I am 28 years old and in need of a job. I’m working on a book, but writing doesn’t pay the bills, and I don’t plan on filling out résumés anytime soon. This is the plight of my generation: We are caught in that space between being overqualified and our own entitled indignation. So I decided to try the main industry available to young people in Sarasota—the service industry, attending to people who have more money than I do.
A friend suggested I check out the pedicabs that shuttle visitors around the village in Siesta Key.
“You mean, those bicycle rickshaws?”
“You’ll get exercise, it’s outside, you won’t be behind a desk,” she told me.
Is this my new economy?
I met with Glen Cappetta, owner of Sunset Pedicab. Cappetta has the incessant positive attitude required to run your own business. He showed me the bike I’d be driving. If you’ve never seen a pedicab, it’s like one of those large tricycles that you often see bearded Amish men riding, except that on the back there’s a love seat made of fiberglass with a seat cushion.
We agreed I’d start on Friday night. At around 7 p.m. I met up with the other pedicabbies, Aaron and Micah, two 19 year-old locals. They told me the best spots to find fares, how much to expect to make (Micah has made as much as $200 in a single night) and explained that you can only be paid in tips and Glenn gets 20 percent of your tips every night. They also warned me about Frank, the local bum who collects plastic bottles and asks for rides. And they explained how to talk a customer into your back seat. “Fancy a pedicab?” Micah asked some passing women. “I saved you ladies a seat.”
He was more aggressive than I could be, but because he said it politely, the women just giggled and declined.
Some raindrops hit our heads. We all checked out phones for weather updates. “It’s going to miss us,” Micah promised. “We should be good until 11.”
We waited 45 minutes for our first fare—a couple from Buffalo. Micah and Aaron let me take them. Glen had told me it is important to chat up the patrons while you bike. “So where all have you guys been since you arrived?” I asked. “Weather’s nice, yeah?” I didn’t realize how limited my small-talking abilities were. Plus, it was hard to talk because I had to pedal so vigorously. I’d run out of air in the middle of a sentence and have to take a big, gasping breath, which made me seem odd.
After a few left turns off Siesta Drive, I made it to the couple’s rental house. They hopped off and handed me a $10 bill. I was surprisingly happy. $10 for a 15-minute bike ride? That’s like $40 an hour! I stuffed the bill into my pants and could see streaks of rain coming against the street lamps. Instead of going back the way I came, I figured I could follow the back roads and find my way back to the Village. A couple blocks in and the rain really started to fall.
Ten minutes later, caught in the byzantine back roads of Siesta Key, I relented and went back the same way I’d come. By the time I got back to the Village, Micah and Aaron were under a gazebo seeking shelter. So was Frank, the resident bum. They laughed when I arrived all wet.
“I think I’m done for the night. My underwear is totally soaked,” I said. Frank got a big kick out of that.
I tried again a few days later. The Beach Club hosted a “ladies’ night” and promised fares. Micah and a 20-year-old part-time model named Rashad were working. We waited for fares in the parking lot next to the Big Olaf Creamery.
By 11 p.m., none of us had managed a passenger. The others decided to call it quits. They seemed perfectly happy, despite not making a penny. This was unlike other service jobs I’d had. Imagine a waiter being OK with a night of no tips.
I parked my pedicab outside the Siesta Key Oyster Bar and listened to the band cover songs by the Eagles and Johnny Cash. Tipsy middle-aged women whoo-hooed after every guitar solo. Men wearing Ohio State polos and ponytails ambled down the street. I’d ask each passerby if he or she wanted a ride. They all politely rebuffed me.
I was waiting next to people from the other cab services in the Village. They drove 10-seater golf carts and VWs from the ’60s. I started chatting with the driver of a golf cart, Dana Weppner. She told me she used to own her own pet resort. It was called Bed & Biscuit. She told me a story about how she once picked up a woman who had just gotten married. The new bride had been fighting with her husband. On the ride, she took off her wedding band and threw it in the street. Moments later, the husband called, and she asked Dana to go pick him up. The couple reconciled on the golf cart and spent the rest of the night searching for the ring.
I was surprised by the little community the cabbies had formed here. Despite the lack of fares, they all seemed in good spirits. They enjoyed just being on the island and chatting. Their camaraderie did not make any fiscal sense—picking up rides is a zero-sum affair, after all. Perhaps I was making friends, but I wasn’t making any money, so I said goodbye to Dana and went to the Beach Club to see if I couldn’t make the night worth my while.
I waited for an hour but no one was interested. Then I saw a girl I had a crush on in high school. She saw me, too. But we both ignored each other out of a shared embarrassment for me.
I decided to call it a night. But before I left the Village I noticed a folded $20 bill on the ground. I got off my bike and picked it up, tipping myself for a hard night’s work.