Two years after graduating from Ohio State, Kevin Williams is still working as a ride-share driver—and he can’t see a pathway to anything better.
Editor’s note: This essay was published in the April 2020 issue of Columbus Monthly.
“I love Columbus!” My passenger tells me he’s just a few months out of Ohio University. He says he tells his friends, family and frat brothers all the time how much there is to do here. How nice it is to live in a city so cheap. “It’s like a budget Boston, or a little Chicago!”
I don’t respond—I’ve heard that sentiment before. Lots of my passengers feel that way. Others, not so much. Certainly not me.
I drop him off in Grandview Yard. Five stars. He’s a little excited, maybe a bit drunk. Whatever, I don’t care.
It’s 8 p.m. on a Friday. I’ve been driving since midafternoon, and I need a break, since I’m going to be out until 3 a.m. I pull into a Starbucks, where I use the restroom and get a chai latte.
I wait. It’s been a slow week. I scroll In-stagram. I check Twitter. I wipe down my car seats. My second-to-last rider reeked of weed, and I swear to God I can still smell it.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
It’s 45 minutes before Lyft sends me another ride request. I make my way toward the call but a few minutes later I hear the all-too-familiar “dee-doop” that tells me my rider has canceled.
Finally I get a new ping. It’s one of the residence halls on campus. A few minutes later, two girls get in, dressed for a night out. I drop them in the Short North, at Condado Tacos. I check the receipt. Three dollars. No tip.
My next fare is a middle-aged couple headed all the way to Dublin, much of it on the freeway. Great.
They ask me the questions every ride-share driver gets. How long have you been doing this? Is this your full-time job? Do you like this job? Some drivers tire of answering those questions, but I don’t mind.
“I’ve been doing it for three years, and yes, this is my full-time job as I search for work. This job pays my bills, sort of, but there’s a reason I am looking for work.”
“Did you go to college? Have you thought about going to Columbus State?”
I smile. Or wince. It depends on what kind of day I’ve had. “I graduated from Ohio State.”
“Oh,” they say.***
I’ve lived in Columbus for six years now. I came here following a traumatic break with my community in Northeast Ohio after I came out as gay. I was disowned by my family and excommunicated by their fundamentalist Christian church. That led to a brief bout of homelessness.
Still, I was able to transfer to OSU, bringing along the college credits I earned during high school and, despite the lack of familial support, I graduated in the winter of 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in computer graphics.
I started working as a ride-share driver in college. It paid more than campus or retail work. I needed something that would give me money, without interfering with my studies too much. For a time, it worked.
But gradual changes in ride-sharing’s pay structure have diminished a once-OK-paying job. When I first started in 2016, I got paid 75 percent of whatever the passenger paid, plus tips. Of the two ride-share apps, Lyft was more lucrative because it offered bonuses and took a smaller commission than Uber. If you drove a certain number of rides per week, Lyft would take as little as 5 percent of your earnings. It was great.
Little by little, Lyft removed the incentives, first changing the reduced commission to a flat payment for hitting the weekly quota, then dropping it lower and lower until the bonuses stopped.
What the passenger is charged no longer has any bearing on what I am paid. You might be charged a surge multiplier at certain times, but I won’t see it. Both companies now pay 87 cents per mile, and about 14 cents per minute. In other Ohio cities, it’s even lower; Dayton’s rate is about 60 cents per mile.
I guess I should count myself lucky.***
I have filled out more than 600 applications since graduation. I am frustrated.
In that first year of job searching, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My application materials were mediocre. But I got help with my resume and met with career counselors. I scaled back my expectations. I’ve applied for a wide range of jobs, from nonprofits to design to marketing.
I talk with friends with all types of degrees and majors about the interviews we’ve had, about getting to the final step at multiple companies, only to get rejected. We talk about getting turned away with no explanation, or about how many of our peers got gainful jobs because they knew someone to help get their foot in the door. We aren’t mad; we know we’d take the same opportunities if we had them. But we don’t.
I live with a friend in the suburbs in a house he owns, paying rent to him. It is the only way I can have some semblance of a decent standard of living. I can pay my bills, sort of. I live from hand to mouth.
I would love to live in Columbus. The city is full of new construction, but a lot of it isn’t for the people who actually need it. It’s always one- or two-bedroom apartments, rarely ever three or more bedrooms, and almost always “luxury.” The minimum wage in Ohio is $8.70, and the bulk of new housing is unaffordable even for those making substantially more than that.
At the same time, many buildings have policies that discriminate against people like me—policies that don’t allow apartment sharing, forcing working-class people into subpar or more expensive dwellings. Or worse—some risk an eviction by breaking the rules on occupancy limits. An eviction not only ruins your credit score, it makes searching for a new place to stay exponentially harder. Some rental companies check eviction history as far back as seven years.
God forbid you have a felony on your record (I do not, in case you were wondering)—that’s an instant disqualification for many rental companies. And yet, I’ve learned that some high-price complexes don’t even do background checks.
The rules are different if you’ve got money.***
I have given over 8,000 rides in the Central Ohio area. It’s interesting what you overhear.
Some conversations are serious: people struggling with money. With health issues. People who only had enough money to pay for this ride and don’t have a clue how they’ll pay for the return trip home.
Some are telling: the affluent person who bought a house in Olde Towne East, only to flippantly shrug off concerns longtime residents have about their neighborhood being gentrified.
Every other day, I talk to someone who’s freshly arrived from a much more expensive city, like Chicago or New York. They see expensive apartments and marvel at how much space they can get for so little compared to where they came from. They come here with connections and high-paying jobs—and it seems like the city loves them for it. They make Columbus more cosmopolitan, I’m told.
They rent in trendy neighborhoods, in apartments that photograph well and are Instagram-worthy. They renovate houses in historic districts, often with little care for the people who’ve lived there for decades.
I wonder: What would the city be like for me if I had their access? Would I like Columbus as much as they do if I didn’t have to struggle so hard?***
I am scared—I know that driving every day puts me at risk of an accident that could take away my car and my ability to earn an income. Or it could put me in the hospital, where I would not be able to pay the bill as I don’t have health insurance.
I have a degree from a respected university, but my situation feels just as precarious as when I was homeless. And there are so many more in this city who are just like me. I know; I’ve picked them up in my car.
I think about the person I picked up at the women’s shelter, escaping an abusive ex-partner, getting help from a social worker to find a place to live that’s on a bus line, since she doesn’t have a car.
I think about the people who put in long hours at Amazon fulfillment centers—working to exhaustion, falling asleep in my car—for a job that still doesn’t pay them enough to live on.
I also interact with people who unapologetically love Columbus. They rave about this city. They want me to agree. They want me to love it too.
But the Columbus they talk about is not the Columbus I have experienced. The things they talk about don’t seem real. The Columbus they love I have never been a part of.
This essay is adapted from a story Williams published in January 2020 on Medium.com.