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A Chance Encounter

Off duty
ARCO Gas Station - 2018
Song of the Moment: "When You Were Young" by The Killers

It's a Friday night, just around midnight, when I'm pulling into the familiar ARCO down on 11th and Santa Clara St. The gas prices here are still lower than any place in the Bay that isn't a CostCo, and they're certainly all closed this time of night.

I've just got the pump started when a voice calls out behind me. "Billy! Long time no see, man!"

I turn to glance over my shoulder and a familiar face is barreling up towards me. "Carlos. Jesus, what the hell are you doing here?"

"What do you mean, what am I doing here? I'm stopping to get gas in the middle of a twelve-hour shift. I haven't seen you over at the 7-11 in months." Carlos is certainly a bit stockier, and there are unmistakable heavy bags underneath his eyes. "Man, have I had a crazy year so far. All sorts of weird fares, people doing loads of heinous things. What about you?"

I bite my lip a little bit sheepishly, before I finally answer a few seconds later. "I haven't really been driving much, not since March or so."

"Wait, what? Why not? You go back to the normie working life?"

I shake my head slightly. "Still trying to, but I needed to take a break from driving for Uber for a while, and a break turned into a longer break, and while I'm probably going to have to go back to it when money gets tight, I did the math of how much I was making per hour and it was pretty bleak."

"C'mon, it can't be that bad."

I narrow my eyes at him a bit. "You haven't done the math, have you?"

"What do you mean?"

I sigh as the gas pump clicks, my tank finally full. "Okay. Okay, look. For no reason I can determine, Uber doesn't adjust their fare prices based on the price of gasoline in the area. In fact, it almost seems like Uber's charging less when the price of gas goes up."

"You just gotta hit your incentives, man."

"What, the ones that need you to hit 75-80 trips in 36 hours? I don't know where you're driving, but when I was driving in March, I was getting 5 trips every 2 hours on the average, which means if your luck holds, you can do that in 32 hours, but if your luck doesn't hold, you might not even make it in the full 36 hours you're allowed to drive over a weekend."

"But..."

"And let's talk those 36 hours. You know that California requires anyone working over 8 hours in a day to be paid time in a half, yeah?"

"Sure, but..."

"So there you are, working THREE twelve hour shifts, back to back, and are you getting overtime?"

"Well, no, but..."

"They're dodging around it by claiming we're part of the 'gig economy' but how the fuck does that mean we don't have the same basic rights as any other schmucks working a job? Uber cuts us off after twelve hours because they don't want to draw too much attention to themselves. Under state law if you work more than twelve hours in a shift, you're supposed to be getting paid double. Have you ever seen your rate go up?"

"Only during surge pricing."

"There's another thing. How often you see surge pricing these days?"

Carlos frowns, his face crunching up. "A lot less than we used to."

"A lot less than we used to. They've gone out of their way to consciously reduce the amount of times people see surges, because they thought it was scaring off passengers. But it's scaring off drivers with how little they're paying these days. Go back and compare how much you were making on a weekend compared to two years ago, and you'll find it's down by 25%, despite the fact that the price of gas is up around 30%."

"But the incentives..."

"Sure, the incentives have been dialed up a little bit, because that looks good in the short term, for people who aren't looking too closely at the fine print or doing the math. And besides, how much work have you had done on your car while you've been driving for Uber?"

"What do you mean?"

"Are you keeping track in a ledger every time you get an oil change? Get new brake pads? Get new tires? How much repair work have you had to have done?"

Carlos can't even look at me now, glancing down, as he's starting to do the math in his head. "Uh, you know..."

"I've put over a hundred thousand miles on my car for Uber over the past few years, and sure they've paid me enough to buy a new car."

"That's something."

"Except, of course, that if I did that, the value of my time spent working is less than a penny an hour."

"Wait..."

"I might have to go back to it if I'm desperate, but I'm not doing it every weekend until the fares go up and/or the price of gas goes down, because I'm tired of being paid less than minimum wage and having people insulting me while I do it."

"But tips..."

"How often do you get tips, Carlos? I try to be as charming as fuck, and in March, I was averaging two tips a weekend, and even that was just like $2-5 between the two of them, because people are fucking cheap."

"You sound so angry, Billy..."

I shake my head, breaking from my rant to take the pump from my car's tank, pushing it back into the holster. "Look. Carlos. You can do what you want, but until the math starts leaning back in favor of the drivers again, the whole thing is a bit of a fucking scam, and you are the one getting taken advantage of. Uber and Lyft, they're just trying to hold onto the market until self-driving cars take over, and they want to be at the forefront of that, even if Uber accidentally ran somebody over with one of their test cars. I'm not saying you should or shouldn't be driving, but you gotta go home and take a serious look at the finances of this, decide if you're really making enough for it to be a good investment for your time and your life. You might be better off going and working at a fast food joint, or even at a strip mall."

Carlos looks like he's about to cry, so I reach my arms around him and give him a quick hug. "What the fuck are we gonna do, Billy?" he says, wrapping his arms around me, clinging to me a moment longer than I'm comfortable with.

"We fight, we survive, and we keep going, Carlos. Do what ya gotta."

As I'm starting up my car, I roll down my windows for the cool June midnight air, and I hear Carlos, quietly steaming as he puts his pump back into the stand. "Fuck all of these people!" he shouts into the night, as I chuckle, driving off.

Maybe I gave him something to think about.

---------------

A Note from the Author: I adapted one of my stories into a one-act play, and it's being put on by some wonderfully talented people up in Sacramento. If you're interested in attending, you can find tickets here!

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