- By Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
The words “juicer” and “geezer” sound pretty much the same, sort of like linguistic second cousins.
But after spending a day, an evening and an early morning hunting, charging and then redistributing Lime scooters across Central Austin — what the company calls “juicing” — I can tell you that the two terms have very little in common. At least for this geezer-in-training.
Thinking about retirement — I’m a month past my 65th birthday — got me to pondering how to fruitfully spend all that weird free time to come, and the gig economy immediately came to mind. Might want to supplement the pensions a bit, right? You know, ride sharing, driving a school bus, golf course marshal, school crossing guard, underwear model. Or, perhaps, schlepping scooters in the dark of night.
I’ve already been something of a gig guy anyway for the past decade, moonlighting as a football referee in the fall and, until a couple of years ago, teaching journalism at Austin Community College.
So I got in touch with the Lime folks, who have a permit from the city of Austin to rent out a thousand electric scooters downtown, west of the University of Texas and in a section of East Austin. You might have noticed them.
The batteries on these things of course deplete with use — they have a range of 20 to 25 miles on a full charge. So since the dawn of this industry (seven months ago), the practice has been to scoop up the scooters each evening, recharge them overnight and then redeploy them early the next morning.
For this task, Lime, Bird and other competitors use, to varying degrees, independent contractors (meaning regular Joes and Jolenes) and pay them a fee for each scooter recharged. In Lime’s case, that amounts to $6 per scooter. This approach saves them on labor and transportation costs and — bonus — the juicers cover the electricity cost.
I said, “Hey, let me try that.” The Limesters were game and agreed to let me first work a few hours Wednesday with their operations staff before plunging in later that evening as a real-life juicer.
My troubles started the evening before when I finally found time to sign up online. Like many a baby boomer, I am a wary collaborator with technology, with a good bit of tension in the relationship, all of it on my side. But in a half-hour or so, I managed to almost complete the sign-up process. The online tutorial noted that a juicer needs, among other qualities, to be able to lift at least 30 pounds and have a vehicle capable of carrying a few scooters. And I was advised to wear socks covering my ankles to guard against banging them on the scooters.
Check, check and check.
The next morning at Lime’s Southeast Austin warehouse, operations manager Zach Carter helped me complete the final steps, and my iPhone proclaimed that I was now an official Lime juicer. Carter, 29, took me out on scooter patrol.
Lime has about 30 full-time employees in Austin, a mix of mechanics to fix the vehicles and specialists who go around in rented box trucks deploying scooters, moving some around to keep an optimum scattering of the merchandise, picking up those that malfunction and, when the ad hoc juicers like me fail to get them all in an evening, “harvesting” the stragglers.
Carter and I headed downtown with four recharged scooters in the back of the truck. Thirty pounds turned out to be more cumbersome than I expected, given the weird shape and swiveling handlebar.
Based on the Lime app, we decided to set out our scooters near the intersection of Barton Springs Road and South Congress Avenue. We were each rolling one across the grass when somehow my feet got tangled up in mine and I went down like a wounded wildebeest. Carter acknowledged later that the word “lawsuit” immediately crossed his mind.
But aside from slight scrapes on my knees and intense embarrassment, no harm, no litigation.
We checked the Capitol grounds and the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, where scooters by law are off-limits. People ride them there anyway and leave them there after rentals. Using the Lime app, we found one at Auditorium Shores and moved it to a South Lamar Boulevard sidewalk. Back at the warehouse, they gave me my four charger packs, and I headed out for a break before my 9 p.m. scooter hunt.
The scooters are electronically released at that hour for collection. Juicers are instructed to put them back out in the morning between 5 and 7 a.m. You may already be divining some of the gig’s downsides.
As it happened, I had an assistant: My wife, Kristy, volunteered to be the driver and scooter scout. We headed downtown, with me studying the app for likely targets. Scooter scooping can be something of a jungle, and we didn’t want to waste time finding our four.
The Statesman parking lot (also off-limits to scooters) had one, and I spotted another nearby at an East Riverside Drive convenience store. It was lurking on the side in the shadows, like a teenager looking for an adult to buy it beer. At 9, I used the app to unlock it and loaded it in the car. No sweat. Well, actually quite a bit of sweat. The Statesman scooter was still there for the taking, and then we nabbed a third one at the Taco Joint restaurant nearby.
Then it got competitive. We saw other juicers flitting by, using their phones to liberate scooters, and we hated them a little. But we were able finally to track down a fourth one in Travis Heights. By 10:30 p.m. — after an ice cream stop at Amy’s — we were home and charging. It was kinda fun, actually.
The morning wasn’t.
The juicer function on the app shows spots where you can leave them, with the number allowed at each place, and Carter had shown me how to reserve a spot for 30 minutes. I tapped one on Nueces Street near the University of Texas with room for four but found four already in place when I got there at 6:20 a.m.
I tried anyway, and for reasons I can’t explain managed to get two of mine successfully deployed — I thought — then went looking for other drop-off spots. Several had scooters in place, but I found an allowed location on Guadalupe Street near 16th. The app got glitchy at that point, but (tossing off some inappropriate oaths in the early morning darkness) I got the thing done.
But the fourth scooter’s accelerator somehow was locked in “go” position, and I couldn’t park the frisky vehicle or complete the deployment. Disgusted, I laid the scooter on its side by a building wall out of the way and left a message for Lime to come get it later. Then it turned out I had closed out one of the Nueces scooters incorrectly and had not gotten credit. As I said, technology and Ben.
So, I failed on two of the four. Ultimate total pay: $12, for about six man- and woman-hours. Subtract the $11 for ice cream and about $5 for gas, and the Wear household finished well in the hole.
Others, I’m sure, can do this much better, and an extra $100 a week can come in handy for those living paycheck to paycheck.
Perhaps I should look into being a Lyft driver. And maybe write about it next week.