Prairie Lights: Cashing in, briefly, on the ride-share market

When I heard Uber was coming to Montana, I couldn’t wait.

I was dying to be part of this new phenomenon, to be in the front ranks of a cutting-edge movement—even if it has been around elsewhere for years. Plus, I needed the dough.

Ed

Ed Kemmick

Trouble was, I’m not very tech-savvy and I hated the idea of learning how to use some new app and then going to all the trouble of getting certified and having my car inspected and maybe being told I needed to get some new shoes.

So I figured what the hell. I made a sign that said “Guber,” taped it to the door of my ’97 Subaru wagon and hit the streets of the naked city.

I figured most people wouldn’t recognize the difference anyway, and that very few Montanans understood the whole concept of using a phone app to hail a cab. I figured they’d see the name and something would click and they’d just flag me down. Nothing to it.

I figured right. I didn’t get a block from my house before a guy carrying a tuba waved me over.

“Guber?” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. “Hop in.”

And that was that. Off with my first Guber fare. Turns out the guy was from Sidney. Came here with a band, band got a little drunk and he ended up by himself on a Saturday morning, no clue where the rest of the guys were. Didn’t even have a phone.

“Where to?” I ask him.

“Bus depot,” he says, which is a bummer because it’s like eight blocks away. But he doesn’t know that and he doesn’t appear to know the city at all, so I make a few loops around the downtown, taking different streets and scooting down some alleys.

“How do you figure out what a ride costs?” he asks.

“Well,” I answer, pulling my phone out of my pocket, “it’s all on here. Google Earth, a calculator and the guys at Guber setting the rates.”

He’s cool with that, and when I drop him off at the depot I charge him eight bucks, which he hands over with a two-dollar tip. This Guber thing’s looking pretty good.

I feel a poker machine calling my name so I point my Guber wagon in the direction of the Crystal and head out. No such luck. Two blocks from the bus depot a lady sees me and starts whistling and waving, so I pull over.

She wants to go to the West End Target. Ka-ching! She asks about Guber, and it’s obvious she’s got it mixed up with Uber. Says she heard it was a lot cheaper than a regular cab.

“I’m not too sure about that,” I say. “But I just started. We’ll see what they say.” (I tell her this while pointing at my phone.)

Just then I hear some damned sirens and there’s a cop right behind me. Tells me he saw me pointing at my phone and pulled me over for a driving-while-yakking violation. Second offense, $200. And he notices the expired tags, so I get a warning for that.

The cop also wants to know what Guber is. “Ride share,” I say, and he buys it, too. Even starts talking to me about signing up as a Guber driver. I promise to help him get started, so he rips up the ticket. This Guber thing is like magic.

I drop the lady off at Target, charge her 10 bucks. She seems to find that pretty reasonable and I’m sorry I didn’t ask for 15.

I’m thinking to myself, “Who needs Last Best News? This Guber thing is like a license to print money.”

Six blocks from Target another guy flags me down. He was trotting when I saw him and he looked a little sketchy, but I figured what the hell. Can’t start discriminating first day on the job.

So I pull over and he hops in, panting like mad, and keeps looking out the back window.

“Where to?” I ask.

“I don’t care. I mean, downtown. Yeah, downtown.”

Just then I feel something cold and hard pressing into my neck. I look in the rearview and see the guy has a gun, and he’s looking at me with wild eyes.

“Look,” he says. “I just robbed a casino and I’ve got to get the hell out of here. Pull over in that alley.”

I do and he says, “OK, you’re gonna get out of the car and you’re gonna leave the keys in the ignition. I’ll need your wallet and your phone.”

“Aw, come on,” I say. “This is my first day as a Guber driver. And this car isn’t even air-conditioned.”

“Hah! Guber,” he says, spitting out the last word. “Guber. You fraudulent son of a bitch. I should call the cops on you.” He pushes the gun barrel farther into my neck, so I guess the conversation’s over.

I get out of the car, hand over my wallet and phone and he says, “And tear off that stupid ‘Guber’ sign while you’re at it.”

So I do and he climbs into the driver’s seat, slams the door and speeds off, laughing like a madman.

That’s karma for you. I hope the Uber guys have better luck than I did. Looks like I’ll be sticking with Last Best News for a while yet.

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