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Posted by on May 16, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

100 Candles….and Counting: Liberace’s Las Vegas Legend Lives On

 

 

I don’t give concerts.  I put on a show.

— Liberace

 

Last Sunday afternoon at 2 pm, the Windmill Library in Las Vegas offered a free musical performance and verbal retrospective in remembrance of Liberace, the late flamboyant showman-pianist, who died 32 years ago.

I suspect most of us who attended expected perhaps only a few dozen locals might show up.  After all, Liberace disappeared from the Las Vegas stage a very long time ago.  An outdated museum dedicated to his life shuttered in 2010.  So, I wondered with some justification — who remembers Liberace?

Remarkably, “Liberace Lives!” — a celebration of the master showman’s life and music — attracted more than 500 attendees!  About 50 people or so had to be turned away at the door at the performance center.  Come to learn, an identical performance held at another library during the previous day also drew a packed house and an overflow crowd.

For Liberace?

What magic spell is still cast by this campy entertainer who never sang, didn’t compose any significant music, couldn’t dance, never used a light show or had an orchestra and whose entire stage show pretty much consisted of a pudgy aging man with a bouffant hair dew dressed in some absurd costume straight out of the Renaissance while sitting at a piano for what would seem to be an excruciating 90 minutes?

That’s the great mystery I shall attempt to solve in today’s article.

Indeed, the timing is perfect.  Today, Liberace would have been 100-years-old.  He was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in West Allis, WI on May 16, 1919.  The son of Polish and Italian immigrants, Liberace was known as “Lee” to his friends, and “Walter” to his family.  But later, the performer became better known to millions by the singular name, Liberace, the first American entertainer to establish a popular trend later copied by Madonna, Prince, Pink, and countless icons.

The remembrance held at the library taught me many remarkable things about Liberace.  So, I thought I’d share them now with you.  Here are a dozen facts you probably didn’t know about Liberace:

[1]  During the mid-1950s, Liberace was the highest-paid entertainer in the United States, and perhaps the entire world.  He had a successful nationally-television variety show.  He also earned a whopping $50,000 a week at the Riviera for one Las Vegas’ first extended residencies.  That’s equal to about a million dollars per month in today’s money.

[2]  A decade later, Liberace moved his act over to the more spacious The International showroom (later the Las Vegas Hilton, now the Westgate).  Every one of his shows sold out.  For a time, his opening act was a young female singer named Barbra Streisand.

[3]  Liberace was vilified by critics for his piano playing style and unapologetic showmanship.  He was often accused of being way too glitzy with little musical substance.  Critics noted that he didn’t compose any original music.  Liberace’s counterargument was he brought classical music and old American standards to millions of new listeners.  He’s often credited with demystifying the greatest classical compositions for much broader audiences.  He was one of the first stage performers to completely obliterate siloed musical tastes.  In fact, Liberace included nearly every genre of music in his Las Vegas stage show.

[4]  Liberace had hundreds of fan clubs throughout the world, 200 at one point during the height of his popularity.  Later in his career, his most loyal fans consisted of older women, with whom he had established the oddest of connections.

[5]  Liberace stories are the stuff of legend.  While rehearsing one afternoon for his temporary residency at The New Frontier around 1953, an unknown man observed the virtuoso from the wings offstage.  Liberace wasn’t at all pleased with the lighting and asked the tall man to help with repositioning a few spotlights.  The man silently complied with the pianist’s request.  That man turned out to be Howard Hughes.

[6]  Before morphing into a legend, Elvis Presley was mostly known as a teen idol during the 1950s.  While playing a few shows in Las Vegas, during one night off Elvis attended Liberace’s performance at the Riviera.  He saw the pianist wearing a glittery jacket that was so flashy it completely dominated the showroom.  Elvis was so impressed with the spectacle that he too began wearing sequined jackets in his act and later adopted the flashy jumpsuits that Liberace pioneered as a Las Vegas performer, years earlier.

[7]  Liberace’s stage show became increasingly over the top nearly to the point of self-parody and camp.  He overtly displayed his wealth, fawned over royalty and other celebrities, and even wore heavy fur coats while onstage, despite the bright lights and oppressive Las Vegas heat.  He drove into the showroom while chauffered in the back of a mirrored Rolls Royce (driven by his live-in lover, the boyish Scott Thorson).  Liberace doddered across the stage adorned in a full white mink stole with a tail more than 20 feet long.  As he paraded near the front row of worshippers, Liberace’s stock stage line was “go ahead, have a feel, there’s enough fur there for all of you.”

[8]  Liberace is credited with the famous line, “I laughed all the way to the bank.”  When critics ripped his act and he was asked for a reaction, Liberace frequently slung the revengeful reply.  Later, during an appearance on The Tonight Show in an interview with Johnny Carson, Liberace really stuck it to his critics.  He snapped: “I don’t cry all the way to the bank anymore – I bought the bank!”

[9]  Liberace won a multi-billion dollar defamation suit against a British tabloid after the magazine claimed the pianist was gay in the 50s.  Incredibly, Liberace denied the claim and ultimately won his lawsuit, despite the obvious fact the allegation was true.  While Liberace couldn’t “come out” given the restrictive times and repressive norms of the day, and certainly would never have enjoyed vast success had his homosexuality been widely known, his adoring fans never seemed to care.  Nonetheless, to this day, Liberace remains controversial among gay activists.  He never acknowledged being gay, despite actor Rock Hudson being the far braver as the first Hollywood legend to announce his sexuality months prior to dying of AIDS.  Liberace died in a similar vein, 18 months after Hudson, but still denied being gay until his last dying breath.

[10]  In life and even in death, Liberace was the ultimate contradiction.  He was a flamboyant showman, who lived just as extravagantly while offstage.  Yet, he was devoutly religious and remained a practicing Catholic throughout his entire life.  Liberace was very conservative politically.

[11]  After Liberace’s death, his wealth funded thousands of college scholarships for students interested in pursuing careers in music.  His estate bestowed millions, much of the money going to students in the performing arts at UNLV.  His generous endowment continues to support students and musical programs.

[12]  Liberace’s stage shows often concluded with the most unusual fanfare possible.  He didn’t simply disappear backstage and then leave, as is normal custom.  Rather, after performing his final song, he invited his audience up onto the stage to touch his clothes, sit at his grand piano, and even try on his flashy jewelry.  He posed for tens of thousands of photos with his fans, often with handshakes, hugs, and kisses.

Liberace remains a Las Vegas legend.  He’s a musical icon.  He’s well worth remembering today, on the centennial of his birth.

 

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Posted by on Apr 17, 2019 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Las Vegas, Personal, World Series of Poker | 2 comments

The Greater Good of Gary Thompson (1945-2019)

 

 

Gary Thompson died.

Remember his name, because he merits being treasured.  Ponder his significance because he enhanced everything to which his name was attached.  Revere his memory because he was a mentor to many, who freely gave guidance for no other reason than simply being kind.

If you knew Gary, you were lucky.  If you didn’t, then please read on and learn more about this remarkable man I knew, respected, and loved.

He was a father.  He was a husband.  He was a friend.  He was a veteran.  He was a patriot.  He was a son of the earth.

He wasn’t just a good man.  He was a great man.  He was a teacher.  He was an intellect.  He led by example.  He was a man who exemplified the very essence of compassion, honesty, and decency.  He was the greater good.  He was the angel of our better nature.

Gary Edward Thompson was born in Danbury, Connecticut on December 4th, 1945.  He died in Las Vegas, Nevada on April 14, 2019.  In between, he lived 74 extraordinary years.  His life touched countless others.  He made a difference.

Gary spent most of his childhood in Connecticut.  He graduated from the prestigious New York Military Academy.  He enlisted in the United States Air Force.  He served overseas during the Cold War and was stationed in Pakistan during a tense period in global geopolitics.

After serving his country proudly abroad, Gary returned home and worked in New York City for several years as a marketing executive.  He became a widely-respected Wall Street reporter and was assigned to writing daily copy for the Dow Jones Report.

Gary then moved to Las Vegas and launched a new career.  He took a job as a reporter covering city hall and was promoted to managing editor of the Las Vegas Sun.  Next, he worked at Harrah’s Entertainment as a publicist.  He worked his way to the pinnacle of the casino industry, becoming the spokesperson for Caesar’s Entertainment, the world’s largest gambling enterprise.

Gary also worked as an executive for the World Series of Poker — not because he needed the extra workload, nor the immense responsibilities that went along with an additional full-time job.  He worked for the WSOP — and did so from 2004 through 2008, the period now regarded as “the poker boom” — simply because he loved the game and respected its players.  He was there during the critical transition between past and present when the WSOP grew from a smoky backroom corral into an internationally-televised spectacle.

That’s how I came to know Gary so well, and where our story now begins.

__________

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Thirty-one years ago, two legends-in-the-making battled it out for poker’s richest prize and instant immortality.  Johnny Chan beat Erik Seidel heads-up and won the 1988 World Series of Poker.  The final hand later became canonized in the popular movie Rounders and to this day remains one of the most famous confrontations in poker history.

Remember the riveting instant when Chan masterfully captured his prey and yet was forced to disguise the victory within his grasp?  See the photograph above which shows Chan just moments before winning his second of two world championship titles.  Look at the man positioned over Chan’s left shoulder reporting on the event.  That’s Gary Thompson.

Yes, that’s Gary Thompson — standing on his feet at crusty old Binion’s Horseshoe, during the pre-historic era when no one from the mainstream press ever came to cover anything related to poker.  Reporting on poker events just wasn’t done back then.  Not before Gary Thompson arrived in Las Vegas, saw the potential, trekked down to the Horseshoe personally, and made it into a front-page news story.  Some two decades after recognizing the magnetic attraction that was the World Series of Poker, he became one who would run it and make major decisions that would come to define what it’s become today.

Sometime in the future, the real story of the WSOP shall be written.  What went on behind the scenes.  In back hallways and on cell phones late at night.  On those pages, should they tell the whole truth, Gary will be tagged as the perpetual outlier, the ultimate voice of reason, the grand visionary, and the player’s champion.

I was there.  I saw it.  I witnessed everything.  I remember.

Poker players who revere the WSOP owe a special debt of gratitude to Gary for all the things he did that almost no one saw.  In the face of excruciating pressure, outright opposition, and often indifference from the highest level, he (often alone) was the voice who stood up to the mega-corporation, the short-sighted bottom-liners, the managerial MBAs, and all the suited squeezers who wouldn’t know mixed games from a mixed salad and never gave a rat’s ass about the players or any of poker’s great traditions.  Gary was there duking out in the back offices and boardrooms, bickering and bargaining and bantering at every meeting, every step of the way — pleading, cajoling, maneuvering — desperately trying to protect and preserve all that the WSOP represented that corporate culture wanted to milk out and pulverize the last nickel and drop.

He didn’t win every battle.  In fact, he lost many.  But he argued passionately and always came down on the side of the greater good of the game.

Yet, Gary’s name will never be associated with poker championships, although he was the players champion.  He stood up for them.  He defended them.  He understood those who came to the WSOP each and every year weren’t just ripe customers to be plucked for a day but might be loyalists for life, provided they were treated right and not ripped-off.  Among everyone I ever worked with at Binion’s-Harrah’s-Caesars over 20 long years at the WSOP, no one was more protective of the players and traditions than Gary Thompson.

No one.

__________

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Public relations and marketing basically boil down to mastering the art of bullshitting.

There, I said it.

Maybe it was because Gary waded through so much of it himself, working on Wall Street and recognizing a lie when he heard it.  Maybe it was covering the dirty underbelly of Las Vegas politics for so long.  Perhaps those experiences had something to do with Gary always despising bullshitters and vowing never to become one himself.

So, when Gary ultimately flipped to the opposite side of the cat and mouse media game, he never distracted, diverted, nor double-talked those who sought his perspective.  He never once bullshitted.  That’s why every media personality who interviewed Gary knew they were getting the straight story directly from the source.  That made Gary the “go to” guy in Las Vegas.  Because he returned phone calls.  He told the truth.

Most readers have no idea how difficult it is to maintain trust and personal integrity while working for a conglomerate as colossal as Caesars Entertainment, particularly during the tense period when the $27 billion company was inexplicably floundering in bankruptcy.  Gary manned the front lines and dealt with the press on a daily basis.  He was the company’s firewall.

That didn’t mean things always went smoothly.

About ten years ago, I read an explosive story on the front page of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  The article was about the Department of Justice laying down the hammer on online poker, which pretty much pulled the plug on the game’s growth inside the United States.  Gary was quoted (accurately) with a blistering rebuke of the D.O.J.’s overreach.  He blasted the feds.  I remember sitting there and reading that article, fist-pumping air, and screaming out, “You tell ’em, Gary!”

That was Gary Thompson, ignoring the guard rails, cutting through the bullshit, and telling it like it was.  It was pure Gary at his best.

Later, I found out Gary was almost fired for that impromptu comment.  Caesar’s Entertainment and the stuffed suits were annoyed that its own spokesperson was picking swinging an ax at the federal government.  But Gary survived because he was so damned good at his job and everyone who knew him respected his word as the gold standard.  That’s trust.  That’s integrity.  That’s power.

WATCH GARY THOMPSON’S 1997 APPEARANCE IN C-SPAN TALKING ABOUT THE CASINO INDUSTRY HERE

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I must have had 50 dinners and at least 500 drinks with Gary, and that’s a conservative estimate.

His beverage of choice was always Vodka Martini.  Shaken not stirred.

He chain-smoked.

He dressed immaculately.

He spoke calmly but could always command a conversation.  When Gary spoke, everyone stopped and listened.  He had the ear of everyone — CEO’s, Mayors, television people, everyone.  Once, I saw him pick up the phone and book a friend of mine as a guest on National Public Radio — on the spot.  He got things done.

Most of all, Gary loved to laugh and made the most of every opportunity to do so.  If pressed to recall the serene sound of Gary’s soothing voice, it most certainly is accompanied by his laughter.  Even when Gary was mad, and he did get angry at times, you could always tell he was looking for the bright side and seeking a way for everyone to shine.  His positive spirit was utterly infectious.

I was lucky to call him my boss.  He was the kind of person you worked for and didn’t want to disappoint.  There are rare individuals in this world who command such authority just by their example, that to fall short of their expectations is the ultimate defeat and despair.  Letting down Gary on any task was the ultimate in shame.  I don’t know if I ever let down Gary, but I certainly tried to meet and match everything that was expected.  I think everyone who ever worked for or with Gary would say the same thing.  He was that exceptional leader who could motivate others to exceed their capabilities.

Sometime around 2006, Gary and I had one of our dinners at Piero’s, a local Las Vegas institution.  Everyone in the restaurant knew Gary.  It was like dining with a rock star.  I think (former) Mayor Oscar Goodman was there that night.  Gary could have run for any office in the city and probably been elected in a landslide.

During our many conversations, he confessed things privately to me.  I don’t think he would mind me sharing some these memories, now.  Gary absolutely adored his daughter, Kelly.  He talked about her with great love and admiration.  He also would get choked up each time he would talk about his late wife, who had died years earlier.  Gary carried some guilt about her death, rightly or wrongly burdened with memories that didn’t tell her how much he loved her enough while she was living.  He carried that burden long after she was gone.  I think Gary lost a piece of himself when she passed away.  Gary could be the life of the party without every trying to call attention to himself.

But when Gary met Gina, he became complete once again.  They were married and devoted their lives to each other.  Gary and Gina were the perfect power couple and even better dinner companions — witty, funny, insightful, and kind.  Marieta and I dined out with the Thompson’s many times, including wine dinners.  If I were to describe those dinners and our conversations, the word I would use would be passionate.  Gary and Gina were always filled with passion.  About everything.

Gary and I shared so many common interests and similarities.  But our political views were dramatically different.  Gary was a libertarian and a Republican.  He had bumper stickers of the National Rifle Association on his Acura that I threatened to tear off.  We argued about politics all the time.  Yet never once did our discussions become heated, nor uncomfortable.  I think there was a mutual respect that was so deep it transcended our differences.  I wish other people who can’t get along could have spent more time witnessing the way Gary carried himself in daily conversation.  There’s a lesson there for everyone.

About six years ago (if memory serves), Gary learned he had terminal cancer.  He immediately began treatment and lost his hair.  Never one to seek out any sympathy, Gary instead focused on the time he had still remaining.  He vowed to make Gina happy.  That was all that mattered to him.  Gina and his daughter Kelly — they were everything to Gary.

And so, Gary traveled.  And played golf.  And laughed.  Despite the diagnosis, Gary laughed a lot.  He never gave up.  He never quit smiling and laughing.

__________

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I’m a terrible golfer.

Yet somehow, I always got paired with the laughing chain smoker and 70-year-old cancer patient, even when we were senselessly playing for money against much younger and stronger competition.

Talk about a handicap.  Thing was, the handicap was me.

Gary tried to give me golf lessons.  Many times.  That didn’t work.  I still sucked.  He once trashed my old set of golf clubs right out on the middle of the course and gave me his own brand new set of wood and irons.  Seriously, he picked up my bag and tossed it in the trash between holes.  Then, he gave me a $500 set of new clubs, which I still have as a prized possession.

Gary’s expensive didn’t help either.  It wasn’t the clubs.  It was the golfer swinging them.

The only time I ever won money on the golf course was back a few years ago when Gary and I were at Angel Park in Summerlin playing against a couple of guys who could whack the ball 300 yards down the fairway.  We were playing “best ball.”  That meant each player got to play the ball of the best shot.  Of course, we played Gary’s shot 90 percent of the time because I was so awful and he was so consistent.

We got down to the final hole at Angel Park, the 18th green.  The purse had a big carryover.  I had to sink a 30-yard putt, for us to win the match.  It was a shot I couldn’t make 1 out of 500 times.  Gary coached me.  He told me to exhale and just where to strike the ball and how hard to hit it.  I took my club, actually Gary’s putter, and slapped the ball which ran downhill and to the right and dropped straight into the hole.  Pluck!  We cheered.  We hugged.  Our opponents threw their clubs up in the air.  I felt like I had just won The Masters.

Here are two golf stories I wrote about previously, including an account of that round with Gary.

READ:  BLOOD, SWEAT, AND BEERS

READ:  THERE WILL BE BLOOD

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When Gary was diagnosed with cancer, he knew his days were numbered.  For most who are facing their own mortality, seeing the end of the road serves as a rude wake-up call.  It’s a cruel reminder to re-align one’s priorities.  For Gary, knowing he had a limited time to live wasn’t a jolting life adjustment at all.  It was merely a continuation of who he was and always had been. It was a fitting final chapter and an epitaph.

Gary had always wanted to see Africa and experience the final frontiers of the wilderness.  So, during the last year of his life, still healthy and with energy enough to make the long and demanding trip, he ventured to the great continent of Africa where he saw the wild beasts up close and marveled in all that was natural.  For the man who’d spent much of his life working among the skyscrapers of New York and the neon glow of Las Vegas, standing out on the open plains with African bushmen and being among the animals was his final fateful act of revelation and liberation.

It was his last breath of freedom.

Visit GARY THOMPSON’S FACEBOOK PAGE here.

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If the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living, then we all share an obligation to remember him and revere the life he lived and try to meet the lofty aspirations he set by his conduct and the man he was.

I loved Gary Thompson.

I will miss him.

We will all miss him and the greater good he was.

__________

Here is a direct link to the Gary Edward Thompson memorial page and more information about services scheduled for April 27th.  CLICK HERE

 

 

Note:  I believe the facts of Gary’s life to be accurate in this hasty remembrance.  I have no notes nor any obituary for reference.  It was written from memory.  If readers notice any errors, please e-mail me privately at — nolandalla@gmail.com — and I will make any corrections.  Thank you. 

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Posted by on Mar 29, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Personal, Politics | 4 comments

Lyft’s IPO: Buyer Beware

 

 

Buyer Beware:  Why Lyft’s Current Business Model is Unsustainable and the Stock is Probably a Losing Long-Term Investment

 

A few hours from now, the rideshare company Lyft will go public.  Shares of stock will be offered on the NASDAQ.  A few people are about to become insanely rich overnight.

Lyft began operating in 2012.  In the seven years since, the high-tech startup has grown into the second-largest rideshare transport company.  Uber, which ranks first, enjoyed a four-year head start on their rival.

However, some analysts now believe Lyft’s long-term prospects are brighter given the number of cities where the company operates (300) and growth projections within those markets.  Certainly, Lyft will be an attractive investment for initial speculation in what’s been a booming American economy.  The timing of Lyft’s public launch couldn’t be better than now.

However, Lyft is beset with many questions and potential problems.  What are my credentials to make this statement?  Well, admittedly, I know nothing about the company’s ownership, its management team, its technology, or anything whatsoever to do with its finances.  What I do know is its current business model is badly flawed and hence, unsustainable.  Lyft can’t continue to operate as it’s now doing and expect to generate much of any profit for investors.  In other words, don’t expect dividends to be paid soon.  In fact, profits may never come.

We’ve seen this false hype before — high-tech stocks and even great ideas that seemed they couldn’t miss, go from boom to bust.  Anyone remember the late 1990s?  Apparently not.

Lyft is expected to sell 32.5 million shares at around $72 each in the initial public offering phase (IPO), taking place on Friday, March 30, 2019.  The company will instantly be valued at $25 billion, a remarkable degree of investor confidence for such a young company that has yet to produce a profit in any of its seven years of operations, to date.

Read that again — yet to produce a profit.

Sure, Lyft (and Uber) have set the stage for what seems like a transformative enterprise that could change how millions of people get around in urban centers.  Most of us have used the service and do find it appealing.  The convenience of simply pulling out a smartphone on any city street, typing in an address, and getting a car direct to your doorstep within minutes is an attractive feature.  Moreover, ridesharing doesn’t require the handling of cash since all transactions are done by credit card (which is already on file when the consumer signs up for an online account).  Finally, ridesharing fares cost significantly less than taxis and other means of private transportation.  And therein lies the problem.

Lyft and Uber have been competing in a heated rivalry, especially over the last year or so, which has really been great for riders, but bad for both companies and especially their drivers, which are not employees but independent contractors.  The battle to inflate market share has kept fares ridiculously low in some cities, which has resulted in drivers’ pay being cut.  Lyft has been able to weather financial losses until now, and the infusion of IPO capital surely will give the company a huge boost.  However, there’s simply no way to generate profits in the long-term based on any of the current numbers.

Why not?  :et me explain.

Presently, Lyft is losing money.  To make a profit, the company must either:

  1.  Raise prices
  2.  Reduce labor costs
  3.  Ramp up technology (which will reduce labor costs)

Sorry, riders — but paying $8.45 for a six-mile ride cannot continue.  That fare isn’t feeding all the mouths that need to be fed when it comes to operating a motor vehicle, maintenance, fuel, labor, customer service, management, marketing, insurance, and other associated costs.  Making up the current deficit and then generating a profit for shareholders will require implementation of one or more of the options above.  There’s a reason the taxi costs $12 while the Lyft ride costs $9.  It’s because the trip is somewhere between $9 and $12 in cost, and Lyft is undercutting the competition.

If prices increase to a level that offsets costs and generates profit, ridesharing won’t be nearly as attractive to consumers.  Right now, many people are turning to ridesharing because it’s cheaper than a taxi.  That won’t be the case if fares go up by a substantial margin, which is probably inevitable given the costs of driving in urban markets.

If labor costs are cut, which means driver’s pay is slashed, rideshare companies won’t be able to attract new talent, nor keep those the drivers they have.  Uber and Lyft have been in a war to the bottom to see which company can pay its independent contractors less, presumably in an attempt to make their balance sheets look good.  With high turnover, rideshare companies are now bombarding social media channels desperately trying to attract new drivers, even offering so-called incentives to sign up.  Check your Facebook feed after visiting the Lyft page sometime and see what pops up.

Ridesharing is still a relatively new phenomenon and many drivers may be fooled into thinking it pays more than what’s actually accrued after time, investment, fuel costs, and wear and tear on personal vehicles — not to mention the inherent risks that go along with working odd hours driving on the streets (crime, traffic tickets, auto accidents, and so forth).  As the word spreads that many Lyft drivers make barely above minimum wage, it will be increasingly difficult to find the gullible.  Furthermore, the low rate of pay (which based on my personal experience varies between $8-14 per hour, and that’s — before taxes and zero benefits) will inevitably discourage better drivers and attract people of lesser quality.  Seriously, who can live in cities like New York, Washington, San Francisco, or Los Angeles on $11-an-hour?

Poverty-level wages, essential to profits, will attract marginal people — both in quality and character.  Increasingly, expect to see problems (like Uber sexual assaults, which have risen significantly).  There’s simply no way to attract a viable workforce paying $11 an hour with no benefits.  It’s a lettuce picking job behind the wheel.

Investors may be attracted to the company’s high-tech prospects, which could be on the horizon.  The most revolutionary component of ridesharing of the future is autonomous vehicles.  If Lyft (and Uber) can convert cars into a driverless experience, that eliminates significant labor cost.  Inner-city transportation would never be the same again.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, just yet.  While the technology does exist and the rideshare giants undoubtedly would chomp at the bit to convert to driverless cars if given an option, nevertheless, significant legal and practical objections do remain.  How many cities and states will allow hundreds or perhaps thousands of cars to be driverless and how long would this process take?  Additionally, what happens when a driverless car kills someone, as happened last year in Phoenix?  Accidents are part of the equation and are bound to occur (even if they aren’t caused by technical malfunctions).  Will city and state governments allow this controversial new technology on the streets?  Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all — what about consumer confidence and traditional habits?  Will riders get into a car that doesn’t have a living person as the driver?  Sure, high-tech might make driverless cars statistically safer and perhaps these concerns shall be overcome.  But I’m not convinced that either Lyft or Uber will be able to convert to a driverless vehicle fleet, not anytime soon.  Any investor would be a fool to think this is the game changer that will suddenly make rideshare companies profitable.

Hence, rider fares must increase (jeopardizing profit), labor costs must be reduced (jeopardizing profit), or high-tech must become the lifesaver for Lyft and Uber (probably the only viable option).  Then, add the uncertainty of gas prices now at a historic low (when adjusted for inflation), rising automobile acquisition and repair costs, and other economic uncertainties, and it’s impossible to imagine a better climate for ridesharing companies that right now nor how things will improve.  If Lyft and Uber can’t make a profit in these extraordinary conditions, how will they make money when the inevitable slowdown or downturn occurs?

This isn’t to say Lyft and Uber are doomed to fail.  To the contrary.  Ridesharing is here to stay.  It’s great for consumers.  But it won’t be nearly the bargain later on when operating costs and shareholder expectations create pressure to raise fares.  A ride from the airport can’t be delivered at $12 when the actual cost is higher.  It’s unsustainable.

No doubt, Lyft is going public at the ideal time for their owners.  Uber will likely be following suit, soon.  Unfortunately, those who invest in all likelihood have never driven for the company, seen the day-to-day operations, nor done the math.  I have.

Those who buy shares in these companies early and then hold rideshare stocks could end up in a riderless investment, with no idea when to bail out.  Short-term, Lyft could be an attractive investment.  But as reality sets in, no one knows where the profits will come from.

My advice is, don’t get in.

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Posted by on Mar 26, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Personal, Travel | 3 comments

My 28 Days as a Lyft Driver in Las Vegas (Part III)


 

This is the third in a four-part series.

Read PART I here.

Read PART II here.

 

The dangling of carrots can make tigers and bears jump through rings of fire.

 

Years ago, a survey was done.  People were asked to rate their own driving abilities.  Around 90 percent of respondents professed to be “better than average” drivers.  About 60 percent considered themselves in the top 10 percent.

The only thing proven by the survey was — there’s a shitload of self-deception going on.  Everybody thinks they’re Superman.  Meanwhile, we’re all convinced that everybody else is an idiot.  Well, that last part might actually be true.

Our delusions don’t apply just to an evaluation of driving skills.  A similar survey would reveal the same percentages for many things.  Ask 100 men to rate themselves as lovers and I suspect the percentages would mirror driving.  But the biggest illusion of all is in gambling, especially among poker players and sports bettors.  While working in casinos, I met barely anyone who admitted to losing.  And it’s always the other guy who plays his hand badly.  It’s incredible.

I post this little ditty of a disclaimer up front because, the fact is, while I’m an average poker player and have surely gone through some rough spells in sports betting — I’m a great driver.  Trust me on this.  Would I lie to you?

Working for Lyft is a job where the primary skill set required is….driving.  Not being a great conversationalist.  Not being kind and courteous.  Not clicking an app.  Not fiddling with the radio.  Not writing crusty blog reflections of what it’s like to be a rideshare driver.

Lyft is…..driving.

 

Day 15 (Mar. 4) — Previously in this series, I eviscerated Las Vegas cab drivers.  Long before I began this whimsical experiment, my opinion was that cab drivers ranked somewhere in between eating at Taco Bell and getting daihrrea, which is commonly one and the same.

Upon pondering this biased opinion further, I now realize my criticism of taxi drivers wasn’t entirely fair nor accurate.  Alas, some drivers are very good people who put in very long hours.  Maybe a couple, anyway.  Like many working-class folk, cab drivers are overworked, underpaid, exploited by superiors, those prickly cab companies who have forced everyone to dance in the shit parade for far too long.  With Lyft and Uber riding to the rescue for consumers, local transport habits are changing fast and dinosaur taxi companies are beginning to see their axels stuck in a tar pit.

When I used to take taxis, which was often, I got fed up with the smelly cars, burned out shells of bitter souls, the chronic complaints, long-haul airport-connector tunnel rides, $3 credit card surcharges, $2 add-on fees for baggage, an extra charge for the airport, $45 fares that took 20 minutes to drive, and seeing every single inch of the car looking like a Times Square bum wearing a sandwich board.  Admittedly, these annoyances weren’t the drivers’ fault.  It’s the system.

Still, the resentment lingers and remains something I just can’t shake.  The scab on old wounds has ripped open again after facing considerable unpleasantness with cabbies, transgressions like — intentionally cutting me off in traffic, honking horns for no reason, flipping me the middle finger (okay, I flipped him off, first), and behaving like total assholes.  Professional drivers — no matter who they work for — do share a kindred spirit.  We’re out there on the streets day and night busting ass, taking mostly the same risks, simply trying to make a decent living.  There’s no reason to be vicious and vindictive, yes, even though I find myself becoming increasingly vicious and vindictive.

If cabbies want peace, then my olive branch heretofore is extended.  If they want war, I’m ready to battle.  Trust me, I’m driving a fully insured vehicle and it can be used to make my point.  Warning:  Do not tread on me.

Changing the subject now to a topic equally as bothersome, let’s talk about pay scales.

Express Lyft drivers make .40 cents per mile (on average), while driving with a fared passenger onboard.  Forty fucking cents.  That doesn’t include mileage to go the pick-up point or returning to orbit after the drop-off.  Compare the travesty of earning .40 cents per mile versus cab companies which charge passengers a whopping $2.76 per mile, and that doesn’t include airport surcharges and waiting times.  Taxi drivers are dining on caviar, while Lyft (and presumably Uber, too) are living on scraps.

Despite the inequities of rideshare driving, even though the money’s basically dog shit, Lyft nevertheless encourages its passengers to rate each driver immediately after the ride.  Sure, direct feedback can be good.  I understand the reason for this interactive rating system.  No doubt, bad drivers should be called out and dismissed if they don’t improve.  But it’s humiliating enough already making $4 fuck bucks to drive ten miles, not counting eating the fuel cost, without the frat brat in the back seat albatrossing a marginal driver with a low star rating.  Hell, let’s start grading all the migrant workers picking fruit, and ruin they’re lives, too.

Lyft’s online app ratings range from 1-star (worst) to 5-stars (best).  Following my first week, I had a perfect 5-star score, which basically meant not a single rider complained or was dissatisfied, this despite me making several errors.  My second week, Paloma’s mother must have went all Ted Bundy on my driver profile because my star rating suddenly dipped to 4.8.  Bitch.  While I’m assured that’s still a very high rating, actually about as good a score as possible after several hundred rides, it still bothers the hell out me to get a bad rating from anyone.  Here I am stacking .40 cents a mile and I’m worried about my star rating like some 2nd-grader anticipating his math report card.

I guess what I’m saying is, we all want to be loved.  Especially, rideshare drivers.

No memorable fares or incidents on this Monday.  That will change in a big way in the days to come.

Daily Tally:  17 rides given and $137.76 in earnings.

 

Day 16 (Mar. 5) — Around midnight on my second night of the week, a slower-than-average Tuesday, I receive a ping to make a pick up at Hawks Gym.  That’s a gay bathhouse located off East Sahara.  I didn’t know these details before.  See how fast I learn about the hot spots of my fair city?  Now, I can play the ideal Las Vegas tour guide for all people and every occasion.

Wanna suck a cock?  I know just the place.

Hawks Gym is nestled next to The Green Door, Las Vegas’ oldest and most established swingers club.  Both adult entertainment establishments are located in a run-down strip mall with hookers prancing along the sidewalks and garbage blowing through the parking lot where there’s also a roller rink and an all-night Spanish-language evangelical retreat.  Go figure.  Lotus of Siam was located in this strip mall before once night during a storm the entire fucking roof caved in and forced the popular Thai restaurant to relocate to a more mainstream location.  I can only imagine the wild scene if the roof would have caved in at Hawks Gym or The Green Door, instead.  Everybody fucking and then the ceiling suddenly collapses.  Man, I’d have paid the entry fee to witness that scene.

So, I pull in front of Hawks Gym and there’s a burly, bearded man standing there waiting.  A flannel-shirt and sideburns kind of guy.  I don’t think much of it.  He said he was going back to his “rig” way across town on West Tropicana.  At first, I thought he said “crib.”  But the man said “rig,” whatever that meant.

Seeing the man had just departed from something called a “gym,” and this was nothing unusual since there are plenty of late night rec centers all over town, I asked — “So, how was your workout?”

“Really slow, tonight.  The slowest night I’ve seen,” the man said.  “But there were still a few hot guys.”

If my foot wasn’t on the gas pedal doing 45 in a 35 zone it certainly would have been stuffed into my mouth at that instant.  Hawks Gym….ahh yes, now I get it!  Bingo!

From my inquisitiveness, the man must have presumed I knew all about Hawks Gym and was a regular, so he proceeded to provide intimate details of his sexual escapades.  Admittedly, this was wild fun to listen to, purely in an anthropological sort of way, of course.  The man also confessed he’s “madly in love” with a guy back in Phoenix, his hometown.  But he also had steady lovers spread out all over the West — in Kingman (Arizona), Jackson (Wyoming), and Reno (Nevada).  I got all this golden information in a 20-minute Lyft ride, once again validating the “stranger on the train” phenomenon.  Perhaps instead, they should call this “stranger in the Lyft car.”  [I stole this line from an Arthur Reber Facebook post].

I also learned the man’s “rig” was actually a truck and this guy was a trucker.  He’d parked his rig in a slimy lot, where the only smell is gasoline and exhaust fumes.  The man moaned he was sick of “lot lizards” working the overnight trucker station.  Lot lizards?  Lot lizards (hookers) bang on the truck doors late at night looking for “dates.”

Ahh, yes.

“I don’t want no pussy!” the man frequently yelled out each night he parks and sleeps on the lot while in town, he tells me.  Wow, amazing the things you learn doing rideshare.

We pulled into the trucker lot on Tropicana near Wynn and the man pointed to a giant black beast of an International 18-wheeler that looked more like a jumbo jet from the front view.  I couldn’t help but be impressed.  We made small talk for a minute more about trucking and then he offered to show me “the inside of the cab.”

Tempting as the trucker’s suspected advance was, I declined the invitation with the excuse it was time for me to get back — on the road again.

Daily Tally:  15 rides given and $97.81 in earnings.

 

Day 17 (Mar. 6) — We’re forced to carry comprehensive auto insurance.  The standard Hertz (with Lyft Express) policy has a $1,000 deductible, a charge that would probably bankrupt half the driving force if they were unfortunate enough to get into an accident.

In some cases, traffic accidents are unavoidable.  It doesn’t matter how skilled you are or careful you may be behind the wheel, even the best driver might at any moment get into a crash.

On my tenth work day, I get into a minor fender-bender in the airport staging area.

Wednesday is another slow day, so I find myself waiting longer for a ride in the staging lot (see photo atop this article, which shows the typical view of the rideshare lot, which may have up to 150 cars at any time).  The lot is nearly full.  We’re all cued up and waiting, one by one.

I was legally parked and taking a short rest, which meant reclining my seat just a little and closing my eyes.  Just as I was about to doze off, the entire car rocked off to one side and I heard a loud crash.

WHAM!!!

Some idiot driver wasn’t looking where he was going and pulled forward, slamming into the front wheel panel on the passenger side.

Holy shit!

I jumped out and immediately surveyed the damage, which was remarkably insignificant to my Nissan but had seriously damaged his vehicle, which I presumed was also rented by the looks of it.

“Byy are you bahking dere?” the weathered-looking man wearing a ballcap asked in a thick accent that seemed either Pakistani or Indian, I couldn’t tell which.  It wasn’t a question so much as an accusation that I was at fault.

“Hey good buddy, uhh, I was parked here.  You slammed into me,” I snapped.

The man stood there for five minutes surveying the scene, scanning the” damage,” and taking pictures.  He must have snapped a couple of dozen images from his phone.  He also started asking nearby drivers if they’d seen anything.  This was suddenly turning into the Kennedy Assassination.

I snapped a few photos myself for my own protection and then told him that we’d deal with the matter later through our insurance companies.  My phone indicated a new pick up, so I had to go make a quick $7.45 — which I figure might come in handy to pay my dime deductible, if it came to that.

Daily Tally:  11 rides given and $85.61 in earnings, and one minor fender-bender.

 

Day 18 (Mar. 7) — I’d read about perks to Lyft driving.  Strip clubs reportedly offer cash kickbacks to drivers who take clients to hotspots like Sapphire, one of the largest flesh factories in Las Vegas.  Cannabis dispensaries also allegedly give drivers bonus money to bring in new customers.  There have even been reports of bunny ranches in Pahrump, about an hour’s drive away across the Spring Mountains, giving drivers a couple of hundred dollars in kickbacks to bring them a customer.

Stupid me hasn’t received one single kickback from anyone yet.  In fact, I went the entire 28 days without so much of an opportunity or even an offer.  I’m no moral puritan, but I’m not entirely comfortable with conducting my personal and professional affairs that way.  Seems wrong to haul someone who’s seeking advice to a club for the sole reason of taking a cash payoff.  I have no problem recommending anything to anyone, provided I actually know the subject matter and do have an opinion about it.  But my recommendation isn’t for sale unless, of course, someone does demand a ride to Pahrump and the madame wants to slip me a couple of hundred as a thank you.  I’ll let you know when that happens.  Until then, I won’t be exhaling any cannabis.

One unusual thing happens on this Thursday evening.  A woman gets into my car just off Fremont Street downtown.  She wants me to transport her to far East Las Vegas and then bring her back to the same spot.  This is called a fare with multiple stops.

Along the way, the lady begins to negotiate with me.  She wants me to charge her for just one way, and then cancel the return part of the fare.  I tell her I can’t do that.  Next, the woman insists she can give me “lots of business” and pay cash for all her rides.  She even tells me she takes Lyft and Uber to Los Angeles all the time and she’s currently looking for a “new driver.”

Mind you, I picked up this woman off 14th Street and Fremont five minutes ago.

I politely decline this splendid opportunity to enhance my investment portfolio and become what amounts to a private chauffeur.  But before leaving the car on the (paid) return trip, she insists on taking down my cell phone number.  She tells me she’ll text me next time she needs a ride to Los Angeles.  Visions of the woman swindling me to make the 220-mile trip flash into my head, and once we arrive in L.A,, and before paying for her ride, she jumps out of the car and runs away.  Sounds like a scam.

I make up another excuse that we’re not allowed to do that.  I’m winging it at this point.  Being calm and polite probably serves me better in this spot than just saying, “get the fuck out of the car and get lost.”

Besides, what driver wants to get a 1-star rating?

Daily Tally:  15 rides given and $108.72 in earnings.

 

Day 19 (Mar. 8) — Lyft must incentivize drivers to work at premium times of day or night and work the more difficult areas of the city.  They do a terrible job with incentives in relation to special events, as I pointed out in my tirade (Part II) when I lambasted the low pay for fares right after hockey games at T-Mobile Arena.  Man, fuck those thirty-minute $3.97 fares.

The incentives are called boost times and priority zones which multiply the drivers pay anywhere from 25 percent up to 100 percent, which is double the standard fare.  On a couple of occasions, I’ve seen the boost notification go as higher as 200 percent, which means that’s triple the normal fare.

Boosting sure sounds wonderful.  But I’m also convinced it’s used as bait to get drivers to swim to colder waters.  That old devil’s scent.  Early on, I chased the boost zones, but usually, by the time I got there just a few minutes later, the 100 percent increase had fallen significantly, and sometimes had disappeared altogether.  My advice to Lyft drivers is — don’t chase phantom ghosts.  While there are indeed some times of day that are more profitable (very early in the morning is probably the best example as cars are needed for hotel-to-airport runs as early as 4 am), I’m not sure the hassle of picking up at the Las Vegas Convention Center at 5 pm after 20,000 trade show attendees are exiting is really worth the extra $3 or $4 on the fare.  Just my opinion based on what’s admittedly limited experience.

I do understand there are inherent responsibilities that go along with working for any company.  Riders look to drivers as “Lyft employees,” even though we aren’t.  We’re on the front lines, in the battle, wearing the uniform, taking the abuse — but without any flags and victory parades.

Sometimes it takes manure to grow roses.  In the service industry, you swallow your pride, keep your mouth shut, and nod yes.  That’s the way it works in tipped occupations, even though by my estimate only about 1 in 10 riders leave any kind of tip at all.  I guess there’s the holdout of hope each time a new passenger climbs into the back seat that this is the one that forks over the five or ten spot or if I’m really lucky — a twenty [Note:  My highest cash tip in 404 rides over 28 days was $20.  My second highest tip was $8 — thanks again, Angel].

The dangling of carrots can make tigers and bears jump through rings of fire and the hope of receiving a cash tip while driving means I’ll go out of my way and even make sacrifices, on occasion.  Several passengers have asked if I’d make a “quick stop” at a convenience store, or drive somewhere else not on the standard route, purely as a favor.  As an independent contractor, I’m certainly willing to do this, especially for people who look like they could use a break.  But I also don’t like being taken advantage of.  Man, that really pissed me off.

Friday night at 1 am, several airport pick ups are over in Terminal 3, which is where all international flights arrive.  It’s also the time of day when Frontier, the discount airline, arrives from Chicago and Denver and elsewhere, flights which are packed to capacity with passengers who paid less than $120 round trip because of a special fare happening this month.

A hipster-looking half-shaven guy who disembarked from one of those Frontier flights gets in the car.  While driving over to the far west side of town, the hipster asks if he can use my phone charger.  I comply.  The phone remains plugged in during the 25-minute ride.

It’s dark in the car and by the time he exits, we’ve both completely forgotten about the phone laying in the back seat that’s connected to the portal.  I drop off the hipster at a large apartment complex and then drive away.

A few minutes after returning to the road, I look down and see the phone plugged in.  So, I try to log in, but it’s password protected.  I immediately send a note to Lyft reporting the lost item.  Following the rules.  I consider driving back to the apartment complex and searching for the man, but there’s no way I would be able to find his unit.

Another ten minutes pass and now I’m at least five miles away.  The phone rings.  I answer it.

“Hello?”

“You’ve got my phone!”

“Yes, I do.”

“Can you bring it back to me?”

“Uhh, okay.”

It’s an inconvenience, but the hipster does need his phone back.  If the roles were reversed, I’d certainly appreciate someone doing me a favor.  Besides, the guy will certainly make it worth my while and leave a tip.  Right?

Ten minutes later, I’m back at the apartment complex again.  The hipster takes his phone and asks me if he wouldn’t mind taking him up to the Red Rock casino.

“You live up near there, don’t you? he asked.  [That came up in conversation earlier]

“Yeah, okay.”

Another ten-minute car ride, completely out of my way — I give what amounts to a free ride.  We arrive at Red Rock, where the hipster says “thanks,” exits the car, and darts away towards the nightclub.  No tip.

Stiffed.

What a stingy jerk-off motherfucker.

My longest and best day driving ends on a sour note.

Daily Tally:  30 rides given and $310.79 in earnings, which includes a $55 bonus.

 

Day 20 (Mar. 9) — I’ve noted driving is a numbers game.  Given enough time, you’ll see almost anything possible on the streets.

Saturday is an abbreviated driving session given how long I worked on the previous day.  Late in the evening, I pick up a middle-aged Hispanic woman wearing a maid uniform at the El Cortez downtown and take her to the far east side of town.

As we approach the quiet intersection of Charleston and Nellis, the streets seem deserted.  Except for what’s ahead.  About a quarter mile up the road, a dozen police cars are sprawled all over the street.  Usually, when you see this many cops, that means something serious is going down — like a shooting.

Just as we come to a red traffic light, in my rear view mirror a catch glimpse of a cop car barrelling down Nellis southbound, racing towards the crime scene.  The car is zooming 60 to 70 miles an hour.  Instinctually, I swerve my vehicle off to the side to allow the police car to pass.

Just as I move over to the sidewalk and come to a complete stop, the police cruiser races into the intersection where a white Toyota has suddenly appeared out of nowhere and cuts in front of the police cruiser with engine roaring and its flashing red and blue lights.

It was a horrifying sound.  But the sight was much more frightening.  The police car, which I now see is a boxy SUV, t-bones slams the much smaller Toyota, spinning it around and knocking the vehicle sideways towards a traffic pole.  Twisted metal and glass flies everywhere.  The rider in the back seat screams.  I think I yelled out a profanity.

The police car is mangled and smashed in like an accordion.  The driver policeman exits the car and momentarily staggers around the empty intersection.  He’s dazed.  Another officer slowly steps out of the car and kneels down to the pavement.

Meanwhile, the white Toyota is demolished.  I’m out of my car by this time and am leaning into the white Toyota since that’s the closest vehicle and the police officer look to have survived the impact.  Thankfully, airbags deployed and two ladies are screaming and sobbing with their heads engulfed in what looks like a huge pillow.  They’re in shock.  It’s a miracle the ladies were alive.  I’m not sure exactly what I said or did if anything.  Perhaps just hearing a human voice after such trauma was appropriate at that second.

“Stay strong, help is on the way,” I said.

The policeman approached and then also provided comfort.  Within another minute or so, two more cop cars had pulled up to the scene and were handling the aftermath of a bad crash, but one which everyone would presumably be okay.  From my vantage point, the accident had clearly been the police officer’s fault.  He was driving way too fast, and his siren wasn’t turned on.  By the time the white Toyota entered the intersection, it was too late.

I left my information as a witness.

Shaken by the incident, I dropped off my passenger and called it a night.

That white Toyota could have been me, or you, or someone you love.  You never know what’s on the horizon.

Daily Tally:  7 rides given and $141,22 in earnings, which includes an $80 bonus.

 

Day 21 (Mar. 10) — Another long driving week has taken its toll on the body and mind.  Aching and exhausted and still bothered by the crash just hours earlier, I make a decision to not drive on Sunday.  Instead, I vow to put in seven straight days the following week, the final stage of my Lyft contract before returning the rental car back to Hertz.

And on the 7th day, Nolan rested and recovered prior to the final judgment.

__________

WEEK 3 RESULTS:

Total 47 hours driven and 95 rides given….$608.10 in earnings including tips and bonus after $273 rental car cost deduction…..minus $130.00 spent in gas….equals $10.17 per hour.

 

Coming Next:  Week Four (the final chapter)

__________

 

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Posted by on Mar 24, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Personal, Travel | 16 comments

My 28 Days as a Lyft Driver in Las Vegas (Part II)

 

 

This is the second in a four-part series.

Read PART I here.

 

Being stuck in a car together and forced to interact with a complete stranger does provide an infinite opportunity to pursue an insatiable curiosity.  It’s the chance to depart a cozy comfort zone.  It’s the rare moment to explore great unknown mysteries that exist within the human mind.  The strangers among us are motley fools and sages and jokers and pawns and princes and princesses and pricks.  Each one of us accompanied by an element of surprise.

Indeed, people we don’t know can teach us things.  That is — if we’re willing to listen and learn.  Sometimes, people who are vastly different from us can teach us the most.

One thing I have learned already:  Driving for Lyft doesn’t pay particularly well.  So, perhaps what dividends do exist must be mined and minted elsewhere.  Think of the experience as an alternative currency.  Maybe my bonus isn’t in remuneration, but revelation.

Connecting with so many different people, especially those who have lived hard lives and abused themselves and betrayed others and wasted whatever natural talents and inherent abilities they may have once possessed strikes me as both tragic and cautionary.  While many of us have blown chances and exhausted opportunities, it’s a remarkable gift that through accidental encounters and daily connections we might pass it on and pay it forward.  Greater understanding can spring from the most unlikely of reservoirs, through surrogates, in the places we least expect, and during times normally reserved for slumber and dreams.

Revelation can evolve from the raw derivative of human errors and imperfections, a premonitory warning personified by broken dreams and inextinguishable hope.  Indeed, wisdom is to be gained from those who have made the most mistakes, should we decide to seek it out….and listen to those voices.

__________

WEEK 2

Day 8 (Feb. 25) — Google allows users to post reviews on just about any subject, including to my great surprise — the Las Vegas Detention Center.  Should you doubt this, do a quick search.  Google “Las Vegas Detention Center.”  So far, 99 reviews have been posted.  Ninety-nine!  Incredibly, the county jail gets an overall rating of 3.0 out of 5 stars, which is kinda’ fucking amazing when you think about it.  In a related matter, it should be noted the Diamond Inn Motel, located at the south end of the Las Vegas Strip, has a current rating of 2.9 stars, which I guess means more people would rather spend the night in jail than stay at the Diamond Inn.

I begin driving early this Monday afternoon, the first day of my second week on the job with Lyft.  On my third fare, I receive a notice to make the pick up in North Las Vegas, in an area we used to euphemistically call “the other side of the tracks.”  We all knew what that really meant.

An older black woman, who has severe difficulty with walking, exits from a small rundown frame house that probably was built sometime in the 1940s and hasn’t seen a fresh coat of paint since.  She takes quite a long time to get to the car.  While I don’t normally get out and open doors for passengers, this is an exception.  The lady is assisted into the back seat.  Discussion begins.

The encounter began with usual niceties about the weather, common filler conversation between strangers intended to break the void of awkward silence.  I’m not sure how the discussion morphed into something of greater substance.  But then it did.  I think the lady asked me how long I’ve lived in Las Vegas.  When I told her, “15 years,” she smiled back and announced that she’d been here since the mid-1950s.  That set off a wonderfully engaging testimonial, a first-hand account of what living in Las Vegas was like all those years ago for someone who didn’t reap the benefits of her investment of time and toil, like her white contemporaries.  All I could do was ask questions to satisfy my curiosity and then listen.

Back then, Las Vegas was a very segregated city.  Blacks weren’t allowed to set foot inside most casinos, that is, unless they were washing dishes or scrubbing toilets.  Most black people were forced to reside within a confined zone carved out of the desert meadow a few miles northwest of downtown where the fences may have been invisible but the racial partition was both ominous and unmistakable.  When Sammy Davis, Jr. one the most famous entertainers in the world at the time, once used the public pool at the New Frontier Hotel-Casino, the manager ordered it drained and then refilled.  That’s the Las Vegas this lady came to 60 years ago.  Now, many years later she still lived in the same Westside district of her extinct youth.

Her destination was 3300 East Stewart.  That address didn’t register with me, not until I pulled up curbside and gazed upon swirls of metallic razor wire spun atop an ugly concrete fence laced with iron bars.  I didn’t ask any more questions.  I didn’t have to.  This was a silent testimonial that needed no words.

The lady struggled to exit the vehicle.  She thanked me politely, then turned away, and walked slowly towards a large sign containing a lengthy list of prohibitions which applied to weekly visitors.

Behind those swirls of metallic razor wire spun atop an ugly concrete fence laced with iron bars was someone who had made mistakes in life.  Perhaps many mistakes.  At least one mistake too many.  But a loved one, nonetheless.

When we think of the victims of crime, images of the misfortunate who have been violated come to mind.  And rightly so.  They’re worthy of our sympathy.  They deserve justice.  They should be given retribution, if and when possible.

But there are other crime victims, too, and they are innocent, mostly nameless and forgotten — the families of those on the wrong side of the law, incarcerating within cells which all studies show, is punishment applied disproportionally to minorities and the poor.  An old woman, presumably with no means and living frugally on limited resources, nearing the end of life without privileges nor having received many breaks just took a Lyft car to visit a loved one.  She did this presumably for no reason other than unspoken loyalty and unwavering parental devotion.

I don’t know what else to call that but love.  Perhaps undeserved, but love nonetheless.

Daily Tally:  Monday ends at 2 am after 18 rides and $141.96 in earnings.

 

Day 9 (Feb. 26) — Should you want an instantaneous firsthand review of a restaurant or show, then eavesdrop on the conversation that’s happening in the backseat of a Lyft ride just moments after the experience.

Prepare yourself for unabashed honesty.

That restaurant sucks!  Celine was amazing!  I can’t believe how bad the service was!  The onion rings were incredible!  What a rip off!  “Mystere” was awesome!  I’ll never go to the Tiki Bar again!

Those are just some of the actual comments from people who piled unfiltered praise or disdain upon restaurants and shows they’d experienced.  Driving during peak periods between 9:30 and 11:00 pm became akin to reading Trip Advisor or Yelp, only with a real person rasping an unrehearsed soundtrack.

On Tuesday evening at around 10:30 pm, I pick up a middle-aged man from the Luxor.  Come to find out he’d just seen Carrot Top, the prop-wielding madcap comedian who performs quite an energetic stage show six grueling nights a week.  I’ve seen Carrot Top live before and thought he was great.  But that recollection was from several years ago and was now dated.  I was about to get the latest update.

“I couldn’t believe how great Carrot Top was,” the man beamed.  “He was incredible.”

Then, what the man said next blew me away.

“Did you hear what happened to him?” the man asked.

“I don’t know.  What happened to him?”  I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Carrot Top broke his leg only a few days ago.  He had to perform his entire stage show riding a scooter and on crutches.”

It took a moment for those words to register.

“What?  How in the hell can Carrot Top, who bounces all over the stage like a rubber ball getting struck by a lightning bolt, perform his act with — a broken leg?”

“I don’t know.  He just did it.  The audience gave went wild, afterward.”

I love hearing stuff like that.  News and first-person accounts of Las Vegas shows don’t make the newspapers or get reported at all in the press unless is some BS marketing hype.  This was a report straight from the front lines of Las Vegas comedy and it sure made me want to buy a ticket the next night and go see Carrot Top, if for no other reason than to see how he can do that act on a broken leg.

I thought I knew about Las Vegas.  After all, I’ve seen almost every big show in town.  Yet the more I drive, the more I realize just how much I don’t know.  My riders have become my lifeline, reliable sources of new and updated information about everything that is Las Vegas.

Daily Tally:  I give 16 rides and earn $143.02.   This means that in two days, I’ve met the $274 threshold for the rental car.  This also means I’m really at ground zero, with no income so far for the week.  But almost everything I earn over the next five days will be mine. 

 

Day 10 (Feb. 27) — Making mistakes is inevitable, even by the most experienced rideshare drivers.  Supposedly, there’s a local or state law against fiddling around with smartphones while moving in a vehicle, but Lyft driving basically requires drivers to use mobile devices as if it’s an extra limb.  I’m constantly juggling GPS, the Lyft app, all while taking the occasional call or reading a soon-to-be passenger’s text with pick-up instructions while barrelling down busy boulevards.  Other drivers may insist they don’t look down at their phones while in motion, but I’ll confess to breaking the law and relying on my smartphone as a lifeline.

Somehow, even with the phone in hand, I make four costly mistakes this day.  The first mistake was flat-out stupid on my part.  I get a call to take a lady to the airport on what’s referred to as a “shared ride.”  That meant I’d probably make other stops along the way.  Sure enough, two more stops come in, three separate riders all headed to different destinations within close proximity.  Shared rights are kinda’ a pain in the ass.

However, when I receive the third request, I opt to hit the “cancel” icon.  I thought I could decline any additional riders.  But that’s not the case.  By hitting the “cancel” button, I instantly wiped all three fare requests and thus voided those incoming payments.  I realized this way too late in the ride and was embarrassed to admit my error.  So, I ate the fares in full and ended up giving the rides for free.

That was nothing.  The mistake I made later, was worse.

At around 10:30 pm, I receive pick-up request to go to Pick A Pita, a Mediterranean fast-food chain restaurant located at Town Square.  The passenger’s name flashes on the screen, which is “Paloma.”  It’s a party of two.

Town Square is dead quiet tonight.  No one is standing outside nor walking the streets.  This should be an easy find and a simple route.  About as easy as it gets for a driver.

Two girls, who seem to be in their late teens, are waiting and standing outside in front of Pick A Pita.  I pull up beside them and the girls get inside.

We are instructed to verify the passenger is who they say, but this sticky point seems rather unnecessary at 10:30 at night on a deserted street at a fast-food spot.

Anyway, the girls are in the rear seat laughing among themselves and gabbing away, and I follow the directional on my smartphone to take them to Henderson via the 215-East.

About ten minutes into the ride, my phone rings.  A lady is on the other end is frantically asking me where her daughter is at.

“Where’s Paloma?” she screams.

“Huh?  Paloma?  She’s right here, in the back seat!” I snap back.

“No, she’s not!  That’s my daughter!  You were supposed to pick up Paloma at Pick A Pita!  I called Lyft to pick up my daughter and her friend and bring them home!”

What was that?  Pick up Paloma at Pick A Pita?  With a pack of pickled peppers?

The temptation to scream “WHAT THE FUCK!” into the phone is somehow masterfully resisted, though it took every morsel of my constitution to avoid going ballistic at the rudeness of this woman who was obviously confused.

“Hey, is one of you girls named ‘Paloma?’  Your mom is on the phone and she wants to talk to you.”

“Who’s Paloma?  I’m Martina.  And this is Kaylee.”

“WHAT THE FUCK!”

I had already hung up on the irate woman that was badgering me about her missing daughter.  Now, the phone rang again and I was forced to take the call because, yes Paloma — we have a problem.

“I’m reporting you to Lyft!  I use Lyft all the time!  How could you miss her?  You didn’t pick up my daughter!  But now my phone is saying you picked them up and are on the way!  You are scamming me!  I’m reporting you!”

That’s when I realize that, somehow, some way, in the oddest of coincidences, two different girls were supposed to be picked up in front of Pick A Pita, and I mistakenly hauled the wrong batch of estrogen.  I mean, what are the odds?

I started to apologize profusely, a mea culpa which went nowhere with the irate woman who was frantically trying to locate her lost daughter, but who for some reason wasn’t answering her phone.  And here I was stuck with two nearly identical looking imposters who in a bizarre concurrence had also ordered a Lyft car at the very same time at the same location.

I had no option than to eat the fare like a cold shit sandwich and take the girls straight home, without charging them a dime for the ride.

Where do you girls live?

“Centennial.  Northwest.”

Seriously.  What the fuck!  I thought those words but, of course, didn’t actually say them.

Exit ramp.  Back in the opposite direction 17 miles.  No fare.  No charge.  Burned time and gas.

I have no idea what the hell happened to Paloma.

Daily Tally:  I give 19 rides and earn $136.11.   I should have been credited with 23 rides and at least $30 more.  But the mistakes cost me. 

 

Day 11 (Feb. 28) — Lyft Express drivers are incentivized to work full-time, which means being behind the wheel and out on the streets 40 to 50 hours per week.  Incentives come in the form of bonus payments, based on the number of rides given within a week’s time.

[Note that bonuses usually apply only to drivers who rent a car through Hertz — at least I’m told].

Bonuses, which get added to the driver’s weekly check, max out at about $140.  The specific amount varies, but based on hitting four week’s of bonuses and reaching every possible target, my average extra pay amounted to close to a buck-forty.  Unfortunately, given that drivers must pay our own fuel costs, the entire bonus essentially goes straight into the gas tank.

Bonuses make the short fares somewhat less annoying.  It’s frustrating as all fuck to make a U-turn and drive a few extra miles to reach the pick-up point, or far worse, wait 15 minutes in heavy traffic to transport a passenger, only to see “$3.97,” the bare bones minimum payment added to the Lyft pay wallet at the end of the ride.  Man, screw that.  Hence, a short ride here and there which doesn’t consume too much time makes reaching the bonus just a little bit easier.

However, there’s one notable exception.  I’ve come to view short rides and low fares originating from T-Mobile Center, home of the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights, to be the absolute curse of Lyft driving.  In fact, I will no longer accept those requests.  Accordingly, I’ve learned to outmaneuver the app and now avoid the complete waste of time that is picking up hockey fans following a Golden Knights game.  It took me a few home games and several shitty no-tip riders to figure out this miserable fact.

Tonight, there’s a hockey game, which went into overtime.  The Golden Knights won.  Then, nearly 17,000 fans flooded out of the T-Mobile arena at around 10:45 pm and every rideshare driver within three miles proximity see their smartphones blow up and go bonkers with rider requests.  Hundreds of hockey fans suddenly need rides.

Trouble is, reaching the pick-up point amounts to performing a colonoscopy with no gloves.  To get there, drivers must maneuver through a myriad of long traffic lights around the arena, snake-crawl into a clogged single-file access street, pull into the Park MGM launching area, and then try to find the drunk guy wearing the Golden Knights jersey (seriously, I had one guy tell me that’s what he was wearing).  Then, once pick-up is successful, there’s the equal trouble of extraction from all the chaos which takes another 10 to 15 minutes and by the time I’ve finally pulled out onto The Strip, then I’ve got to wait through those same three traffic lights again.

Worse, most of the fares after hockey games are to hotels, casinos, bars, and restaurants that are nearby.  My fare share for most of these short hops costs me a half hour and comes to, you guessed it, a whopping $3,97.

Well, hockey fan pick-ups can now blow me.

My counterpunch to these pathetic post-game T-Mobile arena low fares is simply to shut off my phone app whenever I happen to be closeby between 10 pm and midnight on any night there’s a game.  Until Lyft starts compensating drivers for the ridiculous sacrifice that’s required to get into and out of traffic jams, and/or most riders start realizing what a pointless exercise this is for drivers to work the area following the games, I’m boycotting this whole clusterfuck.  I urge other drivers to do the same.  Any driver working the T-Mobile arena after a major event might as well be performing charity work.  They’re basically driving for free.

Fuck those $3.97 fares with no tips from hockey fans.

Instead, give me poor people, projects, and prisons — anytime.

Daily Tally:  Thursday concludes with 18 rides and $218.53 in earnings, which includes a $55 bonus payment.

 

Day 12 (Mar. 1) — Most fares are uneventful, which isn’t to say the riders aren’t interesting.  Much to my surprise, ordinary people and common folk are often the most inspirational.

At 9 pm, at time when many businesses around town close, I get a call to pick up a young lady named Angel.  She looks to be in her mid-20s.  Angel works at Sam’s Club, the warehouse superstore on Spirit Mountain and Rainbow.  Sam’s Club has just closed and Angel is standing out in front waiting for me, her ride, to take her home way across town in Green Valley.  This turns out to be a longer-than-average fare and a half-hour conversation.

Angel impresses me just by the way she talks.  She may have been Hispanic, or black.  Not sure which.  I don’t know.  What I did learn was that she’s working two jobs, putting in about 60 hours per week.  She’s also attending the local community college, part-time.  Angel’s shift at Sam’s Club consists of manning the gas pumps eight hours a day and making sure things go smoothly.  She works outside in the heat and cold.  She breathes exhaust fumes and her clothes smell like gasoline since some spillage is common with people who need assistance.  She’s one step up from being a toll booth attendant.

Yet, Angel doesn’t complain.  She doesn’t feel sorry for herself.  She admits she’s fatigued much of the time, but then sees the big picture that she needs to craft a skill set, get her education, save what money she can, and work her way upward towards fulfilling her dreams.  I’m not sure if she had any children.  But I sensed nonetheless, that she was a provider for her family, driven constantly by an inner spirit to succeed.  She mentioned she’d been at Sam’s Club for two years and just got a .20-cent an hour raise.  The more she spoke, the greater I admired her.  I absolutely knew that my instincts about Angel were correct.  I really want her to make it.

I also knew that once this ride ended it would be unlikely for me to see Angel again.  Like the newlyweds from the previous week, once a passenger departs the car, we all disappear back into the abyss of anonymity, again.  Strangers in a strange land.  Gee, I do hope Angel will be happy.

After I dropped off Angel at her destination, I heard the phone ding.  That meant a tip had been received.  I looked down and Angel had tipped me $8.  That was a small fortune, perhaps amounting to an hour of hard work for her manning the gas pumps at Sam’s Club.  I wish I could have refused it.  I needed money, but Angel surely needed the $8 more than I did.

Then and there, I vowed to drive to Sam’s Club, on another day, at a later time and buy some gas.  I silently vowed to myself that if Angel was working on that day, I would tip the gas attendant — $8.

It will be the right thing to do.

Daily Tally:  This was my longest day, to date, clocking in at 11 hours.  I did 23 rides and earned $203.90, which includes a $25 bonus payment.

 

Day 13 (Mar. 2) — Las Vegas is known as the gambling capital of the world.  Yet after nearly two weeks and nearly 200 rides, gambling and casinos are the one topic that hasn’t come up much in conversation.  Incredibly, not even once that I can think of.

However, the casino box was about to be checked off the list of omissions.

Around 6 pm, I’m scouting Southern Highlands for a fare and make a pick up in the farthest tract of land south of Las Vegas in quiet and elevated a cul-de-sac semi-circled with multi-million dollar homes.

An attractive brunette woman is waiting for me and standing outside wearing Rayban sunglasses.  She announces her husband will be right out.

The woman looks to be around 40 and the man arrives a minute later and is perhaps ten years older than her.  Both are strikingly good-looking people and obviously successful judging by the neighborhood where they live.  This is one of the nicest areas of the city I’ve seen, thus far.

“Where to?”

“Ellis Island,” the man replies.

Ellis Island seems like an odd destination for this affluent couple, particularly on a Saturday night.  Ellis Island is one of the city’s older casinos situated on Koval Lane, a few blocks off The Strip.  It’s not known for much else than a great tap microbrew selection and one of the most popular karaoke lounges in town.

“Are you headed to karaoke night?” I ask.

“Yes, that — plus dinner and a few drinks,” the man replied.  “This is our date night.”

“Date night?  Wow, that’s really cool.”

The couple explained to me that they’ve lived in Las Vegas for six months.  They made a vow to visit every major casino in the city as a sort of joint initiation.  It was something they’d do together, and a new experience each time, occasionally with surprises.  Every weekend, the couple picked out one local spot and makes a celebration of it.  This Saturday night — it was Ellis Island’s turn to be their mini-staycation.

What a marvelous idea and a creative venture, I thought.

The couple had done their research.  They’d start out with the $6.95 filet special, drink a few microbrews, and then sing karaoke into the night.  A nice couple who obviously could have afforded far more luxury and comfort decided that pursuing the unknown, the places within our grasp that we often over look, can be a great adventure.  And it was something the couple could experience together, for better or for worse.

Life for them wasn’t a destination, but a journey.

Too bad I couldn’t have also picked them up.  Afterward, I would have loved to listen to the backseat review.

Daily Tally:  Another 11-hour day.  I give 23 rides and earn $268.25, which includes a $55 bonus. 

 

Day 14 (Mar. 3) — It’s Sunday, the final day of the week.  As tempting as it may be to drive a seventh consecutive day, I’ve already logged 55 hours, so far.  That should be anyone’s mental and physical limit.

I desperately need rest.  My head hurts.  My body aches.

Spending so many hours crunched and buckled into a seat is making my arms and legs cramp.  The discomfort comes from physical inactivity.  My running and exercise schedule, a huge part of my life over the past six years, is now on hiatus.  I simply don’t have the energy.  I hate myself for it.  So, my body suffers.

Honestly, I don’t know how truckers and full-time career drivers do this.

I feel like total shit.

Oh, and finally just a couple of end of the week reminders:  (1) Fuck the $3.97 hockey fares and (2) If anyone’s seen Paloma, tell her to call her mom immediately.

__________

WEEK 2 RESULTS:

Total 55 hours, 44 minutes driven and 117 rides given….$837.94 in earnings including tips and bonus after $273.83 rental car cost deduction…..minus $162.00 spent in gas….equals $12 per hour.

Coming Next:  Week Three

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