Glimpsing the Machine

Sunday Letter | #341

For two weeks last spring, right before the pandemic hit, I was a Lyft driver. I wondered if it’d be a way through my usual afternoon slump, a change in activity and sociality after a morning staring at computer screens. I wondered about the economics of it, the resulting hourly wage and its feasibility as a side gig. But mostly, I think I was curious about the experience in general. What was it like, as a whole, to be a rideshare driver?

I filled out the application and picked up my rental at the local hub, across the way from the Masonic Temple. I bought a bulk-pack of bottled water and interior detailing wipes. I nearly flubbed my first pickup because I wasn’t used to the laxer standing norms for service vehicles, hadn’t yet learned the subtle visual cues of an expectant rider. I remembered stories my parents would tell of when we first moved to the States, of Dad’s tips from delivering pizza and Chinese food getting wiped out by parking fines. When later in the year Julia and I watched this episode of Ramy, I’d feel an unexpected kinship with the mother character who, out of loneliness, starts driving too.

As with any job or task, it’s easy to overlook – until you start doing it yourself – all its idiocyncracies. The strike against my airport record for not taking the right ramp to the designated pickup zone. The words “Buy American” sharpied on a wall in a port-a-john in the airport staging lot. The time I waited for fifteen minutes on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere only to realize that, likely due to some design oversight in the app or phone’s OS, the rider’s errant finger swipe dropped their location pin miles away from their actual location.

Though: these are more than idiosyncracies, more than even annoyances. You start to see, through them, the impossible situations that drivers face every day. You might drive twenty minutes to your next pickup only to find that you can’t accept it because it voilates ride guidelines, and you end up losing the fare – and risk upsetting the passenger, who could leave you a bad rating, which then you have to reach out to driver support, on your own unpaid time, to try to undo. I can easily imagine drivers who, not wanting to lose that fare, choose to accept the ride and risk violating the terms of service. I imagine that they make this choice in a split second as they pull up to their pickup destination. I imagine that this happens every single day.

Another surprise for me was that most of the rides I gave were not the kinds of rides I took myself. Few and far between were airport trips or shuttling groups of friends to restaurants and bars early Friday night. Far more frequent were one-mile trips to the grocery store, or taking home a group of co-workers splitting a ride from their drugstore jobs, in areas without reliable bus service. Other times I’d drive someone out to their night shift at a metal stamping factory in an airport-halo industrial park I’d otherwise have no reason to be in. I saw, with my own eyes, the Amazon fulfillment center that I’ve seen listed countless times in order tracking updates. Reader, I glimpsed the global supply chain, and the humans who make it all work. And for two weeks at least, I was one of those humans.

I’ve heard of Buy Nothing groups, and maybe a way to ease into them would be to start by only buying or paying for things which you have tried to do or make yourself. If you’ve cooked food for yourself, or even attempted to sew together something as basic as a duvet cover (two rectangles, three straight lines), you have at least reckoned with the value of your own time and, in turn, someone else’s. This doesn’t free you from the particular transactional bind of a consumer society – of seeing everything human activity as exchange in value. But I think it reveals to you some of the seams, at least.

In March of 2020, after two weeks of being a rideshare driver, I came to a crossroads. I’d had enough a feel by then for being a driver, and if I wanted to keep doing it part-time, and I wanted it to make financial sense, the best approach would be to finance a separate used vehicle, something like a 2016 Kia Soul. But to me the accident risk I was taking on from being on the road that much more (car crashes are a leading cause of injury and death), wasn’t worth it. There was also the fact that my parents were under lockdown in Shanghai, and I was getting increasingly worried about Covid-19 hitting the States. I stopped, because I could afford to stop – a privilege not every driver has.

One week later, all the stores were out of toilet paper.