The Limits of Lived Experience: Doordashing and Dreaming

By Sudip Bhattacharya

August 20, 2021

My girlfriend’s knuckles were bright white as she gripped the steering wheel, weaving through traffic as the Doordash app kept informing us that we had about two more minutes left to make the delivery on time. 

“We’re only making 10 bucks an hour right now,” she muttered, “We need more or we won’t even break 50 for this run.”

“This is why we need to go to the more bourgeois places,” I exclaimed, as I held onto the pizza box with both hands. 

My girlfriend didn’t respond and instead, stared straight ahead, glaring. 

Rushing past gas stations and abandoned storefronts, and houses surrounded by tall grass, my brain was spilling out of my ears. The car started to rumble as we went over random ditches and road acne, as the pizza box grew colder at each passing moment. 

The past year under Covid-19 has been extremely challenging for both of us, as it has been for so many. The plan had been to find more time to relax, to spend time together doing things we enjoyed, like exploring Philadelphia (especially since we’re both vaccinated) and trying our best to recover before returning to teaching in-person in the fall. Having worked every summer since high school, my girlfriend needed a break, especially as a full-time teacher, taking care of students who are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. 

Thus, my girlfriend left her usual tutoring job for the summer and in the first couple of weeks, busied herself with audiobooks and cleaning and cooking new types of dishes and visiting family and friends. I too was feeling freer, finally landing another teaching gig at Rutgers after months of not knowing where my next paycheck would come from. My hair was starting to grow back on my head, and I was able to focus on other things, such as exercising and eating well. 

But the positivity was slowly eroding as we dug deeper into our savings to pay for what we need, like new clothes (my wardrobe is mainly a collection of “free” union t-shirts and random shorts), like a new laptop so I can finally proceed with my research and writing without having to worry if the computer I’m working on will decide to shut down in the middle of an interview with someone. My girlfriend is in a tougher position than me, however, as she’s having to still pay for student loans and other expenses, and doesn’t have the same level of financial support from family as I do. 

In the last few weeks, we decided to deliver for Doordash to sustain ourselves. At the beginning, the experience has been useful in forcing us to learn more about the area we’re in, as we’ve delivered to consumers across various neighborhoods, segregated by class and race. Often, we’ve delivered to people living in places like Camden, where there aren’t as many restaurants or supermarkets nearby and to others living in communities where the streets are paved with cobblestone (for an odd “colonial era” vibe that “some people” love so much) and where there are stores lining the avenue and where the lampposts all flicker on at the same exact time. 

However, the experience has mostly been grueling and dizzying as we race from one order to the next, parking in random spots, covered in sweat. Now, after some of our delivery runs, as we’re catching our breaths at some random parking lot, I have this intense desire to do whatever it takes so we don’t have to do this. Sometimes, as we’re hurtling past gas stations and the random string of chain restaurants, with the pizza box burning my thighs and I’m about to vomit all over the windshield like a bug splattering, I want to stop somewhere and buy up a bunch of lottery tickets and write a book about racism in which I plead to rich white liberals to “do better” and to “hear me”. I want to be able to take all their donations and splurge on a nice house with a backyard and pool. 

In the meantime, I’ve argued that we should only deliver in areas that have restaurants clustered together, which is usually in places that are wealthier. As much as I enjoy delivering to places like Camden or to people where we live in Pennsauken, which is also a racially diverse working class community, we need to be able to earn more whenever we can and not spend most of our time driving long distances between restaurants and customers ordering from areas that don’t have as many options to eat from. 

“I hate this,” my girlfriend said, as we drove past another Thin Blue Line flag in a suburb where all the lawns are so green they look fake. She bit the bottom of her lip and slowed down. 

I too shrunk in my seat, but I also knew we needed to be around where all the major businesses were. We have bills to pay. Still, I was unable to muster up the words to comfort her, as we drifted past houses that looked identical to one another, past the shadows peeking between blinds. 

Marxists have recognized generations ago that one’s experiences as a working person pushes them to recognize more accurately what their interests are or what they need. 

“The essence of scientific Marxism consists, then, in the realisation that the real motor forces of history are independent of man’s (psychological) consciousness of them,” said Georg Lukacs, the famed Marxist philosopher. 

Obviously, based on my experiences working and navigating the unfolding and intertwined crises of Covid-19 and neoliberalism, I can see clearly that I need healthcare, cheaper housing, and more “autonomy” at the workplace, regardless of what someone else tells me about how “unrealistic” I am. My body needs such things to live, no matter what. It would be like someone telling me water is a hoax and filled with phantoms waiting to take over my soul and yet, dehydration kicks in, and all that “belief” will be thrown out the window because my body literally requires water to live. Same with housing, and other amenities. The physical pushes down on the mental, which includes the pro-capitalist propaganda that has shaped our thinking in the U.S. 

At the same time, as much as it’s true that our experiences as working people, as exploited people, can defend against “ideology” in the sense of bosses and others, including co-workers in some instances, trying to convince us that competition is somehow natural or that healthcare is a “privilege” or that most people are lazy and “entitled”, it is also true that such experiences do not inevitably lead one to becoming a revolutionary either. The irony is that as our experiences become more cruel and draining under capitalism, we can also start to feel much more desperate and feel more scattered and pulled apart in multiple directions. Therefore, as our working conditions worsen, as our living standards deplete, we are compelled to do whatever it takes to make it to the next day and thus, start losing sight of who we are and who we want to be.  

Frantz Fanon, the anti-colonial scholar and psychologist, recognized how oppressive material conditions can lead people to develop strategies of survival, and thus, force some to still operate within the confines of the status quo. Fanon saw this in colonial Algeria, where the oppressive conditions created by French colonialism drove people to focus on what they needed to do in the short-term, which would contradict such things as “solidarity” with others like them. 

“In a context of oppression like that of Algeria, for the colonized, living does not mean embodying a set of values, does not mean integrating oneself into the coherent, constructive development of a world,” Fanon wrote in “Colonial War and Mental Disorders” adding, “To live simply means not to die. To exist means staying alive.”

Indeed, as the frustration and anger eats away at one’s insides, as the stress of survival overwhelms, one’s own political horizons are diminished. Instead of being able to embrace a clarity that a new society must be born from struggle, one wants to be the boss, the manager, or anyone who has the means to live some form of the “good life”. In Algeria, it meant an Algerian man (masculinity helps to obscure the liberatory path as well) simply wanting to replace the French colonist, as Fanon recognized. 

Over time, as this is also denied him (the ability to live the “good life” under French colonialism), as the daily humiliations persist to sediment on the body, like layers of wet cement, causing one to drag their feet across the avenue, to lower one’s head when passing a police station or some exclusive club, he begins to channel the rage and frustration at those around him, at those within striking distance. 

“Whereas the colonist or police officer can beat the colonized subject day in and day out, insult him and shove him to his knees, it is not uncommon to see the colonized subject draw his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive look from another colonized subject,” Fanon expressed in what is considered to be his most engaging essay, “On Violence”. 

Of course, neither my girlfriend or I are in the same position as Algerians living under colonial rule, but still, I’ve become increasingly more desperate over the past few years, and jaded as well about my own future. The academic job market, especially for qualitative researchers, is brutal and competitive. As much as I enjoy the research I am currently doing, which focuses on the relationships between non-white peoples in the U.S., I also am acutely aware that others who are quantitative scholars and who simply download their survey datasets online, churning them through mathematical models on their new laptops that don’t break down or suddenly restart every few hours, are more in demand across the major universities. They can finish their research projects much quicker and their “results” which usually pertain to some supposedly new concept about peoples’ voting behaviors or testing the ignorance of masses of people will lend them an advantage over qualitative scholars like myself. Furthermore, those who do some intriguing work on politics (relatively when compared to others who avoid discussing class, gender and race substantively) and who may contend with issues of race/racism in the U.S. do so by not relating it to critical histories and issues, such as U.S. imperialism, capitalism, or anything that is more systemic, which helps them be taken more “seriously” by premier institutions looking to hire. Again, one can go far in academia if one is able to appeal to the white “liberal” (who is a conservative at heart) by avoiding a Leftist and more accurate critique of the U.S. political landscape on issues of race and gender. 

As we’re swerving through traffic, I think about all this and wonder if I could or should start to frame my work in ways that could help me attain more funding and of course, a higher-paying job. Often, I think about how I can outcompete others, what else I need to do to shine, to get the job interviews everyone craves for and needs.  No one, after all, can pay their bills through goodwill alone. 

Karl Marx recognized the contradiction inherent in one’s social position as a worker, in how it can generate opportunity for solidarity but also, reinforce a sense of rivalry as resources under capitalism dwindle, as conditions deteriorate and getting that promotion becomes ever more necessary, as the bills pile high on the table, as others are being laid off. 

“Competition separates individuals from one another, not only the bourgeois but still more the workers, in spite of the fact that it brings them together,” Marx stated in his “Theses on Feuerbach”, on how capitalism pits worker against worker, especially when desperation erodes one’s sense of comradery. 

What drastically altered the power dynamic in colonial Algeria, what helped channel peoples’ nerves into something constructive, dragging them away from the abyss, was the formation of a revolutionary party, the FLN. The FLN incorporated people into its direct actions, into confronting the colonists as well as fighting for a new version of rule and governance. The same has taken place across all major revolutions, from Russia to China to Cuba. In each instance, there was a party pulling together the oppressed,  connecting their frustrations and anger, forging a community of the disaffected. 

But we don’t have that at the moment, not at the level of intensity and prominence as we need, and such organizations take time and effort to emerge. Until then, what do we do? Between now and the revolution, between now and the dismantling of capitalism, how do we manage to hold onto our humanity in the face of constant pressures to work, work, work, to compete, to make choices that are above thinking about others?

Recently, we drove through one of the more “attractive” neighborhoods nearby, where all the streets are paved and historic churches loom over local cafes that are stocked with coffee beans from all areas of the world. Much of it is white, with some Asian families, and some Black families wandering, shopping, moving as a group from one end of the block to the next. As we start to make deliveries, our driving time is cut short and every time we deliver our meal, we simply turn back around to where we were a few minutes ago, where all of the cafes and restaurants are, bunched together, where a green drink filled with “healthy ingredients” will cost someone two coffees somewhere beyond the vale. 

After a while, my girlfriend turned quiet and so did I, as I held onto the green drinks arranged on a tray, and laid my head back, watching the people riding their bikes, jogging, laughing, unscathed. 

Back at the apartment, after we nap (the secret sauce to living less grumpy lives), we reassess, or rather, my girlfriend does after we spend an hour in front of the TV, watching people searching for homes internationally, with us taking mental notes on what we would like someday (so far, we are debating whether to have a koi pond or a pool someday for the home that exists in our heads). Eventually, after watching an episode of a couple buying a home in Mexico, embedded in a community full of “expats”, my girlfriend turned her head toward me, while leaning back on the couch, with crumbs on my shirt, and repeated how she wanted to take a break from Doordash. 

I eventually looked over, the sound of traffic seeping through the walls. 

“Don’t you feel weird doing it?” she said, her eyes trained on me, and after a while, I admit that it was odd to be around people like that, but also a part of me wanted to tell her we needed their money. If it’s not us, other Doordash drivers will do their deliveries, surrounded by the lore of meritocracy. 

Instead, she kept staring and I could feel her judgement. 

“We can do better,” she said. 

“We can,” I answered. 

Sudip Bhattacharya has been published at Current Affairs, Reappropriate, The Aerogram, and local newspapers across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. He is also an organizer with the Central Jersey DSA, and is pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Rutgers University.

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