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But I Got Time to Hear His Story

November 15, 2014

“Old man down
way down, down
down by the docks of the city,
Blind and dirty
asked me for a dime –
dime for a cup of coffee
I got no dime but
I got time to hear his story”

– Grateful Dead, from Wharf Rat

The San Francisco Bay Area’s technology companies’ astounding market valuations and the fantastic personal wealth accumulated in the recent past has distorted most people’s view of normal pricing for the basics of urban living. High rents are pushing the average wage earner out of the City altogether. There’s really no place for them to go when the average monthly rent exceeds their income. Anyone interested in selling their house should keep an eye on the IPO pipeline. If you can wait until one of these VC-backed companies are sold, you’ll make more profit on your house than you could ever imagine. The IPOs create a new round of wealth for people happy to overpay for property in the right part of town. They can’t wait to knock down that perfectly good house you lived in and build something new. It was never more evident than in the case of the Facebook or Twitter IPOs, which made more than 2,500 people millionaires.

But the new money creates more than price distortion. There’s a certain attitude and worldview that has leaked into our Baghdad by the Bay. The City’s rich multiculturalism is endangered by a mono-culture of insulated people who seem perfectly content to make the entire City a technology office campus. It’s becoming an investment and technology incubator, one block after the other.

Ride-share programs are a popular way for this class to get around. Muni and BART don’t always go where you want to go and when you need to be there and taxis are so 20th-century. Further, why horse around trying to hail a cab, when there’s a cool app right there on your cellphone?

There’s a bit of a techboy love thing going on also. A WannabeSteveJobs lives deep inside many of these folks. It’s not just Jobs’ wild professional success and money that they covet. They also appreciate the way that he considered some social norms beneath him and celebrate the fact that he thumbed his nose at the government. In spite of the fact that Apple owes much of its early success to government investment into the technology that would help catapult its products into bestsellers, Jobs spent millions of the company’s dollars to sidestep the US Treasury and other government agencies. They were just another intrusion on his own personal path.

There’s no better example of this today than Uber, the tech crowd’s favorite way to get around when they can’t drive. With just a few clicks on the phone, a car will be waiting for you just where you want it. The company is run by VCs and Ayn Rand devotees. You may remember that in the mid-20th century, Ayn Rand wrote fantasy novels about the evil of government and its regulations and her repugnance of the working class. She revered successful industrialists and advocated their banding together against anyone on the outside. I read Fountainhead in college, when I first became aware of her. Rand was in the end of her life and I must have first learned about her from William F. Buckley’s magazine or TV show, both of which I enjoyed immensely. Ronald Reagan had just been elected President and there was a lot of buzz on personal responsibility and the failures of anything that the government touched. Rand was looked up to with reverence.

I re-read Atlas Shrugged a few years ago as sort of a literary testosterone therapy. It read fast, as some novels do. It reads like a “young adult” book. I suggested to my sons, who were in college at the time, that it was a good time in their lives to read it. They had never been exposed to it before and I told them that it might help prepare them for some of what they might encounter here in the Bay Area when they graduated. I don’t think either of them read it.

Rand’a libertarian views seem to hold sway with Uber’s managers. The company couldn’t care less about local and state rules and regulations. They are on a mission that bureaucrats and those the believe are duped by the existing system just don’t understand. Indeed, cited for any number of violations in cities and states across the country, Uber carries on with reference to underlying beliefs that might be confused with that of an anarchist.

The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.

The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.

– Ayn Rand

Uber has the money and access to get their way. They even hired one of Barack Obama’s key advisers recently to help the company change the laws to its favor. Guaranteed, there’s an Uber coming to your town soon. Game, set, match.

Left to their own devices, these technology people would go further than you might think. Just like in Atlas Shrugged, when Rand’s protagonists rally all the leading industrialists and scientists to break away from the rest of society in order to create a world unhampered by government and the working class, some of these technology people would just as soon separate themselves even more than they already have. This year, one of the top Silicon Valley VCs organized a campaign to split California six ways, with new borders conveniently and safely enveloping some of the wealthiest portions of Northern California into a new state, nicely called “Silicon Valley.” The effort failed, but I imagine that it could resurface in some shape or form. Another billionaire investor, not satisfied with small ideas as dividing up the state, is funding the development of a libertarian’s floating island off the California coast.

My routines and lifestyle don’t make me think much about using Uber. I get around by car and now only use BART occasionally. I don’t go out to drink, so never need a safe ride home or designated driver and I’m not traveling for business much these days.  And as you can see, when I do think of Uber, it’s not while I’m grabbing my cellphone and clicking through the screens to find a car. Needless to say perhaps, I’m not so fond of them.

But I know people who use the service and are quite satisfied. It seems to have its place. My son, who has a demanding work schedule and spends many long days on end to meet deadlines, now uses Uber when he’s leaving the office in the middle of the night. I couldn’t be happier. I worry about him driving home tired or getting on one of the last BART trains out of the City and then driving home from the station. Uber my boy home safely, please.

20141026_215710

Look kids! There’s the White House and GW Memorial. Photo taken from front seat of Saul’s Escalade.

I was recently on a business trip to Baltimore and Washington D.C. with three others. We had a very pleasant time and our time back there was productive. My three colleagues all use Uber extensively. They generally don’t rent cars and wouldn’t think of getting into a taxi anymore. They even use Uber while at home here in the Bay Area. They are SuperUberUsers and know all the tricks and clicks to organize a smooth ride. So, that’s what I did. I rode Uber six different times. Three times with two different drivers.

The Uber vehicles were shiny black Cadillac Escalades, the big SUVs with all the refinements that GM puts on its flagship. The drivers own the vehicles, drive people around using the company’s software to find riders and settle the accounts. The money is split between the driver and the company. No healthcare insurance, paid vacation or other benefits. I’m not sure how much these two guys were earning, but it was obvious that they weren’t making enough. They spoke of the difficulty to find enough work and were clearly hustling to keep things going.

20141028_124712

Look kids! That’s where the Orioles play their home games. Photo taken from front seat of Avtar’s Escalade.

I rode shotgun every time. Here, I got the best view of the local sights and better than that, was able to visit with the drivers, both of whom seem pleased to have the company. I asked a few questions and then listened to them talk.

The conversations with each of them quickly went beyond their work with Uber and into deeper stories of their lives. The first fellow, Avtar, immigrated to the US as a young man in the 1970s. His father was an Indian dirt farmer and he was the first in his family to leave home for another country. He traveled on a bus to get away, but since he didn’t have much money, he went without food and only drank water when it was available for free at the bus stations. He went through Pakistan and a number of other countries and then hung around the ports until he could land a job as a merchant marine. He spoke of working double shifts and saving his money as he traveled around the globe on ships. He ended up on the East Coast, elated to start his new life in the U.S.

Avtar loved to talk. He didn’t stop. He told us about the restaurants he owned and the work that he did to prepare himself for that. We heard about his three kids and their studies, professions and his dreams for them.

When Avtar first moved here, he married an American woman, whom he lost a short time later due to her poor health. As he told the story, he was visibly shaken. When he picked us up at the end of our meeting to go back to the hotel, I asked him if he regretted telling that part of his story. He told me that while he prefers not to talk about it, he was comfortable telling it and that it seemed to him that I genuinely wanted to know about it. He told me that he tries to forget about how much she meant to him because it brings him down and that he never brings his sorrow over losing her into his house. He said that he would be in a state of distress for at least a week. I wish I hadn’t asked.

Saul, our second driver was also ready to tell a story. He once drove tractor-trailer trucks long distance. He’s been all around the US and Central America with all sorts of cargo. He used to drive used cars into Mexico, but gave that up when the police and other authorities started confiscating his loads. He told us how he was once sleeping in his cab on the side of the freeway and woke up by a woman knocking on the side window telling him that she needed help, insisting that he come out of the truck. He knew she was up to no good and brandished his weapon at her. She took the hint, jumped into the car that was waiting behind the trailer out of his view and then sped off with another person behind the wheel. He had all sorts of stories like this.

I left town one day before my colleagues, who had a separate meeting in Washington DC. On the way from Baltimore to drop my colleagues off at their DC hotel, Saul took the scenic route through Rock Creek Park because he wanted us to see something other than toll roads. He liked that the creek was running and talked about wading out there during the hot summer days. He even drove past and pointed out his house to us. He was engaged far beyond what you might expect. As we dropped off my colleagues at their hotel, it seemed he was saying goodbye to visiting friends or relatives. He made sure everyone had everything that they needed, were safe with the hotel staff and said his goodbyes.

20141028_143157

Saul and me saying goodbye after riding around Baltimore and Washington DC together a few hours.

As we started our final stretch through Georgetown to take me to Dulles Airport, he turned up his radio and we opened the windows wide. It was a beautiful 72-degree sunny day and in unison, we both reached for the outside air. As we drove along the Potomac River, he pointed out all the sites and commented how much he enjoyed the changing colors of the trees and other natural beauty. I was as comfortable riding shotgun in Saul’s Cadillac Escalade as if I had known him a long time. Warm sun and wind caressing my right arm and hand as I flew them through the wide open window, I was right where I was supposed to be.

Saul is my kind of Uber person.

 *******

Old man down
way down, down, down
by the docks of the city,
Blind and dirty
asked me for a dime –
dime for a cup of coffee
I got no dime but
I got time to hear his story

My name is August West
and I love my Pearly Baker best
more than my wine
…more than my wine
more than my maker
though he’s no friend of mine

Everyone said
I’d come to no good
I knew I would
Pearly believed them

Half of my life
I spent doin’ time for
some other’s crime
The other half found me stumbling around
drunk on burgundy wine

But I’ll get back
on my feet someday
The good Lord willing
if He says I may
’cause I know the life I’m
livin’s no good
I’ll get a new start
live the life I should

I’ll get up and fly away
I’ll get up and
fly away…
…fly away

Pearly’s been true
true to me, true to my dying day he said
I said to him
I’m sure she’s been
I said to him
I’m sure she’s been true to you

I got up and wandered
Wandered downtown
nowhere to go
just to hang around
I got a girl
named Bonny Lee
I know that girl’s been true to me
I know she’s been
I’m sure she’s been
true to me
– R. Hunter and J. Garcia

From → Technology

16 Comments
  1. What a nice blog! Really both politically thought provoking and personally moving! Hats off!!

    Like

  2. Ah.. Uber and Lyft. When in SF, that’s what I use– it seems hard to get cabs. Even in NYC now Uber is creeping in and it’s hard to find something wrong about them even though I agree about the labor /insurance etc. issues– The SF drivers are much friendly than the ones in NYC, more open to conversations. That said, talk to a NYC cab driver and you’ll get quite a story too.

    Like

    • Oh yeah, cabbies have a thing or two to say as well. I’m not there for a conversation necessarily, but sitting in the front seat of a guy’s car should prompt even the most reserved. It was a fine experience, for sure. Cabs are easy enough in certain sections of SF, although maybe that’s changing with the many other options.

      Like

  3. Hack Gresmer permalink

    Perhaps your best Bruce. Great work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, my friend. It’s always great to see you post up for a minute or two at Ram On.

      Please don’t forget that we can figure out ways to get together out here.

      All the best to you and yours.

      Like

  4. Riding shotgun = the perfect way to learn a new city and a new person.

    Like

  5. Two thumbs up!

    Like

  6. Interesting post!

    Like

  7. I think you are way too smart. And thank you for reading my blog! I try to dummy everything down to my own reduced IQ level. Makes life easier for me to navigate…using big words scares off my demographic. Not really. Well, yes, really.

    Like

  8. love,love, love this. Never used UBER but it’s up and running in the boston area, too, xo LMA

    Like

  9. This is a great inside view of Uber, and I appreciate hearing it because Uber has been all over the news. I’m sure it’s here in Portland, but have no need of it and have not investigated. Your engagement with your drivers is interesting and rewarding and I admire that you wanted to learn about them. I’m also sorry that Avtar ended up revisiting painful memories, but wasn’t he gracious in saying he wanted to tell you because you seemed interested? It’s ok Bruce, you probably helped him work through it a little more, and feeling pain and loss is natural.

    You got a shot of Camden Yards too! I’ve been there and it’s a beautiful stadium that felt really fan friendly with good views of the field. Catch a game there some day if you can.

    Like

  10. Fascinating post: I especially liked hearing about your interactions with the drivers. This summer In San Francisco , my teenage daughter used Uber to get to the airport, mainly because her chaperons gave her a voucher (coupon?) that made the ride cost less than $1.00. Back on the East Coast, I was anxious, but Uber worked beautifully. Meanwhile, when we had been with her in SF 3 weeks earlier, we had very mixed experiences with taxis. Realizing that Uber’s policies are problematic, I was still impressed with the product.

    I haven’t read Ayn Rand in 25 years (I read Atlas Shrugged). Might be worth checking out The Fountainhead.

    Like

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