Tales from the Uber Side

Uber

A few years ago, as my wife’s health declined and bills piled up, I took on a second job. I did not want to deliver pizza or deal with the hell that is working retail. I joined the gig economy and started driving Uber.

“Uber? Oh, my God. People throw up in your car.”

Actually, since 2018, only one person has puked in my car. And she brought her own barf bag.

The job can be both fun and infuriating, depending on who gets in your car. It’s also a great way to make money if you do it right. There are those for whom this is a business and their livelihood. Others, like me, treat it as a side gig. Before the pandemic, I drove about thirty runs a weekend. Since getting vaccinated, I’ve returned to Uber from a year-long break and cut that to twenty, ten of Friday, ten on Saturday.

And I’d forgotten how much I missed it.

I did food delivery for the year I was away. It allowed me to write by dictation because there’s no one in my car. Just food. To keep the navigation system from dictating as well, I listened to audiobooks on the way to customers and dictated between runs. But Door Dash is not as profitable, and it adds a layer of complexity, namely waiting on restaurants to have orders ready. Uber is simple. Person wants ride. Drive to person. Take person to destination. End ride. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

But Uber is also fertile ground creatively. Sometimes, I talk to the passengers. Sometimes, I say nothing. Sometimes, we both say nothing. And sometimes, you get rich creative material.

  • I have yet to throw someone out of my car. I’ve had to persuade a drunk that the ride is over and wake up a couple other people who had passed out or fallen asleep. But that’s why they called Uber.
  • I have canceled rides ahead of time. Normally, a passenger changes their mind or gets impatient, or I have an emergency or car trouble. So, one of us will cancel. And then there’s the guy who calls because he thinks he’s not being served fast enough or is crabby about a wrong turn. Even then, that situation can be cooled down with, “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” However, I’m often on a run with another passenger. The nature of the job requires me to talk on speaker phone. When a future passenger gets combative, I remind them that I’m with another passenger, and that I will be there as soon as I finish the current ride. If it gets worse, I cancel their ride. Yes, you can rate your driver, but we rate you, too.
  • Speaking of which, a frequent question is how to get a five-star rating. Some drivers are a bit nasty about it and will ding a passenger for silly things. I tell all my passengers the same thing. “Get in, and enjoy the ride. It’s what you’re paying me for.” I’ve given out 2 1-star ratings (a stoner I probably should have kicked out while driving his girlfriend for free, and two drunk girls who wouldn’t get out because apparently they thought the bar they were going to was a strip club), and 1 4-star, a sulky teenager who took too long to come out of his house, fiddled with my dash while I drove, and decided after the ride ended that he went to the wrong house (with his girlfriend looking right at us on her cell telling him to come in.)
  • So, what would get you kicked out of the car? Yelling at the cops – I will wait for the officer to come haul you out of the backseat. Backseat driving – It’s a distraction, and frankly. It’s rude, abusing me or the other passengers in the car – My car, my rules. Getting sick in the car – If you look sick, I’ll make you sit by a window. Most people don’t have a problem with this. Racism – This is a special case, and if I’m your driver, you get a second chance. I’m assuming you’re drunk, so I will call out “ONE!” the first time you say something racist, then “TWO!” if it happens again. We don’t get to three. If you haven’t figured out the problem by then, not only am I going to dump you out of the car (on the side of the freeway if need be), but Uber will likely ban you from using the service again. Trashing my car – I don’t care that you’re paying for the ride or how much; it’s MY car.
  • 5% of the passengers are bad apples. Most of the time, they become stories to entertain the other 95%. In one case, because I generally just hear voices and not see faces, I repeated an incident to a passenger I’d taken in a bar rush. The story was funny, but the passenger was also the drunk in question two weeks earlier. “I think that was me.” “Do you remember it actually happening?” “No.” “Here’s how you handle it, then. The Uber driver told you a funny story about a late-night ride. No one has to know it was you.” He liked that. And as I said, I’ve never had to boot a passenger.
  • Midnight to 3AM on a Saturday night/Sunday morning I call the Zombie Apocalypse. A few passengers have remarked “I might have been one of the zombies,” to which I respond that we’ve all been the zombie on a Saturday night. It lightens the mood. I don’t drive those hours anymore. Fatigue from sitting in a car for 8-12 hours can really get to you.
  • Cops like Uber drivers. In fact, flashing my app at a DUI checkpoint earns me a pass and a thank you. I make their jobs easier. They’re a bit more surly near a football game or a concert because traffic is, frankly, a mess.
  • Since I took an Uber in San Francisco out to Haight-Ashbury a couple years ago, I’ve played jazz during my shift. The response is overwhelmingly positive with the complaints (only 3 out of several hundred rides) coming from the incredibly drunk.
  • Since this is a side gig, I limit my runs. I could drive more. I used to do three shifts of ten. But it takes me away from my family, and this summer is a big house project summer – repairing my aging deck, sealing a porch, cleaning out our basement. And my wife, who needs me around more now than when we first married, hates it when I’m away.
  • I honestly don’t miss food delivery. That said, Door Dash is one of my brother-in-law’s main income streams. His response to some of the stories I’ve told is, “Well, cheeseburgers don’t argue.” True. But they do stink up your car. Humans tend to wear deodorant, and in the case of Saturday nights, perfume and cologne.
  • Safety tip: When your driver shows up, check to make sure the car is his or her car, check the license plate (Uber and Lyft will display this in their apps), and ask the driver their name. Chances are, the diligent driver will say your name first. All this is to prevent bad actors from abducting the unsuspecting and, in the case of the driver, you’re picking up Stan when Ralph gets in your car by mistake. (It’s happened a couple of times.)
  • No, I will not let you hijack another rider’s fare. I don’t care how much cash you have on you. They booked it. Uber tracks it. Uber also now knows at least two people in the car in case of an incident. (There seldom is one.) I like that. So should you. Handing me $50 cash to ditch a ride because you’re too drunk to use your own app or you maxed out your credit card is a recipe for disaster. Plus, I have no navigation to the destination. And how do you know I’m the Uber driver? I drive without a sign.

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