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    The Shift

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    Christopher Smith knows which Birds are available to be captured. He’s referring to the electric scooter brand that flew into town last August. Riders use an app to locate Birds, and then at 9 p.m. the app switches modes and the charging hawks — freelancers paid to retrieve discarded scooters — rush in.

    A Bird’s “bounty,” Smith says, depends on battery-charging percentage and the last time it was captured or ridden. The bounties, marked by colored dots on a GPS map, start out at $5 and increase throughout the night if nobody has collected them. The $5-to-$6 range is green, $7-to-$14 is yellow, and the max value of $20 is red. “Pavlovian mindset would be to go after the yellow and red ones because they’re the ones with the biggest bounties,” Smith says, but those are often harder to find. They’re usually not where the map says they are. Smith says interference from buildings downtown can cause this to happen. “There’s an alarm within the app that sends out a signal to the Bird for (the scooter and app) to communicate, but it doesn’t always work,” he says. That’s when some detective work comes into play. Smith will look at the last time and place it was ridden and physically search for the missing Bird. “I’ve picked them up in bushes,” he says, laughing. He also once found a scooter lodged into the ceiling of a construction sidewalk cover near the Science Center, on Main Street. “It was like playing Legend of Zelda. You hear the chime and you know that the quest item is in there. You just gotta find out where it is, and once you do the treasure is yours,” he says. On some of his best nights, he has earned up to $200.

    Once he scans a Bird into the app, it’s marked as claimed. A clock begins ticking for him to charge the Bird before returning it to a “nest” location between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. If a Bird isn’t returned to one of the designated locations by morning, the charger is subject to penalties like being barred from picking up scooters or being docked in pay. Smith says he has up to 40 working scooter chargers at his home in the Okolona area. Bird initially provides three chargers when you sign up, but Smith has acquired more on his own through Alibaba, a global e-commerce website. Smith says he charges the scooters outside his home. Depending on the battery percentage, some scooters charge quickly, only taking about an hour; some can take as long as five hours to go from 0 to 100 percent.

    Smith, 33, started charging scooters when Bird hit the market last summer. He’d begin his night around 8:30, making the drive from Okolona to downtown, where the Bird population is denser. He’d spend two to three hours capturing Birds that weighed close to 27 pounds. He says the newer models are now closer to 50 pounds. “Like any warehouse or stock-boy job, you gotta be able to lift 50 pounds repeatedly,” he says. Smith could fit about 22 scooters in his Toyota Prius at a time. “It was a lot like playing Tetris,” he says, adding that he has suffered many bruised shins from the free-flowing footboards swiveling around and ramming into his legs.

    Smith, who has a full-time job with Amazon and performs with his three black metal bands, says he doesn’t proactively capture and charge Birds anymore. “There’s a lot of people getting out of the game because the market is oversaturated. It’s like battle royale, survival of the fittest, because you’ll be 30 to 45 minutes into that 9 p.m. slot and half of them are already claimed,” he says. And then there’s what he calls the “darker side” of charging: hoarders. These are people who don’t follow the charging protocol and will capture scooters without checking them in on the app. They lock the scooters up in their cars or on personal property and wait for the bounties to mature throughout the night before checking them in. “It’s cutthroat,” he says.

    This originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Capture, Release." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Illustration by Shae Goodlett,

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    Loretta Lynn is the best country music singer of all time and if you don't like pickled foods, you can leave.

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