My primary responsibilities as a stay-at-home dad of three consist of breaking up toddler fights before they go from hilarious to incapacitating and somehow finding a way to pay half of our household bills. To do the latter, I’ve held a variety of part-time and odd-hour jobs. I was an advocate and Facebook debater for Obamacare, an eBay reseller of Nike sneakers purchased from a clearance store on an Indian reservation, manager of a call center that specialized in having undocumented immigrants convince U.S. citizens to vote, and most recently, a 35-year-old Uber driver in San Diego who offered riders free soft mints and good conversation. Here’s my review of what it’s like to drive for Uber.
To become an Uber driver one must pass a background check and have access to a newer four-door vehicle that can pass an inspection. The background check was easy: I’ve never been arrested for the crimes I may or may not have committed. The vehicle inspection, well, not so much. I failed. According to the tech at the Uber-approved tire chain, my rear brakes were bad but could be fixed “right away for $400.” I told the tech I would call around and price the repairs, and suddenly, he offered a 15 percent discount, provided I paid in cash.
“I’ve seen plenty of Uber drivers make $400 in just a weekend,” he added. I left and got the brakes repaired at a shop in Little Saigon for $133. The following Monday, I took the car to a mechanic at Uber’s corporate office and passed the inspection.
I picked up my first Uber rider on a rainy Thursday night. The process was simple: The app alerted me to a ride request via a grating beep and pulsating circle. I pressed the circle to accept; Google Maps took over from there, leading me to the passengers. It was not until the customers entered the car and I pressed “begin trip” that I found out exactly where we were going. I also found out that it’s a bit uncomfortable driving with an empty passenger seat while people sit behind you. We made small talk but made no eye contact. I turned back a couple of times, and they quickly turned away, as if they didn’t trust my ability to drive with my head turned.
Their trip was short, to a hotel not even two miles away. But thanks to high demand surge pricing the fare was $17. Minus Uber’s cut of 20 percent and a the cost of gas, I made about $13 bucks in 10 minutes. The exhilaration of losing my shared vehicle economy virginity was overwhelming. I was jittery with excitement, probably a bit too much to drive. I turned off the app and went to a bar for a celebratory shot and a beer. I was officially an Uber driver, or “partner” as the company put it, perhaps to passively remind the public of the controversial policy that drivers are contractors and not employees.
The initial excitement of being a high-tech cab driver lasted for a few months. I became Mr. Uber, as a stoned teen named me while we waited in a Jack In The Box drive-thru. I chose to drive four days a week, usually three to five hours a day, and I made good money, about $22 an hour after expenses. The gig was easy, and in most cases, it felt like I was just dropping off friends. The only downside was that temptation cut into profits. I’d see everyone else going out to have a good time and end up taking a “lunch break,” which usually turned into a few hours at a pub.
I even applied for a marketing job with Uber corporate, where I hoped to use my enthusiasm to oversee a recruitment program. The “partnership” would be an easy sell: the freedom, the weekly pay, the lack of meetings about meetings, or for that matter, any meetings at all, the adult interaction! I went above and beyond to create a marketing plan in preparation for my phone interviewer with the lead recruiter. Unfortunately, she missed our meeting and never called back. It was around this time that I had my first unsafe experience with an Uber rider.
I picked him up near a sushi spot in an area that I mostly knew from the local news. He was covered in grime from “lifting an engine” and bothered that the app had not led me to the 7-Eleven where he was waiting. He sat next to me and began fumbling through my console. “Where’s your charger! Get a charger, bro!” he yelled, not allowing me time to answer.
I stayed calm, “Here you go, man,” and handed him a USB plug. We started our trip. He had failed to enter a destination in the app. “Where we headed?” I asked.
“My girl’s having a baby in a week, bitch has a restraining order against me,” he answered.
“Man, sorry to hear that…where you trying to get to?”
He ignored me and rambled on, “Let’s get meatballs. I need you to knock on my girl’s door and give her meatballs. And when she answers, give her this message. Dude, you got kids?”
The more we drove, the more incoherent and aggressive sounding he became. “Don’t let me down! Just don’t let me down! Give her the meatballs and let her know! Can you do that?” The situation was sort of like that movie Collateral starring Tom Cruise as a hitman and Jamie Foxx as his taxi driver hostage, except Cruise’s character spoke kindly and didn’t sully Foxx’s cab.
I was worried about my safety began to explore my options: I knew if I told him to get out the car I might be in for a scrap. I sized him up. He was taller and outweighed me by about at least 50 pounds. He also may have had drug-enhanced superpowers, like that guy in Florida, who passed up numerous fast food joints to eat a homeless man’s face. I began running red lights in hopes of getting stopped by the police. No luck. Man, what I wouldn’t have done to get pulled over, even for driving while black.
I drove to the police station. He was oblivious the whole time. We got there and the damn place looked closed. But there was a mall next door. We went, and I played along with his craziness, “Let’s have some tacos before we get the meatballs.” I grabbed my phone and left the car, but he didn’t move. I sprinted into the food court and called the police. I tried to keep my breathing calm, or at least maintain some sort of dignity as a man. You know, they record these 911 calls. I whisper-yelled at the dispatcher, “I’m driving for Uber and there’s a crazy guy in my car!”
I cautiously looked to the parking lot while talking to the operator. The big man was outside the car, walking in the parking lot, as if he was looking for someone. I left the taco shop and walked down the adjacent parking row to get to my Nissan. The 911 operator was still on the line, asking his whereabouts and my name. “He’s right by the mall taco shop.” I hung up, jumped in my car, and sped home. My night with Uber ended early.
I received a call from the rider the following day. He was able to reach me through Uber’s phone line, which allows drivers and riders to communicate without revealing each other’s contact information. He was yelling, more intelligibly than the night before, but still out of control. I finally got a word in edgewise. “I left you because I felt you were a danger to me and yourself.”
He responded with curses, “I can’t believe I got f****d over by a black guy!” That may have very well been a compliment, but I hung up and asked Uber to not let him contact me again.
After my experience with The Big Addict, I mostly drove Uber in the daytime. I also kept a Swiss hammer in my side console, just in case. Surge pricing was less frequent, and I earned less money, no more than $15 to $17 per hour, but the riders were more predictable — mostly people going to a baseball game or the beach, but all going somewhere.
Still, the workplace peculiarities involved with driving for Uber began to wear on me: people would request rides from pedestrian only streets; some would eat in my car without permission and leave trash, even the plastic wrap from the soft mints that I had just given them; others embraced rider-driver power distance and assumed social status, issuing stern commands, but neglecting to use words like “please” and “thank you.” Then there were the indecisives. I’d accept a ride request, drive for a few minutes or miles, and they would cancel as I neared arrival. Uber once reimbursed me five bucks for this, but never again for some reason I did not bother to explore.
The amount of time I spent driving Uber slowed big time. I took two weeks off in hopes I’d regain lost enthusiasm, but the relationship was not rekindled. The time away was unpaid, per the terms of the “partnership,” which provided no benefits, not even full coverage auto insurance. Well, I was given one thing: a 20 percent discount on my ATT cell phone service, a savings that was much-needed considering constant use of Uber’s app usually resulted in data overage fees.
I got a new job writing grant proposals for a non-profit organization. It’s boring, but I appreciate boring these days. Still, I keep Uber in the back of mind in case I have to tell my boss to go to hell. I’ve also found a more lucrative industry within the sharing economy: We’re renting out our home on Airbnb.