During shift change last Saturday morning, a bunch of drivers are standing around the National office, chewing the fat and spitting out the gristle of a beef shank night.
In the conversational bouillabaisse, somehow Costco becomes the topic of discussion.
Colin brings it up. “I need a battery charger for 1434,” he says, sipping on a bottle of craft beer. “Every single morning, I try to start the cab and it’s been promoted to Glory.”
While National provides roadside assistance, you’re better off pushing the cab across the Bay Bridge than waiting for the tow truck to arrive in Oakland.
I’ve been in the same situation multiple times with 233. Occasionally, I’ll use my wife’s AAA account. Which is dodgy, as they don’t officially service vehicles for hire, but when there’s a woman with a baby on her hip in the mix, most service technicians don’t argue.
The last time my taxi died overnight, though, Irina and the baby were in Los Angeles. And it was raining. Due to the grim circumstances, I hightailed it under a broken umbrella to Auto Zone and bought the largest battery charger within my budget. Not the wisest decision, it turned out, since I found out later they make smaller, ultra portable versions.
That’s what Colin is hoping Jesse can acquire him, at a discount, through his Costco membership.
As the discussion meanders, a few drivers begin exulting the wholesale company for their cutthroat business tactics. They recount with admiration how, several years ago, Costco took Coca-Cola to task when the soda company refused to pay their price. As retaliation, Costco put large displays of Pepsi products in the front of the store and informed shoppers that Coca-Cola refused to provide “competitive pricing so that we may pass along the value our members deserve.”
“They did this in all their stores across the country,” a driver says with chuckle.
“So how long did it take before Coca-Cola caved?” Bobby wondered.
It’s a rhetorical question, obviously, but I can’t help but interject: “You do realize that’s the same tactic Uber uses, right?”
“What? No …” Another driver tries to explain the story to me, as if I missed the point …
“No, I get it. Just like Costco, Amazon, Wal-Mart or any other discount company,” I explain, “the Uber and Lyft business model is designed to save people money. They promote themselves as heroes of the working class by boosting their bottom lines. And if anyone gets in their way — whether it’s vendors, regulators, workers, laws, etc. — they act like martyrs. ‘Boo-hoo! We’re trying to save folks money, but this ballot measure will force us to raise prices.’ Or, ‘If we have to train drivers, rates will go up.’”
“He’s right, you know,” Colin says. “That’s why Uber and Lyft are so popular. It’s the exact same business model.”
“Come on, man,” Bobby says. “It’s just Costco! People with families are trying to save money.”
“I have a family, too!” I declare. “But I’m not willing to sacrifice my daughter’s future to save 50 cents. Personally, I look for the highest price available and that’s the price I want to pay!” I laugh.
“Kelly, you’re always talking crazy.” Bobby snorts, unsure if I’m being serious.
“All these companies promote lies,” adds Colin, subtly flexing that Econ degree from Cal. “They deceive consumers into thinking the only way to save money is through absolute freedom. Like Costco taking advantage of cheap products bought in bulk, Uber bases their low rates on the lack of accountability with an unregulated workforce.”
“But Uber isn’t that cheap,” Boris points out. “They lie all the time. Have you seen the app? You see how much it says a taxi costs versus what an UberX costs? It’s lies!”
“Costco isn’t cheap either,” Jesse says. “Unless you buy in bulk.”
“Yeah, you gotta buy a case of 10 jars of peanut butter to save five bucks,” adds Lee.
“What are you gonna do with 10 jars of peanut butter?” wonders Boris.
“Eat a lot a peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
“Then you gotta buy 10 jars of jelly.” Lee says.
“And what about bread?” I include.
“Nobody’s gonna buy that much bread in bulk,” quips Lee.
“Regardless, you can’t have it both ways,” Colin states. “If you support evil conglomerations determined to destroy small business, of which you are a part, you can’t bitch and moan about the consequences. You have to pick a side. Or be your own worst enemy. And with that …” Colin stands up, drains his bottle of 21st Amendment and belches. “It’s past my bedtime.”
“Can I hitch a ride east?” I ask, quickly grabbing my bag.
“Cool. All of a sudden I’m craving a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine, “Behind the Wheel,” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to Kelly at email@example.com or visit his blog at www.idrivesf.com.