On the Friday before The Big One, we rode shotgun with an Uber driver desperate to cash in by shuttling revelers (with varying levels of rudeness and/or belligerence) around a rocking Houston
HOUSTON — The Super Bowl is less than 48 hours away, it’s 9:15 Friday night, and a distinct energy is coursing through the host city. Thousands of people wander downtown, popping in and out of restaurants and bars, strolling around Discovery Green Park. Several red-carpet VIP parties are underway. Spotlights wave high above, illuminating the sky.
On the outskirts of town, Russ exits an electronics store carrying a new aux-cord. He’s an Uber driver, and he knows that some riders like to connect their phones and listen to their own music. He doesn’t want to leave any detail unnoticed tonight, which is why he has shaved and dressed up—in a plaid button-down shirt, khakis, and black leather shoes.
Less than two years ago, Russ was working for the Turkish government and was based in Ankara, the country’s capital. Eighteen months ago, he arranged a transfer to a posting in Texas because his son had a cardiac problem and only a hospital here could treat it. Then, last summer, there was a coup attempt back home and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan fired thousands of government officials, targeting Kurdish people in particular, blaming them for the coup. Russ, a Kurd himself, lost his job. He decided to remain in Texas after that, in part so his son could continue receiving treatment, and in part out of fear over what was happening in his home country. He’d heard stories about officials being detained, tortured, and raped. He has remained in the U.S. legally, as a non-citizen. (Russ declined to elaborate further due to the current political climate.)
Russ had to find a new job, though, and that proved more difficult than he thought. A friend eventually hired him to sell toys at a mall kiosk. It was humbling work for a man who studied electrical engineering and has his MBA, but he had a pregnant wife and two children to support. Each of his son’s doctor visits was costing $10,000, and his bills were piling up. He soon found that selling toys wasn’t enough. “Then I hear that there is the Super Bowl,” he says, “so I was hoping to make some money, to at least pay my bills.”
Russ registered to drive for Uber last month, dreaming of this night. He’d heard rumors about drivers making $1,000 in a single day during the Super Bowl, four times more than usual. He had mapped out a plan in his mind, how he’d stay out all night… except now it’s already 9:15 p.m. and he’s off to a late start. His car had been in the shop, and his wife had been using her car—her parents are in town to see the family’s newborn child, and she had taken them shopping on their last full day in Houston. “I was expecting to leave around 7,” he says. “Women. Shopping.” He grins.
“We’re about to go to this 2 Chainz and Migos s---. You feel me? This car is about to get stupid lit!”
Russ starts off in his wife’s white SUV, as I ride shotgun. I had met Russ the day before, and he agreed to let me shadow him on his big night, so long as I did not reveal his identity or include some specific biographical details. “Russ” is a pseudonym. He fears that the Turkish government will find him and attempt to bring him back home. Russ taps his phone, opens the Uber app and scans the map of downtown Houston. Three areas are outlined in red, with “1.4” over them, denoting that this is where Uber has surge pricing, 40 percent higher than usual. The longer the night goes on, the more people need rides, the higher prices will surge.
“Is downtown crowded?” he asks, getting excited. “Let’s go there!”
* * *
On our way downtown, somewhere near the Patriots’ team hotel, a sound comes from Russ’s phone. He’s received a “ping”—a jingle announcing someone requested a ride. It is Michael and Gina Gaytan, two siblings going to a friend’s house before they head to the ESPN party later. They turn out to be ideal customers: civil and polite and in need of a somewhat long ride. Russ can relax a bit, before the night revs up and he is babysitting customers as they get progressively drunker.
This would be one of the few easy rides of the night.
Money earned: $18.37
Note: This is the amount Russ earns on the ride, which is typically about 70 to 75 percent of the total fare, according to an Uber spokesman. It does not include a tip.
* * *
Our next ping takes us to the House of Blues, our first trip downtown, into the heart of the surge. We pull up and sit, waiting for about five minutes. Russ marvels at all the people crowded in the bars and on sidewalks. “I’ve never seen this many people on the street before,” he says. He checks his Uber app and considers calling the customer. “This is why I usually don’t like driving downtown. Short rides, and a lot of waiting time.”
Soon, four guys and a girl pile into the car, full of energy. They say they are friends of a former-player-turned-TV-analyst and are in town for him. They have already been drinking for a few hours and are heading to the Westin Hotel for more pregaming before going to the New Era party. Apparently rappers Migos and 2 Chainz will be there. It is one of several things they shout out over the next 10 minutes, as Russ navigates traffic.
“There are bad b----es everywhere. Put that in Sports Illustrated! Bad. B----es. Everywhere. Bad b----es at the Super Bowl.”
“We’re about to go to this 2 Chainz and Migos s--- and get stupid lit. You feel me? Write that! This car is about to get stupid lit.”
“We met Vince Vaughn last night!”
“We took shots with Vince Vaughn! At the hotel, the Westin, in the lobby. And he’s even more handsome in person, let me tell you.”
“Vaughn is cool as s---.”
“I saw Barry Sanders [at a party].”
“I saw Michael Vick, too.”
“I saw Papa John—the dude, Papa John—and Archie Manning and Deshaun Watson making a pizza. That’s awesome right there. Then they gave everyone in the crowd free pizza.”
We pull up to the Westin. Russ sighs. “I already have a headache,” he says.
Money earned: $4.44
* * *
As we drop them off, another ping comes, sending us around the corner to a location across the street from Minute Maid Park. We are supposed to be picking up a man at a steakhouse called Vic and Anthony’s, but there is no steakhouse in sight. Russ gets a hold of the rider and explains that he is across the street from the ballpark, a block and a half away. Traffic is so congested, he explains, it would be easier if the rider walks to the car.
Part of the issue, really, is that the Super Bowl Experience downtown is fenced off for security reasons, and that has created awkward dead-ends on several streets, a nightmare for new Uber drivers like Russ. Driving in the area is like navigating a maze without a map. “They put in the wrong address,” Russ says, “and when you don’t find them, they give you a bad review. Then they say, ‘You didn’t find me!’”
A few minutes later, in come three middle-aged men and two sons. They are Falcons season-ticket holders in town for the game. I explain to them who I am and what I am doing. “You should write that this guy made us walk three blocks,” one man grumbles.
Money earned: $25.37
* * *
The Falcons fans take us about eight miles south of downtown, to a hotel near NRG Stadium where the Super Bowl will be played. This is one benefit of driving Uber in Houston: The city is sprawled so wide, people often need rides between neighborhoods. As we drop them off, we get a ping from another nearby hotel, where we pick up four middle-aged men with thick Boston accents who are laughing and joking with one another.
“Do you think Trump is going to show up [to the game]?” one of them asks, in jest.
“Pence is going to be there.”
“The prop bet is, is he going to be wearing a suit and tie? Or is he going to be wearing a Brady jersey?”
“Just to make the Patriots hated that much more.”
We drop them off at Diablo Loco, a sports bar serving as a hub for Pats fans for the week. “Will we make the cut for the article?” one guy asks. “I mean, if I have to show my t--s, I will.” They all laugh again, and as they leave one of them slips Russ a $5 tip. The Pats have gained one more fan. This will be the only tip Russ receives all night.
Money earned: $15.49 plus $5 tip
* * *
Driving down Westheimer Road in the Uptown neighborhood, we pass several steakhouses and nice restaurants, the types of places Russ might’ve gone to when he worked for the Turkish government. We pull up to our next stop, Truluck’s, an upscale seafood and steak chain, and four women in tight dresses climb into the car. One of the women, who appears to be the group’s ringleader, is telling another woman to leave her friend—who is apparently less attractive than the others—behind at the restaurant.
“I don’t care,” the ringleader says, as we drive off. “I’m not a rude person. I don’t care who has dinner. But I don’t have access to get you in anywhere. I can’t do nothing for you. It’s not to be mean; it’s just society.” She says she is a Playboy model and shows us pictures of herself in lingerie as evidence. She says she came to Houston just for the parties, and tonight she is heading to a club called 360 Midtown, where Tiesto is playing and her friend has a private table and bottle service. “I can see Tiesto whenever, I’m always VIP in Vegas,” she says. “My friend was like, I can get your friends in here, too. But I can’t bring that, c’mon.”
The rider had taken a selfie with Joe Namath and a leak next to Matt Stafford. “They’re genuine people,” he says.
She then turns the conversation on me, asking a series of questions about where I’m from, my nationality, and my opinion on where she should take her annual vacation, Long Island or Miami. I ask her, What’s the secret to being a Super Bowl VIP? “First of all, you’ve got to be hot, you’ve got to be cute,” she says. “And you’ve got to know people. And you’ve got to be nice. Say things like, ‘Hey, doll; hey, love; hey, doll face.’ Like, ‘XOXO.’ Like what we’ve been doing here now, asking about your nationality.”
As we pull up to the club, we see the line already stretches down the block. “It’s all dudes in line,” one of the women complains. “That’s good for me!” the alleged Playboy model says.
After they exit the car, Russ turns to me and smiles.
“That was quite interesting. I give her five stars!”
Money earned: $16.61
* * *
Amid the swarm of people walking between the bars, we pick up Hayden Felton, a 26-year-old who is heading home after a long day drinking with friends. Earlier in the day they were wandering around the Super Bowl Experience downtown when they’d gotten bored, ducked into the Hilton to use the restroom and come upon dozens of current and former players in the lobby, in town for Super Bowl festivities. Felton had taken a selfie with Joe Namath and taken a leak next to Matt Stafford. He’d spotted everyone from Andre Johnson, to Terry Bradshaw, to Adam Vinatieri. He said Larry Fitzgerald, the 2017 NFL Man of the Year, had even bought him a shot.
“They’re genuine people,” Felton says. “It sucks that there’s a------s—excuse my language—who want to crowd them. That’s why they don’t want to talk to you.”
I ask him, what’s the correct way to approach a player in public? “Treating them the way you want to be treated,” he says. “There were a lot of people in the lobby that were creepy. We weren’t creepy. We were just drinking a beer, and if we saw someone we asked them politely and calmly, can we get a selfie with you? We just want a picture, you know?”
Money earned: $22.32
* * *
As we go to pick up our next rider, in the Energy Corridor section of Houston, Uber suddenly re-routes us to pick up a different rider. This is part of the job, too, dealing with the Uber app when it gets screwy. Russ turns down a side street and gets lost in a condominium complex. He makes another turn: dead end. We eventually find our way out and to the correct address, to pick up a woman going to a bar, but it takes some effort. “Many headaches,” Russ says.
Money earned: $11.15
* * *
The next ping actually comes from inside one of the VIP parties not far from downtown. As we approach, we find our riders, two 20-something women in cocktail dresses, walking on the side of the road.
They explain that this isn’t normal for them. They both have day jobs, and they volunteered to work the event for fun, once they saw the list of celebrities and athletes expected to show up. Their job had been to walk the special guests down the red carpet as they entered.
But, it turned out, not that many speical guests had showed up. “I mean, there’s a big ESPN party where a lot of our friends are at. There’s a big Barstool [Sports] party…”
And the athletes who did show up, they said, had been hitting on them all night. “These annoying guys came in and flashed their Super Bowl rings. I was like, honestly, I don’t recognize you, so I feel like you’re not a big deal. And I love football. I knew of them, but they walked in like they own this s---. I was like, ‘I’m sorry but do you even touch the field?’”
“We both have [significant others], so we were like bye, see you later.” Now they were heading home early, about an hour before the bars close.
“The organizers were like, I’m sorry there weren’t more celebrities. It was sad.”
Money earned: $3.25
* * *
1:20 a.m. We find our next rider on the side of the road, too, but he is standing alone at what appears to be a random street corner, with no bar or restaurant in sight. He gets in the car mumbling, clearly inebriated. Russ checks the Uber app to see where we’re going, and he turns to the young man, smiling. The destination he had put in was a southern state across the country. “Are we going there?” Russ asks, laughing. “We should get gas.”
“No, no. F--- that. That’s where I’m from. That s--- is wrong.”
Russ starts driving and asks him to put the correct destination into the app.
“Gasolina, Gasolina, Gasolina,” the young man says to himself.
“Is that a bar?” I ask.
“No, take me to P.J.s” he says.
Russ keeps his cool. “Address, address,” he says, calmly.
The young man fiddles with his phone for a few moments. “Cancel?” he asks. … “No, just change address.” … “We’ve got to go left.” … “You should put in the address.”
“I don’t f---in’ know where we’re goin’ ” the rider says, mumbling again.
At a stoplight, the young man gives his phone to Russ and dictates an address, but that doesn’t work either. Finally Russ just punches the address into his own phone’s GPS.
“When it gets to 2 o’clock,” Russ says, “people are going to be going crazy.” For an Uber driver, 2 a.m. is rush hour
The young man explains that he is in town on business. He had gone to dinner at a Tex-Mex restaurant, met a group of strangers and had been drinking with them all night.
“Smells like weed in here,” he says.
That’s weird, I say, we haven’t been smoking.
“I don’t care. Smells like weed is all I’m saying.”
The young man stays quiet for a few minutes as we drive down the highway, the Houston skyline unfolding before us. Then he leans in and asks, in a whisper, “You got any blow?”
Money earned: $8.52
* * *
Russ needs to use the restroom, so we park and cross the street to P.J.’s Sports Bar, which looks like a residential home that has been converted into party central. The bathroom is upstairs, past a grungy karaoke lounge where a woman is singing “Mercy” by Duffy.
Back in the car, Russ examines the Uber app again. He has gone “offline” so he won’t get any more pings and can take a break. He zooms in on the “surge” areas downtown; the areas are getting redder and the numbers are increasing: 1.7, 1.8… “When it gets to 2 o’clock,” he says, “people are going to be going crazy.” The bars will be closing and people will need rides home. For an Uber driver, 2 a.m. is rush hour.
Russ has a plan all mapped out, and watching him carefully study the map reminds me of our conversation from the day before, when we first met and he was driving me to lunch in downtown Houston. Russ grew up poor in Eastern Turkey, the fourth of five children born to a farmer and a housewife. He’d gotten emotional talking about how hard he had worked to become a civil servant, only to have it all taken away. “I lost everything I had,” he said. “I came from a poor family and I studied for how many years? Sixteen years—engineering. I had a good career. It’s not easy to be a [civil servant], you know?”
I told Russ that people would be moved by his story. I told him that if he allowed me to use his name and reveal his identity, people might want to help… and then he started sobbing, with the car pulled to the side of the road, traffic rushing by us. “I don’t want to beg,” he said, tears streaming down his face. “I don’t want charity. I want to earn my money… I want my job back.”
Now, as 2 a.m. approaches, we head downtown, back into the heart of the surge area. Russ keeps one eye on the road and the other on the map on the phone in his hand.
“Three in some places.”
Russ parks the car in an empty lot downtown and decides to wait for rush hour to come, with his app still switched “offline.” He had learned this strategy from the other drivers: Turn yourself offline and drive to a surge area so that you won’t receive any pings in a non-surge area along the way. Russ consults the Uber app again. “Sometimes in the surge area, you never get a ping,” he says. “You never know. One time it was 6 and I didn’t get a ping.”
The surge inches up. “Three-point-six!,” Russ squeals. “Yes! Yes! Let’s go! I want a 6 and a 30-mile drive somewhere near my home. From here to my home would be $99.”
Two o’clock comes and we wait another minute. Russ notices the surge seems to be plateauing around 3.7. He turns the Uber app “online.” Time to go.
* * *
Our first rush-hour ping comes from a club downtown called Spire, where we pick up another group of five 20-somethings who are heading home. Russ sits forward and grips the wheel a bit tighter now. The more rides he can make during this surge time, the more money he’ll make. This is his Super Bowl, and he has the ball, the clock ticking.
Midway through the ride, Russ gets another ping, which means he already has another rider to retrieve before we’ve even dropped off this group. We are about a half-mile from the destination when a sound comes from 200 feet ahead: ding-ding-ding-ding. A train is coming. Everyone in the car groans as we come to a stop. As the train chugs along slowly, Russ leans over and cranes his neck, looking for the caboose. “It’s the longest one,” he says.
We wait there for eight minutes. Russ fidgets in his seat the whole time, searching for the end of the train. “Do you get paid for this?” one rider asks. “We’ll take care of you.”
Russ assures the man that he is fine, that he is being paid. After they leave, I ask Russ if that was true.
“Yeah, but not much,” he says. “Only 20 cents per minute.”
Money earned: $30.24
* * *
By the time we reach the next pickup location, the rider is griping about the 10-minute wait and the surge fee. I explain that we had been stuck waiting for a train, but that does not seem to satisfy him. Russ keeps driving in silence, tightly gripping the wheel.
Twenty minutes later, after making the drop-off, Russ checks his phone. “There’s still a surge downtown, oh my God!” We start driving down a main road and suddenly receive a flurry of three pings in three minutes—only to have all three cancel soon after.
I ask if Russ wants to head downtown, since the surge is there.
“No, it’s far,” he says. “Sometimes when you get there the surge disappears.”
Money earned: $26.86
* * *
Another ping, and this time the rider follows through. We pick up two friends leaving a party at a steakhouse, and they spend the next 20 minutes on their phones, looking for bars that will still be open, changing their destination multiple times before ultimately deciding to just return to their hotel and eat leftover pizza. After dropping them off, Russ checks the Uber app. “No surge—nothing,” he says. “Everybody go back to sleep.”
Money earned: $15.65
* * *
Russ stays out driving for another 90 minutes. He makes two more rides and is canceled on four more times. One person cancels just as we are pulling up. Another makes us wait outside a club for about 10 minutes and never calls or shows up. We wait outside a house in a quiet residential neighborhood for seven more precious minutes, before one of Russ’s phone calls to the customer finally gets through. “Just cancel it, just cancel it,” the man says, hanging up. “No, YOU cancel!” Russ says to dead air.
“It’s like they’re playing with me,” he says, shaking his head. “This is the first time I’ve taken so much cancellation.”
Russ finishes his last ride at 4:36 a.m. and then pulls into a gas station to fill up for Saturday’s shift. He shows me the final tally, after driving for seven hours that night:
• 14 rides
• 5 free cancellations
• 2 paid cancellations (riders charged for making him wait)
• $5 dollars cash in tips
• Grand total income of $221.28
“That’s enough; I am rich now,” he says, smiling. “At least I can survive for tomorrow.”
Then he thinks about it for a moment. His smile disappears. “People were talking about earning $1,000 in one night,” he says, shrugging. “Maybe we were in the wrong time, wrong place, I don’t know.” The other drivers had also been saying that Uber might leave Houston after the Super Bowl. Just a few months ago Uber and Houston officials were arguing over the city’s strict regulations, which included fingerprint background checks for drivers. The two sides reached an agreement, but it would only last through the game.
Russ yawns. It’s time for bed. He’ll worry about his job security another day. He switches his Uber app back “online” and turns to me, smiling again. “Now, I drive you home.”
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