"Sorry, you said he licked the cup and then spit down the straw before delivering it to the customer?" David said into his headpiece. "And where was this?"
I usually don't listen to David's work calls because they are usually boring; people who forgot their password to the app or are calling to complain that their order of two soft tacos from Taco Bell has taken over an hour and they just don't understand what the hold up is. Sometimes he'll come downstairs during his break and tell me about the woman who kept him on the phone for forty-five minutes rambling about her life or the guy who called pretending to be his girlfriend so he could get into her account and steal her money, even though he didn't have any of her info and did not attempt to change his voice.
"Yes, this is Sarah,” he explained to David in a deep baritone, “and no, I don't know my email address."
Mostly, I hear David doing what customer service reps around the world do best; apologize for the inconvenience and then redirect the call to another department, sending frustrated people back into an interminable "queue," because someone somewhere decided maybe if you use a British word, the wait will feel less frustrating.
I've occasionally heard people yell at him through his headset, stressed because they're living in poverty, making food deliveries with their own car and paying their own gas while earning far less than minimum wage. Or they're on the other end of the economic chasm, angry they shelled out $42 for a $12 combo which arrived late and looked light on the fries, which they're convinced the driver helped themselves to, and they’re probably right.
I know because I delivered food for one of these apps back when I first arrived in Los Angeles, signing up after hearing you could make a quick buck and figuring it couldn't be that bad.
I was wrong.
The first order was for a single burger from In-n-Out, which I delivered to a woman wearing flannel pants in the middle of the afternoon. She lived in a fancy apartment building downtown with zero street parking and when she answered the door, she yelled at me for taking so long, as if I had deliberately left my helicopter at home just so I could sit in rush-hour traffic while her burger got cold. The whole ordeal took an hour; she tipped me $1.
The second order was for a pile of junk food and ice cream for another apartment building, this time in Koreatown. When I arrived and buzzed up, there was no answer. I double-checked the address, buzzed two more times and then called customer support.
"If they don't answer in five minutes," the rep told me, "we can just void the order."
"Ok,” I said into the phone. “And what do I do with the food?"
"Whatever you'd like."
Six minutes later I was eating a pint of ice cream in my Prius, staring at my phone and waiting for another order, wondering how many free pints I could use to pay my rent.
When my phone dinged again, it was for a huge grocery order a woman named Lauren needed from Trader Joe's; it seemed to go on forever, filled with various chips and dips, fizzy drinks and fun appetizers. Lauren was clearly having a party and for the first time all day, I felt useful. I pictured her at home, scurrying around getting everything ready for the big event. Maybe it was someone's birthday or a long sought-after graduation, a celebration capping years of grit and determination. Or maybe it was all for a baby shower, friends and family gathering to give Lauren cute onesies and figure out which candy bar was melted in which diaper. Girl, you just worry about getting the place looking good, I thought to Lauren through my phone’s screen, I'll grab the salsa.
As I walked around Trader Joe's filling the shopping cart, some of the items she had requested were out, which meant I had to send a message through the app to see what she'd like as a replacement.
Me: Hi Lauren! This is Travis, your shopper at Trader Joe’s. They didn't have the mango salsa, which was a bummer, but they did have the tomatillo and roasted yellow chili? Would that work?
Lauren: Sure, that's awesome. Thanks Travis!
This is going to be a great party.
Nearly an hour later, I pulled out of the Trader Joe's parking lot with a trunk full of bags and confident Lauren was going to be so grateful for my shopping assistance that she'd ask me to stay for the party, which was probably for her director friend who just happened to need a quirky bald man for his next film, which would no doubt be my breakout role. It all started with the mango salsa, I'd laugh to Oprah, who'd be shaking her head in amazement. MANGO SALSAAAAA! she'd shout back at me as we high-fived under her oak trees in Santa Barbara.
And then I'd die, because what else did I have to live for?
Lauren’s house was another thirty-five-minute drive from the Trader Joe's, up in the hills with a view of the Pacific Ocean. Oh, this is definitely where I get discovered, I thought as I pulled up in front of her tasteful mansion. I dragged the ten or so grocery bags to the stoop and rang the bell, waiting for Judd Apatow to open the door and my life to begin. Instead, a woman who I assumed was Lauren answered in yoga pants and asked me about the traffic as she motioned for me to bring the bags into her shiny, white-tiled kitchen.
"You can just leave everything on the counter," she directed as she walked to the back of the house and out of view. She’s probably going to grab Spielberg to meet me now.
After I had finished piling everything on the marble island and she still hadn’t reappeared, I headed toward the door, wondering if this was maybe a hidden camera show to see if I would rob the place. As I started to leave without swiping anything I mumbled a meek, "thank you" to no one in particular, hoping to signal to Ashton Kutcher and his film crew that they could come out of the bushes now.
I didn't want to go to the party anyway, I thought as I headed back to my car, wondering how many zeros would be at the end of her tip. I saved her an entire afternoon of shopping, seamlessly switching out products and delivering them straight to her kitchen. That had to be worth $50, maybe even $100? I checked my phone as I pulled away, scrolling down the order summary to see the windfall and figure out what I was going to spend it all on.
I almost ran my car off the road when I saw the tip. I had spent over two hours shopping and driving and delivering over $300 worth of groceries and Lauren had tipped me $0. Just the one zero, turns out.
I deleted the app and drove home.
So when I heard David take down the caller's info, promising he'd do his best to locate the delivery driver depositing saliva in people’s drinks and knowing there was absolutely no way he could, I instantly remembered the rage required to make someone do that. I lasted exactly one day and could only delete the app because there were other things I could do to scrape by in LA, but I know for too many people that’s not the case, and scraping by got infinitely more difficult this past year.
Am I saying people should spit in drinks? Absolutely not. But I am saying I hope Lauren was thirsty.