A College President Goes Uber

Back in the early 1970's, John Coleman was the President of Haverford College, a close neighbor of my alma mater, Swarthmore College. During his vacations, President Coleman often worked as a laborer, short order cook, or dishwasher. My favorite stories were about his service as a garbageman. This college CEO and President of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank fancied himself a pretty fair collector of garbage. Of course I didn't imagine he would give up his day job for one of these part time gigs, but I admired him for being open to experiencing a different side of working life.

Whether being an Uber driver today is the equivalent of a garbageman in the 70's is a point I won't argue, but from my first ride with Uber six months ago, the urge to try this out from the driver's seat appealed to me. It seemed like an opportunity to experience how a growing number of Americans experience work. And to be fully transparent, I love to drive and with a very creaky back these days, I'm not a huge fan of manual labor.

I've got to hand it to Uber. They are really good at what they do. Really good. Five minutes after starting the on-line registration, my cell phone rang and the voice on the other end of the phone asked "Am I ready to have my car inspected?" Ridiculously efficient. In fact, way too efficient for my liking as I had not washed or vacuumed my car in a couple weeks. But after a ten minute very organized and regimented inspection, I passed (or I should say my near-new, but slightly dirty Volvo passed).

My inspector had been driving with Uber for 17 months. His customer rating was 4.85 on a scale of one to five. He clearly was not someone to be ignored and so I listened very carefully to the driving tips he began to impart. It will take me a while, he suggested, to figure out how best to catch rides. Stay away from large events. They are a pain to get into and out of. I can drop people at the Atlanta airport but I'm not allowed not to pick them up. Sometimes, he advises, it's best just to sit near a trendy neighborhood. The bars in Buckhead or the subway stations in North Atlanta are a good bet. The gentleman's clubs on Cheshire Bridge Road very late at night are also quite lucrative. That ought to thrill my wife. On a good Saturday night, I ought to be able to clear $300 to $400. Since I'm donating my earnings to Oglethorpe's scholarship fund, that has the potential of being a night well spent. I've certainly been to plenty of alumni events where I didn't take that much in for my school.

By the close of day one, my driving record has been checked and my license, insurance and registration reviewed and approved. MY car inspector guy told me I'd have to take the Uber test. Seventy questions and I need to score a seventy percent passing grade before my credentials will be issued. He commented that I seemed like a smart enough guy to get a seventy. Clearly, he have not yet discovered that I have flunked my first driver's test 45 years ago. I planned to study up over the holiday weekend. But before the weekend arrived and before I had the chance to even take the test, my Uber approval came through. I am assuming someone took note of my two doctoral degrees and figured I had no chance of passing the test so why bother with the formality.

July 4 in Atlanta is the day of the Peachtree Road Race, the world's largest 10k race with some 70,000 runners/walkers. It's been an Atlanta tradition since 1970. I ran the race the year I got to Atlanta. The crowd is so massive it took me 48 minutes to get to the starting line and less time to run the whole thing. This year I decided to head downtown in my Uber X vehicle, now clean as a whistle, and see if I could pick up my first ride - someone who had run the race who needed a ride back home. As it was pouring rain at race time, I even brought some towels to make their ride home more comfortable. I made it downtown quite quickly, but that's where the problems began. The police and roadblocks were out in force and I couldn't get closer than six blocks to where the runners finished. Who in their right mind was going to want to walk another quarter mile after running six?

I pulled over on the side of the road and told myself I'd wait 15 minutes for a call. And then it came. My Uber app began to beep wildly. I accepted the ride, and saw that Gabe was indeed about six blocks away. I immediately placed a call to Gabe and explained my predicament. Gabe sounded really nice. I was really looking forward to meeting him. I started to imagine what he looked like and how fast he ran the Road Race. I will give it to Gabe. He let me down easy. It was just too far to walk; he'd look for a ride on the other side of the Park. He wished me a happy Fourth. How about that for a first date gone south?

Figuring it had been enough excitement for the day, I headed back north to my office to get a few things done. And then, just a few hundred years from campus, my app went off again. My mother used to say if you fall off the horse, you need to get right back on again. I took a deep breath and accepted the ride once again. This time the gentleman would be waiting for me outside an establishment called Lucky's. I promise I'm not making this up. He got into the back seat and gave the address of his destination. I typed it into my iphone and saw the word Duluth come up. For those of you who don't know the city, for someone who lives inside the perimeter of Atlanta, Duluth might as well be Minneapolis. I never travel that far outside the city. But to Duluth we were headed.

My ride was very quiet for the first ten or fifteen minutes and then he got on his cell phone. It sounded like he had taken a new job selling car financing and it also sounded like he was making a fortune. No wonder he could afford a ride all the way to Minneapolis. As we were arriving at his destination, he asked me what I was doing the rest of the day. I thought that was quite nice of him. I explained my tennis match was rained out, but that my wife and I were going to dinner later with friends. I asked him if he was from Duluth. No, he was from another small town. He had just finished his second year at Oglethorpe (I thought he looked familiar), but was now transferring to Georgia State. We talked about his favorite professors (it was clear by then he knew who I was) and he wished me a great day. I can't imagine what he was thinking. "I guess the school doesn't pay him all that well" is the best I could come up. Just my luck, my first ride and I picked up not just a student of mine, but one that was leaving to go to another institution. It's a small damn town.

On the way back home, I picked up two more riders. Best I could tell, neither ever went to Oglethorpe. Day one was over and done with. Oglethorpe's scholarship fund was $31 richer. It was a good day.