the posh, overly decorated waiting area. Heart balloons and red streamers were everywhere; Valentine’s Day candy and champagne were offered. Once the woman at the desk acknowledged me—‘Oh, are you here for the Uber promotion?’ she asked after initially ignoring me. ‘May I see your receipt? Just to make sure people are here legitimately.’—I got a boarding pass with my name and the time of my flight on it. I then walked around stiffly, mingling with myself while the recently arrived couples mingled with each other, not sure if I should sit next to the candy bowls or stand holding my two—also free—roses at the tables between the photographer offering free photos of couples (interestingly, he never offered to photograph me) and the appetizer/champagne table. I ended up choosing the candy.

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Eventually, my name was called, and I was led me to the metal detector, where Sven— or whatever the beefy bouncer guy’s name was— was waiting to lead me into the hall with the three safety men. [I’m sure their job title is not ‘safety man,’ but I have no idea what they’re called. They wear reflector jackets and ear protector, noise-cancelling headsets. They brief you on how to buckle your seatbelt and how to use a fire extinguisher. They stand around making jokes about how scary helicopters are and how mind-blowing the experience is it’ll make you forget your own birthday. You know, those guys.] Once they got the clear, they walked me outside to the helicopter, told me smile while they snapped a photo of me, and then buckled me in (so much for my training!). I was ready to go.

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Clearly, I am both supremely photogenic and talented at taking pictures of pictures.

My pilot and I spoke through headsets that protected our ears from the chopper’s loudness and had soft music was playing into them. I was trying to be amicable while taking pictures through the windows to prove to people on Facebook that I was actually in a helicopter and not just some carnival ride. Austin— I think that was the pilot’s name— was telling me that his 9-to-5 job is to fly the helicopter for the local news channel. His daily view for work was a once-in-a-lifetime view for me. But I couldn’t be jealous while looking at Soldier Field and Millennium Park and Lake Shore and the Ferris Wheel and an old airstrip and the ice on the water that made fascinating geometric shapes from such a unique viewpoint. It was bitterly cold outside, but Austin—was that his name?— said that made for a bright, clear view. Tit for tat.

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After about twenty minutes (five extra minutes!), we landed back at the launching pad, I was led inside to retrieve my roses and free picture before leaving all the lovey-dovey couples and their heart balloons (and long wait times) behind. I walked to the train stop and started my journey home, Uber-free.

I found out during my ride that Uber had received over 2500 requests for rides and was only accepting around sixty. All were couples except me. How I got so lucky, I don’t know, but I won’t forget it. Uber may take advantage of its drivers and exploit the capitalist system to its own advantage (which, I guess, is the capitalist system), but on February 13, 2016, it was I who used Uber. It doesn’t make me any more likely to use their business over competitors like Lyft (or public transit), and I’m a far cry from their ideal walking advertisement. But that day they did a nice thing, and I took advantage of it. They had a lottery, and I won.

My mind still doesn’t know how to file this experience. It was a fluke, a bizarre stroke of luck, a chance I took with no preparation or long-held aspiration. It just happened because it happened, and that’s about all I can make of it. Any profound lesson I was meant to learn that day, I could have learned in the bathroom at Union Station: that I am just as likely to step in a pile of human shit as I am to ride first-class in a helicopter above Lake Michigan. On truly lucky days, I get both.

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