It is nearly midnight on a clear Friday. We are parked on East Burnside Street outside Rontoms, our hazard lights flashing and our windows down. The moon is full. We are looking for Dean.
"Are you a taxi?" asks a lean man dressed in black who lurches to the passenger window. He's not Dean. He points, haphazardly, to the light-up car topper on the white 2008 Volkswagen Jetta before saying, "Wait, are you Mothers Against Drunk Driving?"
Nope, we're neither taxi service nor MADD—this February night I'm along with Ride On, a four-year-old volunteer-run designated driver service that picks up drunken Portlanders and shuttles them home weekend nights (and also this Thursday, March 17, for St. Patrick's Day) in their own car.
City transportation officials think it's the only such drive-your-own-car-home service in Portland.
Dean has called to request a ride, but the dude is nowhere, and he's not answering his cell phone. We never find him. As for the other fellow dressed in black, we decide against giving him a ride when we ask his destination. "Broadway," he burbles only semi-coherently. "Which quadrant?" we ask. He crinkles his eyebrows. "Uh, which side of the river?" He doesn't remember.
That missed connection is the evening's sole hiccup.
Between 11 pm and 4 am, we ferry seven groups, driving them from bars and house parties and potlucks to their homes. The conceit behind Ride On is simple: One reason people drive drunk is because they don't want to leave their car at the bar.
So for $15, Ride On will dispatch your own designated driver to your location (sorry, suburbanites—all pick-ups and drop-offs must be at Portland addresses) and drive you home, in your own car. Ride On response times average 30 minutes to an hour.
Operations director Chrystle Nordin, who coordinates 90-plus volunteers, says Ride On served about 1,000 people in 2009. Last year, that figure jumped 60 percent to 1,600. All positions in the nonprofit are unpaid; some of the volunteers have had friends killed by drunken drivers, others appreciate the social community of volunteers and many simply find it a good service and want to help out. The $15 ride fee goes toward insurance, walkie-talkie fees and expenses at their Southeast Morrison Street office.
I ride with Nordin and one other volunteer on this Friday night. Joaquin Gutierrez is our first pick-up. I wriggle into the backseat of his slightly stale-smelling gray 2003 Hyundai Elantra, knocking discarded Dr. Pepper bottles and a baseball catcher's mask out of the way.
"Ride On is the best thing ever, because it gets your car home," Gutierrez says when we pick him up from Northeast Alberta Street outside the Nest. "I probably use it every other weekend."
Nordin says Ride On welcomes such repeat customers.
"The message behind Ride On isn't exactly 'Go ahead and get wasted and call us,'" she says. "We aren't servicing the wasted population. We're encouraging responsible drinking, servicing the people that are making a conscious decision to get home safely and responsibly."
We haul out to Gutierrez's home in St. Johns, discussing his work for a beer distributor, Portland and Seattle's relative merits ("I hate Seattle," Gutierrez says) and the Chicago Cubs.
Wide-ranging conversation continues with other passengers we pick up later that night—we chat with riders about meth, Mexican food, ghost bikes, Chuck Norris, golf, microbreweries, public transit and panna cotta. We drive one couple—Josh Daugherty wears skinny jeans and Ashley Pomlauer glitter around her eyes—clear to outer East Portland.
"If you drive drunk, you could lose your car," Daugherty says. "Or wind up stuck in jail."
"You're too pretty for jail," Pomlauer says.
Daugherty nods gravely. "I know," he says.
One customer, Joe Dougherty, a sweatpants-clad chef whose black 2011 Toyota Tacoma pickup has a flowered sheet draped over the backseat, thanks us no less than four times—before we even drop him at his front door in Northeast Portland. Such gratitude, Nordin says, is typical, and one of the perks of the volunteer gig.
There are occasional horror tales—Nordin says one set of volunteers recently found a patron face down in his own vomit. His car was low on fuel and he had no cash to pay for the gas or the ride. Nordin herself has ferried a fair number of squabbling couples. Another longtime volunteer, Daniel Lewis, said he once shuttled a woman who couldn't remember her address. They circled the block a half-dozen times before she finally recognized her house.
Before my ride-along, I had expected wild antics and salacious stories spilling from Ride On's intoxicated patrons. There's not so much of this. Sure, one guy dishes on his freeloading sister. Another group lets out earsplitting shrieks when we arrive. Moderately drunk people say semi-stupid things. On the whole, though, the evening is surprisingly subdued.
Around 3 am, we go to the Goodfoot on Southeast Stark Street to pick up Josh Gilchrist and Jo Posey, one of the night's last rides. They have a rented red Hyundai Sonata—"some 18-year-old girl" totaled their other car, Posey said. Posey craves Taco Bell. Gilchrist promises to make her "fake Taco Bell" when they get home. Posey yawns.
"I keep thinking I'm seeing Christmas lights on all the houses," Posey says, her Tennessee accent thickened by drinks she's downed. "I'm so glad I'm not driving right now."
FACT: Co-founders Scott Conger and Joshua Bernard launched Ride On in January 2007. The two had previously run a for-profit service called Meteor, which dispatched drivers on motorized folding scooters to pick up inebriated Portlanders. But insurance costs were astronomical (and rides ran upward of $75), so they shut down Meteor and reorganized as a nonprofit.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Plastered on St. Paddy's? Call 235-RIDE. You must have your own car, and pick-ups and drop-offs must be in Portland. Ride On runs year-round on Fridays, Saturdays and some holidays from 11 pm to 3 am. Want to volunteer or donate? Visit rideonportland.org.