By Isabel Downes-Le Guin
The Pigeon Press (Portland, Oregon)
Welcome to the gig economy, where promotional codes and a crew of barely-employed, freelancing twenty-somethings can get you anything or anywhere that you need. Click a button, type a location, Yelp a review, repeat. At the heart of this economy is Uber, an app-based ridesharing service. Anyone can be a driver so long as they are 21 years of age, pass a background check and have a personal car made after 2000. And with a smartphone and a credit card, anyone can be a rider.
Location: Third Eye Shoppe, 3950 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Wait time: 13 minutes. Destination: home.
Your phone says one minute away when a small, shark-like car with Uber stickers that read “U” pulls into the lot. The driver looks too young to be dressed as formally as he is. His sandy hair is thin and slicked back and his suit is classic, black and white. Is all this for you, you wonder, and feel like a celebrity sliding into the backseat. As it turns out, he has thrown away all of his ‘street clothing,’ a term he says with disdain, and transitioned to wearing suits everyday. His girlfriend gifted him one pair of silk pajamas, with royal blue piping that he has kept for their symbolic meaning, but sleeping nude is the only way to go, he says. The seats in his car are sheathed with slick, black back seat organizers. One pocket on the organizer has bobby pins and another has notebooks and miniature pencils. Upon entering the car he informs you that water is complimentary, in the side pocket for your pleasure. The pajama-buying girlfriend lives in Florida, it is her birthday next weekend and he has gotten her a $700 necklace which he plans to leave the price tag on, amongst other things. Because he is self-employed, choosing which days and for how many hours a week he will work, he visits his girlfriend at least twice a month. By the time you reach your destination, which was 13 minutes away according to his navigation system; you know that his girlfriend performs LASIK eye surgery, he has congratulated you on “your interest in education.”
He says that the glass separators in taxis, which divide the client and the driver, break the sense of intimacy and that, despite the night when a drugged-out girl tried to sit on his lap and take over the wheel, he wouldn’t get one. He’s right, you probably would not have said more than three words if this trip had been in a taxi. Aside from the fact that what taxi drivers are allowed to say is restricted by law in some states, the uniform paint jobs, the separators and the sense of corporate slavery would probably have been enough to make you keep your mouth shut.
You are simultaneously bewildered and made jealous by the sense of urgency and importance with which he performs his duties as a freelance driver. He seems to see himself as a free man, liberated by his self-employment. He must’ve taken some pride in his job, at least enough to arrive fully suited, with driving gloves.
Rate him five stars and draft a funny comment about his formality.
Location: Party somewhere in the West Hills. Wait time: 17 minutes. Destination: a succession of four homes. SURGE PRICING 200%
You are trying to wrangle in a gaggle of friends when your Uber calls to say that he has arrived. Shoving into the car, someone is forced to sit shotgun, uncomfortably close to your middle-aged driver. He questions everyone about their home lives, overly concerned about the details of your personal stories. Friends, or merely acquaintances, stumble out of the car one by one as the driver arrives at each house. They roll their eyes as they walk away, mildly confused by his probing. By midnight, it is just you and a friend left in the backseat, unbuckled. You haphazardly kiss until it is his turn to trip over you and exit the car.
“Is that your boyfriend?” His voice is gruff, lower than you remembered it being a second ago.
“No.” You find your seat belt and the buckle to occupy your hands.
“It seemed like he was,” he says aggressively; you laugh and shrug.
The next morning, you find that the combination of surge pricing and five separate stops has totaled over $100. Think about asking the random people who might have been in the car to pay you back, but your memory is fogged and you hate asking for money, decide that you can afford it.
Rate him two stars while you lay in bed and recount the night.
Scene 3: Four months later
Location: home. Wait time: Three minutes, as usual. Destination Oak and Olive, 6369 SW Capitol Hwy.
The tiny, round picture that your driver has uploaded as his icon looks familiar. But the majority of them do: round, balding men who look like over-enthused thumbs or mug-shot college students with dark hair and glazed-eyes. He is the former, an overly-normal looking, middle-aged man. He looks like a mugshot in real life. You do not realize that he is the same driver as you had on New Year’s Eve until he says that he remembers you. You are happy that the ride to work is so short as you mull over the fact that he knows you, a valued customer out of the hundreds of teens he chauffeurs. He was only three minutes away when you called, does he hang around this area often waiting for calls? Maybe you are the only teen.
No tip. You rarely do tip in an Uber, but you actively decide not to this time.
Location: Portland Airport. Wait time: 10 minutes. Destination: home.
You feel somewhat guilty pressing the button to request this Uber. Know, due to research, that there are strict laws for taxi drivers regarding airport service, feel that perhaps supporting Uber in this situation is somehow, indirectly contributing to Portlands gentrification or something like that. But you ended up flying home alone last minute, your mom having woken up with food poisoning and your father having a rather severe allergic reaction, and you are too tired to manifest these thoughts into movements. You don’t know car models, but this one seems too nice to be an Uber. Why would someone who can afford a massive, pumpkin colored jeep with oversized wheels be freelance driving? But it is no mistake, the car is plastered with the hot pink mustaches that symbolize Lyft, another popular ride-sharing app, as well as the more tame “U” stickers. The inside of the car feels somber as he asks how you are doing. He is wholesome looking, a well-groomed mustache and an almost military hairstyle. He drives with only the middle three fingers of his right hand gracing the wheel. Little more is said besides his offering up of the aux cord. You play Frank Ocean because he seems to be a crowd pleaser and, for some reason, you want to impress the Uber. Through some interrogation you find that your Uber is also a driver for Postmates, an app-based food service in which drivers deliver prepared food to you, wherever you may be, in less than an hour. It is drizzling and you both seem tired, so you stop questioning him and become melancholy as you wonder what he prefers, transporting humans or food. Doubtlessly, toting a fruity cup of froyo five blocks, like a precious load of cargo in his backseat, could feel rather unfulfilling. But perhaps he is just happy that it can’t talk.
Feel somewhat sorry for him as you type in a five star rating and a “:)”.
Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes