I’m lying on my couch with my eyes closed, being productive. A dirty bicycle waits by the door, eager for adventure. Silently, in an iPhone on the coffee table beside me, an app called Fleet is scanning the city. The app was launched by a San Francisco–based company called Postmates. You’ve probably used it to order Indian food during the finale of The Bachelorette when everyone decided that the pita chips and white wine they brought over wasn’t quite enough sustenance. I’m one of its couriers — the human link in a new technological industry of convenience — and like my counterparts who drive you back from the bar late at night, walk your lonely dog, or even lend you their homes for your Eurotour, I have a story.
I came to Los Angeles as a hungry actor, scrabbling to stave off bills, student loans, and ego-driven madness. A few years into what grim-eyed Angelinos call “the grind,” I heard of a company that paid drivers to — of all things — deliver products. No experience needed, just cash for getting goods and food from points A to B unscathed. Simple, right? Frankly, it was. But something about it felt strange and exciting, like a promise of freedom, a manifest destiny in a high-tech frontier.
Fleet sounds the alarm — there’s a delivery available. Someone in Hollywood wants a sandwich. I grab my phone, accept the mission, and am outside on my bike half a minute later.
Endorphins rush through my body with the first familiar kick of the pedals, and I weave between cars while the app directs me to a café in Hollywood. Five minutes and a near-death experience with a revved-up Ferrari later, I’m inside the cool café interior, which smells like bread, waiting in line behind a lady with huge sunglasses and a Pomeranian fluffing out of her purse. At the counter, Fleet tells me what to order, and as I wait for the food, lost in a crowd of hungry brunchers, a deep sense of proletariat pride surges up within me. I am worker. I am the hands and feet of the L.A. community. My number is called, and as I jog out of the deli, Fleet summons my attention with a beep. There is another delivery waiting after this one. Someone is summoning coffee from their phone. The day is underway.
I remember feeling, as a fledgling delivery boy, that each order was like a money-fruit, waiting to be picked. I was in the garden of Eden, and all I had to do was reach out and take whatever I wished. Sure enough, the deliveries rolled in, and the cash flow began. It was no golden goose, but it was good, honest labor. I loved the people-watching: bringing breakfast to the Beverly Hills early risers; lunch to the computer-dazed Studio City editors; dinner to the stoned, nesting hipsters in Silver Lake; and 2 a.m. fries to the thinning-out party crowd in Hollywood.
But through it all, there was an underlying sense of robotic detachment. Travel to X. Deliver to Y. Accept new delivery. Confirm old delivery. There was no escape from the app as it wormed its way into my consciousness. I felt like a player in a video game, driving my car through the streets, looking for parking, always checking the app to add up delivery totals, looking to see which customers tipped.
I’m in the lobby of the Netflix building and have just delivered lunch to a fifth-floor office. I feel a twinge of ennui as I look at the movie posters lining the walls. I’m still an actor, right? This is just a gig. It’s not my identity, I tell myself, unsure. The elevator down to the lobby counts backwards from five, my phone buzzes again, and suddenly I forget about my past. My robot brain has given me a new route and a new destination, and the joy of work quickly washes over me. I’m acting in my favorite role: the android servant.
During the first year with Fleet, my perspective on work shifted. I had been accustomed to being the center of attention as an actor. With Fleet, I came to realize that I was now, in effect, a robotic butler — conjured up from your iPhone to bringing in the ol’ afternoon tea, as it were. Want something brought to you? Right away, sir. Yes, ma’am.
Sometimes a delivery would yield a surprising shopping list — cold medicine, tissues, and a pregnancy test — and I’d feel a moment of human connection, of concern. What if that was my sister alone, sick, and possibly pregnant, asking a stranger on an app to help? Driving on Valentine’s Day, I’m asked to pick out two cards for a “girlfriend and mom.” After carefully vetting a pair with help from two chatty older ladies in the card aisle of a grocery store, I was surprised to find a kid of barely 13 at the door when I made the delivery. I walked away, feeling old. Did a kid like that have it all figured out? Other teenagers would try to buy tobacco products off the app, late at night, and then blush when I asked to check their IDs, mumbling excuses.
I lean my bike on a bench near one of L.A.’s tiny parks and stretch my legs on the sidewalk. I take out my phone, and on the Fleet app I change my Postmate status to “offline.” I am civilian, I think to myself, relishing one of the greatest aspects of being self-employed — the freedom to set any schedule. My phone buzzes, and I field a call from my mother, thinking about getting food for myself before biking home. She worries over me, asking me how life is in L.A. “Great, Mom, it’s really going well,” I tell her. I can see my face reflected in the window of a car parked by a meter, just in front of me. It is tan and lined with new wrinkles that my 20-year-old self would have been shocked to see. I grin.
No job is immune to the outside world, even a job that can be summoned and banished with the swipe of a finger. After half a year working with Fleet, my own impatience pulled me out of the courier lifestyle. It was too volatile and involved too much hazarding of my car’s well-being, what with the constant driving and parking tickets. Plus, the incessant L.A. traffic kept me on a knife-edge. One day, while changing lanes, I peeled off my front bumper on the side of a sleek, black Tesla — and all illusion of working in the matrix, removed from reality by a digital filter, was shattered. I began applying for other jobs.
Between acting gigs, I scrabbled for work as a canvasser, a caterer, a door-to-door salesman. A year passed uneventfully, but I never deleted the app. When I scrolled past it on my phone, the silent green application, bearing the familiar logo — a man on a flying bike — stirred an old feeling of adventure inside me. The open road is calling; there are people to serve, errands to run. I missed the deliveries, the infinite grind, the digital simplicity of it all.
One afternoon, after looking at my meager month’s income and at my barely used road bike, I caved. I opened the app and marked my vehicle status as “bicycle.” I wouldn’t have to spend money on gas and could save on a gym membership, I thought. The app chimed back to life, and within minutes I was winding through traffic with one hand clutching the handlebars and the other hand holding a tray of coffees. I need a basket, I thought. The world of work closed comfortingly around me like a digital cocoon.
Back in my apartment. I have to be at the açai bowl restaurant where I work in the morning. There’s always a second job to be had for the hungry, and the gig with Fleet has become that for me — a backup. But tonight I can’t sleep, so I log into the app and lie in bed, waiting. I feel like a robot, fully awake and fully relaxed. There might be someone out there who wants a delivery. I can sleep later.
I’ve heard it said that there is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps this gig economy has played out since the ancient days, when man decided to hunt and gather. The neon glow of the screen sends a neoprimitive message to my brain: Go, explore, find out more.
I’m out of bed and on my bike. A lonely looking Australian man has ordered a handle of whiskey. I scan his ID and tell him to have a pleasant night. He walks slowly back to his dark house as I watch his money slip into my account, backed by the glow of my phone. Stories like his will stick in my mind but never register in the great brain of the Fleet app, which sounds again and urges me to go deeper into the night.