Flex Regum Fidelum Et: Or, the Amazon Man Always Rings Thrice

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Crossing guard, construction worker or deliveryman?

With some extra time on my hands thanks to my career hiatus/early retirement/vacation binge, I put in for a job delivering Amazon packages. Why not, I figured — the pay was advertised as $18 an hour, the schedule is extremely flexible (work when you want!) with no commitment, and I know the area well enough. Also, I drive a hybrid, so I reasoned that gas expenses would be low.

And, if nothing else, I miss listening to NPR, so I reasoned that a delivery gig would actually make me more knowledgeable about the world.

The application for the program, called Amazon Flex, was simple and entirely electronic, and after almost a week of waiting for the background check to clear, I received a welcome email last Tuesday night.

Using the Flex app, I marked the days of the week, hours and general geographic area that I wanted to work. Nothing was listed for this week, though the app reminded me that same-day shifts sometimes become available. They are first-come, first-ferved, and “often go quickly,” Amazon advises.

As I loaded my car with groceries at about 2:30 Wednesday afternoon, a notification on my phone caught my eye. It was from the Flex app; a shift was available from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The pay: $18 per hour for two hours, or $36. Take it, or someone else would.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Amazon does not reimburse drivers for fuel or tolls — or anything else. All of its Flex delivery “partners” are, for tax purposes, “independent contractors.” Amazon does provide auto insurance, but there are several restrictions that make it petty limited, unless you get hit by an uninsured/underinsured driver, and then it’s pretty good.

Amazon’s pay rate is flat — $18 an hour. For a given shift, they’ve set aside a certain number of packages, grouped by neighborhood, and estimated the time each set of boxes will take to be delivered; I recall from a training video that this time estimate could be high, low or spot on, but the pay is set in stone.

Ready to earn my first $36 and beat the 120-minute clock, I drive 15 minutes to the Amazon warehouse on Holabird Avenue and check in with a guard. She hands me an orange vest, the kind a construction worker or crossing guard would wear, and tells me to go to dock 125. There I find a canvas bag containing 12 packages. I scan the bar code of each into my phone, though one was crossed out in pen and needs to be typed into the app using the order number.

I am ready to go. Guiding me is a GPS navigation feature in the Flex app, which a training video had said would provide an efficient route taking all packages into account. I pull out of the Amazon lot and head north just after 4:30.

One thing I notice right away was that the default turn-by-turn navigation doesn’t display the destination address, though it does list distance and estimated travel time. So as I continue north using side streets and back roads, I don’t know where I will end up. After about 20 minutes, I home in on the target, which I find out is on Brehms Lane in Belair-Edison, a neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore that is a “microcosm” of the city.

I park my car on the narrow street. A man walks by wearing a Comcast polo shirt. As I click the “I’ve arrived” button on the app, I notice the man motioning me to roll down the window. “I think you’re looking for me,” he says. “I saw all those boxes and figured you were delivering.” He fishes out his ID. Before I can hand over a package, I have to scan it again with my phone, which I notice is stalling out while trying to pick up a nearby Wi-Fi signal. After a moment, I fix the issue and hand the man his delivery du jour. “Thanks, Boss,” he says. Fortunately, he does not try to sell me an Xfinity Triple Play deal. One down, eleven to go. Thirty minutes have passed already. I’m on pace to finish around midnight.

Stop #2 is at The BLVD at White Springs apartment complex off Rossville Boulevard in Nottingham. I arrive at 5:18 p.m. A dirty mattress leans against a fence surrounding a dumpster. A man answers the door.

“Y’all said you was coming back tomorrow,” he says. “Sorry, I don’t know anything about that,” I reply and hand over the goods.

Stop #3 takes me back south, to Pelham Avenue in Belair-Edison. Why didn’t the Flex app have me go to this address when I was near here before? Belair Road has turned into a rush-hour racetrack. “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” comes to mind. The rowhomes on here are gritty like the New York subway.

A group of kids next door jump and tumble in the tiny front lawn. “Can we go to the park? Can we go to the park?” they shriek.

No one answers the door for the delivery. The QR code on the box won’t scan either, so I enter the first four digits of the bar code. That seems to satisfy the machine.

I turn left on Mannasota Avenue and back north. On the left is a small corner store. “CLARKS GROCERY WE SELL BEER ON SUNDAYS” read two large signs on the front. You won’t find this place on Google Maps. A bit farther up (or is it down?) the road is a ramshackle building that advertises snowballs and ice cream. “We accept food stamps” it says on the front.

Stop #4 is at Rosedale Garden Apartments near Golden Ring Road. It’s less than a mile from the Golden Ring Mall (not really a mall anymore). I’ve been going there for years, yet I never would’ve guessed these apartments were here.

I click for the next address. Joy! It’s in the same building! I grab the box and head to the third floor. I knock. After a moment, a man answers; he appears to have been sleeping. He says he’s the customer’s wife. I type his name into the app as the recipient and walk back to my car. It’s 6:15 and I’m not even halfway done.

Stop #6 is the Eagles Walk Apartments in Rosedale. They are set in the woods, with squirrels romping about.  Did you know a group of squirrels is called a scurry? God bless the Internet. I walk up to the building; the worn stairwell is open to the outside.

I can’t tell which apartment is the customer’s. There’s an option in the app to call the customer, so I try that; no answer. I call Amazon and they can’t reach her either, so I’ll have to take it back to the warehouse at the end of the shift. Then I notice with dismay that there’s another package for the Pelham address. The app didn’t seem to indicate that. Guess I’m going back there before the warehouse stop. It’s now 6:45; I was supposed to be done 15 minutes ago.

I mark the Eagles Walk package as undeliverable. The next delivery is at the same complex, and it has the same problem: The apartment number is missing from the delivery summary. I call Amazon again; the woman who answers provides the apartment number. She’s so helpful, even cheery, that I ask her about the previous delivery. She points out that the apartment number was listed, just in a way that was a bit confusing, so I go back and leave that one.

There’s one more to go at Eagles Walk. As I approach the building, I notice that the stairwell is open to the elements. Odd. A scraggly cat sees me and follows me up the steps. “IT HAS COME TO OUR ATTENTION THAT SOME RESIDENTS ARE FEEDING STRAY CATS. PLEASE DO NOT FEED THEM,” says a flier. It has a picture of a stray cat in case anyone is unsure. I look down and am pretty sure it’s the same cat that’s following me.

On the third floor, a girl, maybe 2 or 3 years old, answers. I read her the name on the box and ask if she knows that person. “Uh huh,” she says, followed by a deluge of words that I can’t make out. The scraggly cat saunters through the doorway. The girl says something about a kee-kat, though it sounds like she’s trying to say her name is Keekat. I hand her the parcel and walk away while she’s still chattering. The app demands to know whom I delivered the package to. I ponder whether to type “Keekat” but decide on “Child.” I hustle back to my car. Night has fallen.

After 20 minutes, I am back on Pelham. This time the lights are on. A petite, bespectacled, young white man answers the door and graciously accepts the delivery. Three stops left. At some point I noticed that at least one is in Dundalk.

Stop #10 is north again, past Morgan State University. “PACKAGE IS LATE. CALL CUSTOMER AND ASK IF THEY STILL WANT IT,” the Flex app warns. This is a first. I call, but no answer. Guess I’ll deliver it anyway.

The GPS pronounces “Goucher Boulevard” as “Gouker,” which amuses the editor part of my brain. Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” plays on 102.7 JACK-FM. I crank it up and open the sunroof.

Stop #11 takes me onto the Beltway and back to Dundalk, less than five minutes from my house. I arrive at about 8:15 and deliver it promptly to a first-floor apartment across the street from a 7-Eleven.

The last stop pops up. It’s in Rosedale. HUH?! I was there already twice, and I just drove past! I can see that this app is not to be trusted. I zip north on Merritt Boulevard and get back onto the Beltway. No one is home at this apartment, so I quickly scan the box and leave it, with a blessing that it doesn’t get stolen. It’s 8:35 p.m. I’ve been on the road for four hours and traveled, by my estimate, 80 to 90 miles, the distance from my house to South Philadelphia. For my efforts, I will receive $36.

I look forward to my second shift.

I didn't know my car could hold 45 packages, or that I could deliver them in less than four hours.

I didn’t know my car could hold 45 packages, or that I could deliver them in less than four hours.

Postscript: A few hours after my first foray as deliveryman ended, I was poking around the Flex app and noticed a “feedback” button. Figuring that Amazon would want to know how inefficient its GPS was, I submitted a cordial complaint about having to shuttle unnecessarily between Rosedale, Northeast Baltimore and Dundalk. The next night, there was an update to the app — probably just a coincidence. Right after installing the update, I signed up for my second shift. In three hours and 45 minutes, I delivered 45 packages (compared to 12 in four hours during my inaugural shift). No GPS problems to speak of … though there was one package that I ended up with at the end, seemingly forgotten by the app. Clearly, even a foolproof system has its flaws.

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