Every Saturday at dawn it’s the same: heathens crawl out of the night with just enough functioning brain power to hail a ride. The smart ones go home. The others flame on.
One such character sways on a corner in ‘new’ Chippendale, his shining eyes bulge from their sockets. I’m an Uber rookie and sense danger until I notice dollar-shop deer antlers on his head – probably a nice guy. We negotiate that awkward moment where the wasted meets the sober by ignoring the matter completely.
How you doing man?
‘Good dude, I’m going to the kick-on. I’ll show you the way. It’s only a few blocks but why walk eh? I came from Melbourne for this party. Real German techno. Not the fake shit. Let’s crank tunes.’
With one antler out the shotgun window, and the other jabbing my left eye, we cruise up City Road taking the left onto Cleveland Street. I’m getting a rapid-fire appraisal of events when my navigator jerks his arm right.
‘Turn here! Oh man we missed it. It’s cool if you do something illegal.’
I find a way back and follow directions into a Darlington sidestreet. Lost in a tangle of one-way streets, I consult my navigator.
Where the f… are we?
He raises his hands.
‘Ignore me dude. I’ve been awake 48 hours.’
Another ride. A chap whose rinsed pallor and creased face resembles a younger Shane MacGowan. He’s flipping between a Glebe house party and a 21st at Frankie’s. He’s returning to Frankie’s since the house party bombed. He took his first ever hit of acid and it hasn’t kicked in.
I offer him bottled water and relay advice an old hippy gave me at a forest rave in Canada: Never drink tap water on acid. Chlorine destroys LSD molecules.
In the CBD we discuss clientele. He’s curious to know who Uber’s worst behaved demographic is. I list the top contenders. Vile eastern suburbs private school people. Obnoxious drunks from Bondi’s Irish diaspora.
The worst are drunk girls who commandeer the sound system and play Justin Bieber and One Direction at top volume.
‘Jesus! That’s horrible. Bieber?’
Yeah, and they sing along.
The chemical recipe in his stomach reacts poorly to the mental images I’ve supplied. A moment later he lurches forward cupping his mouth.
‘Pull over man. Pull over now!’
Months pass and a decision looms. The injured hand necessitating Uber driving heals. I can either return to my old job, quit, or do both.
By now I’ve learned to game Uber’s ‘surge pricing’ periods, working the least amount of hours for the most money. Abundant free time and charismatic passengers from Sydney’s hipsterlands make for a fun lifestyle. The wider implications of companies like Uber destroying the taxi industry are evident.
People without a smartphone and a credit account are excluded from Uber’s business model. Umar Lee, a St Louis writer (and ex-cabbie), argues that Uber drivers avoid impoverished neighbourhoods with inadequate public transport. That Uber is not progressive, but an elitist hipster service hurting regular cabbies and denying poor people transport options.
Lee’s opinion may apply to cities like St Louis. It’s less an issue in Sydney. The British MP, Frank Field, dismisses Uber as being part of ‘the gig economy’. We all have our own choices to make.
The thought of returning to a workplace hierarchy, bureaucracy and endless policies and procedures – the corporate straightjacket – conflicts with my new world of late nights, long sleep-ins and Friday morning bingo at the Courthouse Hotel. I stick with Uber.
Saturday night, late July. I log-off in Marrickville and meet my girlfriend inside the Factory Theatre. For 90 minutes we enjoy the Mark Lanegan Band’s warped take on white junky blues, folk and electronica.
Afterwards we kiss goodbye and I return to work. The exodus of punters from the show seeking Uber rides creates a mini surge storm. I drive two Lanegan fans home at double the standard rate, discussing artist and gig along the way. I wonder how my transition from rock fan to ‘businessman’ affects their perception of me. Am I being cool, opportunistic or both? Somehow it feels like I’m taking from my tribe.
My journey to the end of the night concludes with a tipsy couple in the darklands of Kings Cross. They’ve been drinking for 10 hours and, between secretive giggles, have their wits impressively together.
Shortly into the ride he begins needling her to tell me what had happened earlier. They laugh. She’s reluctant.
I tell them nothing surprises me anymore. Jaded Uber veteran.
‘I had my first pap smear this afternoon,’ she begins. ‘We went together. I needed moral support. The nurse was an old duck in her 60s and she couldn’t get the speculum in. She pushed and pushed and when it entered she said, ‘Gee it’s really tight’. And I said back, ‘Yeah, that’s what he reckons.’
Next morning I awake and check the app. The heat map glows red across the city. I picture Saturday’s cast emerging from bunker raves, nightclubs and ‘secret’ CBD bars, coming to terms with choices made in the safer darkness. Here again is the daylight world, spoiled by accountability and reckoning.
A day-long sense of gathering street energy becomes a wild night in the city. At The Drive-In play the Enmore Theatre and Crystal Fighters throw down at the Oxford Art Factory. The town is lit with returned Splendour veterans staving off civilian duties. Consecutive riders tell me they arrived from Byron, checked the guide and spent the bank on sideshow tickets. Most are calling in sick tomorrow: ‘They’ll understand’.
I’m playing catch-up after a lazy week. Sunday business typically dies early, but tonight it stays strong. At 2am I head home, but neglect to log-off.
Near Enmore the app pings. I accept the money on the table and arrive on a dark Marrickville street.
As I wait for ‘Kerry’, a creep of fear tests my resolve. I consider cancelling when a house door slams. A slinky figure crosses the street and fills the car with champagne and perfume fragrance.
‘Got the address?’
Yeah, had a good night?
Kerry lets me know my question crossed a boundary.
On King Street she flicks the cabin light, produces a small white bag, and between snorts makes several urgent phone calls using a more exotic alias.
We arrive on a narrow Pyrmont street along a bland apartment row. Kerry struggles with the child safety feature requiring two pulls of the door lever instead of one. The spectacle eventually gets sad. I exit the car and open her door.
‘My booking starts in 10 minutes. Can I wait in the car?’ It’s a cold night. Dashboard says 3 celsius. Of course you can.
The dull minutes stretch out like speeches in a snuff film. I hear that silent, illusory moment the entire city sleeps. At any given hour, some mad bastard is up for it. And some equally deranged, beer-starved captain like me will sail them right into that storm.
For a fee of course. That’s how we roll. Then I hear footsteps, a voice, the door opens and I say goodnight to Kerry.