The final ride: My night on a Safe Rider's last drive

    Photo by Samantha Max / North by Northwestern

    On the Saturday night before finals week of Winter Quarter, Weinberg senior Leo Hu cruised down Chicago Avenue in a white minivan. He hummed along as country music played quietly from the speakers. It was Hu’s final shift as a Safe Ride driver, and he was hoping for some activity during his last few hours behind the wheel.

    “Tonight is too chill for me,” he said. “I like to talk to everybody. It’s part of the job, right? It’s part of what makes it fun.”

    Hu decided to become a Safe Ride driver a few months ago as a way to earn extra cash. As he doesn't qualify for work-study, Safe Ride was one of the few on-campus positions available to him.

    “It’s different than other jobs,” he said. “And I like driving.”

    As each rider steps into the car, Hu asks them how they are, how their night has been. Though some exchanges are surface-level and short-lived, others last the entire ride. No topic is off limits.

    Hu jokingly teased one graduate student who got into the car wearing nothing but a t-shirt and jeans on the chilly, 40-degree night. He sympathized with two weary freshmen traveling back to Elder Residential Community after a long day studying in the library. And when several passengers brought up the recent arrest of two NU freshmen for vandalism, Hu wasn’t afraid to share his opinion.

    “Who wastes a college education doing things like that?” he said.

    In the almost four hours that I rode along with Hu, he never ran out of things to talk about. An economics major with a newfound interest in law, Hu told me about his decision to pick up a legal studies minor and work at a law firm in Michigan next year before going on to law school.

    “My friends are all consultants, bankers, making tons of money,” he said. “And I was like, ‘It’s ok, I’m making, like, less than half you guys, doing something that I like to do.’”

    But Hu’s interests span beyond law. In a given day, you might find him playing soccer, listening to music, planning a cross-country road trip or reading about Donald Trump in the Wall Street Journal.

    “I like politics; I don’t like politicians,” he said, with a smile.

    When the conversation turned to Trump, Hu had plenty to say.

    “He’s playing this game, you know. Stir up all of the things from these angry people.” He sighed. “That’s all he wants – the presidency.”

    Hu isn’t technically a registered U.S. voter or even an American citizen ­– he’s an international student from Shanghai. But he feels deeply invested in this country and connected to its culture, he said. He always has, even before coming to the U.S. for college.

    “You could probably take a picture of me and split me in half,” he explained. “This half is Chinese. The other half is American.”

    While we waited to pick up two new passengers who had requested a ride, Hu told me about his internal struggle to reconcile his Chinese identity with his affinity to American culture. When he came to NU, hu wanted to immerse himself in life on campus, but he also felt pressure to surround himself with other Chinese students.

    “It’s a big adjustment at first,” he said. 

    With time, though, Hu has learned to strike a more even balance. Hu is fascinated by the inner workings of the student body, and throughout his four years, he’s gotten to know both undergraduate and graduate students from all walks of life. Hu gets some of the best campus gossip during his Safe Ride shifts.

    “You meet a lot of different people,” he said. “I kind of get a sense of what’s going on on campus and learn about different people’s lives. You get a very diverse perspective of the student body.”

    Hu has gotten to see another side of the NU community through his other campus job, tutoring student athletes for the past three years.

    “I think we should try to understand what their life is about,” he said. “I mean, try getting up at 5 a.m. Go to practice. Try lifting two hours, and then go to class and then go practice.” The list went on. “And then try to write a paper that’s due tomorrow.”

    Hu told me that he was feeling sentimental about his last tutoring session the next day, and a bit less so about his final shift as a Safe Ride driver. He said that he definitely wasn’t going to miss staying up for his bi-weekly eight-hour shifts from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. For Hu, the early morning hours are the toughest part of the job, especially at the very end of the night.

    “Sometimes, when it’s like, 1:30, you don’t really have a lot of rides, and you can’t sleep,” he said. “You want to.”

    Hu said he often felt that he had too much alone time during his Safe Ride shifts. The moments he enjoyed most were spent chatting with his riders, “just talking to random people about random things.”

    Change is on the horizon for Hu. After returning to campus from Spring Break, he is no longer spending late nights chauffeuring students around Evanston. He won’t be spending any more Sundays helping student athletes with their assignments. Spring Quarter will mark his last few months as a college student.

    “Man, I’m starting to freak out a little bit,” he said, half laughing, half cringing.

    But for one final evening, Hu drove around in his Safe Ride vehicle, picking up tired freshmen looking for a ride home in the wee hours of the night. Just before the end of his shift, one last student got in the van, traveling from the Sargent Hall parking lot to Willard, a musty fraternity-basement scent emanating from his red sweatshirt.

    “How’s it going, man?” Hu asked.

    “Good, how are you?” the rider replied.

    “I’m alright. I’m alright. Just driving around. Same old.”

    Check out this spotify playlist of the songs we listened to in the car: 


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