Plague Driver

The New Normal
At some point during the pandemic, I knew that I'd have to get back in the car, turn on the apps (I drive for Lyft and Uber) and do the side hustle. Today, after a little more than two months on the sidelines, was the day.

It did not come without a *great* deal of hesitation. I'm the breadwinner for my family and currently on at will contract for a tech company, which means that my health benefits are mostly vapor. My wife and children have risk factors that make their continued health far from a given. Our financial situation is better than a lot of people, and I'm very grateful to be working during the recession. But if the contract is terminated -- and it's at-will, with  budget cuts announced for other aspects of the program this week -- we are f*****.

Rideshare won't solve any of that, of course. But supplemental income may help us to get the credit card level down a little more, especially if we're lucky with car repair and maintenance. My Honda has taken over 15K riders to where they wanted to go, and has made me over six figures in three years of doing this. Without this income, we would be in a much worse place than we are right now.

I haven't been hesitant to do the side work just for health reasons. I've also been more than a little cynical that there would be any demand. Most of my work pre-pandemic was college students (gone), pick ups from train stations (yeah, that should be gone too), grabs from bars in late night (closed)... so I kind of doubted there would be any pings.

In the two months since I've made a pick up, there have been laws passed in New Jersey that require me to sticker my car with my photo on the back rear windows. This is more than a little irritating, frankly; outing myself as a driver when I am not, and giving my name to anyone who sees my car is more than a trifling indignity, but so be it. I also removed anything from the car that would inspire additional touches, so good bye to the water bottles, cough drops and breath mints that used to be in the ride, along with the courtesy trash can. That last one wouldn't have worked anyway, because the latest word is that you should drive with the windows down to increase ventilation and lower your risk, and contents would leave the liner. Needless to say, I'm also going to say no if people ask if they can charge their phone now, too.

Removing all of the side stuff is likely going to harm my rating and definiely my potential for tips, but during a pandemic, my guess is ratings are going to stay high enough as is. People who need rides aren't going to limit their choices so much, and if you give a driver three stars or less, you're out of their lives for good.

 A final once over from the car wash, and a wipedown with Clorox wipes that we had in the house pre-pandemic, finished the car prep in about a half hour.

Now that the car was prepped, it was time for myself. A friend of my eldest gifted her with a small box of N95 masks, so that's my base level. My wife has made fabric masks, that goes on top. The eldest started work this week in a plant that shifted to produce face sheilds, and nabbed me one. Yellow rubber gloves are my permanent go-to for shopping trips. It's hard to use the phone with those, so I saved them for between trip pick ups, when I'd wipe down places the last passenger might have touched. No one's allowed to sit in the front seat anymore, and shared rides are also out. I grabbed a return water cooler jug for the Home Depot, and turned on Uber. I thought I'd switch on both that and Lyft and drive to the store, and see if I got lucky enough to get a ride or two to pay for sundries today.

I never got to the Depot.

So... good news and bad news, really.

First, the good news. Eight rides and $81 in three hours is a reasonable return on investment for the hustle, even pre-pandemic. I didn't run into anyone actively rude, or anyone that made me very afraid for my health. I spent the entire time either driving someone or en route to driving someone, and $12 of my take was surge. I took 9 out of 10 ride offers, only got one cancel, and didn't have any incidents of real note. $81 might not sound like a lot to you, or enough to run any kind of health risk, but this is pretty much my only way to add income right now. And we need to add income.

Now, the bad. Less than half of my riders wore masks, and only one person wore gloves. Conversation through the PPE is pretty much a non-starter, and the number of people walking the streets without a mask on a nice Saturday was even lower than the percentage of people masked up in my car. My area is also top 10 in the country in terms of per capita virus impact, so questioning this decision is something I can do whenever I want.

Driving with PPE eventually gave me a tension headache, and the lack of access to my mouth also meant I didn't take a drink or use a cough drop while driving. With the world mostly closed, so are public restrooms, so I don't know if I'm going to be able to take much in the way of long rides, which is generally where the hustle does better on per hourly income rates. My fares were almost all from poor neighborhoods, and one of them, I think, just pounded a bong for 35 minutes while I was thankful that the new normal is a lot of ventilation.

As I write this, I'm looking over my finances, and adding would help. I'm also feeling a slight something in the back of my throat, which is almost certainly indigestion from dinner or seasonal allergies, but also could be yeah I should think of something else now.

Tomorrow, in all likelihood, I'm going to get back in the car and try to get to the Depot again.

I'll also, in all likelihood, turn on the apps.

Wish me luck. I need it.

You Brave

No caption needed. Move along, you.
Thoughts from a ride share during the early stages of a pandemic...

I'm doing the hustle on a weeknight in Trenton, the struggling capital of New Jersey that's only a few property value busting miles away from my home. It's where you find short rides, poor ratings and no tips, and the occasional incredulous look from a passenger when they realize the driver doesn't share their skin color. Or much else beyond the transaction. I'm there fairly often, because short rides frequently serve my purpose of trying to qualify for bonuses.

The hustle these days is part time (nights and weekends), when there isn't something more pressing going on. The reason why is that I'm working in my field again for a reasonable salary, but one that hasn't gone up since... gulp, 2013. So if I want to make more, I either need to consult or, in the last 3 years and 15K+ rides, this.

This has been here all that time. And now, suddenly, it might not. I get a fair number of rides from college kids, and that's done now. I get more from people going to train stations and yeah, not so much now. Still more go or come from airports, or sporting events, or concerts. The last part is folks coming home from bars and laundromats and grocery stores. I think they'll still do that. Probably.

So I'm in Trenton, and I get my fare. He's chatty, and tells me about his sister who drove for a platform, and how she got killed. "You do this, man? You brave."

And I don't know if he's messing with me or not, and I've heard variations of this conversation before -- honestly, after 15K rides, the conversations I haven't heard are rare -- so I fall to my default, which is to talk about how the app knows who the rider is, and who wants to jack my 10-year-old Honda with 299K miles that's secretly a great car, but only if you are OK with small and not much pick up, and, well, most people aren't. I drop him off and go on with my day, but the words stick.

You brave.

Well, maybe. Or any number of other words -- stubborn, stupid, depressed, doomed, lucky, short-sighted, desperate, debased -- because...

One of these rides really might end in something unfortunate.

Even more so now, in the starting days of a pandemic. Every time one of my passengers coughs now, I wonder. And every time I touch my face (stop touching your face), and for them, every time I sniff (seasonal allergies, honest), they probably wonder.

It's not like I'm taking their temperature before I let them in the car, after all. And it's also not as if my car is completely clean. It gets attention at the start of my shift, not during. (Unless there's been an obvious problem.)

It's stupid to risk my health and the health of my family. But I can't really pay back my debt if I don't have side hustle money. I'm a contractor on a contract these days, and these days are not made for keeping every conractor. Side hustle could be main again. Make the money while you still can.

In a world without sports, or travel, or public gatherings. At least for a little while.

You brave.

As long as I can be, sir. As long as I can be.

3/12/20 - Update: I'm taking a break for now. Too many cases reported close by, and while I think I can do this safely - bleach surfaces between rides and do a fever check before allowing entry - the risk is too high to friends and familiy. I'm pretty sure we are going to find super spreaders in the rideshare industry. In a full shift, I can easily be sharing the air with 50 people a day.

But, well, money's right. I might change my mind later. Not sure.

It Was The Best Of Rides, It Was The Worst Of Rides

Image result for the best of times the worst of times
Not, to my knowledge, a rideshare driver
I'm doing the hustle on a Saturday night, and trying to stay close to my home base because it's cold and dark and such. Besides, there are no big surge prices going on, so I might as well be in the area where I know all of the traffic patterns and where the decent public bathrooms are.

This gets me a ride from one of the best hotels in Princeton, going south, a little after midnight. The couple endures a long wait as I got the ping 20 minutes away during Destination Mode, so I apologize for the delay while I'm doing my usual water, mints and cough drops routine. They have no issues with it, and with the vibe that conversation is encouraged, I ask what brought them to Princeton.

The answer is a wedding, a friend of the bride's that she reconnected with from childhood thanks to social media, and they were struck by just how great the event was. This leads me to bring up my wedding bona fides, in that my spouse is a music professonal that has played hundreds of them. It turns out that the couple is married for ten years, she's a sixth-grade English teacher and he's a clinical psychologist who specializes on people working on subtance abuse addiction.

We had a great conversation, told our meet-cute spouse stories, got philosohical about ways to reach children who have to acccept revisions as part of the creative cycle, and so on. Honestly, one of the top 0.1% of rides I've ever given, and as the cherry on top, they tipped on the app. (Yes, we do know who does that and who doesn't.) When I left, I was significantly closer to my revenue goal for the night, and genuinely happy to have had the experience to provide a service to them.

For this, I made $26.03. Five dollar tip.

An hour later, I'm still more south and away from any surge areas, in a part of Mount Laurel I haven't been in so much. I get a ping that promises to take me 15 minutes north, so I'm in. The pick up is at Top Golf, a super-neon entertainment complex that is, frankly, usually trouble. You get badly drunk people here, in that they tend to overdo things, and they have enough cash to look down on my battered small Honda. But a ping is a ping, so here I am.

The pick up is for a guy, who gets in the back seat with his girl, who sits in the middle and leaves the door open, despite the extreme cold weather. They are doing this because they want to make sure I can't leave without the rest of their party, which turns out to be a big bearded guy who barely fits in the back seat, and the final member of the troupe; his girlfriend.

She's a woman having some combination of nervous breakdown, Tourette's level profanity spree, and frequent threats of suicide, intermixed with gasping and breathing fits that sounds like she's going to die. She's in the front seat, and has zero filter or care that she's acting like this in front of a total stranger.

 She's ten pounds of terrifying in a five pound bag, basically.

So I'm outnumbered, outsized and way out-crazied, and I get to take these folks 16 minutes and 10 miles up the road. Normally I insist on having a front seat passenger click their seat belt, because it's the law and my car beep at me a lot, but there was not a moment during this entire ride where she wasn't either screaming profanities, threatening to kill herself by jumping out of the car (I put the child locks on withouth anyone noticing) or hyperventilating in a way that made me think she was close to vomiting. Her boyfriend decided to answer her abuse with sarcasm and belittlement, and the other two in the back kept engaging him in idle conversation or asking me to turn up the music louder as if there was any way to ignore this person in these quarters.

Now, I've had folks in my life in bad emotional states. I've often manged to be a resource in these situations, to be able to talk to them, give them support and help them get to a calmer and better emotional state.

But this woman... I don't know her, I'm never going to see her again in my life, and I have no idea if engaging in her would have resulted in some kind of physical altercation or her just seizing the wheel and trying to take us all out with her.

So instead, I was as silent as the grave, got them to their location, and drove away.

I also gave them one star, because the app does not let you give someone zero stars. For the base reason of being responsible to other drivers, none of whom should have to endure this kind of display and callousness... and at the end of my shift, noted with the kind of "Of Course" shrug that you get when terrible people do terrible things, I found that I had a fresh one star rating of my own, with seven complaints about every aspect of the ride that a passenger can rank, some of which have never been ranked badly in the previous 15K or so rides I've given.

(Note: I had no complaints before this ride, so, yeah, pretty sure it was them. Also, since my ranking went down from 4.91 to 4.9 after this, I can take the hit.)

For this, I made $10.14. No tip.

The trick as a rideshare driver is, honestly, trying to remember the first ride in this blog post as much as you remember the second.

But saying you should do that and actually doing that are two different things...

Part-Time Driver, Full-Time Guilt

Yup, So Me
For the last three weeks, folks, I've been almost entirely *not* a ride share driver. There's a new contract job for my actual career that's occupying my whole head and nearly bringing in enough to keep me from thinking about money and debt and obligations every minute of the day. Since it's a contract gig, it's also not one that I can say a lot about, or anything that I feel overwhelmingly secure in... but so far, it's going pretty well, and I'm doing all I can to make sure they can't live without me, for, well, ever.

All of which means that the job that I was doing pretty much full time (and truth be told, 1.5 - 2X full time, because money) has more or less gone poof. Here are the hours to prove it.

Jan 60.6
Dec 213.7
Nov 261.55
Oct 233.8
Sept 162.9
August 258.45
Keep in mind that almost all of the January hours are in the week before the new gig started. There was also a very high spike around New Year's. I track this stuff by the week more than the month, because that's how you are paid, so this isn't perfect, but it's close enough for trend analysis.

Now, it's not as if I've suddenly gotten a *ton* of my time back. With commute, the day gig is pretty much a 60 hour a week job,  a rough swap out for the time that I used to spend behind the wheel. I could and likely will do more ride share hours on nights and weekends, especially if something unfortunate happens with the accountant or the kids or the house or my teeth or what else.

But what is clear to me is that the nearly 2K hours that I logged in 2018, and the nearly 3K hours in 2019, is much more likely going to be in the 1K range this year. Maybe even less, if other opportunities crop up. (Which is the reason why September and October dropped, by the way.)

What happens if you are a full-time driver that stops doing the work? Well, Lyft has been seeing less and less of me for the better part of a year now, just because they aren't as good at keeping drivers busy in central New Jersey, where I live now. That's been an interesting back and forth of carrot and stick, in terms of trying to bribe me into driving enough to reach a higher status. Uber actually texted me the other day to see if anything was wrong, and they've been offering re-start bonus structures with dramatically lower ride counts. In other words, pretty standard reactivation marketing tricks.

The bigger mental hurdle involved after you've been Gig Economy for a while is that... well, you start to put a price on your leisure. And maybe even your sleep, or your health. Tonight, I had to catch up on some work for the contract job, and I also wanted to watch a basketball game... which I'm pretty sure "cost" me a couple of hundred bucks, given that I missed a Saturday night with college kids in the area, not to mention those bonus bucks. 

When you can sell any free hour of your week, and you've spent years doing more or less that... well, it feels *wrong* not to. Selfish, even.

That's the really dark side of gig work, folks. How easily it puts money to choices that you never had before. Go to the gym? We've got bills to pay. Help with the education of our youngest? Take care of some housework, play with your dogs, read a book or play music or enjoy a video game or... 

Anything, really. 

Clock's running. 

Don't you need the money more?

All About Tipping

Image result for tipping
No, I Have No Change
Recently, I heard an episode of "Freakonomics" while in the car doing the rideshare hustle. The episode talked with an economist who looked at tipping in the Uber app, and shared the following "surprising" findings.

1) Introducing tipping didn't improve the per hour revenue for drivers. Mostly because it got more drivers into the pool, and more drivers in the pool means less surge pricing and fewer rides per hour.

2) A very small percentage of passengers tip. Something like 7% always do, and over 60% never do. This seems odd, considering that nearly 100% of cab riders tip, but I get it - the dynamic is different and the transaction is all digital. It's just not as expected. But should be. (The percentage of my take-home amount from tipping is, to be fair, less than 7%, and has dropped from around 9% when I worked out on the West Coast.)

3) Men tip more often than women, and women drivers get more tips than men. Again, not very surprising. That's just how sexism works!

All of this seems fine and correct. But here's a few more from my own experience (15K rides and counting) that you can also take to the bank.

1) Shared or pool riders rarely, if ever, tip. Not too surprising, right? These folks are trying to spend as little as possible pretty often, rather than doing an environmentally conscious act.

2) Riders in economically disadvantaged areas also rarely tip. Again, not surprising. I tend to work these areas often, because the ride density is strong and I'm frequently chasing a ride bonus. If you don't have it, you're not sharing it. Or if you get the gist that I might (shh!) make more than you do, and am just doing this as a side hustle.

3) Airport riders, especially with luggage, tip. I tend to hop out of the car and grab the bags, mostly to speed the ride along. Airport rides also tend to be longer, and...

4) Long rides tip more than short ones. You have more time to get to know the passenger, and most folks know that airport rides are unpleasant for the driver. If someone is taking you out to the middle of nowhere, they also tend to feel bad and try to compensate for that.

5) Routine commuters are unlikely to tip. A fair amount of my rides come from supermarkets and train stations, and for these folks, the cost of the rideshare is something they are thinking hard about.

6) Folks who are (knowingly) paying a surge price. Which is, to be fair, a pretty small percentage, and leads to the next one...

7) Drunk people tip. Especially if they are feeling self-conscious about how much time they've spent talking through the ride.

8) If they match your demographic, or have something in common with you... they're gonna tip. People who wind up linking to me on LinkedIn don't want to start the relationship without throwing a few extra bucks on the ride.

9) Older riders tip. Most often in cash, and highly considered amounts, after a startling amount of conversation. Sometimes, I want to give it back, especially if they appear to be in poor health... but I never do. It'd be insulting, honestly.

10) Other people who work for tips. Waitresses, bartenders -- these folks respect hustle, and game respects game.

The best tipping person in my career as a rideshare driver is a waitress who has gotten me a half dozen times, and always tipped hard -- and I repaid the favor just this last week with a visit to her restaurant. We asked for her special, waited longer to get one of her tables, and hit the check with a 25% gratuity, in cash. It's how I roll, folks. (At least, when I can afford it.)

Bonus: The people who tip... always tip. And yes, this includes me. If your service stinks, it might just be a buck, but I want to live in a world where rideshare drivers can make a living. Which is possible if we just treat them, well, like the cab drivers they are replacing...

Plague Driver

The New Normal At some point during the pandemic, I knew that I'd have to get back in the car, turn on the apps (I drive for Lyft an...