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After a delicious dinner with a friend, I order Uber Pool. I still find it magical to see the virtual car on my app turn onto the virtual street where I’m waiting in real time. Of course, I know my driver’s name (Hamza), his licence plate and the make of his car (Ford Escape).

When my ride arrives, the driver knows my name. “Hi, Anne,” he greets, as I climb in. My co-rider, in the back, introduces himself as Shane. Shane is brown-skinned and black-bearded, in his 30s. He wears his hair in a fashionable man bun. As we drive off, he says, “We were just talking about the city.”

“What about the city?” I ask.

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“About loneliness,” he says. Shane has returned after nine years abroad and he’s noticed a big difference in attitude.

“How so?” I ask.

“People look down, they don’t make eye contact,” he says. “It’s changed. It’s not just cellphones, but everyone locked in their own world. It’s harder to make friends or be friendly.”

For example, he tells me, this morning was hot, summery, he was feeling good. He hopped on a bus and said, “Hey, nice day!” to his seatmate. The guy responded by throwing up his hands like he was under arrest. “I’M NOT GAY!” he declared. Shane couldn’t believe it. He replied, “Well, I’m not gay either, not that it matters. I was just saying good morning!” He tells this story in an exaggerated way that makes me laugh, despite my discomfort.

Shane suggests maybe it’s his look that puts people off. His girlfriend has suggested if he lost the beard he may have better luck. He tugs at his medium-growth beard and tells me he’s thinking about it. What do I think? he asks.

Just then Hamza, our driver, speaks up. “We joke about your story, but your story is not really funny,” he says, locking eyes with Shane in the rear view mirror. “I come from Morocco three years ago and I also haven’t made many friends.”

This is what I love about Uber Pool. We’ve barely gone a kilometre and already I feel a click with strangers. We’re discussing an intimate topic: having a hard time connecting with others.

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“I’m thinking my problem is my accent?” our driver continues.

“No, no,” we assure him in unison. “Your English is good. Excellent.”

“In England, they have a Minister of Loneliness. Do you think in Canada we need a Prime Minister of Loneliness?” he asks. Again we all laugh, but are serious at the same time.

In the past months, I’ve met Ouluat, Amer, Marjaneh and Steve, a United Nations of drivers. I’ve been driven by a legal secretary who opts to ride-share because it pays better; a single mom who relishes the freedom to select hours based around her child’s schedule; an African newcomer who feels he’s doing community service, given the number of intoxicated clients (500 and counting) he’s delivered safely home from after-hour clubs; a university student who has Kleenex and mints at the ready after a passenger had a melt down while confiding matters of the heart.

I’ve learned the ingredients of a Georgian grandmother’s perogie recipe and been invited to a free meal at a Hindu temple. I’ve shared space with fertility doctors, wedding guests and a cancer patient. I spent one ride teaching English to a Brazilian tourist who was struggling to pronounce the words 'street' and 'beach.' “Your English good!” he said, complimenting me, without irony.

We practised all the way uptown. After he got out, he stuck his head back in. He was still grinning. “Beee … chuh!”, he said, one last time.

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Every time I choose pool, it’s a surprise: Yes, sometimes silence, but often conversation that’s wide-ranging and wise. At its best, it’s a community on wheels, the ancient agora repurposed for modern times and judging by the student, a part-time confessional.

Tonight, I find myself defending the stand-offishness of fellow Torontonians. I’m trying to convince my co-riders the goodness is there right beneath the surface. Just look how amazing we are in times of crisis. Surely that’s an indicator. Remember the terrible tragedy at Yonge and Finch? Of course they do. How bystanders instantly pitched in to be good citizens? “People want to open their hearts,” I assure them. “Don’t give up, guys!”

By the time I’m dropped off, I know Shane lives over a nearby restaurant with his girlfriend. We buy honey from the same vendor at the same farmers market. If I don’t see him there after a few weeks, maybe I’ll leave a note on his door and invite them both to dinner.

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