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One Father, Three Years, and Thousands of Uber Rides to Rebuild a Life

A Q&A with Jonathan Rigsby

Drive and Jonathan Rigsby
Cover design: Carol Chu. Author photo: Casey Chapter

Jonathan Rigsby spends his days as a crime intelligence analyst and his nights as an Uber driver. Reeling from his divorce and struggling to pay rent while caring for his autistic son, Rigsby became a rideshare driver, joining the millions of people with a side hustle just to make ends meet. With a compelling blend of honesty and sardonic wit, Rigsby wrote Drive: Scraping By in Uber’s America, One Ride at a Time, inviting us into his car to reveal the harsh reality of gig work for so many: grueling hours, living paycheck to paycheck, and hoping to avoid disaster long enough to prepare for the next bill. Along the way, he showcases the humor and humanity in the private moments of vulnerability that happen when people are left alone with a stranger. Beacon Press senior publicist Bev Rivero caught up with him to chat about it.

Bev Rivero: In your introduction, you share that “[t]his is a story about how I rebuilt my life from behind the wheel of a car. It’s a story about letting go of my dreams and learning to live with reality, about focusing on the things in life that really matter: family, love, and happiness.” I’m sure many people can relate to the raw process of changing priorities in their lives. How did the writing process fit into your journey?

Jonathan Rigsby: By the time I sat down to write Drive, I’d had to put a lot of thought into where I wanted to focus my energy. Working, parenting, and driving were taking up the majority of my time, and I had to choose how to spend the very small amount of free time I had. I’m very fortunate to have an incredibly supportive partner. When I decided to get serious about writing a book, she was with me every step of the way.

There were a lot of nights spent sitting side by side on the couch with her as I tapped away at a computer. Every free moment, I was working on the manuscript or scribbling in an outline or writing out hundreds of notecards I used to keep myself organized. I missed out on using that time to unwind, but the writing process was relaxing in its own way.

BR: There’s an element of confession to the book, and you talk about how sharing with your passengers helped you get through some tough moments. It’s rare to read a masculine-authored narrative, outside of memoirs explicitly about recovery, that is so open about experiencing low moments, battling feelings of failure, and seeking help. Do you feel like gender, mental health, and fatherhood are linked in your writing?

JR: Absolutely. A lot of men deal with a sense that they have to be everything to everyone in their lives, that they have to be these stoic providers who aren’t allowed to feel anything or ask for help, and if you can’t do that for your entire life, you’re failing. It took being at a pretty low point in my life for me to realize I wasn’t going to be the sort of man I wanted to be for my son if I was constantly exhausted, moody, and desperate. He deserved better than that, and it led me to ask for help even when I couldn’t see that I deserved to be happy, too.

When I first started driving, people would ask what led me to become a rideshare driver, and I would cringe as I told them I was divorced because I thought I deserved scorn for failing in my marriage. People would share their experiences and tell me that things would get better. It helped a lot, both as exposure therapy and from hearing people thank me for getting them across town. I felt like I had value, and that eventually grew into a sense of self-worth I badly needed.

BR: In the epilogue, you write, “It is not merely a system that exploits workers; it relies on lying to people to convince them to exploit themselves. Gig work is not a streamlining of economic relationships but a technologically enabled engine of human trafficking.” You share some ways that people working the gig economy can dig themselves into debt when trying to make money, like the Uber fuel card, where drivers could go into the negative, and future earnings would be counted against the balance. What are some other examples people might not know about? And are there ways to better inform yourself as an app user?

JR: The biggest issue for gig workers is the asymmetry of information. The app companies know where the demand is. They know the trends. They know exactly how much money is passing through the system but do everything they can to hide this information from the workers themselves. You get notifications all the time on your phone that drivers in your area are earning these really high hourly wages, and if you look at your own earnings, you can’t help but wonder about the difference. Why am I not earning that much? It makes you tell yourself that you must be doing something wrong, and there’s an entire “hustle culture” that plays into this. They’ll tell you that you aren’t working hard enough and that it is your own fault that you aren’t making it, but the truth is that those earning numbers are mostly made up. Yeah, you can make big money for a few hours on a Friday night, but that’s not the consistent experience. You don’t make that kind of money all the time, but the app companies love to pretend that it’s the norm.

Uber actually had a program for years that would help you buy a car and then make your payments through the app, deducted right from your earnings. The program trapped a lot of people into working long hours so they could make payments on cars that qualified for the platform. Imagine working twenty or thirty hours in a week before you actually earn the first dollar that you get to keep. They might as well have been paying people in corporate scrip.

If I open up my phone right now, there’s a program pushing drivers to buy Teslas. Rideshare companies want to be able to sell consumers rides in luxury vehicles, but there’s no consideration on the financial impact that buying an expensive vehicle like that might have on the driver’s financial situation. The companies are glad to have you take on the risk of buying an expensive asset that will lose most of its value while you drive it around town, and if it doesn’t work out, well, that’s your problem.

As a user of these apps, the best thing you can do is to realize that the price you are being charged has nothing to do with what the people providing the service are being paid. That’s why tipping is so important. I know everyone has “tipping fatigue,” but gig workers are truly dependent on your generosity. The base fares aren’t enough to make a living unless you’re working long hours.

BR: You mention joining a Facebook group for new drivers. Of course, Twitter—now X—plays a role in what led you to write this book. Can you talk about the role of social media in your experience as a source of camaraderie and knowledge, and perhaps in finding your voice or POV for the book?

JR: Other drivers were the best source of information for getting the hang of the work. Whether it was on that local Facebook group or standing around talking in the airport parking lot while we waited for planes to land, there’s a sense among drivers that you’re all in it together even as you’re hoping that your phone will ding before theirs does so you can get going. People share tips on where to find free vacuums, the best car washes, and which fast-food restaurants have the cleanest bathrooms (Jimmy John’s, if you’re wondering).

When I first started my Twitter/X account, I experimented with a bunch of different “voices” for what I was doing. I tried being sarcastic about passengers or mean or judgmental, but it didn’t feel authentic. I initially started the account because I didn’t want to forget the people I was meeting. Their stories had become part of me, and forgetting them felt like losing a part of myself. People are strange and sad and funny all on their own. You don’t have to embellish it. In terms of my own voice, I had to learn to dial back the anger and outrage at the things I experienced. It helped to remember that what I went through was my own story, but it wasn’t unique. Lots of people know what it’s like to sacrifice and struggle.

BR: Finally, what got you through writing Drive (anything from books, to movies, or other media)? This can include inspiration, source material, or what gave you much needed joy.

JR: While I was working on the initial outlines and drafts that would become Drive, I read a lot of books about poverty. I owe a lot to Stephanie Land, who wrote Maid. Maid is about a single parent going through absolute hell as she tries to find a way through poverty for her and her daughter, and I really identified with it. Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth was really insightful, and it was helpful to read Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even, which is about Millennial burnout (something I definitely experienced while I was working sixty hours per week).

I’m a big fan of folk music and often found myself listening to songs about the everyday struggles of working-class people. There’s a quote in the beginning of the book from a song about chemical workers in England. That’s a song I liked so much that I tracked down the artist’s estate through a folk music association in England to get permission to use it in the book. I listened to a lot of sea shanties and work songs—the sorts of things that helped embody a sense that I wasn’t alone in my experiences. It helps to know that other people understand the emotions that come with struggling to get by. In terms of artists, I owe a lot to Stan Rogers, The Longest Johns, and a nerd rock band called The Protomen.


About the Authors 

Bev Rivero is senior publicist at Beacon Press. Before joining Beacon in 2021, Bev was the communications and marketing manager at the National Book Foundation, where she worked on the National Book Awards, promoted the Foundation’s public and educational programs, and led all social media and marketing campaigns. Prior to NBF, she was in publicity at the New Press for six years, where she worked with authors committed to social justice, including Paul Butler, Michelle Alexander, and many more. She has extensive experience promoting nonfiction and tailoring outreach campaigns that resonate with activists and change-makers. Bev is a NYC-based graduate of Johns Hopkins University, ardent supporter of indie presses, and a graphic designer. You can follow her on Twitter @LOLBev, where she mostly retweets content about books, pickles, and migrant justice.

Jonathan Rigsby is a crime intelligence analyst for the state of Florida during the day and a rideshare driver by night. He lives in Tallahassee with his son. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Vanderbilt University and a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Chicago. He is the author of Drive: Scraping By in Uber’s America, One Ride at a Time. Follow him on Twitter (@ride_trips).