Of the 20,000 rides I have completed, a handful of them have included no passenger. There was the time a liquor salesman had me pick-up a case of expensive tequila at his hotel in Monterey and run it over to Cultura Comida y Bebida in Carmel, a restaurant whose owner had coincidentally been a very pleasant passenger of mine on a couple prior occasions.
There was the time I had been summoned to a wealthy estate in Brentwood where a Spanish speaking housekeeper came out and handed me two hot trays of food to deliver to an equally opulent beachside apartment in Santa Monica — where a woman who looked identical to the woman who had brought me the cargo (but twenty years younger) received the foiled-covered trays.
“I am not working Uber Eats right now. I am not interested in transporting food,” I had initially protested.
“Que? No habla Ingles. My boss ordered car. She meet you outside when you get there,” came the response from the lady with a puzzled look on her face.
I decided not to debate the fact that she had just given me perfect instructions in English after telling me she spoke none, and figured I would just take up the issue with her boss on the other end. Since in the end, her boss ended up looking like her daughter, I just left it alone.
The hard drive
On two separate occasions, I was asked to carry mysterious objects that had me wondering if I had just unknowingly committed a crime. The first instance happened on a terribly slow weeknight while I was working in Montclair, down the street from my home in Ontario.
The first curiosity was the app displaying “Red Sox” as the name of the passenger. I am a diehard Sox fan so my initial reaction was one of excitement. Usually, I would cancel a trip for an account created under an alias, for I must protect myself. If I don’t, then who will?
After waiting in the dark for a few minutes contemplating cancelling the trip, a man came outside carrying a shoe box in a plastic grocery bag. He said, “This is a hard drive. Can you take it to the address in the app? The guy on the other end will tip you well.”
“Umm, OK.” He had caught me on a slow night in the middle of the week following a car repair. I needed the extra money. Rideshare driving is a wonderful experience and flexible job, but the pay is shit.
On top of the promised tip, it was a decent length trip in the direction of Los Angeles — which was where I needed to be if I wanted to make money throughout the rest of the night. The man went back in the house while I waited until he was inside to snap a picture of the license plates on the cars in the driveway and make a note of the house number. I started to wonder what was on the hard drive. Was it even a hard drive at all?
I then set off, calling a friend as further insurance to protect myself — informing him that I was carrying a mysterious object. I pulled up to the destination and a man came out to get the bag with two kids in tow. My anxiety got the best of me as I started wondering if this was part of a child pornography ring.
I looked at the faces of the kids. Did they look tortured and abused? No, they looked fine. By the time I came to my senses, the man who was supposed to give me the generous tip was walking away with his children, having given me nothing more than a “thank you” and a shoulder shrug.
The make-up bag
Another time, I was working way out in the Inland Empire, damn near Hemet, I think. I had been taken off the beaten path by an earlier ride and was stranded, not having received a ride request in forty minutes. Then I got a request for a long trip. Bingo! I was in business.
On an extended trip, sometimes you could make as much as you would in an entire night. The “rider” called to check and make sure that I was OK with the distance of the trip and if no passengers came along with me. He explained that he wanted me to drop-off a make-up bag to his girlfriend in Los Angeles. Unaware until then of the destination, I smiled. Not only was I going to make money on this trip, but I would be set-up to make decent coin the rest of the night while working in a busier more urban area.
I headed to the pick-up location and waited outside some nouveau riche condominiums fronted by an ostentatious water fountain. I waited for a few minutes hoping the trip would not be cancelled, when a guy wearing sunglasses (at night), dressed in white linen shorts with a matching half-buttoned white shirt, and a gold chain came out of the double doors to the foyer of the condo complex. He threw up a single finger, letting me know that it would be another minute. He was carrying nothing, so I figured he must be headed back to grab the make-up bag.
About thirty seconds later, he came outside wrapping a paper coffee cup with a lid into a giant translucent garbage bag (the kind used in the trashcans of communal areas of places like these), tying off the top of the bag in a knot.
“Hi. Are you the driver? Can you take this to my girlfriend please?”
I ignored my better instincts and took the package. One of the nice things about a trip like this was that I was getting paid to turn up my music and drive as fast as I pleased. I was making good time when I noticed that if I kept on pushing it, I could make it there with just enough time to scoot over to West Hollywood just as the bars were closing. “WeHo” was the one place where prices surged for rides at 2 A.M. regardless of what day of the week it was.
I hit the gas and must have gotten carried away. I saw red, white, and blue flashing in the rearview. Shit.
I had not gotten a speeding ticket in a long time, and I had been going fast. Real fast. I started to get nervous, as I always do around law enforcement.
The officer came up to the car and asked me how my night had been. “Just working,” I said.
“Working? What are you doing?”
“Oh, I am a rideshare driver.”
“Are you on your way to pick-up a rider? Why are you driving so fast?”
“Oh, actually, I am on a trip now. It’s complicated. I was car-”
With that the officer cut me off, “Sir, I am going to have to ask you to step out of the vehicle.”
Another patrol car pulled up behind him. Great. Now I was a sideshow. The original officer started having me say the alphabet, touching my nose and toes as part of a roadside gymnastics’ routine. A car drove by and honked while someone yelled something unintelligible out the window. The second officer then started searching my vehicle. He pulled the garbage bag with the knot tied off at the top from the passenger seat and asked me what was inside.
“Um, it’s a make-up bag, I think.”
“A make-up bag? What do you mean 'You think?’ Why would you have a make-up bag? It looks awfully small to be a make-up bag.”
He started unravelling the knot on the top, reaching into the bag and pulling out the paper cup. He lifted the lid and then immediately gestured to his colleague to put on the cuffs. I was read my rights, arrested, and taken to jail for possession of a half ounce of cocaine.
Everything above in italics never happened. I delivered the mysterious paper cup wrapped in the trash bag with the knot on top still intact without incident. I never did figure out what was in that cup or on that hard drive — and the fact remains that I do not want to know.
All I was trying to do was make a buck and get back a little bit of the money stolen from me by the real criminals: the rideshare companies that have refused to follow a California state law entitling my coworkers and myself to benefits and a fare minimum wage. Unfortunately, that case is still being decided in court and I am still in debt — and the exploitation and criminal behavior continues on…
NOTE: The major rideshare companies spent millions of dollars trying to make themselves exempt from a law passed by California voters in 2019. AB 5 is a law that requires technology companies to take ownership of ‘gig’ workers that are the backbone of their operations by claiming these laborers as employees and providing them with basic rights like health insurance and minimum wage. Many studies have shown that drivers make far below minimum wage.
The corporations deceived drivers and the public by making it appear as though they were working on behalf and in the best interest of drivers. They are unethical companies that will continue to exploit drivers for as long as they can. Drivers may have lost the fight in Prop 22 but their fight for worker rights continues. Please become an ally of drivers by signing up at https://drivers-united.org.
D. Thayer Russell is currently in the process of assembling and writing hundreds of tales and reflections from a 4-year, 250,000 mile plus journey as a rideshare driver/occasional deliverer of unknown objects while working across the great State of California. He is a former high school teacher, baseball coach, and dedicated father to his amazing, talented, and beautiful daughter.