Heavy Lyfting

Ben Austin-Docampo

It's easy in the sense that all you have to do is get in the car and fire up the app. It's hard in that it requires long, monotonous hours to be fruitful, and constant vigilance to stay safe. San Francisco is a tough city to drive. June, and the wind is high and the skies are gray. I keep my window down. The fog is gone for now, but it'll come back soon enough. Somewhere, a bird sings as the N train glides down Judah Street, letting out a ghostly electric howl as it makes its way downtown. It's cool outside, not cold, but definitely hoodie weather. Drivers here take their sweet time turning on an arrow. Same thing going through a green light. But they switch lanes at the last second, assuming whoever's in the way will be out by the time they merge. Maybe everyone's just stoned.

I’m a car for hire. When I’m not driving, I’m a grad student in a full-time program, which means I'm broke. My bread and butter fares are the nouveau riche. Once I picked up a group of polo-clad, cologne-scented, twenty-something guys, who arrived at my car and explained I had to wait for their friend who was buying sunglasses. To their credit, they apologized for holding me up and called their friend, telling him to hurry, but he still took ten minutes to purchase a two-hundred-dollar pair of Ray-Bans.

These kids flaunt their cash, talk only of their money, their friends' money, their jobs, or hot lays. At least, when they're in the relative anonymity of my car. A lot of these fares are in finance. The rest are in tech. Young, hardworking nerds, speaking endlessly about how many hours they're working. Unless pressed, they'll not say what they're working on or who they're working for. So as far as fares go, they're usually not so bad. They stay quiet and mind their own business. But if you get two of them in the car together, a conversation will develop, the underlying characteristic of which is smugness.

Ridesharing is an interesting way to make money—and it works, sort of. It does make you money, just not as much as the companies claim it does. Lyft is famous around San Francisco for saying drivers can make up to $35.00 per hour, and while I have had hours that good, the average (after factoring in gas and down time) is probably more like $15.00 to $20.00. Still, not terrible as far as wage jobs go. And it has its perks; chiefly, the ability to set your own hours and only having a supervisor one ride at a time.

The downsides nobody likes to mention include the stress of having to drive for hours around a busy metropolis, constantly worrying about a glitch in GPS, snotty fares, and the personal risk that comes with driving. Not to mention, drivers are contractors, not employees, so even drivers who are working more than forty hours a week aren't eligible for health care or a salary.

Sometimes, there’s a lack of self-awareness amongst these young men and women of means I pick up. I say this in reference to those fares who suck their teeth when I have to pull over ahead of where they want to be dropped because otherwise, I'd be blocking a lane, the entitled passengers who make you circle the block to arrive at their feet rather than walk half a block to where you're waiting, the ones that get upset when they hail me on Montgomery Street during rush hour and then get upset they're stuck in traffic. So I get the native resentment, but I also get needing a place to exist. ‘Gentrification sucks’ is a concept I think most people can get behind, but the reality of neighborhoods changing over is more complicated than that glib phrase is able to express. It’s not as if the goal of tech is to displace people from the city, it’s just an unfortunate side effect to the opportunity tech presents. People like to think of their experience as empirical, status quo, the truth from which all experience flows. This is where the resentment narrative lives. In the collective assertion that once upon a time there was a city called San Francisco, and now it’s being ruined by changing demographics. Push on that logic a little harder and you find yourself in nebulous territory. Before it was a stronghold for Latino families and culture, the Mission District was a hardcore Irish neighborhood. Go further back and the descendants of the Ohlone might have a thing or two to say about who belongs on the peninsula. San Francisco is a boom town. A city’s natural state is flux.We’re all just hanging on the wall until we aren’t anymore. 

When I first came to California six years ago, I was a vagabond by choice. I'd been moonlighting as a carpenter’s assistant, a hydroelectric dam facilities operator (I was basically Homer Simpson), and a sales associate at the Dumbarton Oaks museum gift shop in Washington, D.C.’s exclusive Georgetown neighborhood for a year before I’d scraped together enough money to leave the East Coast determined to hit the reset button. I bought a plane ticket to the land of surfboards and silicon and volunteered with American Conservation Experience. ACE is a non-profit based in Santa Cruz partially funded by an AmeriCorps grant. As far as AmeriCorps experiences go, I gather mine was a bit atypical. I wasn't building houses or teaching in a classroom; I was in the wilds of California north, south, and in between, working as a crew member on a variety of environmental projects. Most of the time, I lived in my orange Marmot tent. I was without a home, but I was tethered by AmeriCorps.

After ten or more days in the field, our crew would pile in the work van and drive to Santa Cruz from wherever we were (often twelve hours away along the Grapevine) for a few days of R and R. Santa Cruz was our hub, and the site of our AmeriCorps-provided housing, an old Victorian conveniently located at the seedy intersection of Broadway and Ocean, half a block from the town's most notorious 7-11. The ACE house, as it was known, fairly hummed with life.

In order to keep the lights on and its meager staff paid, ACE was running as many as twelve different crews at a time. Finding ways to shuffle all that humanity around, even in a state as big as California, was a full-time job, and often an impossible puzzle to solve. Six bedrooms with an average four beds to a room (sometimes more) plus an alcove that routinely served as accommodations for an additional pair of volunteers, meant there were thirty-some individuals living in the house at any given time.

The rules were no drugs and no alcohol, and while everyone used drugs and drank, these rules were strictly enforced by a live-in chaperone. Getting caught with contraband on the premises was a dismissal offense. This led to an informal social policy among volunteers of being out of the house as much as possible, returning only to sleep a few hours after a day (and night) of partying.

The routine went something like this: nine-day workweeks at ten hours a day swinging pickmatics, digging holes, rolling rocks (read: boulders), hauling logs, hefting axes, hiking mountains, lugging chainsaws, and wading chest-deep in cold mountain streams. It also meant eating the same Blue Diamond roasted almonds, Kirkland trail mix, Bumble Bee canned chicken, Kraft mac n' cheese, Jiffy peanut butter, Pemmican beef jerky, and Stagg chili hitch-in and hitch-out.

The end of every work week left us feeling like burned-out bulbs, but also filled us with energy, the kind you get after an all-night cram session. In other words, an illusory one. By the time we'd get back to Santa Cruz, we were running on Jack in the Box and fumes. Still, we were tanned and hale from our work in the bush, and after a long time without release, you can bet we were all ready for a drink.   

And that's how I lived for nine months. Time was measured in days, not weeks. I was in shape, focused. I was poor, but hardly noticed since money became something that only bought food and booze on days off. After my term of service was over, I applied to every state parks district in California, but the only one that got back to me was Santa Cruz. I stayed there for two years, doing similar work to what I'd done in ACE. I had visions of getting on with National Parks. I took the GREs and applied to CalPoly for forestry, but I never finished my application.

Ask any San Franciscan and they'll tell you (at length) how the city is going to hell. It's the tech industry, they'll say. Companies like Facebook, Google, Salesforce, Twitter, Eventbrite, Dropbox, on into infinity have taken their city hostage. They've set up shop on every street corner and their workforces are legion. They're crowding out true San Franciscans, because the rents are skyrocketing. The Ellis Act is a nasty bit of legislation making it easier for landlords to get around rent control and even force evictions of long-time residents so they can put apartments on the market at an inflated monthly rate. Of course, when the rents increase, it's largely the techies who are willing and able to pay the higher prices. To wit, the average monthly rent of a one-bedroom apartment in the city is $3,100.00 or one thousand ideal rides.  

But I have to say that the resentment story is so ubiquitous around town that I became sick of hearing it. I started wondering, Is it really as bad as everyone says, or is this just a case of the old guard resenting the new? After all, I’m an invader here myself. Not even a native Californian. I have to believe I can belong here, too. That I can make it. The resentment narrative doesn’t help with that. Maybe I have more in common with the techies than I like to admit.

Every profession has its own Kool-Aid it encourages employees to drink in the hopes that they’ll become true believers. Techies it seems, make great mantra followers. The smugness I spoke of comes from a true believer mentality that the work they do can best be cast as future building, or cultural engineering. There's truth in this, tech companies are shaping the way business is conducted, information is shared, and even how humans behave on a daily basis. Where I depart from this corporate fairy-tale is that I’m doing the job they programmed, helping them make the world the better place they promise.

I don't subscribe to the idea that the job makes the person, but techies sure do. Who you work for and what you do is everything to them, and their belief in their own importance is reinforced by the vast sums of money they're given as reward for their services. This is the reason techies have earned the scorn of native San Franciscans, or people like me who feel like we could have been born here. We drive them around, prepare their food, make them drinks, and in return, they design our Dick Tracy watches. They design our phones and the apps that live inside them. And no, the irony that I make money from a tool invented by tech doesn’t escape me. I won’t deny the convenience some of these inventions provide, but having a hand in making them shouldn’t give the inventors carte blanche for taking over the city.

I picked a guy up outside an apartment in Nob Hill. He had dark skin and darker hair. I thought perhaps he was south Indian. Through the course of conversation, he revealed to me that the passenger listed on the app wasn't actually him, but his friend, who'd placed the request on his behalf. This is common practice, and not really a red flag in and of itself. Things only got weird once I started driving to pick up a second passenger.

He told me I was driving in the wrong direction. I explained we had a second person to pick up. He told me not to. “You don't get to decide that,” I told him. “This is a Lyft Line.” He didn't seem to understand the concept, and became agitated. After swearing a little under his breath at the inconvenience, he settled down. That is, until my second passenger got in the car. A girl in her twenties going to the Mission for a drink. As luck would have it, the app decided she should be dropped off before him even though he got in first. This happens when someone's destination is further than the other, despite the order in which they get in the car. This news however, incensed him once again.

He started cursing me and my stupidity. He placed several phone calls, presumably to his friend who’d put him in my car so he could explain how stupid he was, too. He spoke to him in a language I didn't know, and it was obvious now that he was beyond drunk. I hadn't noticed that at first despite his initial rant, because he'd clammed up pretty fast, and he had a thick accent. Now he was yelling at me to drop him off first, which I refused. He then started calling the woman to his left a whore.

I stopped the car. I told him he had to shut up or get out. He shut up, for a while. In his state, he seemed capable of violence and that scared me. I dropped the woman off, hoping she was mollified by getting out of my car, but I felt better now that it was just me and this drunk idiot. Then things got worse. I read the address that appeared in the app, and he told me it was wrong. The place he actually wanted to go was many miles further in the Sunset. I took him. He exited my car and punched the trunk before stumbling up a walkway. I didn't Lyft the rest of the week.

After driving, I often find myself thinking about the dry summer I spent in the Golden Trout Wilderness. We were a crew of eight. Over the three months we spent living together away from the world, we became a family. We worked long, hard days making check dams. This meant cutting downed logs with a cross-cut saw, hauling them back from the canopy to the worksite, digging holes along the stream bank that acted as keyholes for the logs that we wrapped in jute before stacking on top of one another so that they lay across a stream bed. In essence, we were making waterfalls that slowed the rate of water flow, and thus, erosion. From start to finish, installing one dam could take as long as nine days, but when we got good, it took us three.

We had our food, our rolling tobacco and joints around nightly fires. Beer we saved for our days off. All there was to do when the day was done was talk, read, watch the sunset, stroll around the meadow, or maybe a casual game of home run derby, hitting rocks with a stick into a herd of passing cows. Every day, even the bad ones, had a balance. It was an instructive time. We were all susceptible to falling victim to a full range of emotions based on outside stimuli we experienced each day, but it was interesting to see how little stimulus one needs to feel anything at all.

Lyfting, I hit a biker. I was stopped at a light in North Beach. It was around midnight on a Thursday. People were leaving the bars. I had a fare in the backseat who was only going a mile away. The GPS told me to turn right at the intersection where I was stopped. I flicked on my blinker, looked right for pedestrians, then looked left. All clear. I looked back to the right and turned. I hit something. It happened so fast and felt so light against my hood, at first I wasn't sure it was a person. It was. A black man with dreadlocks and a patchy gray beard. He'd been riding on the sidewalk when he came into the crosswalk and I hit him.

I was stunned of course, but managed to grab my phone in case I had to call the cops or an ambulance, and stepped out of my car. Already a small crowd had gathered, people who'd been standing on the corner smoking or just passing by. Some of them helped me get the man back on his feet. He seemed okay, the bike, too, looked undamaged. I tumbled out a terse apology.

“We can settle this right now,” he said. “Gimme a hundred dollars.”

He wasn't making a scene or being threatening in any way, just direct in that way the homeless often are. I felt for him, and I wasn't opposed to giving him compensation, if only out of guilt and not wanting to be publicly chastised by what would surely be a bunch of self-righteous strangers, but I wasn't about to give him a hundred bucks. Especially since he was in the wrong. Biking on city sidewalks is illegal for this very reason.

“I'll give you forty,” I told him. He nodded and took my cash. The whole thing left me shocked, sure, but it wore off soon enough. I even kept Lyfting after I dropped off my fare, who, for the record, agreed I wasn't at fault.

The unfinished CalPoly app was a bellwether. A sign that, as good as outdoor work had been to me, I wasn’t cut out for it long term. I was never going to be first saw on a US Forestry Service backcountry helicopter crew the way one of the guys at State Parks went on to be. I wasn’t a lifer. I spent that summer season off from parks, driving a box truck loaded with Beckmann’s bread all over the Bay Area. A convenient occupation for when you’re having a quiet quarter-life crisis about what your next step should be. Lots of time alone to think.

I’ve always written. In Santa Cruz, I was trying to get my writing life back on track, but I was struggling to keep a sustained practice going. I needed a way to create time and space for it, so I applied to several MFAs in California. I chose a program in San Francisco, my own private California Dream.

When I first moved to the city in 2015, I lived in the Sunset. The Outer Sunset, to be precise. I liked it there in the relative quiet of my neighborhood, surrounded by Chinese and Russian families. I stayed for a couple years, but I moved last spring when the owner threatened eviction. As I write this, I’m looking out the sliding glass door of my Mission apartment that opens onto my little patio. Over a jumbled series of rooftops a lone palm tree sways. Beyond it in the distance hazed over by fog is Twin Peaks. I can see the giant pink triangle left over from Pride weekend on the eastern slope. I finished my degree two years ago, but I’ve stuck around.

I no longer Lyft. I can’t say I miss it. Now I’m an Arts Administrator at the college where I graduated. It lets me pay my bills and my loans, and I have time enough to write. I can enjoy the city instead of just driving around it. I never expected this trajectory, but I suppose no one ever does. I’m still hanging on the wall, and in a city like this, I call that a win. I have more stability than ever since moving to California, but after a while, it won’t be enough. I’ll need something more. I’m trying to get closer to a life where I can write what I want without having to get through other tasks first. I’m no different from anybody else, I want to do what fulfills me. That takes some creative thinking to manage. Maybe being around people in tech has rubbed off on me. It’s taught me that if your original vision isn’t working, pivot: find a new function for whatever you do.