Everyone has tales of Boston taxi woe. Before cabs took credit cards, there was the ol’ “I don’t have any change” ploy when you had a $20 bill and a $10 fare. There was the cabbie who took me from Logan to Brookline via Southie, which, last time I checked, wasn’t on the way. There was the cab that got into an accident cutting off somebody on Comm Ave. From that point on, I always insisted on wearing a seat belt in cabs, even if it meant extracting the buckle from deep within the Petri-dish crevasse of the overstuffed prisoner seat.
There are only 1,825 cabs in all of Boston, a city where more than 30,000 people regularly congregate in a single building. At any given time, 98 percent of that humble fleet is parked just around the corner from the airport, awaiting orders from the surly walkie-talkie maestro who ushers five or six cars at a time into the stubby loading corral. Ye unfortunate travelers, stay behind the gate until you are summoned! The Logan cab dispatcher is the all-powerful bouncer at the hottest club in the city, White Camry. You, you, you—no, not you.
Enter Uber. A few weeks ago, I cleared my background check and signed on as an Uber driver. This was in Charlotte, the same weekend as my moonshine-fueled NASCAR experience. Which, I assure you, came after I was done Ubering.
Becoming an Uber driver is a little more involved than it probably seems from the back seat of the car. Besides the criminal check and the obvious license, registration and insurance requirements, you’ve also got to visit an Uber office and pass an exam. The test—a video followed by multiple-choice questions—takes about 25 minutes and could be summarized as “How not to annoy people.” I failed.
Yes, I failed my first crack at the Uber certification test. I got so salty about this that I made the manager, David, restart the video so I could show him where I was actually right and the answer was wrong. At this point, he seemed to be reconsidering my suitability for Uber duty, not just because I failed the test but because I was getting belligerent about it. Maybe a busted-ass yellow Crown Vic would be more my speed?
In my defense, early in the video, the narrator warns against logging into the system before you’re sitting in your car, since tardy drivers are a top complaint. At the end, there’s a question about the top complaint, yet the correct answer is not “tardy drivers.” I think it’s “smelly drivers.” So I got that one wrong. But the gist is not to be late or smelly.
Also, don’t ask passengers to rate you five stars. Asking people to rate you five stars is apparently a great reason for people to rate you less than five stars. Don’t honk the horn when you get to someone’s place. Don’t accept a tip—unless the rider insists, in which case you politely accept the money. The slickest app in the world can’t erase the delicate inefficiencies of our ingrained tribal customs.
Uber issues drivers a dedicated iPhone 4 and a windshield mount. When they activated the phone at the office, I noticed that they left the microphone on. So throughout the night I made sure to occasionally say things like “The best part about driving is the freedom of being nude!” Although if the phone’s camera was also activated, I guess they could see that I was joking about that most of the time.
I made three trips as a driver and received five stars across the board. Of course, I was juicing the returns by driving a Bentley, so I probably could’ve looked, acted and smelled like Gary Busey and still notched rave reviews. I’d rate all my riders five stars, too (Uber accountability runs in both directions), in that none of them verbally abused me or yakked in the car. Then again, it was early evening and I was helping Charlotteans begin their night rather than end it. Post-midnight is surely a different scene.
Despite my personal catalogue of horrible taxi experiences, working as a driver made me a little nostalgic for the grim seediness of cabs, which was diminishing even before Uber and its ilk arrived with some genuine competition. The ingredient that’s missing from the Uber model is the tolerance for feisty characters. “I was uneventfully transported to my destination by a professionally dressed individual in a late-model Honda Accord” isn’t much of a story. The cabbie who got me from the Hough’s Neck Dunkin’ Donuts to Logan in 18 minutes, “check engine” light ablaze, all while sorting out some life drama on the phone? That was excitement. Five stars.