It’s dinner time in downtown Durham when Michael Youakim drives slowly past the glass facade of Pizzeria Toro, instantly grabbing the attention of everyone inside the restaurant. His silver Lexus is covered with Christmas-themed lights, stickers, and wrapping paper, as well as a miniature plastic pine tree strapped to the roof with more lights. Customers and waitresses pull out their phones to take pictures.
Enjoying the crowd’s reaction, Youakim stops the car. This quickly results in angry honking from the drivers behind him, but he doesn’t care. The 31-year-old Uber driver lowers the windows, blasts the music, and pops his door open so he can dance for his audience.
Though it’s only the first week of December, buildings and plazas all around Main Street are covered in twinkling lights. So far it’s been a slow month for his business; partygoers and young socialites are Youakim’s primary demographic, and he suspects they prefer to stay home in the cold.
He gets a rider request from the Durham hotel, only a few blocks ahead. On the drive over, pedestrians point, laugh and take pictures, which is exactly what he wants. “It’s about making people laugh, giving them something to look at and just smile about.”
Kim and Dave Bingel, 30 and 35, emerge from the lobby and hesitate for a moment before climbing into the Uber. In the backseat, they find wigs, glasses, a Minion stuffed animal, and two tablets installed with a classic Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Kim instantly puts on a blue curly wig and picks up one of the remotes. “I haven’t played this since I was twelve,” she says.
Youakim asks them for song requests, points out where the water bottles are, and plays around with the level of the bass. “Best Uber ever?” he asks.
Dave, Kim’s husband, who is also playing Nintendo, agrees. “Best Uber ever,” he says.
After leaving Kim and Dave at their home in Colonial Village, Youakim drives around the dimly-lit neighborhood waiting for another request, the lights from his car illuminating the street. It’s only 8 p.m., and the Uber app predicts there won’t be much business until 10. He slows to study some red Christmas lights on the sides of somebody’s driveway.
He has always loved lights and their ability to make things brighter, happier. His sneakers have light-up soles. His car is filled with an array of illuminated items, including a neon sign in the back that says “Lit.” “I’m catering to the people who are going out and trying to have a good time,” he says. “The ones who see me and think, I need to be in that Uber. It may look cheesy, but I just want to make people’s day, get them hype, prepare them to go have fun in my own city.”