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Forget What They Told You


In-between trips - 2016
ARCO gas station

The cheapest place to get gasoline in downtown San Jose (assuming you aren't going to a CostCo) is reliably the ARCO on 11th and Santa Clara. The station itself is never open, but the pumps run 24 hours, and the low price means it's a hotbed for Uber and Lyft drivers in the know to get fueled up. As I'm pulling the car into the spot in front of pump 5, I see a Prius pulling into pump 7 with an Uber sticker in the front window.

The guy who hops out of the front sees the sticker in the right rear of my window and smiles. He's a portly little Hispanic guy in his early 30s, and he barrels over to me, stabbing out at me his hand. “A fellow driver! I'm Carlos!”

I chuckle a little, taking his hand and shaking it. “Billy. Let me guess, Carlos. You're pretty new at this.”

He tips his head to one side. “How can you tell?

I point towards his car. “No sticker in the rear window yet. Didn't they tell you to put one there?”

He smirks, rubbing the back of his head with his right hand. “They did, but I had trouble getting it in there, so it ripped. They're sending me a new one. You been at this a while?”

“Two years now,” I sigh. “It pays the bills, but I wouldn't call it fun.”

“But you're in your own car. That's gotta count for something, right?”

“Sure, and I'm putting miles on my own car at an astronomical rate. The money's decent enough, but when I have to replace this thing, it ain't even gonna come close to buying me a new car.” The gas pump clicks as my tank is full. $43.45. Not the worst. Still, loss out of profit. “At least I can listen to my own music, I suppose.”

“We can have the radio on?”

“Oh god,” I groan. The kid bought into the full spiel. He didn't question any of it and was following the training video to the letter. “You probably have little bottles of water in the back seats, don't you?”

“They said I should in orientation.”

I shake my head at him. “Forget all of that shit. No bottles of water. They're not paying for them, so you are literally just giving money away every time you give someone a free bottle of water. No fucking thank you.”

“But...”

“It's your goddamn car so turn your stereo on to something you want to listen to and don't let anyone ever try and hijack your aux jack. Ever. If someone really has a problem with it, turn the music off completely for that one fare, and turn it back on the minute that jackass is out of the car.”

“But...”

“Now you're kind of a little guy, so get a can of pepper spray to keep squirreled nearby your person. It doesn't happen often, but in the event someone gets out of control, you need to be prepared to put that shithead down quick and final. Spray him right in the face and get him out of your car, then call the cops. You might even consider a dashboard camera to keep an eye on the fares.”

His eyes widen like he's at a DUI checkpoint, his voice a little hushed, taken aback by stark reality slapping him in the face. “You make it sound like a war.”

“It is,” I tell him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “It absolutely is. It's you versus them, and don't you ever forget it. Your car is just that – your car. It's your territory, your turf, and they are a guest in that territory. Treat them well, but don't ever let them walk all over you, because they're gonna try. Lord, are they ever gonna try.”

“But...”

“They don't usually mean to be assholes – they just end up being that way accidentally. They're gonna want to put on their music, to turn it up so loud it blows out your speakers, because they think it's fun and they don't give a fuck about your car, because they're never going to see it again. They're going to want to borrow your aux cord, and they'll rip it out of the socket when they go to get out of the car because they're too drunk to remember they plugged their phone in. Same for the phone charger cord. You can be a bit more lax about that, but keep their phone in your reach, so you can make sure they unplug the damn thing before they try and get out. Even if you buy a super long cord, just loop a bunch of it up so it's short as shit. Give no quarter.”

“Billy...”

“Don't let anyone offer to just 'give you directions' to get somewhere unless you think they're sober enough to be able to tell you about where you're going first. Otherwise, get the address from them and trust Waze or Google Maps or even that wonky navigation system Uber uses. Unless it's telling you to drive you down a bike path or something, because that's happened to me.”

“Seriously?”

“Most importantly, do not, under any circumstances, let the passengers push you around, and do not let them ever feel like you aren't in total fucking control, even if you aren't. They're like wild dogs. They can smell fear, and you need to remind them who's behind the fucking wheel.” I grab the nozzle and pull it out of my gas tank, screwing the gas cap back on and closing the hatch before I put the pump back on the rack. “They don't have to ever get in your car ever again, while you're going to have to live with it until you sell it. If it's you or them, they can fuck right off. A single bad rating won't kill you.”

He sighs, and the silence hangs in the air a slice of eternity. I realize I've been on a bit of a tirade, but I don't want fresh fish getting beat up by passengers who think they can pull that shit on anyone, otherwise I have to keep putting people in their place when they set foot in my car. Fuck with one of us, you're fucking with all of us. And passengers develop ingrained habits way too easily. Carlos finally gets up the nerve to ask me another question. “I meant to ask – how important is the rating? I've had a few passengers say they weren't going to give me five stars unless...”

“Let me stop you right there,” I tell him. “An individual rating means about as much in the long term as a paper cut, especially if you're doing any significant volume of fares. As long as you aren't an asshole to everybody you meet, or trying to drive them in circles to jack up the price, you'll probably be fine. You're going to get 1-star ratings from time to time. 99% of the time it isn't even your fault. You talk too much, you don't talk enough, you don't like the same sports team they do, you don't like sports at all, you don't look the way they want you to, you don't hold the door for them...”

“You don't get out of the car and hold the door for them?”

“Who are you, a well-mannered gentleman from the 1940s? Is your name actually Jeeves?”

“They just said...”

“Yeah, well, they say a lot of shit, and you have to learn to start thinking for yourself if you're gonna make it through this with your skin intact, Carlos. I only get out of the car for one reason – if someone's putting things into or taking things out of my trunk, and that's only because I'm sick of them slamming the trunk like it owes them money.”

I'm not exaggerating. People who take Uber seem woefully inept at closing trunks. They don't push it down and see if it latches. They don't even push it down slowly and just give it a good stiff shove at the very end. They grab it at the top of the arc and then push down with as much force as they can, until I feel the car's shocks wobble just a little bit. I make it a point to prevent anyone else from closing my trunk.

The same's true for people putting things in or taking things out. Some drivers have a completely empty trunk. Those people are idiots. There's plenty of room in my trunk, but it's not empty. There's jumper cables, a set of tire chains (unused), a long box of poker chips, a bottle of Windex, a bottle of 409, two rolls of paper towels, a blanket and a hoodie. Oh, and my oh-shit bag, a small backpack that has a pair of pants, a pair of boxers, a pair of a socks and a clean t-shirt. I want to be sure I'm covered for any situation that might arise.

“Okay, what about us rating them?” Carlos says as he moves back over to the pay terminal. It's only 8 p.m. so neither of us wants to be sitting at the gas station forever. There's business to be had. “When is it okay to give a passenger less than five stars?”

“Any time they deserve it.” I lock my doors and walk over to him, but I flip the little digital switch in the app to turn myself from offline back to online, which means a ride request could happen at any time. “If they make you wait more than a minute or two from your arrival, I usually dock a star. If they shout at me, that's an immediate two star deduction. If the passenger places a hand on me, it's almost always a 1 star rating.”

Almost always?”

I offer a sheepish grin. “I let the pretty girls get away with it most of the time. Sue me. It's a judgment call. Most things like this are. Basically, if they're making your life at all miserable for any reason, don't five star them. If you give someone a one-star rating, they're never riding in your car again, so maybe don't do that very often, but if a guy's a prick, fuck'em. Give him the low rating and don't pick up anyone with less than 4 stars, ever.”

“People with less than four stars can still call for cars?”

“Shit, I don't know how corporate takes passengers out of the system, if they even do. They don't explain that to us peons. But I see people with people with 3.6 or 3.8 ratings calling for a ride every now and then, and I do not pick those up, no matter how good the money might be. I like surge pricing, but all it takes is one shitty passenger to ruin your entire night, and if you think you're going to get fair recompense for that from Uber, holy shit, are you gullible.”

“So why does Uber tell us all that stuff if it doesn't do us any good? The water, the charger, holding the door...”

“Well, some of it's for the Uber Black drivers, but you're driving a Prius and I'm driving an Altima, so neither one of us qualify there. For the most part, it doesn't cost Uber anything to tell us to do this kind of stuff, so if even a few drivers believe that nonsense, they win. The rest of us, we are penny pinching every nickel and dime to try and survive off this shit until we can get back to having jobs in the real world, assuming that day ever comes.”

“You too, huh?”

“You, me and everybody,” I sigh. There's some sort of weird assumption from people that Uber drivers are happy doing what they're doing. I've never understood that. None of us are getting rich at it. We're burning our cars down to the ground. Even with the incentives, you're either working into the overtime estimate or you're losing money, sometimes both. It's not guaranteed income, either. I'd rather have a day job doing something I love, in a heartbeat. This kid'll learn, sooner or later. “Oh, if anyone offers you a cash tip, you say thank you and you pocket that fucker immediately, no matter what they told you in orientation. A'ight, look Carlos. You know the 7-11 just up that way? The one by the frat houses?”

“Sure, the one with the coffee shop in the parking lot.”

“Right. Me and a handful of other drivers meet up there sometimes around 1:30 am on the weekends. If you want, swing by there, and you can meet some of the local riff raff who are driving around the South Bay. Uber's gone out of their way to make sure drivers don't connect with one another, so we gotta stick together in this shit, y'know?”

Carlos reaches out and shakes my hand again. “Hey, thanks man. I appreciate the tips and tricks. I swear, it feels like they don't want to tell us anything, so it's good to get the lay of the land from someone in the field.”

I head back towards my car, nodding. “One last thing, Carlos. If you scrub out early, don't feel bad. Not a lot of drivers make it past their first few months. That's why they're constantly spamming you with requests for you to refer new drivers. This gig's not for everyone, and there's no shame in getting out and working at a McDonald's or something if you can't take it.” Assuming McDonald's will hire you. I've been told I'm overqualified the last dozen or so times I applied at a fast food joint. And the number of people with retail jobs is shrinking. Less store fronts and more online shopping means less jobs on the ground. But Carlos has that look in his eyes that says he hasn't thought about any of that yet. He hadn't even thought there was the possibility he wouldn't want to be doing this nonstop moving forward.

“What are the odds of that?”

I shrug, pulling my door open. “70/30 against you lasting. I mean, that's anecdotal, but we'll see how you shape up in the long run. Later, man.” I hop back into the car, pull the door closed , put my foot on the brake and push the button to bring the car to life, just in time to hear the sound of my phone pinging, a request for a lift.

Looks like 4.6 stars, nine blocks away. Sure, why not.

Let's go pick up this Arturo.

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