Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

29 November 2018

Time And What's It's Worth

Recently, my Uber-buddy, Terry was complaining about how little we make per-hour with Uber. We never worried about this so much when we owned taxicabs, but Uber drivers like to focus on this false metric of hourly wage. It's probably because so many conventional jobs pay on an hourly basis. But for some situations, paying by the hour is not always appropriate.

On a slow day at the airport, sometimes the taxi queue would look like a scene from The Walking Dead.  Bored, zombie-like cabdrivers saunter up and down the line, chain-smoking cigarettes, desperate for something...anything to do or talk about.  You can't leave to even go get lunch because you'd give up your position in the line.

Back when we owned taxis, sometimes Terry and I would go down to the Navy base on a weekday...and sit. Not a lot of people leave the base during the week, unless they've graduated from the NATTC (Naval Aviation Technical Training Command) and are headed to the airport and their next duty station. Classes are staggered and the course lengths vary depending on what the individual sailors and Marines are being trained for.  If a big class (like 50 or so kids) has graduated, a cabdriver might make three back-to-back $35 trips to the airport.

But if there are no graduating classes that day (the Navy does not publish a schedule), then nobody might leave the base. Frustrated cabdrivers like Terry and me might sit all day long without a single ride. It has happened. I'd make the half-hour drive from my house down to the base, get there at eight a.m., hang around until two p.m., and finally give up and go home. What was my hourly pay for that day? Zilch-o-rama.

Of course we usually make it up on the weekend. If the Navy and Marine kids have gotten paid and if the weather is warm and sunny, then you'll be working non-stop as every one of the 4,000 NATTC students wants to be off-base.  Ninety-nine percent of them don't own cars.  It was not unusual to make $200 or more in an eight-hour day. So you say to yourself, “Yay, I'm making $25 per hour!” But you'd be neglecting the day you made nothing. Or the day you worked twelve or fourteen hours and only grossed $100. I never averaged out my hourly pay as a cabdriver, but I know it wasn't much

...Just as my hourly pay with Uber is not much.  (I feel kind of badly for people who depend on Uber for their entire income.  And many do.  I think Uber always intended for it to be a "side-hustle" - something you do in addition to your full-time gig.)

On the other hand, what else do I have to do? I could stay home and play on Facebook all day. And yes, there are always things around the house that need to be done. There are tons of ways a productive person (in other words, someone who is not me) could spend their free time.  On bad-weather days I could (and should!) be practicing my guitar or working on the book I've finally decided to write.  On nice days I could (and should!) be out riding my motorcycle.  But I choose to spend my spare time sitting in a car doing crossword puzzles while waiting for the elusive ping! that means someone needs my services.

And what about the time that I spend, not in my car but at home with the Uber app on? I'm technically “working,” in that I am waiting on trips, but if you're in your own house doing nothing but “waiting for the phone to ring” so to speak, are you really working?

The sitting-around-all-day can be mentally fatiguing. It can put you into a mind-numbing stupor. You have to keep your mind occupied or it can drive you crazy. Terry and I have our own individual methods of doing that: He likes to read and write; I like to nap. (No, in all seriousness, I read and I write. And I nap.)

If I had a family, being a cabdriver would suck. Because while you can “make your own hours,” you really do have to be out there where the trips are – meaning the airport during the week and on the Navy base on weekends. You pretty much live in your cab.

With Uber I can make as much during the week as I used to in my cab on weekends. Plus, I can sit in my house and get Uber trips, something I couldn't do with the taxi. With Uber, I can come home between trips and still be "on the clock." Do I love Uber? Oh yeah! But I don't pretend that it's a high-paying job, or even that it provides a good hourly monetary return for the time invested.

Fortunately, at the moment the one thing I have a lot of is time.

22 November 2018

Happy Thanksgiving 2018

Well it's finally here - the day I've been waiting for! Yes of course Christmas is important to many of us, but Thanksgiving is a holiday that everyone, even atheists can love. Because today we don't just 'remember' to be thankful (we should do that every day)...no, no, today we *celebrate* our gratitude! And we do that by gathering around our friends and family in a joyous feast of fellowship and love.

Back in the 1980's my parents lived in Manhattan. For a number of years my mom organized a big Thanksgiving Day dinner for the elderly and shut-ins of the parish. It was held in the basement of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. Big crowd...multiple turkeys...side dishes galore...desserts... Even though she didn't do all the cooking, it was still a tremendous amount of work for mom. Looking back, I don't know how she did it. All of us kids pitched in. I'd drive around, scooping up those who wanted to attend but needed a ride. It instilled in me the knowledge that feeding people is one of the greatest things we humans of any belief system can do. To this day I enjoy having people over and putting on a big meal - especially now but even when it's not the holidays.

And so Thanksgiving provides me an opportunity to cook! However, sadly, the number of people at the house today will be smaller than usual - smaller than I'd hoped. And though it won't be with my actual family who are all still up in New York, it will be with people who've become my family here in Florida. And they've all generously offered to pitch in and contribute something for our meal today, greatly easing my tasks. Do not call it "workload" for it is not.

Obviously, not everyone can be a part of a big, family get-together today. Hey, I've spent plenty of Thanksgivings by myself, eating a cold-cut turkey sandwich. That has never bothered me. Life ain't always perfect. But we should recognize that we all have blessings...things to be thankful for. And I surely do! Even my friends and extended family down in Panama City, Florida where Hurricane Michael recently hit and did so much damage...even those people are having a big Thanksgiving meal. For them it is especially poignant this year. You could forgive them if they didn't feel particularly thankful that they've lost so much. But we're humans; we stay positive.

Whether or not you have people to celebrate this holiday with or maybe you're spending it on your own, I hope you do take the opportunity to celebrate your blessings and have a wonderful, warm and Happy Thanksgiving.

I wish you could be here with us.

21 November 2018

Money Is Green, Not Black and White

Conventional wisdom says that here in Pensacola, Florida it's better to have a minivan as a taxi than a regular sedan. The thinking is that a van is better because there are so many tourists with lots of people and luggage, and the Navy kids always have a shit-ton of bunk, trunk and junk with them. Both of those things are true. And seven years ago when I bought my first taxi, it was a 2006 Ford Freestar minivan.

The Freestar was great. But the downside was that it got horrible gas mileage. As gently as I could baby it, I never got more than about 14mpg in the city, which is primarily where I drive. On the occasional highway trip it never did better than 23 mpg. But I made a lot of money with that van, and it was paid-off so its poor gas mileage didn't seem to matter.

As 2018 began, the Ford was, let's say “tired.” It had more than 210,000 miles on it. The interior and exterior were still great, but every week something else was breaking. At my local car-repair place, the guys and I were on a first-name basis. We never could get the air conditioner working right – but Lord, how they tried!

Coincidentally the taxi business here in Pensacola was dying a not-so-slow death thanks to the rise of the ride-shares. In April of this year I made the decision to switch over to Uber. The Ford van was just not suitable. This meant getting a newer, more dependable vehicle. (Here in this city Uber allows cars up to fifteen years old.) Naturally I began looking for another...well, van.

Sure enough, I found a super-clean, loaded 2010 Dodge Grand Caravan at a local dealer. It had a lot of miles on it (slightly over 100,000), but the dang thing looked, ran and drove like a brand-new car. It was in immaculate shape. Perhaps because of the mileage, or more likely the fact that it was literally the last day of the month, the salesman immediately came off their sticker price (which I already knew from my research was pretty fair). Inside, as we worked up the numbers I got him to come down even lower. They really wanted that van gone. In the end, I think I got a very good deal, which is often hard to say.

Many of my Uber passengers thought it was a brand-new van. I got many compliments on it, both verbally and, more importantly, noted on the App. I liked the “new” Dodge even more than my old Ford. (The automatic doors and built-in satellite radio helped.)

But again, the problem of gas mileage immediately made itself known. I thought it would do a little better, but my average city mileage was horrible. Over the six months I've owned the van I've averaged only 15.8mpg. Ouch. In October, my fuel cost per mile was $0.18.

So I started thinking about other cars, regular cars...more economical cars, especially hybrids. There is a reason that a lot of Uber drivers use the Toyota Prius. But I didn't want a Prius; I'd heard too many negative things about them from my passengers. Trouble is, hybrids are expensive to buy even if their operating costs are low. And there were no hybrids that I really liked.

But then I remembered the Volkswagen diesels! The VW Jetta diesel (the model is known as “TDi'”) was reported to get 40mpg on the highway and 30mpg in the city. I thought to myself that if it only got 25mpg in the city I'd be pleased as punch, as Hubert Humphrey used to say.

Volkswagen had a big scandal starting back in 2012. They got caught with a clever “cheater” program in their computer engine controls which could detect when somebody was doing an emissions test of the car. In that case, the computer would make the engine run super-duper-clean to pass the test. Once it was over and the test equipment unplugged, the car would go back to it's normal settings – which by the way were the same settings that Volkswagen used everywhere else in the world. It was only in the U.S. with our more-stringent nitrous-oxide limits that their cars would not pass (and some of them, like the 6-cylinder diesel, could not even be made to pass). And they got caught. Oopsie!

It's not that Volkswagens are unsafe, or even that they are serious polluters; they're not. The U.S. just has some crazy-ridiculous standards for diesels to keep passenger cars from running down the road smoking like an old eighteen-wheeler at full-throttle. And it's not like VW sells all that many diesels in the U.S. every year. But the feds caught them cheating and imposed some extraordinarily steep penalties. One of them was, of course, that they “fix” all of the non-compliant cars. Which they did. Another was that they no longer sell diesels in the U.S. Which they don't.

For the car buyer, Volkswagen diesels represent a hell of a bargain. They are seriously undervalued. People have heard of the scandal (it was called “Dieselgate”), and even if they don't know the details of it, they shy away from VW “TDi models” as they are known because they seem tainted.

I'll cut to the chase: I found a very nice 2012 VW Jetta Tdi at a dealer. It had the federally-mandated fix, and only had 71,000 miles. It's loaded and, again, like my Caravan it's gorgeous – it looks and drives like new. The dealer didn't want a lot of money for it either.

Needless to say, I cleaned out my van and drove home in the Jetta. On Interstate 10 on the way home the little gauge on the dash was showing 41.1 mpg. Who knows how accurate that is. (The one in my Caravan said I was getting 14mpg; in truth I did a little better than that.) In town, the display in the Jetta shows an average of 28.2mpg. I haven't put many miles on the car yet, so I haven't filled it up to calculate the actual fuel mileage (don't say “gas mileage” to a diesel driver!). But we'll see. I'm optimistic. If I can get an average of 28mpg, and with diesel being $3.00 per gallon it means that my fuel cost per mile will now be $0.11. That's about a 30% improvement!

But as usual, I didn't think this all the way through, as my friend, Terry was happy to point out. You see, 15% of my Uber revenue came from the higher-paying XL trips (more than 4 passengers) in the Caravan. So I'll be losing that money. I'll have slightly higher car and insurance payments...which is bad, but lower fuel costs per mile...which is good, but 15% less revenue...which is bad. Terry noted astutely that I'll probably just break even on the deal.

Nothing in life is ever black or white.  Certainly not money.

14 November 2018

Driving For A Living

As someone who's driven for nearly fifty years, and who's made a living at it for most of the last eight years, I have a couple of observations. Bear with me while I rant, okay?

Most people think they are “above average” drivers. Obviously half of them are wrong...maybe more, I was never very good at maths. People claim to be good drivers by pointing out that they've never had an accident. This means nothing. All it tells us is that other drivers have been good at avoiding being hit by them. Miracles do happen.

Everyone is Mario Andretti. And one thing you can never do is question another person's driving ability. They'll take it as a deeply personal insult. There is a strength of conviction that is almost religious in fervor.

Guys feel as if they own a certain amount of space in front of their car. God forbid that you violate this space (by, say, changing lanes and pulling in front of them). Instead of just slowing down and readjusting that following distance, they will demonstrate their displeasure by riding your bumper, honking their horn and/or other, more graphic gestures of anger.

On a boulevard (e.g. two lanes in each direction), a guy will dawdle along slowly in the left lane, blocking traffic. He may be focused on his phone, or lighting a joint or whatever, but he is oblivious to traffic around him. Until... Until an opening appears in the traffic and you try to pass him on the right. Then he will suddenly wake up, and it's “race-on!” Happens every time. Every time. Guys do not like to be passed. It's a masculinity thing. They think it's a threat or insult to let someone get over on them or get by them. Guys really are way too competitive, especially behind the wheel.

Which brings us to my pet peeve: Americans simply don't understand the concept of “keep right.” They don't realize that it applies everywhere, yes, even on roads that are not Interstate highways. And on those Interstates, people will doggedly plod along in the left lane, sanctimoniously believing that they're perfectly fine and legal as long as they're going the speed limit. Which is false. Nobody appointed you to be a traffic cop, a controller of vehicle speed other than your own. Just keep to the right and let those bastard law-breakers go by. Karma or the real police may catch up with them eventually, but it's not your call.

I could go on, but I won't. Driving for a living can be a frustrating experience until you learn to just let it go. For me, driving is not a competitive sport. If someone wants to go around or get ahead of me, I just let them. No big deal. It's not a race. Plus, I'm judged and rated on my driving now; too many dings for unsafe driving can get you permanently deactivated from Uber. And yeah, that happens.

I don't know where I fall on the good/bad driver scale, but I try to not make people who are riding with me feel like we're about to have an accident. And if you can make paying passengers feel safe, I guess that's got to count for something.

07 November 2018

Customer Service - And The Lack of It

In last week's installment I wrote about experiences I had involving two companies that are seeking to use technology to reduce the number of actual human employees on their payroll. In the Comments section, my friend Bob opined,

”As for McDonalds... anything to enhance their employees' ability to take an order and get it right would be welcome.”

And there's the rub. That part about getting the order right.

Whether the customer inputs his/her order via a kiosk or tells it to a clerk behind the counter who does the same, the possibility of getting the order screwed-up does not change if the food is cooked/handled/bagged/distributed by a human.

I went into our local McDonalds early one morning recently. The drive-thru line was long, so thinking (erroneously, as usual) that I'd be in and out more quickly, I parked and walked in. I was the only customer at the counter, and one of only three in the whole place.

I ordered a "two burritos meal" by number (let's just say it was a #7). The young girl behind the counter asked if I wanted hash browns with that? I said, patiently but somewhat sarcastically that I believed hash browns came with the #7. She seemed surprised. After ringing me up she grabbed a medium soda cup and plunked in onto the counter. I shook my head and asked for coffee. Again, it was breakfast. She withdrew the soda cup and stopped, looking confused.

Someone eventually appeared from the back of the store, carrying a bag, looking at me and announcing, "One breakfast burrito?" I sighed heavily (as I do) and corrected him. This resulted in a call for the manager, a beleaguered middle-aged woman who looked like she really didn't want to be there. Said manager looked at my receipt, rolled her eyes and told the guy with the bag to get me another burrito and a hash browns.

The cashier turned to the manager and said (and I shit you not), "But he wants a coffee, not a soda."  The manager sighed again and poured me a black coffee. This McDonalds does not put out cream and sugar at the soda/ice tea station. Does nobody drink McDonalds' crappy coffee anymore? I had to give it back to her and ask for cream and sugar to be added. But she had filled the cup so completely that there wasn't any room for cream.

All in all, three humans screwed up every aspect of my McDonalds breakfast - which was inputted correctly into the computer! I should add that on my way out of the store I fished the hash browns out of the bag and tossed them in the trash can by the door because they're horrible. I didn't care about them so much...I just wanted my two damn burritos and a coffee! And that's what I just should have ordered.

I had to laugh. Well, it would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

Customer service has gotten really bad in the U.S. - not just with fast-food dispensaries but in general. The people behind the counter seem to forget the "service" part of the phrase.

High school kids in America used to be grateful to snag a job, even a part-time entry-level job at a fast-food joint. They used to be proud to work! Not anymore. Now they view jobs as some sort of inconvenient obligation, and all they need do to get paid is show up and socialize with the other employees. Actually doing the job well is not a requirement.

In my Uber the other day I picked up a young woman at her apartment. She was headed to work at the mall. She asked if we could run through the McDonalds drive-thru so she could get a Mocha-something. It was already close to nine a.m. ”What time do you have to be at work?” I asked, knowing we were still a good ten minutes away from the mall. ”Nine,” she replied, "but they give us a fifteen-minute grace period."  

I was dumbfounded...literally speechless. Employees are so bad at being on-time these days that companies are forced to give them “grace periods.” Just try and make it here between ten and ten-fifteen, mm-kay? Un-bleeping-real.

Heck, maybe we're seeing the unintended consequences of having fast-food restaurants at every major intersection in every Podunk town. Maybe there are too many entry-level, minimum wage jobs.  Trouble is, here in dinky Pensacola we have so many fast-food places that they all can't even stay in business, much less keep an adequate staff of employees.  Google Maps shows eleven McDonalds right here in the Pensacola area.

The Hardee's (on a busy street right near the airport) closed and moved up the same street to a shopping center with a Winn-Dixie supermarket. The new location doesn't seem to do much better than the old. The Arby's which was right next door to Hardee's also closed but did not relocate. (I suspect that the Arby's chain of restaurants may not survive. None of them seem to be doing well when I drive by.  Or it may get conjoined and siamesed with another fast-food place like so many Taco Bell's and KFC's are now.)

The Burger King on the mall property! closed and a brand-new one was built just up the road not far from where the Hardee's and Arby's failed. The shiny, new, modern-looking BK store just recently opened.  It's right near my house.  Every time I pass it looks ominously deserted. The store is open and yet it has big banners outside announcing that they do walk-in hiring on Monday and Tuesdays. Didn't they staff-up before the Grand Opening?

Fast-food franchises used to be gold mines. Has the tide turned? Will lower sales volume and ever-increasing labor costs result in a downturn in that industry? I kind of hope so. More competition for the available jobs might make the people who actually need them and get them be more appreciative of having them. And then maybe, when I walk up to the counter they might say, "Good morning! May I help you?" instead of just staring at me blankly and then getting my order wrong.