Tuffa Riolo didn’t start driving Uber for the extra cash. Heartbroken after separating from his wife in 2014, he was searching for something to keep himself busy outside of his real estate job. Almost 9,000 rides later, it’s become more than a job for this baby boomer: It’s about dancing and singing and strings of miniature red Solo Cup lights. Dozens of pastel Post-its push-pinned into Riolo’s black Ford Escape’s interior read: “Best Uber ever!” “I feel honored to be here right now.” “IDK how we didn’t crash!”
Since last winter, Riolo has incorporated the Solo Cup lights, artificial flowers, glow sticks, and photos—selfies with riders shrouded by the exclamation-point studded notes—to create a meticulously curated Uber experience. He spends up to 3 hours a week making sure everything is in the right place. Every new Post-it gets a spot in the backseat.
Riolo, who is originally from Egypt and now lives in Rockville, started keeping a pad and pen in the backseat as a nod to his previous job at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Northwest. But instead of writing notes or to-do lists for themselves, riders began leaving paper sentiments behind, so he thought, “I’m going to have fun with the people,” and turned the notes into wallpaper.
While some Uber drivers dread buzzed (or drunk) riders on the weekends, Riolo loves fun riders who enjoy his backseat karaoke club—they sing, he DJs. Playlists fill his iPhone with “party” music boasting heavy bass and “relaxing” music of saxophone-heavy jazz. “I found people smiling and happy,” Riolo says. “It pushed me to keep doing it.” He deftly clicks through favorites while driving, glancing down through reading glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. Click. Grease’s “Summer Nights” streams from the speakers. Click. Abba’s “Dancing Queen” fills the car.
But Riolo doesn’t assume everyone wants a James Corden karaoke experience. When riders are startled by the intense stimuli (imagine opening the door of a dark SUV to find the automobile equivalent of a nightclub), he relies on his background in hospitality to initiate the more standard driver-rider experience: conversation. Some ask to sit in the front seat, away from the almost-claustrophobic exhibit. “You can’t get 100 percent,” says Riolo. But most riders respond favorably to his energy and flair—and they’re the ones who keep him driving.