I’m an Uber driver. The days are long, pay is bad, no benefits. That's the
way it is in the gig economy.
I didn't start out to be an Uber driver. No driver I know did. It's
where I wound up, options dwindling. It doesn't take much to be an Uber
I grew up in Texas City. a grimy refinery town where the fumes
linger in the air and the sky is a gritty gray. It’s perched on the Gulf
between Houston and Galveston right on Highway 146. Once 146 crosses
south of I-10, it might as well be called Refinery Row. For thirty miles
from Baytown just north of the Houston Ship Channel to La Marque just
north of Galveston, the gulf coast is just a shout east of 146 and is lined
with refineries and petrochemical plants with a brief interruption for
Kemah, a tourist attraction where the wealthy park their yachts for their
seasonal joy rides. All along 146, countervailing gulf breezes slow down
the prairie winds, the humidity dampens the atmosphere. The air is laden
with city smog, the toxic wastes of the ship channel, the belching
refineries and chemical plants. 18-wheeler container trucks, pickup
trucks, SUVs and cars cough up their exhaust in the never-ending road
construction traffic jams. Fast food chains, modest independent
businesses, pawn shops, auto repair shops, bars, ice houses, and,
improbably, a British pub, dot the landscape along 146. And of course,
gun stores galore stock the corridor, well stocked loaded with Glocks, Sig
Saurs, Barettas, Smith and Wessons just to name a few, and shooting
ranges, offering fun for the entire family!
The state calls them "process escapes", releases of toxins from the
refineries and plants, the periodic alarms signaling a hopefully
temporary evacuation of the plant and nearby homes. The state duly
records the process escapes and promptly forgets them. Chronic asthma
is a way of life for those mostly minority families who live in the oldest
and poorest neighborhoods closest to the refineries. The refineries give
them $500 a year to compensate them for their unfortunate proximity to
the plants and get them to sign non-disclosures agreements. $500 is a lot
for most of these folks.
In Texas City, we survived hurricanes and tropical storms like Ike.
We grew up seeing our parents, aunts, uncles and neighbors lose their
jobs to computers and robots. Proud men who had gotten their hands
dirty keeping the pipes humming, the gauges regulated, anticipating and
heading off disasters with knowledge, grit, and determination, they
wound up stocking shelves at the grocery stores and discount shops.
Their drinking got heavier. New careers opened in cooking meth for a
steadily growing market, redistributing opioids, or offloading coke,
weed, poppy, opium, heroin, fentanyl, ecstasy, and exotic specialties
from fishing boats, pontoons, yachts, schooners, sail boats, along the
coastal inlets, nooks, crannies and marshes, for inland distribution in a
buzzing hive of off-the-market supply chain management to rival that of
One of these proud men was my Dad who left Mom and I when I
was five. I don't remember much about him. Mom always worked two to
three jobs at the same time when she was sober. I didn't see that much of
her. I was mainly raised by my Aunt Louise, who had married a refinery
executive and lived off the settlement money after her divorce. I worked
boring minimum-wage jobs part-time after school, barely worth the
money. Me and my fellow working stiffs would sneak out to smoke
weed by dumpsters on asphalt pavement at the back of stores and
warehouses as much as possible. It's a miracle we never got caught.
As high school graduation approached, we wondered what the
future held for us, at least the few of us who weren't doping and failing
all the time. Every adult within shouting distance told us we had to go to
college for our future. Not much attention was given to why, other than
to get a good job. To get a good job, they said, you needed to major in
some form of engineering, business administration, or computer science.
That's why you went to college. English, History, Art, and the like were
The kids of refinery execs went to private schools and then the Ivy
leagues or, failing that, Ut or A&M. The rest of us scrambled.