Photo of a car driving at night in an unidentifiable city,
Gig work, especially ridershare and food delivery, places me back on the streets where so much of life is happening for so many people — where I belong if I'm to be of any use; photo by Chait Goli via Pexels.

Thoughts on my modestly lucrative role in human trafficking*

February 4, 2023

Rideshare driving in the projects sucks. The tips, if you get any, typically barely cover the gas, and passengers have figured out ways to game the gig so that you end up driving some number of miles for free. If someone summons me via Uber and needs a ride to their own shitty-paying job, I’ve got some sympathy if they just can’t tip. But the rider who only pays for the miles to the convenience store (and not back again) for a carton of smokes and a six pack? You’re not getting in my car again if I can help it.

I can decline rides to any neighborhood that doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies. I’ll keep picking up riders from the projects because, as the single mom who totally gamed me last week complained from the back seat, “most of the Uber drivers around here are racist. They won’t pick up here, so thank you — you’re one of the good ones.”

Yeah. One of the good ones. That’s me, alright. But she’s not wrong. I’ve been on the forums for gig drivers. A lot of racist rideshare drivers for sure, and they don’t care who knows.

My phone jingled my attention. Uber wants me to go pick up “Roger.”

I was actually pretty surprised to see that Roger needed a rideshare. I haven’t picked up a single man in the projects in the couple of weeks I’ve been driving gigs. I tapped the “Directions” button on my app and let the slightly bossy navigation voice (Gladys, I’ve named her) guide me to my fare. I glided up to the curb and waited. 

“She’s getting ready. She’ll be right out,” Roger texted me through the app.

That’s fine. I’m getting paid to sit her and wait. She can take all the time she wants. Although…if Roger wasn’t going to be my passenger, who is “she?” People use their accounts to shuttle significant others across town all the time. Likewise, parents rideshare their kids to soccer practice and to pick them up after play practice. At 10:30 p.m., any scenario was possible.

A few minutes later, another message. “Sorry to keep you waiting. I promise she’s almost ready!” Roger assured me. I tapped out a message about how I’d never leave someone stranded on a cold night like this. He replied, “We need more drivers like you. You’re the best!”

That’s me, again. Just the best.

The minute she climbed into the back seat, I knew she was going to be an issue. My sinuses recoiled in allergic horror at the gardenia-sweet scent she’d drenched herself with. I popped a Halls in my mouth as a form of Menthol-Lyptus defense and positioned my KN95 snugly on my face. In the  darkness of the back seat, I couldn’t get much of a look at her. She was young, dressed like she was ready for a night on the town. Her oversized handbag seemed out of place — a simple, slim clutch would have been more in line with her outfit, but who am I to judge? I can’t leave the house without my backpack, so I get wanting enough gear that you’re ready for anything. She returned my greeting curtly, but with a quick smile still, and I saw that the intensity of makeup application just about matched her level of perfume. In the flash of the glimpse I had of her face, the bold red of her lips and heavy mascara placed her at 28. Or 23. Or 18.

Originally, I only planned to DoorDash. A coworker at the van company I was working at told me he’d started moonlighting, driving food around the county and was finding that it paid pretty well. I figured, though, what the hell? Go all in and shuttle humans around between lunch and dinner. The Albany airport is a pretty popular destination, though the majority of rides seem to be taking people to work, either when their car won’t start or they don’t have a car or license to begin with. And about 75 percent of them rave about how much cheaper Uber is than the local taxi company, “Do you know this ride would have cost me at least $30 if I took a cab?”

Rideshare price? $8. Tip? $0.

Whatevs. The trips back to food and rideshare “hot zones” give me a chance to listen to my news podcasts. Parked unobtrusively over at the edge of some strip mall or on some side street, I give my poor little Honda a break, as Chris Hedges or Briahna Joy Gray bring me up to speed on the state of the collapse.

I catch up on the local news, too, of course, and see that the Eagle is directing its vast resources and journalistic talents to the coverage of…potholes. They’re even imploring the public’s assistance in identifying the worst offenders. As a gig driver, I’ll admit that the subject of chuckholes is on my mind every goddamned torn up mile of every day, but still…haven’t you become a parody of yourself when you conjure up John Lennon singing “I read the news today, oh boy!” But hey, potholes are a safe poke at the municipals. Embarrass a town into resurfacing a road, and it’s proof that everybody’s hard at work, fixing the things that matter, right?

In addition to spiriting food around the county, the DoorDash app sends me on brief shopping runs for people. Drug stores typically. There is no pattern to what people want from CVS, which is probably why CVS and Walgreens and the like occupy the weird niche they do. All the little shit you either forgot to get from the supermarket or isn’t worth the hassle of a full-on Stop & Shop stop. Someone in Lenox paid me $12 to drive over to CVS and pick up a $4 bag of candy and drop it off on her porch. Add in the DoorDash fee, and they spent, like, close to $20 on a handful of AirHeads. Minis. Fruit variety. 6 oz. Scan barcode and confirm purchase. Thank you.

Everybody has their thing.

This night, my first shift with the addition of DoorDash shopping, had been slow. The dinner shift was winding down, so I was focusing on Ubering folks around when my phone chimed to let me know I had an “offer.” Walgreens. Okay, I know where that is so don’t need my robotic navigator coming through my speakers ever two minutes. A few minutes later, I tap “Arrived at Store,” and then, “Start Shopping.”

Like every other service industry chain this store is hopelessly understaffed, and the gal who’s tasked with restocking paper goods flat out refuses to help me find the Townhouse crackers the customer wants. Fine. The customer has already indicated that Ritz are an acceptable substitute, so I grab a box of those and some Hint ‘o Lime tortilla chips and a jar of queso dip. I look at the last item on the list.

“Plan B.”

I spun my wheels for a minute. Oh. That Plan B. I found my way to the “Family Planning” section of the pharmacy and looked for a product that you couldn’t even get over the counter when family planning was something I was starting to think about. I couldn’t find it, and enlisted the help of a pharmacist who seemed to take pity on some schmuck who’d unwittingly become a very minor character in what was surely a major drama for someone this weekend.

Back in my car, I buckled up (something I do now with extreme prejudice after witnessing so very much wreckage on the roads in the last few weeks) and turned the heat on full blast. The chill had easily worked its way back into my hooptie in the time I was shopping. I switched my phone back on and tapped the app’s “Proceed to Delivery” button. The address seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place it, so I hit “Navigate” and pulled out of the parking lot onto the main drag.

As I started getting closer to the customers address, I started getting a hollow feeling in my gut. My memory was correct, and I discovered that the drive deposited me at the entrance of a prestigious prep school. I rolled the car slowly down the drive through campus towards a dormitory building, but before I’d even closed half the distance, a student flagged me down. Rapid tapping on the window, hand signals to roll my window down. I left the engine running and got out of the car, so I could reach the bag from the pharmacy that was in the back seats. The student looked furtively around the quickly darkening quad. The name checked out, and I handed over the bag. The teen was gone before I’d even gotten back into the driver’s seat.

I wished I could have said something. Anything. But that’s not my job. And what would I have said, anyway? Driving off grounds and heading to my first Uber passenger, Wayne, of the night, I mostly wished that the store had had Townhouse crackers. They do a better job settling an upset stomach than Ritz.

“Wayne” was a 5’8” redhead who seemed impossibly surefooted over ice in four-inch heels. She’d made me wait a few minutes while she was getting ready, and took a last drag off a cigarette before she flicked it off into the snow. She had the courtesy of exhaling before she climbed in the back — not something all smokers do. She might have been 28. She might have been 38. Hell, in that light, she might have been 48. The makeup she chose was comprised of a lot of light, young-ish hues of soft pink rose on her cheeks and a very subdued red on her lips.

I don’t know if Wayne was where she was coming from or where she was going, but a heady waft of boozy vapor from the back seat let me know that he warranted a good buzz on either to prepare for or to forget. She called me “honey” every third sentence and punctuated her more dramatic assertions by touching my shoulder, sometimes leaving her hand there for a few moments before withdrawing it with a “Oh, there I go! I’m so sorry! You probably don’t want my hands all over you while you’re trying to drive,” and a broad, unapologetic smile.

I admired the fuck out of those qualifying components, too — I mean, I literally studied speech communication in college and I’m not that good on the fly. And when she got got out at her destination and said that she liked to tip in cash, but she didn’t have any bills on her and that Wayne would add a tip on through the app later, I knew she was feeding my a line of absolute bullshit. I didn’t care. Driving away, it occurred to me that she sounded just like the husky GPS navigation voice I’d named Gladys, and now I feel like I need to figure out if there’s another voice option I can set that doesn’t smell so much like Wild Turkey.

I switched back to DoorDashing food for a while. It can be good to have a reset between fares. Sometimes the button doesn’t reset though. I tore up the undercarriage of my Fit delivering really shitty pizza to a really expensive home way the hell out in Richmond. I got into it with a hostess who kept trying to order me out of the restaurant while I was trying to confirm that all the customers items were actually in the bag (the DoorDash app let’s drivers know if a particular location has a history of shorting people on orders). Then a string of picking up food in downtown Pittsfield and driving it way out into the sticks only to have to spend gas getting back to a gig hotspot where I might pick up a decent order and make back some of the money I lost.

I was feeling pretty sour on civilization after a couple hours of that action and decided to switch back to Uber. Maybe I was ready for people again. It was just about 10:30, and I was pretty beat, but I figured I could pick up a couple more quick fares and call it a night.

“So, where are we off to tonight?” I asked the gardenia behind me. I hadn’t bothered to check — I rarely do with Uber.


Awww, fuck a duck…

“Well, then. Away we go.”

“I suppose I can’t smoke in your car.”

I thought for a minute. Would the smell of cigarettes cancel out the perfume? Would it be worth it to have my car reek of what would very likely be garbage smokes for a week or more?

“Yeah, no. If you get desperate, we can stop half-way and you can step out.”

“Fuck that. Too cold out there for that shit.”

We drove in silence after that. Just before we hit the Mass Pike, I offered her my phone so she could commandeer my Spotify. Not only would it fill the silence, but would help me stay awake. My Monster Energy drink had worn off long ago, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to crack open another until at least the way back. She picked a playlist that featured “Today’s Pop Hits” or some such ear candy. Turned out to be perfect. Turns out it’s hard to fall asleep to Pop, either from the ‘80s or the ’20’s, but as I swung my micro-limo onto I-90 Adele, was beseeching, “Go easy on me,” and I had the sense that, again, I’d just taken on a bit part in someone else’s movie.

As we got within 20 minutes of Chicopee, she started to come out with little conversation starters. I turned down the tunes and tried to carry my end, but it was hard. She’d offer up little nuggets, like she was from the Springfield area, but when I asked what brought her to the Berkshires, she’d just go back to staring out the window. She opened again with wishing there was more to do in the Berkshires, and when I asked if she was mostly in the area for work or school, she dropped that she used to go to school, and was thinking of returning. Out of context gripes about she wished she’d appreciated being a kid now that she was an adult. Alternating snippets of forced toughness and sophistication. Not so much uncomfortable as confusing. Every tidbit of info she offered seemed engineered to throw me off the scent of who my passenger was, exactly. Even a little rehearsed at times. This quasi-socializing went on like that until we’d arrived in Chicopee and I needed to pay attention. I apologized for breaking off the discussion and turned up the volume of the navigation voice.

When we arrived at Number 20, my fare lady didn’t get out of the car. She looked out her window at the house set up a short but steep hill close in between two others in a row of nearly identical triple-deckers on a street filled with potholes.

“Is this…is this the house where you’re supposed to bring me?” she asked the window before immediately answering for me, “Yeah. This is where I’m supposed to be going. This is the house, I guess…” And then dropped her handbag so that all the contents spilled out in the back seat and onto the floor of the Honda. She seemed to be having a hard time finding everything, so I flipped on the overhead light for her. I saw the top of her head while she was locating her dropped items, and noticed that she had truly gorgeous, thick dark hair. The kind a lot of women would kill for.

“I got everything. You can turn the light off.”

And I did, but not before I caught a glimpse of her face, young in a way cosmetics can’t hide, as she rearranged her bag and composed herself. I wanted to say something. Anything. But that’s not my job. And what would I have said, anyway?

I didn’t watch her walk up the steps to the porch, but instead rolled the car down the hill in neutral to the stop sign. I reached for my phone and shut off the gig apps. I didn’t feel like taking the Mass Pike back so chose the gasoline-wasting route back to North County on secondary and back roads. 

At the kitchen table well after 1:00 a.m., I sat with the second of several beers in front of me and a cheese sandwich I’d thrown together. My phone jingled at me, and when I looked at the notification, I saw that it was from Uber. Roger had left me a very, very generous tip and a “thank you” for being such a superior driver.

Yeah. That’s me. So fucking superior I can’t even look at myself sometimes. 

Jason Velázquez

Jason Velázquez has worked in print and digital journalism and publishing for two decades.
Phone: (413) 776-5125

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