I never thought I would drive for DoorDash. Then again, I never thought I would live during a pandemic either.I live in Healdsburg, a small California town in wine country. Last December, I quit my job in the wine industry, looking for a change. From January to March, I stopped counting how many jobs I applied to, stopped keeping track of the rounds of interviews I had or the leads that went nowhere. I was offered a Program Director position at an international student exchange non-profit. A week later, March 4th, that offer was rescinded due to Covid-19. When the California Shelter In Place order was issued on March 18th, I had no income, rent was due, and I wasn’t able to qualify for unemployment, so I turned to “dashing.”Due to Covid-19, searching for temporary jobs became my realistic option. I sometimes helped at a local winery and the neighborhood tea shop; soon these places were forced to close. I quickly applied to every delivery service I knew (think DoorDash, Uber Eats, GrubHub) as well as Costco, Safeway, and Raley’s. I also signed up for Amazon delivery and Instacart. Delivery service applications took time getting approved since background checks were required. Ironically, as more unemployed applied to be drivers, many were rejected since courts were shut and as a result background checks stopped completely. Eventually, for personal safety reasons, I decided not to work at stores (I never did hear back from them), nor Instacart, which I was eventually approved for.
On my first day of “dashing”, I had no idea what to expect, how to use the app or what types of places I would go into. I made $40 that day, which felt easy. I did 5 deliveries that included McDonalds twice and two different Mexican restaurants. Eventually I would average 15 deliveries daily and 22 deliveries became my daily record. Two of those five deliveries did not tip. I learned that was the norm. The lack of tips shocked and saddened me, given I was risking my own health. Once I got paid $4 to drive to the next town and deliver one Big Mac without a tip. But other times, I would drive down the street and deliver a burrito two doors away for a $10 tip. I wrongly assumed as deliveries got more unsafe, tips would be greater. That was was not the case. Although most tipped via the app, cash tips were more appreciated, no matter how small. I used that cash for gas so I didn’t have to dip into my nonexistent bank account. Since I usually walk everywhere, I used more gas in a week than I usually do in a month.
On day two, I wore gloves, rationing one pair each day, before others even considered it. Once I got an ample supply, I changed gloves throughout the day. Week two, I wore a bandana-like mask for my best bank robber impression. Eventually I wore an N95 mask. I felt guilty when a friend gifted me one since they are solely for medical professionals. Ironically, everyone here has them since we endured horrible wildfires the last three years. When this craziness started, I immediately donated mine to our local hospital, never assuming I would need them for everyday life. Guilt over wearing the N95 mask turned into appreciation as I depended on it with my life. Literally. But why was I the only one wearing a mask? The same extremely uncomfortable mask for a week. Every day I felt dirty and contaminated when I got home. I ripped off my dirty gloves, changed my clothes, sterilized my car and washed my hands for much longer than 20 seconds. I felt like all our medical workers out there and it broke me.
DoorDash showed me the good in people during these extraordinary times. As a social scientist, it fascinated me what people were ordering during a pandemic. My favorite was the one large coke, without ice, I picked up at McDonald’s. Probably the most expensive soda around. I learned there were a lot of bored teenagers longing for fast food, that even people living in mansions want fast food over nicer options, and that having my car smell of every food imaginable actually made me less hungry for dinner. Once I had just picked up Applebee’s when the app broke down. I therefore had no idea where to deliver the food. I wondered about the rules for eating the food when I didn’t have a delivery address. Sadly, thirty minutes later, the app was up, and I did the right thing. Living in a small town meant repeat customers; one asked if I was the only one in town since he saw me daily. Three times I delivered to people I knew, which brought a smile. A kind cashier at a burger joint told me she loved always seeing me due to my great energy. How did I show great energy through my mask? Nor will I forget the kind customer who left a note “thank you for your hard work, stay safe, god bless” attached to 5 dollars. These examples seriously kept me going day in and day out.
I loved doing deliveries from the local liquor store, not because tips were great, but it made me truly feel “essential.” Once I delivered to a hotel next door, surprised it was still operating. The concierge told me there were some long term guests who were still homeless from the fires last fall. When I brought the women her much needed alcohol, she had no idea the liquor store was literally next door. Other alcohol deliveries went to a senior who was incredibly appreciative and to a neighbor two doors down, whom I had never met. I doubt she will recognize me next time without my mask. Living alone meant these were my only daily social interactions, which was a pro and a con.
But dashing was also exhausting and unnerving. During 24 days of dashing, I took one day off. I would dash 11am-6pm (no breaks) and often till 8pm on weekends when pay was best. I missed many needed Zoom happy hours. While it was a great distraction from the daily news cycle, and having a routine helped my sanity, it also deeply affected my mental health. I saw places not practicing social distancing, and restaurant workers not wearing gloves or masks, not taking this seriously. There were two pizza places I refused to go into because people would crowd waiting for orders or congregate at the bar (often having a drink!). I would be lying if I didn’t say I checked my customer rating daily (currently at 4.9!), and meeting my daily earning goals ($100-$200 a day) became an obsession as bills needed to be paid. I was able to earn my rent ($1300) after 12 days. From there I would force myself to make $125 during the weekdays and aim for $200 Friday and Saturdays. And although DoorDash eventually offered us gloves, sanitizer, wipes, and even masks, and carry-out places changed—more wearing gloves, more plexiglass between interactions, and more “no contact” delivery requests—I still didn’t feel completely safe. So I decided to stop.
Yet I still feel lucky. Lucky I was able to pay my April rent. Lucky I am still healthy and not working at the places I visited daily. It’s all relative. Everything is relative these days. Nothing is normal. And yet I am lucky.
Erika Max Bernheimer lives in Healdsburg, California and earned her B.A in English and African-American Studies at UC Davis and her M.A in African Studies at the University of London (SOAS). She taught briefly at Solano Community College, worked at various non-profits and was a program analyst with the City of Oakland. In 2014 she left her life in Oakland, moved to wine country, changed her life completely and worked as a hospitality manager in the wine industry.
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