To Uber Or Not To Uber, Part Two
(An Excerpt from Behind the Wheel 2: Notes from an Uber/Lyft. )
Read Part One here.
I continue waiting for my Uber phone. It’s been almost two weeks since I signed up. The days go by fast as May 31st approaches and the end of the $500 deal for Lyft drivers looms.
On May 28th, I email Uber about not receiving a phone yet. I’m told I can go to the office on Vermont in Potrero Hill and pick one up. The next day, I head into the city early.
I’m not sure what I expected the office for a rideshare start-up to look like — maybe some folding tables, Ikea desks and chairs, laptops and interns — but I wasn’t expecting a circus.
On the corner of Vermont and 16th, there is a sign twirler. I’m momentarily confused because the sign he’s twirling seems to be advertising Lyft. His shirt matches the baby blue sign and reads, “$500 and a taco.”
I wonder if Lyft and Uber have offices right next to each other.
Directly across the street, under the raised 101 freeway, hanging on a chainlink fence, is a blue banner: “Be more than a number.” In the corner is the Lyft logo. As I try to orient myself, a billboard truck rolls by, also in the Lyft colors. “Be more than a number.” On the other side: “Get $500 and a taco.”
For a second, I think I’m being set up. I knew the deal sounded too good to be true!
On the sidewalk, a group of people are milling around a crowd control barrier. I know from the endless stream of texts I’ve received from Uber since first signing up that they’re hosting referral events for Lyft drivers. Offering $500 and a free lunch.
Ah, so Lyft is making a counteroffer of $500 and a taco to any Uber drivers who want to switch to their side. I guess they figure if Uber can poach their drivers, why not play dirty too.
But a taco?
Whatever. I keep my head down and stay focused on what I need to accomplish.
There’s no sign in front of the building indicating that it’s Uber HQ. Just a black awning with the street number, a tinted glass door and a buzzer.
I press the button. A guy with “security” printed on a black polo shirt emerges.
I tell him that I signed up for Uber but I hadn’t got a phone yet.
He looks confused.
“I can get a phone here, right?” I ask.
“I think so. But you need to come back between nine and twelve.”
“I can’t get one now?”
I look at the crowd on the sidewalk. The security guard disappears inside the building.
Alright. I head to Philz for coffee before I start my shift.
It’s a typical Thursday night Lyfting. Drive a couple to the church at Fillmore and Oak that’s been converted into a skating rink. An older couple from North Carolina who introduce themselves as the “Doug and Flo Show!” Take a punk girl to Ingleside. Before I pick her up, I can tell from her profile pic that she’s going to be a cool ride. We listen to Subhumans as we cruise down 280. Her dog climbs onto the center console to be a part of the conversation. We talk gentrification. Of course. I call it quits around eleven.
The next morning, I drag my sorry ass out of bed as early as I can. Which is a pathetic 10:30. Skip a shower for coffee and a few cigarettes. Then race into the city. I leave Oakland at 11:15 and reach Potrero Hill with twenty minutes to spare.
The sign twirler is gone, but the banners are still up. A few people are standing around the taco truck in the parking lot behind the fence.
I press the button at Uber HQ. A different security guard comes out.
“Hey, I need to get a phone. I came yesterday and they told me to come back today before noon.”
“Who said that?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know their name?”
“No. I just need to get a phone.”
He hesitates for a moment. “Okay. Sign in with the iPad.”
I climb a flight of stairs. At the top is an iPad attached to a metal pole. I type in my name and phone number. Take a seat at one of several folding tables with nine other drivers. I sit down next to a heavyset woman. She asks if I’m a Lyft driver as well. I say yes.
“I need to get a phone before the $500 deal is up,” I tell her.
“Me too. I’m a Lyft mentor. So I get $1000. I’m going to do my one ride and that’s it.”
“You’re not switching over to Uber?”
“Oh no!” she whispers loudly and leans in close. “I love Lyft. I just want the $1000.” She smiles as she sits back in her seat.
The other drivers are all men. They seem like cabbies, huddled together like compatriots. Or UberBlack drivers. They’re older. Professional.
“How long you been waiting?” I ask the woman.
“About half an hour. The guys over there have been here longer than me.”
A few minutes later, the door buzzer goes off. The security guard tells the person they’re closed for the day. It’s five minutes to noon. I’m the last in line.
I glance around the room as the woman chats at me about her frustrations with maintaining a high rating despite always offering her customers candy and water.
“I only had five stars for the first few months. That’s how I got to be a mentor. Since then, my rating keeps going down and I don’t get as many mentor requests.”
“That sucks. My rating goes down all the time too.”
There are five guys and one girl working for Uber. All wearing polo shirts and jeans. There seems to be a distinct look to the Uber employee: white and preppy. I can’t help but wonder if they’re bummed to be dealing with us drivers. They all have an air of indignation and fear. One guy is walking around like he’s pretending to be busy. The girl is filling Uber swag bags with paperwork and U window lights. Another guy is arranging boxed lunches on a table. He gives one to the security guard who sits down next to me. The meal actually looks rather substantial. A sandwich, a bag of chips, some pasta salad and a can of soda. Not a bad spread. Better than a taco.
Slowly, the drivers are called to a desk where a guy in a yellow polo shirt meticulously inputs their information into a MacBook. The process takes forever though. As if they were working on an ancient IBM with a bad dial-up connection. Once he has finishes adding the drivers to the system, or whatever he’s doing up there, he hands them an iPhone. Asks if they have any questions. Some do. He seems to cringe and roll his eyes before each explanation.
At one point, he stops calling any new drivers up to his desk and gets a boxed lunch. There are still about five of us in line. We all watch as eats and clicks away on his laptop. Maybe checking his Facebook. Or sending a tweet.
I feel like pulling out my phone and taking abstract pictures of the empty boxes, scattered office supplies and numerous MacBooks. It’s obvious they just moved into the space. Which probably used to be a showroom or an office for a design firm. Seeing as how we’re in Showcase Square. Or what’s left of it.
Fifteen minutes later, the guy in the yellow Polo starts calling up drivers again.
Just as my phone is about to die, I finally get called to his desk. I’ve barely sat down when he gets up and says, “I’ll be right back.”
At this point, it’s just me and the Uber people in the office. I watch a guy dealing with a massive stack of white iPhones. There must be a thousand phones.
“That’s a lot of phones,” I say.
I watch as he attaches them to a MacBook.
“I wipe the content and download the Uber app,” he responds to my inquiry.
Another guy looks out the window. “The sign twirler’s back.”
A few of the Uber folk snicker.
“Has this been going on for a while?” I ask.
“Since we started the recruitment campaign,” the phone guy tells me.
“Crazy…” I say.
“I mean, what do they care?” one guy wonders. “It’s not like you can’t drive for both.”
The guy in the yellow Polo returns to the desk. “Nobody’s going for the tacos,” he says. “I bet they’re all green and moldy.”
I laugh along with the Uber workers.
“They’re so desperate, it’s hilarious.”
“Lyft is so stupid.”
“Why don’t they just die already!”
We’re all having a jolly ole time ripping on Lyft.
“And that pink mustache is hideous,” I add.
“It’s so ugly, I’ve never even put it on my car.”
“I don’t blame you,” says the guy at the window.
By the time he hands me the phone so I can enter my phone number into the Uber app, we’re all good buds.
“Now you have to take a photo.”
“You can do it later, but… here, let me take one with the iPad. It’ll come out better.”
He has me stand against a wall. I take off my glasses. Scooch down a little since he’s shorter than me.
“Did it come out alright?” I ask. “In my Lyft photo, I look like a girl.”
“As long as I don’t look like a girl…”
“You don’t look like a girl.” He shows it to me.
I kind of look like a girl. But I guess that’s my fault.
“You want some lunch?” He gestures at the table full of box lunches.
“Nah, I’m cool.”
Outside, the line of drivers waiting to sign up is longer. The sign twirler is doing back flips as he throws the sign up into the air and catches it between his legs. Lyft really hired a professional. Not just some street person in a costume. I walk past and he smiles at me. Holding the Uber swag bag, I feel like apologizing.
Across the street, a couple more people are lined up around the taco truck.
I head across the bridge to get ready for a Friday night driving in the city.
That evening, after getting coffee, I turn on the Uber app in SoMa. The interface is entirely different from Lyft. It takes me a few minutes to get a handle on how the process works when a request comes in. Lyft’s interface is square. Uber’s is round. I touch the screen like I do with Lyft. But the Uber app only gives me a name in a very small font and an address with an icon on the map. The screen of the Lyft app is much bigger. Easier to read. The passenger is designated with a blue pin and the driver’s avatar is the silhouette of the front of a car. On the Uber app, the passenger looks like a chess piece. There’s no Facebook profile pic. So I don’t know what the person I’m picking up looks like. There are also no turn-by-turn directions to the pinned location. I have to zoom in to see where I need to go.
While I’m trying to figure out the app, my personal phone rings. Some weird number in Ohio. I ignore it.
I finally see my passenger is on Townsend. I’m only half a block away. As I cruise down the street slowly, a man and woman wave me down.
“You drove past us twice,” she says. “I tried calling you.”
“Oh, that was you? Sorry. This is my first Uber ride,” I tell them.
They are nice. They sit in the back. But they’re chatty. I tell them about the $500 deal.
“So this ride just made me five-hundred bucks.”
We talk about the two different services. The guy only uses Uber but the girl takes both, depending on how she feels.
“Are you from Ohio?” I ask.
“No, we’re from New York.”
“Oh.” The number that came through… that must be Uber’s generic number. But why is the area code is set in Ohio? That’s weird. Lyft’s is 415. Which makes more sense.
When I drop them off, they congratulate me on becoming an Uber driver and making five hundred dollars.
I do a few more Uber rides. It’s hard not to keep going. The requests come in one after another. It’s obvious Uber is much busier that Lyft. But the disconnect is palpable. Everybody sits in back. After that first couple, nobody else says a word to me bedsides, “Hello. How are you?” They tell me where they’re going and stare at their phones. I even pull my passenger seat forward to give them more legroom. Turn off the stereo.
Unlike the Lyft app, when I end a ride, I can see how much it costs. I’m impressed by the numbers. I know I have to subtract Uber’s twenty-percent cut, but still… I like what I’m seeing.
After awhile, the silent treatment gets to me and I switch back to Lyft. It’s actually a relief when the next passenger sits up front. We have a lively conversation about my Uber experience, going to the office, the stack of the phones, the sign twirlers, tacos and how I just earned five hundred bucks.
“I wouldn’t say it was an easy five hundred bucks,” I tell him.
“Well, there’s nothing easy about easy money,” he says.
“Ain’t that the truth…”