Kelly Barnhill. Star Tribune file photo by Anthony Souffle

It has been common enough for Kelly Barnhill to use a ride-share app. As a notable children’s author (the Minneapolis writer won the Newbery Award in 2017), she does a lot of traveling and speaking, and a lot of speaking at schools. Lyft and Uber are inexpensive, reliable ways to get around in a strange town.

So when she arrived in Houston on Sunday night, she hailed a Lyft to get to her hotel. (Mass transit, she said, would have taken more than two hours.)

“He was a personable fellow—youngish, handsome, smiled easily,” she wrote in a harrowing series of tweets yesterday describing what became a terrifying ride.

Barnhill tells the story better than I can, so you should check out her tweet thread. But suffice it to say that the youngish and personable driver took her the opposite way from her hotel, out into the countryside, where, as the evening grew dark, they were out of cell range.

And then the driver told her she had pretty eyes.

“According to Lyft’s website, what one is supposed to do in these situations is demand to be let off,” Barnhill writes. “Apparently there is a call for help button too, but that doesn’t help you if your phone doesn’t work. And I can’t see how it would help while going 90 on a lonely Texas road.”

In the end, perhaps because of her endless stream of peppy, nervous talk (punctuated with frequent pointed reminders to the Lyft driver of how her cell phone is loaded with security features and tracks and records her everywhere she goes), the driver turned around. Headed into Houston. The 15-minute $30 drive turned into an hour-long $90 drive.

She doesn’t know, now, if the driver was a sexual predator, or if he was simply trying to run up the Lyft charge. It hardly matters. Complaints to Lyft initially got her charge bumped back down to the original $30, and only after days did they erase the charge and fire the driver. (We've reached out to Lyft but haven't received an immediate comment.)

Why does this matter, a scary enough ride that ended safely?

Because it has implications for authors—children’s authors in particular, Barnhill told me later.

“For a lot of us, school visits are a huge portion of our income,” she said. “And most of us use ride-sharing to get around in strange cities.  When I first vaguely tweeted this on Monday morning, the people who responded were almost exclusively female children’s authors who all have felt unsafe at one point or another.”

Barnhill's publisher, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, will hire cars for her in the future when she is on book tour. “But for school visits,” she said, “I don’t know what I’ll do.”
 

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