Friday, September 12, 2014

from iserman to uber man

This past March, fresh from Peace Corps and with more time than money or common sense on my hands, I decided to give driving for Uber a whirl. I was partly inspired by this piece in GQ by Mickey Rapkin and its depiction of taxi driving as a form of entertainment: "The job becomes akin to binge-watching a TV series late at night on Netflix:", he writes, "Okay, just one more." In fact, that became my mantra. No Netflix, just Uber. Instead of catching up on the years of Breaking Bad I missed in Ukraine, I got up to speed on what's on the minds of American University and George Washington students (who by far constitute the majority of Uber riders in DC, presumably because of how easy it must be to enter mom's credit card into the app).

What I found, among other things, is that GW students are just absolutely the worst.

Let's just take last night for example. I started the evening by chauffeuring a pair of young women (college women always travel in twos and always have amusing conversations) to the Foggy Bottom Metro stop ($7.45) while one of them commented on how my barebones Jetta compared to her BMW 750Li. Bored with this, they moved on to talk about birthdays. “My mom misses me so on my birthday now that I’m at school. She always gives me 100 times my age to go shopping? So like, this year I got $1919.19? [here’s where her bff interjects: “Mine does that too!”] But this year she gave me a little extra just because felt bad she couldn’t be here to see me.”

Dubious math aside, giving any child that much money “for shopping” is obscene.

Or this exchange on a recent Saturday morning, between two girls going from student housing to Kafe Leopold in Georgetown ($8.23):

Student #1: “I don’t know what I’m going to get for brunch. I feel like having breakfast, but I should have a salad. I’m so fat.”
Student #2: “Ugh, me too. I’m so fat. I’m definitely getting a salad.”
Student #1: “I dunno. I kind of want eggs.”
Student #2: “Well you get breakfast and I’ll get lunch. The perfect brunch!”
Student #1: “Huh, breakfast… lunch… that’s kind of funny, it sounds like brunch.”
Student #2: “Uh… yeah.”
Student #1: “Oh my god, is that where that comes from?”

But there are other people who are also the worst. Be wary on weeknights after 9 pm when picking people up from downtown—that’s when high-powered Stress Freaks emerge from their lairs, like this guy:

SF: “I used to be an investment banker in New York, but then I came here to work on economic development for the White House.”
Me: “Do you like it?”
SF: “Well it’s definitely not the kind of pace I’m used to. I have to book my own travel because people are teleworking four days a week. And the pay is kind of a joke—just a fraction of what I’m used to. I like DC itself ok, from what I’ve seen.”
Me: “What kinds of differences do you notice?”
SF: “In New York, people are full of themselves, but they have the money to back it up. Here, everyone is so focused on their title and their status, but they don’t have the money to justify being like that. Maybe that’s a douchey thing to say, but it’s true.”

Like Rapkin, I have grown to love the way driving a taxi gives me a birds-eye view of what’s happening in the city. Part of this is facilitated directly by Uber—they send emails and texts to let drivers know about the week’s events and their locations. But even without that initial heads up, all you have to do is look at the heat map of the city on the driver app to see where DC’s young and beautiful people are concentrated. On weeknights, it’s Foggy Bottom and the western edge of downtown. Weekend mornings, Georgetown and the waterfront. On Friday night, U Street, Chinatown, H Street.

Speaking of demand, I absolutely loathe surge pricing. Just hate it. Whenever I see a part of the city starting to turn from orange to red, meaning riders will have to pay a multiplier of the normal fare, I try to get out of that zone as fast as possible. The reason is easy to understand: as soon as the price of taking an Uber becomes twice as expensive, I get passengers half as quickly, if that. The worst part of driving (besides GW students) is sitting in the car waiting. These days, now that Uber’s lowered prices and its user base is growing, the time between passengers is usually short, but as soon as surge pricing goes into effect, I’ll find myself sitting for as long as an hour before some heedless spendthrift decides it’s worth spending $40 to get from their happy hour in Dupont Circle to their home in Friendship Heights. Something is obviously broken about that, because the ostensible purpose of surge pricing is to attract more drivers to get on the road. But hey, I’m just a driver.

As a driver I’ve seen a fair bit of crazy stuff in my back seat. Makeouts. Awkward first dates. A multimillion dollar contract being signed by two businessmen on the way to the airport. A breakup. A member of Congress. I’ve driven journalists on their way to cover a protest, and soldiers on their way home from deployment. At this point, I’m way too hooked on the experience to give it up (lord knows the pittance they pay these days isn’t worth it alone). I’m in it for the stories. So if you see me behind the wheel in DC I hope you have a good story to share. And it had better not be about your classes at GW.

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