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Posted by on Jul 28, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Personal, Rants and Raves | 2 comments

The Check-Deposit Scam

 

 

I’m holding a check in my hand for $6,850.12.

Unfortunately, it’s not even worth 12 cents.

This makes me the latest unsuspecting target of a popular scam that’s been going on for many years called the “Fake Check Deposit.”

Here’s what happened to me and typically how the scam works.

A few weeks ago, I scanned Craig’s List for odd jobs and temp opportunities to make some extra income.  Craig’s List and similar platforms allow people to post long- and short-term gigs doing all kinds of different tasks — from driving a car, to bricklaying, to joining a band, to webcam modeling.  Since my webcam modeling career is on a downswing right now, I answered an ad for a temporary chauffeur.

I sent a short e-mail listing my qualifications and also conveyed my 24/7 ability for the position.

The next day, I received a response from “Dr. Lee.”

Dr. Lee explained that he/she lived in Toronto.  He would be visiting Las Vegas to attend an upcoming conference.  Dr. Lee needed a private driver for one month.  He needed transportation between his hotel and the conference and also wanted to do some sightseeing.  His e-mail was well-written and certainly appeared that it could have come from a doctor.  Although still somewhat skeptical, I believed this job opportunity could be real.

I accepted the position which paid $800 per week, for four weeks, plus a small bonus awarded at the end of the assignment.  The pay seemed reasonable for the work and hours involved.

Next, in his follow-up e-mail, Dr. Lee explained he would need to rent a car which had to be a luxury vehicle.  He noted that he’d leased a Mercedes GLE in the past, which was an SUV priced at $53,000.  This month-long lease would be every expensive.

Dr. Lee informed me that he’d send me certified check by Federal Express.  I’d receive it the next day.  He told me to take the check, deposit it into my personal bank account, and then a few days later when funds were available to make the lease arrangements.  Dr. Lee would later provide the name of the leasing company.

This temp job started to smell fishy.

But I decided to play along.

The next day, a Federal Express envelope arrived at my doorstep.  The only item inside was a single slip of paper.  It was a check for $6,850.12 made payable to “Nolan Dalla.”

The check image can be seen in the image above.  Note that I’ve blacked out personal information and the bank account numbers.

The checked looked and felt very real.  It had a water seal embossed in the paper.  It was signed by someone, but it wasn’t Dr. Lee.  Perhaps this was Dr. Lee’s personal assistant.

I did some quick investigating.  I performed a bank account search, which can be done online within just a few seconds.  To my surprise, the bank ID number wasn’t made up.  It actually matched the name of the bank, listed as “City Bank N.A.”  The account number also appeared legitimate.  But the check also had some glaring peculiarities.

My check for almost seven-grand was drawn from a business account listed as “National Sorghum Producers.”  That company is based on a remote highway in Lubbock, Texas.  I don’t want to seem cynical, but this seemed like an odd financial arrangement that a small company in West Texas would be paying for a car and driver for a Canadian doctor soon to be visiting Las Vegas.

Here’s an image of the company from MapQuest, when I typed in “National Sorghum Producers” located at 4201 North Interstate 27; Lubbock, TX; 79403:

 

 

Well, shit.

My heart sank.  Gee, I guess I wasn’t going to be chauffering a doctor around Las Vegas, getting paid to drive a new Mercedes.

I’d been instructed to deposit this check immediately.  Time was critical since Dr. Lee was coming into town next week.  Within just a few days, my funds would be available.  I was told to keep $800 for my first week’s pay and then send the remainder to rent the car in advance.  I’d be given the details of where to send the money once I confirmed receipt of the check.

This thing wasn’t just fishy.  It was now as smelly as week-old sardines.

Dr. Lee emailed me that same day.  “Did you receive my Federal Express envelope with the check?” he asked.

I decided to play along and get clever.

“No, it didn’t arrive,” I replied.  “Maybe you got my address wrong.”

After a few back-and-forth e-mails, Dr. Lee informed me that he’d Federal Express another check which would arrive the next business day.

“Great!” I replied.  “I can’t wait to start driving for you!”

The following day, another Federal Express envelope arrived at my front door.  Inside was an identical check in the same amount.  Each “Priority Overnight” delivery cost the sender $17.50.  So, Dr. Lee was now on the hook for $35.00 in express delivery charges.  He was a doctor, right?  So, he could afford it.

“Did you get the check this time,” Dr. Lee wrote.

I waited a full day, and then responded as follows:

“Gee, I don’t know what’s the problem.  I’ve been waiting for the Federal Express envelope, but neither one arrived yet.  Can you check with National Sorghum Producers and see if they sent it out yet?”

Bada-boom!

I never heard from “Dr. Lee” again.

The scam was reported to authorities.  I also contacted my bank, which confirmed these scams do often happen.  The problem, I was told, is that some people really believe these checks are real and mistakenly think they have no liability.  The truth is — if a check is deposited and gets returned, the account holder is fully responsible for the funds.  Some banks have been known to close the accounts of people who have fallen prey to this scam, even if from naivete.  Older people, students with little financial experience, and poor people, often desperate for any chance to earn income are particularly susceptible to this scam.

Indeed, I learned the scam does sometimes succeed.  How and why?  Laws require that funds be released to customers and made available in a timely manner, sometimes in as little as a few days.  I could have done precisely as instructed — deposited the check, kept $800 as my payment, and then transferred $6,o00 to the “rental car agency,” who was actually the scammer eagerly awaiting the fruits of his heist.  By the time the check was found to be fraudulent and bounced, which might take weeks, the scammer would be long gone with my money.  I’d be 100 percent responsible for making up the lost $6,000.  Who knows — maybe the scammer really does drive a brand new Mercedes, paid for by unsuspecting victims of the fake-check swindle.

There’s an old saying that goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

We should all learn ways to protect ourselves.  One of the best ways to dissuade scammers is to play along and get them to invest time and money digging down an empty hole.  So, my advice is to make things as costly as possible for them.  Milk them dry, even if it’s just for the cost of a Fed Ex express delivery.  Make them pay.  Then, report the incident to proper authorities.

Now, it’s back to Craig’s List again.  Let’s see what other exciting opportunities I can find and trouble I can get into.

_________

 

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Posted by on May 30, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Personal, Travel | 6 comments

My 28 Days as a Lyft Driver in Las Vegas [The Final Chapter, I Think.]

 

 

This is the fourth and final chapter of a four-part series.  Well, maybe.

Read PART I here.

Read PART II here.

Read PART III here.

 

Driving for Lyft rekindled an old love affair.

Stuck behind the wheel navigating a quilted labyrinth of arterial side streets, blasting through intersections both vehicular and interpersonal, being required to perform a menial task within a wonderland of disparate anonymity stoked fires thought extinguished long ago.  Memories of my affection, fuzzy and faded, came back into focus.

My old flame Las Vegas became reignited.

Some time ago, I can’t recall when, I lost consciousness of why exactly I moved to Las Vegas.  When exposed to her charms from afar, the corsetted city in a cavalcade of colors was that mysterious, alluring, unattainable, and even forbidden temptation — the pretty girl from high school you couldn’t get, gradually morphing into a compulsive, all-consuming obsession.  An obsession, because I couldn’t have it, and yes, we do obsess over what we can’t have.

But then, once we get it, the obsession dissipates or the obsession transforms into something else.  It’s that way with food and wine.  It’s that way with sex.  It’s that way with material possessions.  It’s that way with just about everything in our lives — even the cities where we live.  Once the forbidden fruit gets tasted over and over, when those sizzling dice inevitably crashed into the rail of reality and seven-out, old temptations become tedious and tiresome.  All seductresses age.  And, we evolve.  We acquire new tastes.  Perceptions are transient.  All dreams are momentary and fleeting.

Years ago before I moved to Las Vegas, I had a conversation with Ed Hill that I’ll never forget.  Ed Hill, who has no idea how meaningful that 5-minute discussion was that happened 20 years ago, has been an advantage player his entire life.  Never worked a day, except for gambling, which of course is the toughest job anyone can ever have.  Before taking the plunge, back when I was thinking of moving to Las Vegas, Ed Hill was bitching to me about — you guessed it — living in Las Vegas.

“I just want to get the fuck out of here,” Ed Hill snapped.

I looked at him like he was from outer space.  I thought Ed Hill was crazy.  The man never worked.  He lived in a nice house that was totally paid for.  He led a dream life.  And yet, he wanted to get the fuck out of Dodge.  Well, by February 2019 — I’d turned into Ed Hill.

Sequestered into a cushy car seat bombarded constantly with imagery of casinos I no longer look at nor see, and the scent of foods I try to ignore, alternating situational interruptions invade my space.  Windows rolled down with cool 65-degree breezes whisking through the cozy Nissan’s interior, I’m reminded again and again with each conversation that floods of people come to this peculiar place with no natural reason whatsoever to exist — to live, to work, to play, to escape, to enjoy, to explore, to reinvent themselves, to temp fate — indeed, they come here from all over the world.

According to my Google search, there are 559 cities on earth with a million persons or more.  Las Vegas is but one of 559.  I’ll bet my last borrowed dollar that most of us can’t name anywhere close to half of those mega-cities, but just about every literate adult with a television set or an internet connection on any continent or remote island or iceberg or canoe has heard of and thus has some concept of Las Vegas. Over the course of their lives, some long and others bittersweet, many will eventually make it here to Las Vegas to discover for themselves if reality matches the illusion.

For some, it does.

For others, it doesn’t.

What follows are my Days 21 through 28 delivering doses of reality while getting hooked on my own supply.

 

Day 22 (Mar. 11) — If all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players with their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, then driving for Lyft presents the ultimate opportunity to star on a pauper’s Broadway.

“Where are you from?

“How long have you lived in Las Vegas?”

“Why did you move here?”

“How long have you been driving for Lyft?”

In no particular order, often in scattershot repetition, those are the top four questions I get asked during every ride.  Sometimes I get asked all four questions on the same trip.

Riders are just trying to make casual conversation.  Trying to be friendly, attempting to fill an awkward, empty silence with feigned curiosity.  In Las Vegas — “Where are you from?” is the typical cocktail party banter.  Other places, it’s “What do you do for a living” — especially among circles of men.  But in Las Vegas, since most people come from someplace else, the quickest moniker of identity stems geography, with all its inherent stereotypes.

Strangers asking questions isn’t so much born from sincere curiosity as a launching platform.  People really want to talk about themselves.  They desire to share their problems.  Admittedly, my patience with this quickly wears thin.  Hey, I’ve got my own problems.  I don’t bore you with my shit.  So, get your weight off my shoulders.  You think you got issues?  Hell, I’m driving for Lyft.

I’m no amateur therapist.  I’d rather sit in silence and vegetate with my own thoughts than engage in small talk.  In fact, I love silence.  Why move air with your mouth and make sound waves when just about everything sputtered will totally be erased from memory just seconds later?  That’s small talk.  And, I hate small talk.

Here’s the problem.  I’m presently engaged in the quintessential occupation which demands small talk.  Driving and being stuck with people.  Strangers.  It’s like being vegetarian and working in a slaughterhouse.  I just wasn’t born for these times.  I sure wasn’t born to be a Lyft driver.

Well, after complying with their expectations and dishing out the same stale true story so many times I wanted to stick my face out the window and vomit, I’m now ready to play an entirely new role, only with a zesty and albeit risky twist.

And so for this and many reasons, I began experimenting with playing alternative people and parts.  Different personalities.  Hey, why not?  The masquerade of being someone totally different on each and every ride became an amusing game for me created to pass the time, just harmless self-amusement.  It also became increasingly fun and even dangerous thing to do, playing a different role to entertain and even challenge myself, so as to not go crazy stupid parroting the same leftovers to one ten-minute stranger after another.

Most everyone who reads my stuff already knows parts of my bio and that won’t be retold here.  It’s the official talking point I stuck to during the opening act week one of driving.  But after regurgitating knee-jerk replies, I figure it might be a lot more fun to morph into the Man of a Thousand Faces and Voices.

“Where are you from?  New Orleans!  Dallas!  Las Vegas!  Illinois!  Maryland!  Belfast!

“How long have you lived in Las Vegas?”  All my life!  I just got here two months ago!  I moved here after Katrina.  When I was a kid.

“Why did you move here?”  I decided to retire!  I got offered a new job!  I got tired of the hurricanes.  I got offered a new job.  The Irish potato famine.

“How long have you been driving for Lyft?”  Two months!  Six months!  Two years!  Way too long!

Was this charade dishonest?  Perhaps.  But it’s not like anyone’s checking my credit report or hooking me up to a lie detector test.  This isn’t exactly Grand Jury testimony.  While driving, I can play any role I want.  It’s like standing in front of that mirror when you’re a lonely kid pretending to be Batman for five minutes.  And I did my Batman impression more out of self-preservation than anything else.

If forced to sit here and play the uncompensated nightly role as “Max the Las Vegas Entertainer” (by the way, I changed my Lyft Driver name to “Max,” in homage to Mr. Shapiro) then…..here’s my mantra:  THEY.  ARE.  GOING.  TO.  GET.  THEIR.  SHOW.

Naturally, I had to be clever and careful.  Each answer had to be artfully polished, crafted to fit in some narrative that might establish rapport with the rider so as to extract the biggest possible tip.  But this wasn’t about money, really.  Don’t wince.  Save the self righteousness, please.  Poker players do these sorts of acts all the time.  So do salespeople.  So do politicians.  It’s called empathy.  It’s all part of the bluff.  It’s part of life and the stage we work and live on daily.

See, the goal was to connect, even though I’m not particularly interested in making any real connections.  If someone gets in the car and they’re from Philadelphia, well then, I can be “Max from Washington, D.C.”  Because they will probably commensurate with this persona and we can spend the next few minutes arguing about the Eagles versus Redskins or bitching about the traffic on I-95.  But if a couple of good ole’ boys from Georgia roll into the back seat, then I don’t want to be from anywhere near The District, because everyone hates people from Washington, even Washingtonians hate each other, and because they figure you’re part of the swamp and so instead I tell them, “Metairie!”  Or “Mandeville!”

“Yeah, I went to LSU but dropped out.  Hey, you sure kicked our asses!  Georgia — now that’s a football program!”

That tasty chestnut shelled in bullshit is smoked bacon rolled in pecans to most male Southerners, utterly obsessed with anything to do with college football.  Get them talking about the SEC and that kills ten minutes and then presto! — I don’t have to say another word the rest of the trip while they bitch about Alabama and Clemson.  Then, I can daydream about what I’m going to say in my next blog.  Win-win.

“You’re from Chicago?  Wow, what a coincidence!  I grew up in Aurora!”

Okay, that’s kinda’ true.  I lived in the Chicago suburbs for like a year when I was two when my dad was an Air Traffic Controller at O’Hare.  The important thing is to establish a rapport, make a connection, and needlepoint the tip like Betsy Ross plugging the red, white, and blue.

My most creative “act,” which was a riot to pull off, was playing an immigrant from Belfast, North Ireland.  Since I’ve heard just about every interview ever conducted with singer Van Morrison, I’ve somehow managed to craft a fairly convincing Northern Irish Belfast accent, which sounds kinda’ like a gruff Liam Niessen only with severe nasal congestion after slamming four shots of Jameson.  I figure there’s no way in the fuckery of Ulster to get called down on my Belfast accent by any American.  I sure as shit wouldn’t try this with an Irish tourist, however.

“I’m Irish, came to Boston, and landed in Las Vegas.  Lucky me!”

That ditty came in particularly handy during St. Patrick’s weekend.

Doing my Shakespeare in the Parking Lot landed me in trouble just once….and it was embarrassing as hell.  A 30ish woman got in the car and started bitching about her kids.  That got old fast.

“Do you have children?” she blurted out.

Before I could fully think my answer through fully, I retorted with words which seemed to have a life of their own, which I could not control.  “Yeah, two kids.”

“How old are they?”

“Umm……six and nine.”  Don’t ask me why I invented those numbers.

“Where do they go to school?”  Oh shit, I don’t know any of the local schools here.  Now, I’m really fucked.

“Ahh, uhh………(seconds pass)……..Woodrow Wilson, I think.”  I figure most cities have a school named Woodrow Wilson, right?  Isn’t there a Woodrow Wilson Elementary here somewhere?

Next ,there was a prolonged pause.

“We don’t have a Woodrow Wilson Elementary anywhere in Las Vegas.  I work for the district.  You don’t know where your kids go to school?”

Caught in my dumb lie, I mumbled something else thoroughly unconvincing, abandoning the very first commandment of bullshitting that when you’re stuck in a hole — stop digging.  She didn’t speak to me the rest of the way and the next eight minutes of dead air stank of uncomfortable silence.  She frowned as she exited and I didn’t get a tip.  So, I guess she caught on.  Call this my Ishtar moment in performance art.  Gee, I should have pretended to be from Belfast.  She might have swallowed that line of bullshit.

Daily Tally:  16 rides = $130.30

 

Day 23 (Mar. 12) — I expected to run into lots more gamblers.  But I didn’t run into gamblers.  During this driver-journalist immersion-experiment, the subject of gambling came up no more than a few times in hundreds of rides.  A couple of guys asked me about scores when their smartphones were dead, or they made passing comments about a point spread.  But almost no one spoke about any form of gambling.  They talked about everything else, except gambling, in fact.  Honestly, that was a shocker.  For a city that’s purportedly built on gambling, it’s odd gambling came up so infrequently.

Awareness that people don’t come to Las Vegas anymore to gamble anymore became increasingly obvious.  They can gamble back at home, since 40 states now have casinos.  If gambling is part of the plan, then they sure don’t talk much about it.  While this is admittedly an unscientific summation, when combined with plenty of other evidence, non-gambling tourists comes as both a revelation and a warning.  The Las Vegas gambling scene is in serious trouble.  I wish I could bet the “don’t.”

An exception was a rider who I picked up at about 8 pm on this busier-than-expected Tuesday night.  A young man, late 20s, got into the car.  Immediately, I sensed he was pissed.  He’d just busted out of the daily $70 poker tournament at the Rio.  Seriously.  Seventy bucks.

“Shit!  I really needed the money.  Dumbass called me with Ace-Five and caught an Ace on the river.  Fuck!”

Oh man, Da Nang flashbacks recurring again.  PTSD — which for me stands for Poker Traumatic Stress Disorder.  But now, I’m hearing bad beat stories inside the Lyft car.  I don’t know whether to laugh or scream.

This bad beat bullshit goes on way too long.

“Played four fucking hours and was two away from the money.  Got dealt pocket Jacks cracked by some old fool with an Ace.”

Please.  Please.  Don’t let this guy recognize me.  I want nothing to do with this.  If I could pull off an Arabian impression, I would have attempted it.  The poker player rambles on about his bad luck for the next 15 minutes which seemed much longer, of course, because that’s how it works with bad beat stories and we hit every goddamned traffic light between Tropicana and Centennial.

Now, what I’m about to tell you is 100 percent true:  Inexplicably, this passenger needed to raise his rent money and was counting on cashing in a poker tournament, a tournament mind you, with 20-minute rounds.  This would have been funny if it weren’t so pathetic.

Maybe this Lyft-driving gig is just as hopeless.  Raising rent money driving for Lyft?  Fuck it, what time’s the next Rio poker tourney?

Daily Tally:  15 rides = $184.04

 

Day 24 (Mar. 13) —  Sometime around 9 at night, I get another ride.  It’s a pick up from the arts magnet school, near downtown.  For gifted kids.  A young girl, perhaps 15 or 16, scoots into the back seat.

This ride is longer than expected — about 12 miles to Sunrise Mountain, in far east Las Vegas.

The girl has her smartphone in her hand and plays a video to herself much of the ride which includes the classic rock song, “Heartbreaker,” originally sung by Pat Benatar.  She plays the song three or four times.  The singer doing the Pat Benatar cover is outstanding.  I mean, she’s really good.  I can’t see her since she’s in the back seat and it’s dark.  But this doesn’t stop me.  One does become attuned to the skill of eavesdropping.

From what I can deduce in this limited time together, the song was performed earlier that night at the arts center and she was revisiting the show.

“That sounds great!  Did you attend the show, tonight?” I ask.

“Yes — that’s me.  I got to sing ‘Heartbreaker’ for my school.”

Damn.  She nailed it.  Moments later, the girl’s phone rang.  She answered.  Paraphrasing their one-sided discussion:

“Oh Mom, you should have been there!  You should have been there!  It was great!  It was unbelievable!”

I couldn’t help but listen in.  The voice on the opposite end of the phone wasn’t audible, but the conversation made it clear to me the girl’s mother was forced to work tonight and could not attend.  She couldn’t attend her daughter’s performance.  And the girl was, well, awesome.

“Oh, I wish you could have been there!  You would have loved it!  It was amazing!  Oh, I wish you could have been there.”

She repeated that line several times.  During the short conversation, there was never a reference to any father, nor any other family figure.  Just a young girl, and her Mom.  But Mom, like a lot of Moms in Las Vegas, had to work.  She missed the show.

I’m still haunted by that conversation.  Parents out there by the hundreds and thousands missing key junctions their children’s lives.  Probably a struggling mother through no fault of her own trying desperately to survive and doing her best to raise a teenager, which is not an easy thing to do in Las Vegas, especially in 2019.  Forced to work the night shift.  Maybe a second job.  And missing life.

Past Pecos, we pull into the broken down parking lot of a worn down, dark building with peeling paint chips.  It was an apartment complex with puddles in the pavement and kids playing outside, way too late at night, schooled by neglect and probably destined for trouble.  Her ride was completed.

The car back door opened.

“Excuse me,” I mustered up enough fortitude to say.  “You are REALLY good.  Stick with it.  Work hard.  You have talent.  And from what I could hear, yeah — you were awesome.”

“Thank you, Sir.  Goodnight.”

A real Heartbreaker.

Daily Tally:  16 rides = $144.41

 

Day 25 (Mar. 14) — An earlier than usual start to my day includes a rare accompaniment with the lovely Marieta who sits in the front seat as my passenger, navigator, and co-pilot.  This is totally against Lyft’s policy.  But fuck it.  It’s my lease.  It’s my time.  It’s my ride.  It’s my space.  And as an “independent contractor,” which is what I’m called in the eyes of this cutthroat company, I’m doing things my way.  They want to pay me a decent wage with benefits and make me their employee, okay, then I’ll follow the rules.  But this is my fucking turf.

We run a few personal errands and end up in Centennial.  Then, a call comes in for a pick-up.  A stylish woman, mid-30’s, gets in the back seat.  She’s holding a small white dog, a Maltese.  Cute dog.  The dog riding in the car, not a service animal, represents the second company rule I’m violating.  Two violations on the same ride.  Now, that’s impressive.  Hey, when you’re an outlaw, might as well go for broke.  Why rob a 7-11?  Let’s stick up a bank.

I like dogs.  So, I’m letting the pet ride.  Remember — my rules.  Well, the dog is a sweetheart, but Marieta and I learn quickly this ride is going to pose a challenge.  The rider is picked up at 4:31 pm.  She informs that she MUST be at an office in Henderson by the close of business — which is 5:00 pm.  That means I have precisely 29 minutes to make it through rush-hour midday traffic, with a major highway under construction, over a distance that clocks in at 22 miles.  According to my GPS, the estimated time of arrival is 5:11 pm.  There is no way I can complete this trip within the time frame.  Mario Andretti couldn’t drive this route by closing time.

But I like challenges.  I love to tackle the impossible.  So, let’s fucking roll!

“Can you make it?  This is an emergency.  I have to get there before 5!”

Sure Lady, no problem.  Got a helicopter and a machine gun?

Of course, I didn’t really say that.  But she wants me to drive 22 miles in 29 minutes which is supposed to take 40 minutes on the normal drive.  It’s impossible.

Incredibly, everything goes perfectly for the first 12 miles.  Like clockwork.  Like Moses doing that Red Sea thing.  Every lane opens.  Every light turns green at the right moment.  We drive 80 mph in the HOV lane and get all the way to Downtown Las Vegas.  Another ten miles to go and I still have a window of like 13 minutes.  Man, I love this smell of napalm, I really do love it so.  Then, straight ahead past the downtown exits heading south towards Henderson, out of nowhere…..fucking WHAM!

We hit dead-stop traffic which means I-95 has morphed from a racetrack into a parking lot.  The dream is over.  We won’t make it.  Sorry, Lady.

The woman with the dog is none too happy about this.  Now, I’m thinking — what to do?  Drive on?

“If you want me to try the side streets, I will.  But there’s no way to make this by 5 pm.  You have to understand that.”

The woman can’t conceive of this problem she created by not planning accordingly and then abruptly instructs me to make a U-turn.

“Okay, then just take me to my juice place.”

Huh?  Excuse me?  Did she say “Jews place?”

“Take me to my juice place.  I want to get a juice.”

With Marieta silent and not wanting to poke the bear, the woman commands me to drive ten miles due north to a nondescript strip mall, where there’s some Jumba Juice store.  The woman gets out, while we babysit the dog, lapping in the back seat with nothing to drink the last 45 minutes.  Then, she returns to the car with a large juice, and it’s now time to drive another eight miles back to her apartment.

By this time, I can’t get rid of this passenger fast enough, but the fare ends up being fantastic financially — close to $30, which is the biggest fare of my entire 400+ passenger hauling experience.  Of course, she’s a stiff.  No tip.  I might have tried one of my stories with her, but that wouldn’t have worked, and besides, Marieta might have completely lost it.

Daily Tally:  16 rides = $198.46

 

Day 26 (Mar. 15) — Until tonight, I’d never heard of an “escape room.”  Don’t laugh.  I still have much to learn.

Four twentysomethings cram into the car — the max ridership not counting dogs, of course.  I’m instructed to drive to a run down warehouse nestled off Industrial, near what used to be called Naked City before some rich developers carved it up, gentrified it, and re-branded the area “the Arts District.”  It’s 11:30 at night.

Umm, where are you headed?  I think everything around here is closed.

“We’re going to an escape room!”  Next, there’s giggling.

The four of them smell like dope.  Skunk weed.

Not wanting to show my ignorance and give away the fact I have no fucking idea what they’re talking about, I drive to some lot littered with broken glass with no cars in it and buildings covered with plywooded windows and barbed-wire chain link fences.

Um, are you sure you have the correct address?

“Yep, this is it!  This is the escape room!”

I’m figuring this must be a sex thing, a swingers club, some S&M joint.  That’s it.  Yep.  That’s what an escape room means.  All this is running through my sick confused mind.

One guy gets out and while everyone else stays in the car waiting.  He can’t find the entrance.

Suddenly, a faint light bulb turns on and a side door to a warehouse opens.  The four of them start giggling again and stream for the entrance.  I don’t know whether to hang around and be a good Samaritan if this situation goes South quickly, or hit the gas and get the fuck out of here.  The four dopers step inside the building and the door closes and the light bulb goes dark.

I blast the gas.

Three minutes later, I Google “ESCAPE ROOM” and learn what this actually means.  Here you go, old people:  LAS VEGAS ESCAPE ROOMS

Daily Tally:  13 rides = $135.63

 

Day 27 (Mar. 16) — Until this Saturday night, my Lyft driving experiences had been completely impervious to any danger.  Perhaps naively so.  Maybe I was just lucky.

I’d driven in every part of the city.  Knowingly picked up pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers.  Never an incident.  Not once a problem.

That would change in a frightening way late on what was to be my second to last day of driving.

At 3:15 am on my way home for the night, I received a notification to pick up at PT’s, a locals’ bar near the Rainbow and Charleston intersection.  This appeared to be a typical ride for this time of night.  Someone likely had too much to drink and did the responsible thing by calling for a Lyft car.

As I pull up, I’m met outside in the parking lot by a muscular man who looks to be in his early 30’s.  He’s yelling vulgarities at another man standing at the front door.  Then, another man runs inside the bar.  This all happens way too quickly.

After many hours driving out on the streets, I wasn’t paying attention to the argument.  My task is simple — pick up the rider and get him on his way, arriving home safely.

The muscular man gets in and takes the front seat next to me.  This happens in perhaps one in ten rides.  I don’t really like front-seat passengers because it usually means I have to talk to them, and it just seems a little more intimate than something I want at 3:15 am with a complete stranger.

As we pull onto Rainbow, I look over and see his hand is bloody.  The man announces he’s been in a bar fight and wants to leave for home.

Okay.

The Lyft app automatically maps out each rider’s destination and I see the inebriated man who’d just been involved in a bloody brawl will be traveling to the far side of northeast Las Vegas, some 20 miles away.  This means I’ll be spending far more time inside the car with this man than I wanted to.  I’d wrongly presumed he was probably a neighborhood local and just needed a quick lift home, perhaps only a few miles.  But I was going to haul him to the opposite side of town and be stuck with a drunk and apparently dangerous man in the seat right next to me.

I don’t like this ride.  I don’t need this job.  I don’t want this risk.  But I’m stuck.

Some small talk was attempted, him mostly talking, and me nodding along with the occasional verbal affirmation.  The longer he talked the more he worked himself into a lather.  The man became increasingly upset.  He made a number of derogatory comments about Mexicans and told a story that he’d been thrown out of the Social Security Office for fighting that same day.  This wasn’t a story I wanted to hear.  Not at 3:15 am.

“Every fucking Mexican in there was getting free money from the government and I couldn’t even get a goddamned Social Security card that I lost because I didn’t show a birth certificate,” was the gist of man’s complaint.

He rambled on about Mexicans and then brought up his combat experience. “I was five years in the Army fighting and did two whole tours,” he said.  “And I can’t even get my fucking Social Security card?”

Well, I decided then and there this wasn’t the time to let him know I’d voted for Bernie Sanders.  I wan’t exactly keen on arguing him about sanctuary cities.  I’m brave.  But I’m not stupid.  This isn’t the time nor the place nor the guy with whom to argue politics.  Whatever steam this pressure cooker of a disturbed man wanted to blow off, I’d sit there, staring straight ahead, holding the wheel, bite my lip, and say absolutely nothing.  Dude already had been in two fights that day and I didn’t want to end up as the third leg of his angry trifecta.

About 15 minutes into the ride, there’s an astonishing development.

“Where the fuck are you driving?”

What?  I’m going to….[whatever the address written on the GPS says].

“No!  That’s wrong!  That’s my old address!  I live…..[some address in the opposite direction].”

The man, angry and obviously inebriated, had tapped the wrong destination on the app.  So, I’d blown 15 minutes driving in the wrong direction, and the man finally came to his senses and realized something was wrong.

Again, this wasn’t the fare to dispute or argue about.  Just get this guy home, close the door, and be done.  I don’t even give a fuck about eating the ride at this point.  Just let it be over.

For the next 15 minutes, the disturbed immigrant-hating vet rants about everything on his mind.  This is the longest ride of the Lyft ordeal, made much worse by sitting within inches of the uncertainty, a sort of village next to Mount Vesuvius.  There was not telling if and when it might blow.

The ride ends sometime after 4 am.  It’s a sigh of relief to see the disturbed individual out of the car and stumbling towards his front door.

This incident still bothers me.  I wish there was something I could have said or done to help him.  But one can’t do therapy from the seat of a car at 4 am.  It was clear this man was in serious pain and had severe troubles.  But rather than judge him, I felt sorry for him  He’d clearly fallen through the cracks.  He was an emotional casualty due to lots of circumstances, perhaps some beyond his control.  Immigrants and hate and drinking and bar fights had become foils of frustration.

I hope that man can get some help.  I really do.

Daily Tally:  18 rides = $231.33

 

Day 28 (Mar. 17) — It’s Sunday — my final day.  My contract is over.  A week loaded with drama ends with not a bang, but a whimper.  Nothing interesting happens.  Nothing at all.  Gee, I wish every day of driving could have been like this.

For the past month, abnormal became normal and when that day finally came when nothing dramatic happened, that was the outlier.  My night became my day.  Normal is unusual.

I’m finished as a Lyft driver.  Done with it.

I think.

Daily Tally:  13 rides = $112.22

 

POSTSCRIPT:  I return the leased Nissan Altima to the Hertz rental center, located near the Airport.  On my way back home, needing a ride, naturally — I call for Lyft.

An older man in a mini-van picks me up and begins driving.  Two minutes into the ride, it happens:

“So, where are you from?” the driver asks.

Purgatory has no escape.

“Belfast,” I answer — in the most obvious American accent imaginable.

“Belfast?  Where’s that?  Ohio?

“Yeah — Belfast, Ohio,” I say.

Later on, I learn there actually is a Belfast, Ohio.  This time, I got lucky.

 

__________

WEEK 4 RESULTS:

Total 56 hours driven and 117 rides given….$837.94 in earnings including tips and bonus after $274 rental car cost deduction…..minus $149 spent in gas….equals $12.11 per hour.

 

Note:  Thanks to everyone for the positive feedback posted on social media.  In a follow-up article, I’ll post my final thoughts, which will include my recommendations for both drivers and riders.

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Posted by on May 24, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Personal | 7 comments

Alex Dalla (2001 – 2019)

 

 

Last night at 11:15 pm, we lost our beloved cat Alex.  He was 18 years old.

Alex died in our arms.  He was surrounded by love.  As he gasped his dying last breaths, we called out his name softly, over and over, “Alex, good boy….Alex, such a good, good boy.”

He looked up at us with those gorgeous green eyes, never peering away from his gaze.  He tried to answer with a few faint “meows,” just as he’d always responded each time his name was called.  But last night, he lacked the strength.  He had no more meows left to give.  He died restfully in peace.

It was heartbreaking.  It was beautiful.

Alex was adopted from an animal shelter in Washington, D.C.  Marieta and I took him into our loving home exactly one month after the tragedy that was 9/11.  Over the next 18 years, Alex traveled the country with us, more like a dog than a cat.  He visited a dozen states.  We took him to the Grand Canyon.  He stayed with us in Reno.  Whenever and whenever possible, we took Alex with us because he was a part of our family.

Alex was amazing.  We trained him to walk on a leash.  He loved to ride in the car.  Every Christmas Eve, we took Alex with us to look at the Christmas lights.  Every visit to PetsMart, we took Alex along on his leash.  All the dog lovers couldn’t believe how smart and sophisticated Alex was, walking inside a store.

Everyone thinks their pet is special.  But Alex was truly special.

Many of you might remember Alex.  Some of you came into our home and fed him when we traveled.  Others may recall Alex as the only cat in Las Vegas history who actually played a hand of live poker.

In 2003, while still working at Binion’s Horseshoe, I brought Alex who stayed upstairs in the hotel.  Not a cat to be couped up, Alex wanted to get out and be part of the action.  So, I brought him downstairs.  Alex joined a poker game and laid upon the table as the cards were dealt and the chips flew.  He was dealt in a few hands and even won a few pots.  Admittedly, Alex did violate the “one player to a hand” rule.  Not surprising, since Alex was always looking for the angle.

Alex’s short poker career wasn’t without a bit of controversy.  Gavin Smith was sitting in that game.  Gavin insisted the cat “played,” meaning he was part of an all-in bet.  Gavin won the pot, and my cat.  So, Gavin — a devoted animal lover — cradled Alex in his arms for the next hour while playing No-Limit Hold’em.  Gavin and Alex both lived for another 14 years.  They died just a few months apart.

Alex loved to play with his cat toys.  He loved walks.  He loved riding in the car.  But most of all, Alex loved to sleep and eat.  He could sleep 16 hours a day and he ate like a pit bull.

We will never forget Alex nor be able to express the tremendous joy he gave us.  I am so grateful he passed away in peace and was surrounded by our love.

Losing family and friends is to be expected, as death is a part of life.  But that doesn’t make things easy with the inevitable happens.  Alex was a part of the family.  Alex was a friend.

I cry these tears now, not in pain, but in joy, grateful for the gift that was Alex.

Alex was a good boy.  Alex was such a good, good boy.

 

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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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