Just as he put his newly assigned phone to sleep (a last generation Android knockoff with a NYC-Parks branded logo stamped on the plastic back), he noted the app had a map background, and a dollar counter in the corner of the app. The money counter read $0 and there was a huge cluster of red dots in the center of the screen. Just as the display flickered to black, he thought he saw the money counter flicker.
Noah shrugged it off to a glitch in the display, and warmly greeted his buddy Ryan in the back of the room. Ryan stood, resting his back against a concrete wall painted with the NYC Parks service logo. They wordlessly exchanged nods, pounds, and a back slap. Ryan was nose-deep in his personal cell phone, texting his fiancé.
"Can I get all your attention over here?" a booming female voice echoed in the gymnasium size room. The thick New York accent was welcome in a world of computerized Siri's.
The hundreds of workers turned to and surrounded the tiny Latina woman holding a bullhorn. Ryan stayed attached to the wall, Noah stepped closer.
"My name is Maria, and I'm your district supervisor. I see some of you are returning, and I see some new faces in the crowd. Please listen carefully as I go over orientation." She pointed and gestured to others with her free hand to punctuate her speech.
In a far corner of the room, an official looking person wearing a dark grey suit stood silently, watching the crowd. The cut of the suit showed a distinct improvement over the tailors of the class of business suits that greeted him earlier. This might be a C-level executive, if not for the lack of surrounding yes-men that made him seem less important.
"This is gonna be fast so pay attention!," Maria bellowed the last few words to quell the murmured discussions going on in the surge of people. The room became silent. All eyes turned to her, ignoring the wizard behind the curtain for once.
She held up her phone, and continued to speak into the bullhorn; "This is your assigned tracker and ID. Without it, you don't get paid. Don't lose it, don't sell it, don't trash it. We'll invoice you the entire equipment costs if it isn't returned in the same condition at the end of shift."
Noah glanced at his assigned phone. It was certainly used, had a handful of scuffs on the sides, and a single splintered crack across the bottom of the screen. He wondered if he was liable for that damage. He returned his attention to Maria. She was kind of cute, and had a wickedly curvy figure hiding underneath her baggy green jumpsuit.
"This phone is running our app, and only our app. Do not run any other apps, do not install any apps, and do not power off your phone. You received it fully charged, the battery should last an entire shift. Never, and I mean Never, plug it in an untrusted USB port to charge. Any and all of these violations will dock your pay." The group wordlessly nodded in understanding; Maria continued.
"Here's the kicker, people! As long as you are within 50 feet of another employee, you will be docked income. If you spend all day within 50 feet of another employee, you will owe us a days pay, not the other way around. The more employees you surround yourself with, the faster we dock your pay. If you hustle, steer clear of your co-workers, and do your janitorial duties, you can earn up to $25 an hour."
Noah glanced at his phone's screen; his money counter ticked to -$7.25. It had been 20 minutes, and he was surrounded by people draining his income. He turned to Ryan, who nodded and shrugged. Ryan knew, but hadn't disclosed this to Noah earlier, and now he was pissed. This 'work' day might actually make him lose money at this rate. Noah began to sweat again. Ryan assuaged his fears by slipping Noah a handful of black plastic trash bags - the minimum supplies required for work that day, and one less trip.
Noah tuned in and out of the rest of Maria's speech as she covered his expected duties, where they could get additional free supplies, and showed them the heat map of the park, with less-frequented sections of the park highlighted in pink, and the highly trafficked in dark blue. She showed them how to quickly navigate the most important parts of the app, and how to authenticate at days end and get paid electronically. Noah noted they paid in Bitcoin, and he wondered how it was trading today. She pointed out the most important readout on the busy screen: the Earnings Per Hour (EPH), it read the hourly rate you were currently generating. Noah felt sick when he noted his was reading -$25. Noah tried to calculate the loss per minute in his head.
Noah was making a plan. He had to move quickly. He noted other co-workers in the room also coming to the same conclusions, and becoming anxious to their current losses. As soon as Maria finished her scripted speech, the room erupted in a mad rush; Both double doors on the park side were open and a stream of newly hired janitors were out to make 50 feet of room between them and the guy right behind them.
Noah noted the majority of the stream of folk were heading straight into the park. Thinking quickly, he hopped on 5th avenue and started working his way uptown, walking at a hustled rate. The map on his cell phone alerted him to the 3 dozen employees still within the 50-foot docking distance. He walked quicker, wondering when they might drop off behind him. His EPF decreased to -$5. A fitter coworker raced by at top speed to quickly make distance between himself and the rest of the group. Everyone else agreed it wasn't worth that much effort. We were the tortoise, not the rabbit; We will get you eventually.
As he passed the first subway station, he noted the trailing pack of coworkers had dwindled to 20, a dozen people were going to try and outrun everyone using public transport. With the cost of single subway fare, they might lose more than they earn in the first 2 hours.
Noah glanced at his phone, it read -$34.25 in earnings, and he was already an hour into his workday. He cut into the Park, hoping to put some distance between his invisible pursuers. His phone zoomed in and the single red dot became alone. His money ticker finally stopped losing traction; it finally started ticking above 0.
Noah relaxed, and looked about him. The spotless Central park mocked him. He was in a high-traffic zone, and it had dutifully covered by previous days shifts. Not a single candy wrapper to be found.
He bent over to pick up a leaf to put something in his empty trash bag - something to get started. His NYC Parks phone gave a quiet ding as it registered his bending over. He ignored it for now. He was on a mission to increase his income. He was in the hole at the blackjack table, and doubling down to win.
His own personal cell phone buzzed a moment later. It was Ryan.
"Start ticking up yet, Buddy?" said the hollow voice through the phone.
"Yes, finally! After an hour of losing money. You dick, you should've told me!" he retorted.
Ryan hemmed and hawed for excuses as to why, but instead offered a bit of solace. "I've got a few hints that'll help you, as a first-timer."
He continued, "First, take your assigned phone out of your pocket. Turn it about in your hand while you work, as it'll register as you picking up items - make you look busy - it makes a noise."
Noah did as requested, and the phone dinged repeatedly as he twisted it about - seemingly trying to reorient a GPS signal.
Ryan continued; "You earn faster when it detects this." Now you're pulling in the maximum. If you just walk around at a pace of over 8 miles per hour, you can expect about $25 an hour. They use this to weed out the lazy, and you won't get asked back if you're lazy."
"Another thing," he added, "They don't count the weight of the pickup bags, so don't worry about filling them with heavy stuff. They do, however, check volume. So if you can fill it up with nearly any trash, and they'll accept it as a good days work. If you can find a cast-off newspaper, separate it and crumple the sheets for huge volume - it's got to look substantial at the exit interview."
Noah doubted he would find a gold-mine of a discarded newspaper. They were too expensive for average consumers, and offered no real value to anyone truly 'connected' - the sheer time delay was too great to be profitable or opportunistic. They were for luxurious reading - a habit long lost. No one had luxuries, just bills.
"Finally, their phone detects other nearby devices... It'll dock you if you use your personal phone all day. No more gabbing with family and friends while you work. Also avoid any park guests, and their phones, too. This is harder than you thought, right?" Ryan asked.
Noah glanced at his assigned phone. The ticking up had slowed while he was on his personal phone. The extrapolated earnings per hour had dipped to $12. He knew he had to hang up. "That it, Ryan?" he replied, "this call is wasting me money..."
"That should cover it. Good luck - see you around 10pm, we can get a beer after work! I'll give you some more tips then!" the phone clicked dead before Noah could respond with his own pleasantries.
He silenced his personal phone and dropped it into his pocket and continued to twirl his assigned phone. It dinged in time to his twirls. His trash bag dragged empty behind him and he plodded through Central Park. He tried to keep a steady, fast pace, slightly over 8 miles per hour...
Noah knew that he wasn't gonna fill his bag with stuff in the highly popular sections of the park - they were covered by the worker drones of previous days. He needed to review his options. As he turned a corner on a path, his phone buzzed a different noise, and a red dot appeared in his radar; Another co-worker. He scrutinized their motion, then shifted his own walking direction to avoid his EPH dipping again. He stepped off the path and into the manicured grass to avoid him. The grass felt unexpectedly divine against his shoes. A welcome brush of nature as you traverse the world, leaving behind a chlorophyl green residue as evidence of distance travelled.
Noah decided to hit the northern part of the Park. Partially for being the farthest from The Central Park Conservancy, but partially for the lack of other employees driving his EPH down. Noah figured the richer neighborhood would have more entitled residents who might be willing to casually break the no-littering laws that were profitable, yet rarely enforced.
He trudged uptown alongside the many paths that serpentined through the park, keeping a pace above 8 miles an hour, and waving his clutched phone about to signal being busy. His eyes scowled the edges of the walkways, and the bases of trees and shrubs looking for things out of place. As he moved uptown, his bag slowly filled with bits of paper and mostly plastic shreds. Nothing worthy of recycling, nothing with a deposit he could cash out. Ryan had bragged of the sheer number of recyclable cans he'd found in the past.
His diligence and persistence had finally paid off; in a tightly well-manicured shrub next to the path in a darker corner of the park, Noah had to get on his knees to find a freshly tossed coffee cup that had been blown under the low bushes. The Starbucks logo emblazoned on the side was generic enough, but the handwritten 'Ivanka' and 'No Fat Double Latte Extra Whip' were the first clues needed. Noah had read in the app that the fines for littering were extraordinarily high - if caught and prosecuted. This find was gonna do wonders for his EPH. As he picked up the cup with his gloved hand, he noticed the lipstick mark on the rim, and a dribble of coffee and backwash in the bottom. More physical evidence! And possible DNA tracing, to boot! He wasn't sure what to do with this 'evidence', so he turned again to the app that had been running his day so far.