Business & Tech

Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

Eighty-seven, and left by the side of the road by Uber

Maya and Isak Kayserman.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Maya and Isak Kayserman.

The Uber driver arrived at the dentist’s office in Dedham Center to pick up a couple and take them home to Needham Heights, only about 5 miles away.

But when the driver turned right on Highland Avenue in Needham instead of going straight, Maya Kayserman spoke up.

“Why are you going this way?” she asked the driver. “This isn’t the right way.”

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What happened next is a matter of dispute. The driver says Kayserman berated and threatened him. Kayserman dismisses the notion.

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“We’re a couple of dangerous bandits?” she asked incredulously.

She and her husband are both 87. But that didn’t stop the driver — in an action undisputed by either party — from asking them to leave his car in the middle of their journey home.

Maya is recovering from a stroke. She has skin cancer and macular degeneration. She relies on a cane after two knee replacements and one hip replacement. To get in and out of a car, she must grip her right leg and pull it after her, she said.

Her husband, Isak, has advanced dementia. The day I visited he walked into the kitchen, shook my hand, and sat at the table with Maya and their son, Mark. He never said a word, but smiled brightly.

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When we met, Maya mixed English and Russian words to describe how she, her husband, and two sons emigrated from Ukraine in the early 1980s.

Maya came to the United States with a medical degree and directed a research lab for more than 25 years. Her kitchen is festooned with snapshots of her children, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren.

Mark Kayserman and his brother, Norman, live with their families in nearby suburban towns, but they often rely on Uber to ferry their parents to myriad medical and dental appointments, usually once or twice a week. It’s been a terrific convenience.

On Oct. 18, Mark used the Uber app on his phone to arrange to have his parents picked up after late-morning dental appointments. Mark always sends a text message telling Uber drivers to look for an elderly couple.

Mark manages professional services for a big software company in California. He was on a conference call when his personal phone lit up. It was the Uber driver.

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“He said, ‘Your mother is being combative. She’s telling me which way to go. I’m asking them to leave my car, ’ ” Mark recalled.

Mark immediately called his mother. Concerned for their safety, Mark gave his mother very firm instructions: “Mom, under no circumstances get out of the car. You and Dad stay in the car. I’m on my way.”

Mark jumped into his car at his home office in Canton and sped toward Needham, more than 15 miles away.

While he was driving, Needham police received a report of a disturbance between an Uber driver and passenger. A police dispatcher sent Officer Katie McCullough to the scene.

“He was an excitable guy,” McCullough said of the Uber driver, who was identified by Uber only as “William.”

McCullough said that as she approached, William was standing outside his car, waving his arms to get her attention, his hazard lights flashing. William told her there had been an argument and he wanted the couple out of his car.

McCullough looked in on the Kaysermans. They seemed a little confused but OK. The best course of action, she decided, was to let the two parties go their separate ways.

“It was a cold day and I didn’t want them waiting for their son to arrive,” she later told me. “So I drove them home.”

When Mark called, still en route to Needham, Maya told him about the “very nice police officer” who was driving them home. He went directly to their home to check on them.

I asked McCullough if Maya appeared “combative.”

“No, not at all — she was lovely,” McCullough said. “She sat in the front with me and gave me directions and talked about raising her children in Needham and pointed out landmarks as we went along.

“She was like your favorite aunt,” said McCullough, a 15-year police veteran.

If Maya was seething over her encounter with William, she didn’t show it. “She never brought it up,” McCullough said. “She was very pleasant.”

How did the driver seem to you?

“He seemed anxious to get them out of his car and go on to another fare,” she said.

Uber responded to me that the company “regrets this situation” and that it takes “incidents like this seriously and will take appropriate action.”

Uber cited its privacy policy for declining to say whether it will suspend or fire William.

Uber, the multibillion-dollar ride-hailing pioneer and global giant, is trying hard to overcome its well-publicized past missteps, including a string of revelations about unethical practices and workplace harassment and multiple claims of sexual assault or rape against drivers.

The company’s cofounder, Travis Kalanick, was ousted as CEO last year and replaced by management vowing to clean up the company’s act.

We can’t know what happened in the car, but it seems that William grossly overreacted to Maya’s comments about going the wrong way. Maybe he was having a really bad day. Maybe he loses his temper easily. If there’s a record of similar incidents, Uber must stop him from abusing passengers. (Uber would not disclose anything about his record.)

Putting William aside, Uber needs to make a serious gesture to steady customers like the Kaysermans.

My suggestion: free rides for the Kaysermans to and from medical and dental appointments for life.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.