Her rating is 4.2.
I accept the ride automatically, like I do with all my Uber requests. The ping comes in and I tap the flashing icon on my iPhone as quickly as possible before it expires. I don’t even look at the passenger name. I’m too busy fighting traffic to reach the pinned location. But at a red light, I press the link in the Uber app that opens up the passenger info screen. That’s when I notice Julia’s rating.
In the four months I’ve been driving for Uber, this is the worst passenger rating I’ve seen. Even though very few Uber passengers have five-star ratings, they’re usually around 4.8 or 4.7. So as I approach Hyde and O’Farrell, I can’t help but wonder why Julia’s previous drivers had rated her so low.
I pull into a bus stop, hit the hazards, and look around. Nobody in sight. Maybe that’s the problem. Making your driver wait longer than a minute will definitely cost you a star. In the Tenderloin, two stars. At least. I’m lucky I have a space to pull into. Otherwise I’d be double-parked in the flow of traffic, getting honked at by spiteful cab drivers or possibly rear-ended by a disoriented tourist. I wait five minutes, watching my side mirrors in case a bus approaches. Just as I’m about to cancel the ride, my phone rings.
“We’re on Jones, between Eddy and Turk. Uber messed up our address.”
A likely story. Probably doesn’t know how to use the damn app. Inputting the wrong pick up location is another way to lose a star.
“Okay. I’m right around the corner. See you in a sec.”
Fortunately, I don’t have to circle four blocks on the one-way streets downtown. Just take a left at Eddy and a right on Jones. Pull up behind a double-parked taxi. A woman and a man wave at me. I unlock the doors.
“Sorry about that,” Julia says, as she slides across the back seat. The man climbs in next to her.
“No worries.” I pull into traffic. Glance at the cabbie eyeing me wearily. “The app can be a little janky at times.”
“McCallister and Baker,” the man tells me. “Do you need the exact address?”
“Nah. We’ll sort it out when we get there.”
I turn right onto Turk and head towards the Western Addition. I figure they’ll give me the silent treatment. Like most Uber passengers. Which, in the ratings playbook, is another lost point.
“How’s your night going so far?” the man asks.
“It’s cool. How you guys doing?”
“We just came from the Power Exchange,” he says.
“Do you know the Power Exchange?”
“A sex club,” Julia says with a hint of derision.
I can’t tell by her voice if she’s telling me because they’d wandered in by mistake or on purpose. “Really?”
“Yeah. But it was lame,” the man tells me. “We were the only couple there.”
“Just lots of dudes jerking off,” Julia says. “Following us around and asking if they could join in.” She laughs. “It was so gross.”
“There was that one woman giving a blowjob,” the guy points out.
“Ugh. But she was so fat and the dude was covered in hair… I had to turn away.”
At a stoplight, I glance in my rearview. They are an attractive couple. She’s made up like a three-alarm fire and he’s got the international man of mystery vibe down pat. In a club full of dudes looking to wank it to people having sex in public, I can see how they would be popular.
“Was this your first trip to a sex club?” I ask, since they seem inclined to converse and I’m curious.
“Oh yeah. And probably the last.” Julia laughs.
“It’s not like we were able to do anything,” the man says. “Whenever we started making out, the guys would swarm.”
“We left after twenty minutes,” says Julia.
“I guess that was something we needed to experience so we’d never have to try again,” the man tells her.
“I mean, if circumstances were different…”
“Oh, sure… but they’d have to be very different circumstances…”
Their voices go lower. It’s obvious I’m no longer part of the discussion. I focus on driving. Watch for errant pedestrians and wobbling bicyclists. I tap my fingers on the steering wheel at the lights. The Pixies are playing on the iPod hardwired into my stereo, but the sound is barely perceptible. I keep the volume low and faded to the front speakers when I have passengers in the car. Nobody likes rock music anymore. It’s all about deep house, EDM and dubstep, which I had to google after hearing the term mentioned constantly.
When I get close to the couple’s location, I ask which street they’re on, Baker or McCallister.
“Baker,” Julia says. “About halfway down on the right. Next to that streetlight.”
I pull over in front of an Edwardian apartment building and end the ride. “Have a good night.”
“You too. Drive safe.”
“I’ll do my best.”
I rate her five stars. Like I do with all my passengers. Unlike most Uber drivers, I adhere to the philosophy: live by the rating, die by the rating.
I go back online. Head down Divisadero and wait for another ping.
Image by Irina and Kelly Dessaint.
(an excerpt from the zine Behind the Wheel 2: Notes from an Uber/Lyft)
Most days, I wake up around noon. Usually hung-over. My first thought is always the same: probably should’ve skipped that last drink. At the time, though, it felt absolutely necessary. Vodka has a way of alleviating some of the physical stress from driving a car all night. At least temporarily.
After several months of driving for Lyft and Uber, my neck is like an open wound. The muscles that run from my shoulder to my jaw are steel rods. I have very little radius when I turn my head left or right. The tension never goes away. It makes my teeth ache. There is a real possibility that I have some dislocated vertebrae. My joints hurt. My right ankle has a creak in it. And I have a chronic case of hemorrhoids. No matter how much ointment I apply, they remain perpetually enflamed. Old age has not only crept up on me, it has run past me and turned around to taunt me.
Besides the physical exhaustion of driving a car in the city, there is also the psychological toll. It’s one thing to maintain a diligent eye on my blind spots, the other cars on the road, speeding bicyclists and cavalier pedestrians, but I also have to project a sunny disposition and be accommodating to my passengers. Or risk a negative rating. Not an easy task when I’d rather be committing murder. And yet, with enough Ativan and caffeine in my system, somehow I make it through another shift. Like when the endorphins kick in after a boot to the nut sack, these superficial interactions with complete strangers have a numbing effect after awhile. As long as it’s busy and I have enough rides to keep my mind off the grueling process. The slow nights can be torture and I can’t wait to get home so I can pummel my brain with alcohol, pills and weed until I stop obsessing over the streets of San Francisco, their order and how they intersect with each of the forty-seven neighborhoods.