I’m a worker in the gig economy. With each new job, I play a game. I ask myself, “will this be a job in the future?” The future, according to game rules, is anything twenty to thirty years from the present day. Put another way, “will robots do this job when I’m old?” Last summer I began shopping and delivering groceries for Instacart.
Instacart is one of those services involving apps and smartphones. The customer orders avocados and fizzy water. They add instructions if necessary, and then track the order's progress. All this from their phone. No need to find a babysitter or haul a brood of screaming toddlers to a busy market. The algorithm lets them stay at home.
The shopper sits in their car, phone out and waits to receive a batch. (We call orders “batches” in the biz). They cruise to the store of the customer's choosing. They shop, scanning each item to confirm it’s exactly what the customer’s chosen. At checkout, they swipe an Instacart credit card. Then they make the delivery. The shopper gets paid by direct deposit each Wednesday. The pay is based on hours determined and managed by the shoppers themselves. They never speak to a supervisor. The algorithm is their boss.
The customer pays the phone. The phone pays the shopper. Nice work if you can get it, and you can totally get it.
So, will working for Instacart be a job in the future? No. Robots will do this job.
My method is simple. I study the top human performers in said profession. If the number one workers are those who perform most like machines, it stands to reason that a robot would do the job better. Look around your office. If Ted and Marsha are the best, and Ted and Marsha are described as “freaking machines,” then Ted and Marsha will be replaced by machines, and you’ll be out of work too.
Instacart rates its workers based on customer experience, shopping speed, and batch acceptance. Batch acceptance refers to the shopper's willingness to shop the order. Factors for turning down a batch include potential payment, distance, delivery location, and size of the order. If your acceptance rate drops below 80%, you lose opportunities for bonuses or hourly minimums. It’s sometimes worth letting your rate drop to bypass delivering to the Bank of America building downtown. Their parking is a nightmare.
I have a high customer rating and my speed rating is slightly above average. I make about $16 an hour. My average speed per item is 98 sec. In North Texas, the top performers average 58 sec. That’s fast. Too fast to ensure that Clara T. in Richardson gets the best possible peach. But not too fast if you want to service twice as many customers than a wannabe novelist who takes a minute and a half to find the perfect peach.
I’ve seen some of these top shoppers in action. They’re awesome. They move faster, are more focused, and better organized than me. Their pay reflects that. The ones I’ve talked to average $20 an hour. When I need to improve my metrics, these are the shoppers I emulate. Go fast. Be systematic. Don’t listen to Man’s Search for Meaning on Audible while you shop.
But as tech advances, and customers become more comfortable with robots, machine shoppers will supplant the human ones. It makes sense. Fast, durable, and undiscerning machines trump human error, physical limitations, and personal biases. They will work at a consistent clip, lift without tiring, and deliver to locations that some human shoppers might avoid. There is, of course, growing concern that AI comes with its own bias. That’s something to consider. But, we know human bias, and that’s not something you can recalculate in the human shopper.
The Human Element
Yet, I must say, its the human elements of the job that are most rewarding for me. The shopping, at its best, produces a state of Flow. Your brain clears. Your troubles evaporate. All that remains is the task at hand.
The job creates a wonderful sense of empathy. You pilot from the customer’s POV. The order tells you a story. “This guy is brand loyal.” “She’s trying to lose weight.” The story guides the shopping.
Part of the gig is making substitutions when an item is out-of-stock. As you might expect, this happens all the time. Sometimes a customer provides guidance, but usually, it’s your call. Then you’re in their POV. This can be impersonal. “Daniel P. might prefer the cage-free brown eggs since the large Grade A Kroger brand eggs are missing. After all, Daniel is an animal lover. He bought all that cat food.” But it can get intimate. It’s no small task making substitutions for things like tampons, baby wipes, or adult diapers. The options are many, but the customer’s needs are specific. You have to factor fit, taste, comfort, brand, etc. This might mean little when it comes to eggs, but everything when it comes to the comfort and hygiene of a baby. Yes, there’s an option for the customer to offer their own substitutions. But not all customers find that option. Yes, you can text with the customer. But not all are available to chat. It falls on the shopper to make this choice.
I find meaning in this. Small meaning, maybe, and undoubtedly less meaningful work than, say, being a hospice nurse, or, I don’t know, growing the actual food. But it’s meaningful, nonetheless. And finding meaning will always factor into the work humans do.
Heck, I even like the stores. Sure, some are poorly stocked with narrow aisles and lousy parking. And no, you should never use their restrooms. But they can also be warm and folksy environments. People smile at one another. They make room for each other. The tall help the short with high-up items. The wise instruct the lost. All shoppers united by a common task - to find that that thing they’re looking for. They can be diverse environments. An alien species looking to study us would do well to swing by the Kroger on Capitol and Central on a Saturday morning. They’d find all manner of humanity. Some shoppers are motivated by cost, others by health concerns. Many are concerned with both. But all walk the aisles with eyes wide open, awake and alert, searching for that thing they're looking for. This unified search, everyone with game mode turned on, creates a sense of cooperation. Out in the parking lots there’s plenty of tension. Parking lots are football fields, built for violence and competition. But in the grocery store, at least, we’re all in this together.
Delivering kind of sucks. It’s my least favorite part of the job. It’s easier to break into Apartment complexes than to enter with a gate code. John McLain’s time in Nakatomi Tower was a cake walk compared to pushing a delivery cart through most office buildings. Often no one is meaner to a person doing their job, than a person doing their job. But it can also be rewarding. For the most part, this whole order-groceries-on-your-phone-and-some-nice-person-will-bring-it-to-your-door thing is pretty novel for people. This might not be true for every region. New Yorkers have had their groceries delivered since colonial times. But it’s true in North Texas. Most of my customers greet me with a sense of awe.
And then there’s the gratitude.
I recently shopped an order that consisted of three cases of bottled water - you get a “heavy item” bump for this - and two 2 liter bottles of Kroger brand distilled water. That was it, just a whole bunch of water. The customer lived in the apartment complex across from Krogers. It took five minutes to shop the order, and three minutes to make the delivery. A woman answered the door with a tube in her nose. The tube connected to an oxygen tank sitting on wheels at her feet. She balanced her weight on the kitchen counter as I made the delivery. She looked exhausted. It was 11am. She thanked me and said the service was a God-send because she was on her “last legs.”
Another time, I shopped a large order, over fifty items. This was a big payday for me. During communication with the customer, it became clear the order was for her aging mother. The elderly woman lived in a small house. The house looked like it had once been nice, but now the yard was littered with broken items. The rickety wooden porch was also filled with junk. I almost tripped over a bag of coal that seemed to have been standing a post by the front door since the Carter administration. An elderly woman answered the door in a nightgown. (Many people answer the door in robes. The elderly are not alone in this practice. Indeed an astonishing amount of bathrobe wearing people have their groceries delivered.) The woman asked if I could load the items up in the kitchen for her. We’re not allowed to do that, enter the homes. But she was frail, and I couldn’t figure how she'd manage it on her own. She said she was on cloud nine. Her daughter had to order for her because she’d lost her debit card. And she’d run out of cash so she couldn’t hire a cab to take her to the store. She couldn’t drive herself, and she felt trapped in the house without food. This order would last her the two weeks before her daughter could make a trip up from Houston to see her. She could wait till then without worrying about where she’d get her food.
I don’t imagine myself to be a hero delivery guy. I’m a mercenary shopper looking to get paid and hoping to avoid trouble. But these little flecks of gratitude are lovely rewards. And it means something to the customers as well. I believe that. Being able to thank someone can be a bright spot in a grey day or a calm moment in a hectic schedule.
In a past life, I used to avoid people as best I could. If a friendship didn’t seem possible or likely, I generally kept my distance. I worked in an office, and whenever I could, I took my work off campus. People are messy and loud and loaded with drama. Often with colleagues, I felt like they wanted something from me. Acknowledgment of their contributions or something. And when I tried to meet that need, it would only complicate things. I could never find the right balance of gratitude and grace. And they couldn’t find it with me either. It seems I craved the same acknowledgement.
Maybe delivering groceries is different because there’s an element of service to it. In the office, it was all about the team building a big project together. There were hierarchies, and personal relationships, and politics, and, in the end, even if what the team made was great, individuals left feeling unappreciated. With shopping, it’s simple. Someone needs groceries, it’s inconvenient or impossible for them to get it themselves, so I go get it. “Here they are.” “Wow, thanks!”
Not everyone can step away from their lives long enough to spend an hour in the store. Not everyone can lift the items, or navigate the aisles, or even drive themselves. I also realize, of course, that not everyone can afford the Instacart service fee. But those who use it enjoy the service, and the shopper is often the one who gets the thanks. It’s nice. It’s simple.
The time will come when robots replace we mortal shoppers. Shoot, the whole notion of how and where we get our food will likely change. For that matter, the concept of “food” will evolve past recognition. But for the time being, I’m enjoying the human aspects of working for an algorithm.
I like the people.
da nang, 1971
"For me, memories aren't real," Charlie told me. "A memory is a story you've told yourself. It doesn't reflect reality. We create our memories. We tell ourselves a story about what happened. We put ourselves in the best light, and we remember things that are advantageous to us."
As Charlie remembers it, he took his first drink while trembling in the grass holding an M-16. This was the Air Force base in Da Nang during the conflict in Vietnam.
Reports warned of Vietcong regular army marching down the valley to the base. All nonessential were evacuated. Charlie and other airmen posted up at the perimeter. The officers knew that if the enemy reached them, there would be no way to stop them. This understanding trickled down to the enlisted airmen.
This was 1971.
Charlie didn’t go on air strikes or march in the jungle. He rarely held a weapon. He was admin. The night he took his first drink - the night the enemy marched down the valley - came late in his service. Much of his time at war was already becoming memory.
This is his memory of getting wounded in Vietnam. It happened months before the night he took his first drink. He was in the barracks, lying in his bunk. Then came a mortar attack. Charlie felt an intense burning in his leg, a wash of warm liquid, and then shock took over.
He might not have been wounded at all if they hadn't switched barracks. His first barracks were old ones built by the French and made of concrete. The French construction was doubly beneficial. The cement kept the airmen cool at night and defended them against mortar attacks. After six months, they switched them to American-built wooden barracks.
the brave soldier
Charlie had no interest in going to war.
His pastor suggested Charlie enroll at Tennessee Bible College, believing Charlie had the makings of a preacher. If Charlie had remained in college he would have avoided the war altogether. But he hated Bible college, so he dropped out in the fall of '68. The letter from the draft board arrived in the spring of '69. Charlie was 1A.
He enlisted in the Air Force to avoid being drafted into the Army.
The Air Force offered to send him to language school after he completed twelve weeks of basic training in San Antonio. But a sergeant warned that this would mean exile to a Russian island. Boring work, he told him. So they sent him to Denver instead, to train as a nuclear weapons specialist.
A few weeks into training, he told the commanders he was the wrong man for the job. "I'm not good at details. Something will go wrong."
So they transferred him to Minot, North Dakota to serve as a procurement specialist.
There he met my mother.
He was 20. She was 17.
Her parents didn't approve, and my mother was cautious. But Charlie pressed her, and the relationship progressed. Within a year they married.
This was May 1970.
Charlie believed he would finish out his enlistment in North Dakota, and from there begin his life without ever having gone to war. Then his orders came for Vietnam. This was a shock.
To this day Charlie believes someone had it in for him.
"I could be a real smart ass with the personnel department."
Charlie shipped off to Tacoma to qualify on the M-16.
"If I don't qualify," he said to his instructor, “maybe I won't be able to go to Vietnam."
"Don't worry," the man said, “you'll qualify." He did.
They put him on a Flying Tiger. After a brief stop in Anchorage, he arrived in Tokyo. From Tokyo to Saigon. From Saigon, a cargo plane to Da Nang.
This is Charlie's memory of the flight in to Da Nang.
"My first impression was of the lush jungle and of the huge Budha statue on the side of the mountain. It was very beautiful. As you came in, you circled once, and as we circled you could see on the runaway stacks and stacks of aluminum coffins."
He was assigned to the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron (20. TASS).
Enemy rockets hit every week. The standard protocol was get low, don’t die.
Early on, a line of planes caught fire. They doused the flames with foam. Two airmen - Mike and Mark were their names - got trapped under the weight of the foam and died.
Charlie learned to cut his eyes to trees in search of hidden snipers. And watch for saboteurs ready and willing to blow themselves up if it meant taking out a few airmen.
Once, during a surprise rocket strike, Charlie dove under a truck. From there he saw two men torn apart by a rocket.
r&r in hawaii
The war was hard for Charlie explain to my mother during his R&R in Hawaii. How do you explain what you yourself can't understand?
Rockets rockets rockets - get low, don't die.
He couldn't talk about the young lieutenant - a friend of Charlie's - who died flying a mission days before.
He couldn't describe volunteering at the children's orphanage in China Beach. The aquamarine ocean a strange backdrop for the Dickensian scene. A mass of children, clutching and grasping, many of them blind and maimed, all starving. Charlie couldn’t bear the nakedness of their desperation. He had to stop volunteering.
He couldn't tell her about the workload. Seven days a week, twelve hours a day. Running the office, managing the mail. An office job in a place where the sky exploded and bodies piled up. It was Charlie who gathered the incoming letters for the missing or the dead.
He couldn't explain Da Nang. A town he'd visited rarely. While the other guys hit the bars and spent money on women, Charlie walked the city alone. He spent six dollars on a haircut and a massage and took in the town. Children begged at every corner. The harsh smell of poverty mixed with the stink of GI vomit and marijuana smoke. Everyone looked drunk, or scared, or weary, or broken. The people he met loved everything American - baseball cards, dollar bills, records.
He couldn't find the words to tell her how much he liked these people. How he admired their humor and their curiosity. How he felt about the toll this war was taking on their land, on their families.
And these people, their allies - the people they came here to protect - looked just like the enemy they fought.
Stranger than that, they named the enemy Charlie. It was Charlie that kept him up at night. It was Charlie firing rockets, and shooting his friends out of the sky. It was Charlie hiding in the trees with rifles or walking the base with hand grenades.
On the night he took his first drink - lying in the grass, hands trembling - he waited for Charlie to materialize and massacre them all.
An officer saw his trembling hand and took pity. He offered Charlie a flask filled with “something that would help."
When Charlie was growing up, his father drank every day. Weekday evenings his father snuck sips from a bottle of red wine in the kitchen. On the weekends he drank beer from morning to night. Charlie decided it was the beer that made the man so mean.
Charlie's father grew up in a religious household. Charlie's mother always said that his father came back from the war a darker man. He'd served in the Pacific theater as a gunner's mate in the Navy. He never spoke a word to Charlie about the war, but Charlie knew the Pacific was hell. His father came back from the war a drinking man.
For a time, alcohol was a career for his old man. When Charlie was a boy, his father ran liquor for a bootlegger named Earl Black. Mecklenburg County North Carolina was dry, so Earl sent the man up and down the Piedmont to please the population.
Charlie didn't meet Earl Black until later - just after Charlie’s father shot himself.
It was a Tuesday. Charlie was eighteen. His father and little sister were arguing about her boyfriend. Even as he threatened violence, she stood her ground. Charlie, his mom, and grandma were in the house. As the fight escalated, Charlie's father retreated to the bedroom. Then, a gunshot.
Charlie’s sister screamed and ran. Charlie went into to the bedroom as his mother called the police. His father was on the floor by the bed. The pistol lay on the floor next to his body. Charlie held his father's head, speaking words of comfort into his ear, while they waited for the police. His father used a .22, so there was very little blood. But he died before help arrived.
A few days later Earl Black arrived, said his condolences, and placed a wad of cash on the dining table. This was his father's legacy.
So, Charlie stayed away from alcohol.
Still, in the dark, hands shaking, he decided to take the flask from the officer.
The officer was right - the alcohol helped. His hands stopped their trembling, and the fear subsided. He even fell asleep.
When he woke, the danger had passed. Marines from the 3rd Division intercepted the enemy and fought them off. Airman Charlie and enemy Charlie never came face-to-face.
Charlie left Vietnam never knowing Charlie.
Charlie made it back stateside days after Christmas. He and my mother moved to Wichita Falls, Texas. On New Year's Eve, neighborhood kids set off fireworks that exploded outside his bedroom window. On instinct, he threw my mother out of the bed. This was 1972.
He was in pain. Alcohol was the only thing he knew that could provide relief. He'd drink it in his car after work. He'd mix orange juice into a pint of vodka before coming home to my mother. Sometimes at night he'd drive around for hours or sneak off to a downtown bar. He drifted in and out of careers, practiced strange spending habits, and was uncommunicative with his wife. Their daughter was born in 1976. Then they had a son. This was 1979.
Charlie made erratic choices for the family. He bought his wife a car on a whim without asking for her input. He considered selling the house and moving all four of them into an RV.
He had few close relationships and stayed away from his wife’s church friends. He felt no connection to his in-laws, and contact with his own family was brief and infrequent. He would get angry at the slightest provocation, jump at loud noises, and sit for days in a grey mood.
Even as Charlie’s behavior grew darker and more bizarre, his wife became more stable and self-reliant. She took classes at night, studying computer programming. She clerked for a lawyer and learned how to support herself. She deepened her connections at church, and bonded with her young children.
Finally, she divorced Charlie.
At some point in the 1980s, a doctor diagnosed Charlie with the newly-termed PTSD.
Charlie said, "so I came back from Vietnam with trauma?"
The doctor said, "Charlie, you probably went to Vietnam with trauma."
Decades of work followed. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Native American sweat lodges. A master’s degree. A PhD. A long and meaningful career in social work. A second divorce and a third child. The painful passing of a third wife. It took a long, long time to find peace. After a decades-long struggle, Charlie could finally say that he knew himself. By this time he was living alone in Oceanside, California, estranged from his biological family. But he'd built an unusual and vibrant adopted family - a collection of close friends and colleagues.
That's where he was when we first talked about Vietnam and my grandfather. And about why my mother had to leave him when I was still small.
He was on staff of the Social Work Department at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton and nearing retirement. He was recovering from recent surgery. We spoke by SKYPE as he iced his knee. He was 69. I was 38.
I'd never asked him about my grandfather or Vietnam. Nor had he ever offered any information. For the past few decades, we'd hardly spoken at all. Just the occasional text message or Christmas card, or a rare meeting in person. The two of us stepped carefully over his past. I gave myself permission to ask him anything. He gave himself permission to answer, no matter how personal or painful the question.
Seven months later he picked me up at San Diego Airport. I’d flown out for his retirement. He was 70. I was 39.
That winter was unusually cold. Rain clouds marred the first few days of my trip.
One day, as we drove, we talked about therapy. I had been practicing CBT as well, and we traded notes. We also talked about how much we both enjoyed wine. He belonged to a couple of winery clubs in Temecula and could take me up there if I wanted. I asked a few more questions about the war. He asked if I was ever going to write about it like I said. I told him I would.
Then he reached up to adjust the radio dial on the car stereo, and I noticed his hand trembling.
"What's with the tremor?" I asked.
"It does that sometimes."
"Have you asked a doctor about it?"
"Yeah. It's not Parkinson's, so that's good."
"Then what is it?"
"He said it's called an essential tremor."
I looked it up later. It's a common neurological disorder that creates rhythmic shaking. It presents most often in the hands. Especially when doing something simple like drinking from a glass. Known risk factors include a genetic mutation. If you have a parent with the mutation, you have a fifty percent chance of developing your own essential tremor.
It wasn't a big deal. His hand just shook. Mine probably would too some day.
Then the clouds broke, the sky painted itself blue, and sunlight stretched across the road. The change was so brilliant, we put on our sunglasses. And again, I saw his hand shaking. I had the urge to reach over and steady it. To put my hand on his and offer him some relief.
But I didn’t.