March 19, 2014
A gaming convention is in town. SoMa is a madhouse. But that’s where the passengers are. It’s not easy reaching them on the congested one-way streets. With sweaty palms and white knuckles, I follow the pink navigation line in the app to the pinned locations.
After dropping somebody off at 6th and Folsom, I get a request for Howard Street. Looks like Moscone South. I pull up to the convention center. An older Asian couple gets in. Flux of Pink Indians is playing on the stereo. I hit the forward button. Chumbawamba comes on. I turn the music off. Figure an anarcho-punk set isn’t their preferred soundtrack.
They are going to Four Embarcadero Center. Ana sits up front. Asks about Lyft. Like so many others, she wants to know how long I’ve been driving for Lyft, how much money I make and how many rides I average… All the usual questions. For some reason, I tell her I had around 75 rides the previous Saturday. I have no clue where that figure comes from. I just blurt it out. In the eight hours I drove, I think I managed 15-20 rides. Ana questions my math. Asks if it’s even possible to transport that many people in such a short amount of time.
I am adamant.
She looks at me dubiously.
I feel bad for lying to her, but my brain can’t seem to process any other information besides where I’m going, how I’m going to get there and if I’ll be able to cross Market. After my first week of doing the Lyft thing, I’m mentally exhausted from trying to remember all the street names, their order, which ones are one-way, how to get from one neighborhood to the next and figuring out Market Street. Before I started Lyfting and the Wife and I were driving around the city trying to learn the neighborhoods, I knew Market would be my Achilles heel. It’s the major thoroughfare, stretched out across the city like the slash from a switchblade. But not all side streets are created equal. Some dead-end at Market while some turn into streets with new names: 3rd becomes Kearny. 6th crosses Market and turns into Taylor. Others traverse Market and don’t change at all. Then there are those that zigzag at Market, picking up mysteriously half a block away.
I only have a vague sense of how to Four Embarcadero Center. I drive towards Market. Hope for the best. Try searching for it on my phone, but nothing comes up. I’m probably spelling it wrong. Navigating the narrow streets of San Francisco among Muni buses, taxicabs, cars with out-of-state plates, Google shuttles, delivery trucks, jaywalkers, bicyclists, construction vehicles and suicidal panhandlers, all the while looking out for cops and answering 21 questions about what it’s like driving for Lyft requires my full attention. Fortunately, Four Embarcadero Center is clearly labeled with neon lights at street level. I luck out. This time.
I get out of driver mode and leave the Financial District. I need a break from the congestion. I’m sweating bricks.
I pop an Ativan and cross Van Ness before I go back online. Head to the Mission. A request comes in. The Tenderloin. The app says I’m six minutes away. I groan and accept the ride. Head downtown. Ten minutes later, I spot the guy on the corner and pull up.
“Sorry it took so long,” I tell him earnestly. “I guess there were no other drivers in the area.”
“I’m glad to see you! It’s freezing out there!”
Tahir is from LA. Also in town for the convention. Two stops. First, a party store on Post Street where I wait in a tow-away zone and nervously watch a meter patrol car across the street while I finger drum to Iron Maiden. Whenever I think I should take certain tracks off my iPod, I remind myself that I spend more time in the car by myself than with passengers. The song ends. Tahir returns. I kill the tunes. Next stop the Marriott in Union Square.
In front of the hotel, Tahir holds his phone up to my head.
“You don’t look like your profile photo at all,” he says.
“Really? My wife says it looks just like me.”
“It looks like you, but you’re not as serious as your picture suggests.”
“The guy who took it, my Lyft mentor, didn’t give me much of a chance to pose or take a second one. It came out like a DMV photo.”
I offer him the regulation fistbump and drive away. Make the mistake of keeping my app in driver mode. End up stuck in traffic on Post between Grant and Kearny for twenty minutes trying to get to Stephanie on Montgomery and Market. When it becomes apparent that I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, I call and tell her she might want to cancel the ride and request another Lyft.
“Something’s obviously gone wrong,” I say. “A wreck maybe… I’m not moving and I haven’t moved for the past ten minutes.”
Stephanie doesn’t want to cancel though. Instead she walks to where I am parked on Post Street, staying on the line as she approaches. Reports on what she sees: cars, trucks, buses and delivery tucks, none of which are moving. I see her in the distance. She tries to get into another Lyft car a few cars ahead of me, one with a mustache on the grill. The driver chases her away. I wave my arm out the window. She gets in.
“Where’s your mustache?”
I can smell the alcohol on her breath. It’s early afternoon, and even though she’s had a few, she’s panicked about being on time to meet her friends on 1st Street.
“I’m really late!” she groans.
Tells me she’s going overseas for six months in a few days and meeting up with friends to say goodbye. She’s already had lunch with one group of friends. On her way to meet a second now. Has a third event later that night.
“Well, I can do two things,” I say calmly. “Wait and hope the traffic starts moving or drive away from the mess and then circle back to 1st Street.”
“Do what you have to do. I trust you.”
“I’m from LA,” I tell her confidently as I head down an alley. “I know my way around traffic jams.”
“What brought you to San Francisco?” she asks.
I turn right on Geary. Head away from the financial district. As I navigate the congestion and look for a street that crosses Market, I know I need to entertain this girl. The usual truncated version I’ve been telling passengers about how the Wife and I moved to the Bay Area because we got laid off from our jobs at Disney is just one of many half-truths I tell people to seem relatable. Stephanie is clearly agitated and upset about being late. If I’m going to keep her mind off the fact that I’m driving far out of the way of her destination, which, from our starting point was only a few blocks away, I need to give her a good story. So I tell her the truth.
“In August, my wife and I had spent ten days at a friend’s place in the Mission while she was at Burning Man. Even though we came here several times a year to visit, we’d never been able to spend that much time all at once. We basically did everything we did at home, lie around and watch Netflix, eat cheap burritos and go to thrift stores. But doing all that stuff in San Francisco made it seem more exceptional. We’d always wanted to live here and felt stuck in LA, mostly because of the Disney job. We both worked on an English language-learning program for kids in China that used Disney and Pixar characters. I edited and designs the teacher guides. She was a full time interactive producer. At the time, we were trying to get pregnant. My wife hated working for Disney, but the benefits were phenomenal. We wanted to take advantage of them while we could. In the meantime, we were going to have a lot of fun, travel and go to shows. Cause, you know, once we had a kid, we wouldn’t be able to go out as much.”
At this point, we are at 6th Street.
I have no choice but to end the ride and hope it doesn’t take too long to get her back to Stephanie’s destination.
“Then, a month later,” I continue, “last September, we came back to San Francisco for a small two-day music festival. We stayed with our friend in the Mission and spent the entire weekend watching bands, getting drunk and doing ketamine. We took Lyft and UberX cars everywhere we went. It was a blast. On Tuesday, after we got back to LA, my wife called me from work and said, ‘I have the greatest news…’ She’d been laid off. That night, we got wasted, did the rest of the ketamine we’d brought back and decided to move to San Francisco.”
“Well, little did we know that San Francisco is in the midst of hyper-gentrification and that rents are higher than we could have ever imagined. So we picked the worst time to move to the Bay Area.”
I finally get to 1st Street, which is one-way in the opposite direction. I pull over and point north.
“Just go that way. It should be on the left side of the street.”
“I have such a horrible sense of direction,” she says. “But I’ll try.”
Once she’s out of view, I get out of driver mode and stay offline until I am deep in the Mission.