Born to Rideshare

Goosebumps crawled on my skin with each breeze. I held tight to my thin windbreaker as I paced outside of The Metropolitan in Center City in hopes to warm up. I couldn’t think about how cold the December air felt over the chattering of my teeth. I gave up on my futile attempt to escape from the cold so I huddled next to my friend as we waited for Terry Dark.

Suddenly, I heard him say “Bibi.”

I looked around me until I locked eyes with Terry, who’s parked on the opposite side of the street in his gray 2018 Dodge Grand Caravan. He gave me a slight wave to motion me to his car, lit up with neon color-changing LED lights in the backseat. Excitedly, I said my goodbyes and ran to the warmer car. I noticed stars twinkling on the roof and Terry smiling at me through the rearview mirror.

He turned down the radio and asked me how my night was going. I gave the regular response, “Good! I had a lot of fun,” and looked down at my phone. He asked me if I had ever been to an escape room and if I was in school. A first-semester college freshman at the time, I hesitantly told him I was studying journalism.

Each time I get this question I’m met with the response, “Oh, well I hope you’re going to report on the ‘real news.’” But Terry was different — he replied with enthusiasm and curiosity. “Really? That’s cool, what do you want to do with that?” I told him I aspired to be a travel writer, but not the ones who stay in hotels and tell readers the same five places to visit. I wanted to write about people who’ve shaped their communities and inspired change.

It was obvious my passion ran deep. Terry slyly shifted the conversation’s tone by telling me to never let anyone take away that passion. I furrowed my brows, wondering what he was about to tell me. I kept listening. He continued, “Life may get hard at times, but remember, it’s not happening to you, it’s happening for you.”

It felt like I had just been punched in the face. I looked up from my phone, my eyes wide. What did he just say?

Terry began explaining our thoughts are powerful, and they dictate everything around us: our likes, dislikes, the clothes we wear, and the people we chose to be. We are in control of our thoughts and, in turn, our feelings. He gave me an example: during a breakup, it’s up to you whether you want to be sad about the situation or use it as a lesson. He didn’t know it then, but that was exactly what I needed to hear.

I had spent six months wallowing over the end of my first relationship, and you’re telling me this man gave me the clarity I needed in a matter of seconds? No, come on, this has to be a joke.

Terry knew I had resonated with his words and repeated, “Pressure bursts pipes, but it also makes diamonds, it’s completely up to you what you do with the pressure.”

Stop. Was it really that easy? I repeated what he had just said to me, word for word, and realized the truth in his message. I am in control of how I feel about certain situations, so why was I choosing to be upset over something that had already happened? Why did I keep hurting myself with my own thoughts? My ex didn’t hurt me, I was hurting myself. Damn. Is this what college does to people?

Once he stopped in front of my dorm, I profusely thanked him for giving me my first sense of clarity in a long time. As I closed the door, I realized what had just happened. All of my frustrations, anxiety and stress I had been living with just disappeared in a 15-minute Uber ride. I felt I owed Terry more than a thank you. This stranger, who didn’t owe me anything more than a fairly pleasant and safe a-to-b ride, was the only person in my life who’d been able to get me out of my own head.

I never forgot how impacted I was by Terry, how seconds after we talked I was finally able to move on. I had to learn his story — there was no way he didn’t have one.

But I had to find him first. It wasn’t as simple as looking through my Uber history, for numerous reasons of how that night went down. Yet, I remembered from that night he followed me on Instagram — nervously sliding into his DMs, I asked if he’d remember our ride, or even if he would want to talk and tell me about his life. To my surprise, he remembered me and how I wanted to be a journalist. A couple of days later I’m sitting on the floor of my friend’s basement as I listen to the story of Terry Dark.

Terry Dark looks over his shoulder to the back of his car on April 20.

A Philadelphia native, Dark, 51, grew up in West Oak Lane and is the oldest of five children with four younger sisters. He barely told me about his childhood, only that he had gotten himself into negative situations as a teenager. At 16, he moved in with his grandfather in Willingboro, New Jersey for an opportunity to “start from scratch.”

After graduating from Willingboro High School in 1988, Terry started working a series of odd jobs. He told me that in 1999, after seeing a man sell custom nameplates on the boardwalk, he was inspired to set up his own stand at the Philadelphia Mills Mall in Franklin Mills. There, he met his soon-to-be wife, and two years later they got married. They both decided to work together to buy vacant properties in West Philadelphia and University City and turn them into apartment complexes.

For 15 years they ran their business and made a sizable income, eventually buying a house in East Oak Lane, Philadelphia. Like a puzzle piece, it felt like his life was slowly coming together, but once he got a good look at the final image, it wasn’t anything like the picture on the box.

“I remember when I was a kid I used to think a big house was like success,” Dark says. “And when I got that big house, it really didn’t feel like success, it just felt like a big house.”

By 2017, he was filing for a divorce from his wife and allegedly endured a two-year-long fight trying to maintain his assets. During that process, credit cards were taken out in his name, his monthly income was stripped away from him, and he was asked to pay a monthly $1,100 child support for his two children, he says.

He sighed deeply, remembering how stuck he felt. Dark didn’t have any family or friends to turn to, and the weight of his situation was heavy. To cope with the anger and frustrations he was feeling, Dark started rapping again, a hobby he had done every now and again as a teenager. But all of the songs he was writing were angry and spiteful, which he realized weren’t reflective of who he actually was.

Anger wasn’t going to help him pay the bills, so Dark signed up to be an Uber driver, and went straight to work. For months, he was working 16 hour days to improve his credit score. But he was still angry. Every time he would drive customers around, he’d immediately shut down as soon as he saw a property sign for the realty company he worked with.

After a week, Dark was done making himself feel bad.

“I said, ‘I have to change the story that I’m telling myself because my building was sold a week ago,’” he says. “That’s the past, I live in the present, the only thing that’s hurt me is the story I’m telling myself about the past. ‘They did this, they did that, that was my only source of income.’ That’s what was causing me the pain.”

Listening to his story, it felt like I was transported to my freshman year self, mesmerized by the truth in Terry’s words. He was focusing on how frustrated he was about the situation, not what he gained from it.

“It’s true my building was sold against my wishes,” he says. “However, I’m still getting a large sum of money from it. I don’t have her in my life anymore. I’m the one that renovated the property in the first place. Guess what? I walk away with the skills to do it again.”

Terry Dark (right) talks while driving Madison (left) and Bibi around Temple University’s campus on April 20.

Once his thoughts changed, so did his attitude. Inspired by the game show Cash Cab, Dark slowly started working on his car so each rider could get a one-of-a-kind experience. He started by putting LED light strips around the backseat of the car, then adding twinkling stars on the roof.

Dark also created a custom neon sign which he placed at the back of the car, adorned with his stage name and Instagram handle, verZatile_BMOTP, which he takes pictures with riders with to show his appreciation for them. The acronym, meaning Baddest Man On The Planet, signifies all of the struggles Dark has faced to become who he is today.

But, it all started with a conversation. Dark remembered it was around April 2017 when he picked up a woman from work. As he was driving her home she told him how stressed she was at her job. Many high expectations were placed on her and she was feeling overwhelmed. “Well, do you like stress?” Dark asked her. She nodded in agreement, so he thought about her response and said, “If it’s something you like to do, go above and beyond and exceed expectations, why are you calling it stress?” He laughed, remembering her shocked expression and sigh of relief. She told him for the first time in six months, she was calm. She then looked at him and said, “You should be a life coach.”

Dark already had the idea in his head to become a life coach, but this was the catalyst that would make him turn his Uber rides into life lessons.

Dark started listening to DVDs and audiobooks by Tony Robbins, a life coach and motivational speaker. When he found out that Robins was going to have an event at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 2018, Dark had to go. He bought meet and greet tickets and in the five minutes he got to talk to Robbins, he asked him how to start life coaching. The answer? Just start talking to people.

So he did. Dark was already driving around a handful of strangers at a time anyway. During each ride, Dark would try to get people to open up to him and talk about their feelings and try to help them work out any problems. Sometimes, he got riders who were immediately eager to talk and ask him for help. Other times, people initially dismissed what he had to say.

“Many people have closed minds, and they look at this caste system that is built into the American fabric and they look at people as less than because people are in different situations or whatever,” Dark says. “But then, once you have a conversation, you can realize that this person knows way more than me and is more experienced than me.”

Eventually, Dark set up a camera in his car to protect himself in case of a rowdy rider, double purposed to relisten to the advice he was giving. Dark would go back and rewatch the videos to figure out better ways to resonate his conversations with new riders.

But as months passed, Dark realized some weren’t receptive to his message of stress not existing. He felt like he was losing their attention, but didn’t know why. It wasn’t until a rider told him, “Stress is real to the person who’s experiencing it,” that it clicked for Dark.

He realized that the rider was right: Once you’ve created stress in your mind, then it becomes real.

“That changed everything for me, so now I was able to evolve my philosophy, I was able to evolve my pitch and now it resonates with more people,” Dark says. “Thoughts are the most powerful thing in the universe. You are a creator. So once you dwell on what you consider to be negative, what you consider to be stressful, now, you’re focusing your thoughts on that, you create that stress, you create that negative villain inside of your body.”

Slowly, things have started coming together for Terry. Last year, he released his first songs “Pandemic” and “Rise” to highlight his feelings on issues like coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Instead of using rap as an outlet for anger, he began using his music as a way to educate people. And what better way to do this than freestyling for his riders?

Amid the George Floyd protests, Dark played the song “Rise,” standing for Racism Is Systemic Exclusion, to a group of police officers riding with him. In the song, Dark raps about defunding the police, which one of the officers didn’t take too kindly to. Dark asked the officer what he hears when he says “defund the police” and the officer said, “get rid of the police.” In the 10-minute car ride, they talked about how defunding the police means reallocating funds into the neighborhoods and giving Black neighborhoods the same opportunities and resources as white neighborhoods. The officers, like so many others, realized the validity in Dark’s words, which he felt helped them understand the movement and the role they play in it.

Dark’s greatest joy is being an Uber driver and he wouldn’t be here without all of the challenges life’s thrown at him.

For almost four years, he’s given 15,000 rides, each one helping him evolve and grow his platform. Aside from having his GRAMMYs speech pre-written, Dark isn’t sure what the future holds, except for the fact he’s going to change the world, one Uber ride at a time. Without all of the challenges he’s faced, he wouldn’t be the man he is today.

“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Dark says. ”Like I said, it was a hard trip to get here. However, this is the best place that I could have ever landed, not only for me emotionally, spiritually, and everything, but I’m in a position where I can help change people’s lives.”

Photos by Colleen Claggett

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