Exhausted after hours of driving, my friend the Uber driver—let’s call him the “Uber Mensch”—sinks into a chair in my living room and accepts a glass of ice water. He has agreed to speak to me about driving for Uber in East Lansing on condition of anonymity. He seems a little disappointed that the written nature of ELi means that he won’t get to wear a disguise or have his voice altered, but agrees to proceed with the interview.
In case you missed it, Uber is a ride service like that of a traditional taxis, but not. Riders and drivers use a smartphone app that allows customers to type in their name and location so that the closest available Uber driver can pick them up and take them where they want to go. Riders receive confirmation that someone is coming, as well as the name and a photo of their driver and a description of his or her car, and customers enjoy the ability to track the driver’s progress towards them via GPS.
There are no meters; the cost of a ride is based mostly on mileage with prices rising during a “surge,” when demand for rides is high. Riders and drivers have the opportunity to rate each other on a scale from one to five, and these ratings are later made visible to other potential riders and drivers. All communications go through Uber’s control center, so no personal information is provided to either party.
I ask the Uber Mensch first if there’s really any business in a town like East Lansing. “Oh, God, yes,” he says. “I started before the students came back and I was pretty busy on weekends, but since they came back, there’s so much business I could literally be driving all day and all night, even on weekdays.”
I ask him who is taking Uber rides on weekdays, and he explains that he has driven multiple students to classes or labs from off-campus locations. When I ask him how much that costs, he says one student paid nine dollars to get to campus last week. “It’s more than bus fare,” he explains, “and maybe a little more than a taxi, but they know they’ll be picked up quickly and that they’ll be dropped in front of their first class of the day on time.”
He also picked up a number of students at Meijer and the train station in the days before classes started, and more than once voluntarily carried suitcases or bags of groceries into apartments. I asked him if Uber expected him to provide that kind of service, and he shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I wasn’t raised to let some tiny girl carry heavy things without helping.”
“Do they tip?” I asked.
“Well, none of the people I carried stuff for tipped me, mostly nobody does, but some people do. Part of Uber is that no cash is supposed to change hands, and I think a lot of people just don’t have money on them, or they don’t have small bills. Riders say they like that, that they don’t have to trust a driver to make change and that they can get out of anyplace or any situation even if they don’t have money on them because it’s all done through a [pre-registered] credit card. But about the tips, there’s no rhyme or reason to it – some really short rides, they tip, and sometimes I drive a long way and make stops, and they don’t tip. It’s okay, they really don’t need to, but it’s nice when they do.”
The Uber Mensch spent much of the Labor Day weekend driving sorority pledges to various sorority houses. “It was so hot, and they all have to go to events at every single house whether they applied there or not, and they were just really tired from running around all day dressed up and answering the same questions over and over again. I learned a lot about how the whole pledge thing works from talking to them, and I have to respect them for working so hard at it when it was hot, and then on Monday when it was pouring rain.”
This makes me wonder if riders are generally talkative. “Some are, some aren’t,” he explains. “I can usually tell who is in a talking mood. If they are alone and they get in the back, it usually means they aren’t going to talk. People who want to chat get right in the front with me.” He adds that he prefers the talkers, and “feels a little weird” driving someone who sits in silence.
On weekend nights, he takes lots of people to downtown East Lansing to go to bars and parties. He reports during Fall Welcome transporting a car full of freshman women, and cautioning them to stay together and be careful if they were planning to drink, and another occasion on which seven young women squeezed into his relatively small sedan. He has also had multiple conversations with riders about their love lives, ranging from post-breakup sadness to excitement about the start of something new.
“I picked up one guy on campus on Saturday night who said some girl stole his shoes and he wasn’t going to walk back to his apartment barefoot. I ask if it was a mean thing or a flirty thing, and he says it was totally a flirty thing. He seemed pretty happy.”
Since we’re talking about romantic conversations, I ask about what goes on in the back of his car – is it really like “Taxicab Confessions” with lots of making out, or maybe more flagrant displays in his rearview mirror? “Yeah, I’m not going to talk about that,” he says. “I respect my riders’ privacy and I don’t want them to worry that some Uber driver is telling stories that will embarrass them if somebody figures out who they are.”
I push harder, and he shakes his head firmly. “I’ll tell you that things happen. That’s all,” he says.
His water is finished, and he’s looking a little anxious, so I offer to let him go. He does what he calls “turning Uber back on” on his phone, and says he’s had fun talking to me. I ask him if he’d be willing to talk to me again and tell me more stories. I make sure he understands that I am not digging for what he doesn’t want to talk about, just funny stories and interesting things about what goes on after hours in East Lansing.
“Sure” he says. His phone emits three staccato beeps. “Hey, I’ve got to go, but yeah, let’s do it again. I’ll try to remember the best stuff to tell you. Maybe write it down.” And he’s gone, off to pick up the next rider.