If you’ve spent more than five waking minutes in America in the past week, there’s no doubt that you’ve encountered Pokémon Go—whether in a headline, on a morning TV show, or as you physically collided with a pedestrian hypnotized by the Poliwrath that just appeared on her phone.
The groundbreaking augmented reality mobile game is the latest innovation from the Japanese video game (and trading card, and TV, and movie, and comic book, and toy) empire, which first debuted back in 1995. Using GPS, Pokémon Go invites players to find and capture the titular “pocket monsters” out in the real world.
I downloaded Pokémon Go—which launched in the U.S. on July 6—on Friday night and was immediately, hopelessly addicted. Over the weekend, I went for more walks than I have in years, furiously stocking up on Spearows, Zubats, and Magikarps like I planned to audition for a Pokémon-themed episode of Hoarders.
But what if there were a better way? What if, instead of catching Pokémon on foot, you could catch them from the comfort of a stranger’s sedan?
It turns out that there is already a burgeoning industry built around this very idea. Go-getting capitalists with valid driver's licenses have taken to Craigslist en masse, offering to ferry Pokémon hunters in their cars. You have to admire that hustle—and while an endless supply of Doduos infest the block where I live in Queens, I wanted to see for myself what kind of fictional fauna the rest of New York City had to offer.
Many of Craigslist drivers were based in New Jersey, including one “luxury chauffeur” who will gladly take you Pokémon hunting in their Mercedes S Class for $50 an hour. But one ad, titled “Pokémon Go on the GO! Pokétours,” appealed to me more than any other. For a very reasonable $15 an hour, this licensed Taxi & Limousine Commission driver will chauffeur you “around the tri-state area,” “day and night,” to the Poké-destination of your choosing.
“Don't want to walk especially in the heat, humidity, or rain for a bunch of km's to hatch your eggs, visit Pokéstops, go to gyms, or get items? Looking for Pokémon [that] don't reside where you do? Let's make your Pokémon go experience more SAFE and comfortable,” the ad read. I was charmed.
I emailed the poster, a man I'll call Ash, and we set up an appointment. (He also sent me links to his Facebook and Instagram, international code for “I promise I am not a murderer,” which I appreciated.)
On Tuesday afternoon, I met Ash near Union Square. Standing next to his black Toyota Corolla, he was easy to pick out. His short dreads and goatee are highlighted in a bluish shade of purple. (He happens to be a member of Team Mystic, the blue alliance within Pokémon Go, but he assured me that the hair color is a coincidence.)
Ash is thoughtful and friendly, radiating an easygoing Pokémon Master wisdom. You can’t go storming after Pokémon, he advised after introducing himself—you need to hang back and observe, explore your surroundings. “You have to be a Poké-shadow,” he explained.
Ash is 27 years old, a driver second and a Pokémon enthusiast first—a prime example of one of "the ‘90s babies" whose nostalgia has helped make Pokémon Go as wildly popular as it is.
“The naysayers, I look at them and say, why not?” he said. “Pokémon Go has done more for kids and adults than the government has done in 20 years. As much as people have said in the past, get off video games, look what it’s making people do.”
What it’s making people do is go outside. Talk to each other. Look at their surroundings with fresh eyes. Embrace a childlike sense of wonder. (A pessimist would remind you that it’s also making people stare at their phones even more so than usual, sign over their personal data, disrespect memorial sites, get robbed, and even discover dead bodies, but can’t we just enjoy this, just for a minute?)
Ash suggested we take a drive around Central Park, “one of the best runs there is.” The streets that define the park’s boundaries are lined with landmark after landmark, many of which are the sites of Pokéstops, points in the game where a player can collect free Pokéballs (to catch Pokémon with, of course), healing potions, eggs, and other goodies.
As we traveled up the East Side, Ash would gently point out nearby Pokémon and Pokéstops when I was too engaged in our conversation to notice them. I sat in the passenger seat, my phone held at the ready to track any Pokémon so foolish as to come within Pokéball-throwing distance. We cruised at the speed of traffic, more inconspicuously than I would have imagined, which made me wonder if any of the cars around us were also filled with Pokémon hunters. Ash offered me a SmartWater, which I gratefully accepted.
Ash has been an Uber driver since May, but he can’t resist the allure of the game. “We could be chasing Uber surges right now, but where’s the fun?” he said. “No, I’m playing Pokémon. I get to talk to people. I feel warm for humanity.”
A level-12 trainer, Ash follows the Pokémon Go community on Reddit ("You have to research!") and belongs to a local Pokémon Go Facebook group, PKGONY, where users share advice and screenshots of their recent finds. “I can tell you what happened five seconds ago,” he joked, but that estimate wasn’t too far off. He had reports of a Porygon in Midtown, a Gyarados dominating the gym at the Brooklyn Bridge. (Gyms are the designated battlegrounds—often, oddly, found at churches—where Pokémon can train and the game’s three factions fight for dominance.)
And he really does know his shit, giving me advice on everything from Pokémon matchups (electric types are great for competing against water types, which account for many of the early-game Pokémon), Pokéball-throwing technique (“It’s like bowling, you’ve got to feel it”), and even double-parking in Manhattan (easier after 7 in the evening). I asked Ash about his favorite Pokémon, a question he likened to a Rorschach test: “What do you see here, when you look at this Pokémon?” His favorite starter Pokémon is Squirtle. His favorite exotic Pokémon is Dratini, which starts off cute and cuddly but eventually evolves into the formidable Dragonite. His all-time number one is Butterfree, the final evolution of the unassuming Caterpie, and he’s already made sure to acquire one in Pokémon Go.
Ash also took this opportunity to tease me for my pronunciation of Caterpie—it’s not catter-pie, as (ahem) logic might lead you to believe, but catter-pee. “Wow, and I just told you it turns into my favorite Pokémon,” he said. “No big deal.”
So far, the Pokémon driving business has been “pretty dry,” although not terrible, considering he didn’t advertise beyond Craigslist. He’s gotten two clients from his post there, not including me, and one more that he got to know while playing. Instead, most of the Pokémon hunting he’s done in his car has been friendly: bringing along both people he’s known for ages and those he’s just met to tempting Pokémon territory.
“People on Coney Island are only seeing Magikarps. They want to come out to Central Park and see a Drowzee,” he said.
Ash is confident that the service he provides is a valuable one. “You don’t realize the power of battery until your phone gets down to about 25%. What are you gonna do? Are you gonna stop playing? Are you gonna get home? Well, I’ve got a charger. I’ve air conditioning. I’ve got music if you like. We can chill in the car.”
Another benefit of playing Pokémon Go in a car is that the game rewards players for walking (or at least, driving or bicycling very slowly) by incubating Pokémon eggs not based on time, but on distance traveled. Ash hasn’t run into issues with the speed caps the game is believed to have.
We talked about the “little ecosystem” of businesses that are forming around the game, which includes not only drivers, but enterprising Pokémon trainers and babysitters.
“I would like to eventually get enough people together to do a Pokémon party bus. With a charger for everyone,” he said.
But the money isn’t what matters most to Ash. He’d be playing Pokémon Go anyway. He’s pulled over after airport runs to scope out the gym at JFK, and he’s explored as far as Edgewater, NJ, in search of Pokémon—he dropped a passenger off in Jersey City and “just kept driving.”
Before long, one of my small eggs hatched. It contained a Rattata, an all-too-familiar rodent Pokémon (I live in New York, after all). A little anticlimactic, but welcome nonetheless.
As we continued north, we could both see on our maps that Midtown Manhattan was positively dripping with lure modules, which draw Pokémon to the Pokéstop where they’re placed, to the benefit of every player in the immediate area. In the game, lures—which can be purchased with real-world currency, not that I would know anything about that, nope, I would never spend $25 (that's twenty-five American dollars) on this—appear as cascades of pink petals, and you’ll find they’re often even more effective at luring players than Pokémon. Ash cooed and rubbed his hands together at the sight of all of them.
Even from within the car, it was clear which people on the sidewalk were playing Pokémon Go. “Everyone has that little grin, too. ‘Yeah, I’m doing it, don’t judge,’” Ash said.
Ash told me he’s encountered just about every type of person you can imagine playing the game. “It bridges generations. You have people 7, 27, 57—maybe not 57—all playing.” He has a six-year-old daughter, but so far, she hasn’t shown any interest in Pokémon. “I don’t want to force it and jeopardize our relationship,” he said. “She’s not ready for it.”
The game warns players to “stay aware of [their] surroundings” on its loading screen, and for good reason. Ash has seen distracted players wander into traffic, even kick a dog by accident.
“Don’t risk someone’s life for Pokémon. This is serious, but it’s not that serious,” he said.
Where Ash lives, in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, Pidgey seems to be the most common Pokémon, though you’ll find plenty of Doduos, too. There’s a Pikachu somewhere in the area that he hasn’t been able to catch yet.
He stopped mid-sentence: “Whoa, Central Park is lit.” Lures were everywhere as we approached, particularly around Columbus Circle. The park is a perfect storm of human and Pokémon population density.
A rare Jynx appeared right where East 60th Street curls into Central Park, and I yelped. Ash was equally excited—he hadn’t caught one yet himself. I was able to snag her, but he couldn’t find a spot to pull over before we were out of range. “Trust me, I will be back here,” he said.
Along Central Park South, he suggested that one of the pedicabs or horse-drawn carriages lined up beside us could make a good Pokémon-hunting vehicle, the downsides being that they’re relatively expensive and—at least in the horse-drawn carriage’s case—they smell like poop.
“Your car doesn’t smell like poop at all,” I told Ash. “I appreciate that. Thank you,” he said.
When Ash isn’t driving for Uber (or for Pokémon), he works in the restaurant industry, as he has for years—bartending, serving, assistant managing. This is more fun. “People say you’re most angry when you’re drunk and hungry. And I used to work at a place with an unlimited mimosa brunch,” he said.
His username on Pokémon Go is 1luckyblonde, a reference to the single blonde hair that grows in one of his eyebrows. “People automatically assume it’s a female,” he told me, and said he’s gotten countless creepy friend requests over the years. He showed me his Pokémon Go avatar, a woman, decked out in purple.
As we drove up Central Park West, the game’s notoriously overloaded servers bugged out on me, and I spent the next 10 minutes repeatedly rebooting the app.
I asked Ash, who is black, if he’s ever felt like he was under added scrutiny because of his race while hunting for Pokémon. It turned out we’d both read the same widely circulated essay, “Warning: Pokemon GO is a Death Sentence if you are a Black Man,” in which a black writer expressed his discomfort with the game, particularly in light of last week’s police shootings of two unarmed black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Ash hasn’t experienced this anxiety himself.
“It’s been pretty chill. If you’re in the suburbs, maybe you feel more of the bad stereotypes. ‘Why are you in my yard?’ ‘I’m trying to catch a Diglett!’ In New York City, at this point, everyone already knows about Pokémon Go—I don’t know if it’s been on Ellen at this point, but—you know what people are doing. For me, I can’t have any worries. If you want to question me, question me. We’ll settle it. I’ll do that for Pokémon.”
What he’s more concerned about is privacy and the potential for government monitoring. “Who’s to say what Niantic [the software company, formerly a part of Google, behind the game] is doing? And if their security is not top-notch right now—how hackable is it?”
But while those unknowns are frustrating, it’s the more innocuous mysteries about the game that make it irresistible to Ash. Are certain Pokémon restricted to certain areas, to certain times of day? “Do Haunters come out in cemeteries? We don’t know! It’s still so new. That’s one of the golden things about it. It’s still pure.”
I asked him if driving made the game less pure, and he surprised me by agreeing immediately.
“I just do it for the eggs. To just play in the car would be rude. Don’t do that. I’m not going to be the type of person who cheats the system. I get out of the car and walk around,” he said.
Ash, who keeps his phone in a GPS mount to the left of the steering wheel, is vehemently against actively playing Pokémon Go while driving. “It’s so easy to say, traffic is slow, I can play. But don’t do it. At a stoplight, if you want to look over, fine.”
When we pulled up to a red light on 110th Street, Ash played me his Snapchat story, which documented his Pokémon adventures from the previous night into the early morning.
In one vignette, he laughed with a man I assumed to be a close friend, until Ash explained, “I don’t know this guy. He had two phones, though.” In another, he made plans with a car full of Pokémon Go players to meet up again at the same place the next night. In my favorite, Ash and a friend were battling outside a church when a person came out in (friendly) protest: “Are you the one playing? Taking the gym? That’s so mean!”
As you might have guessed, Ash doesn’t get a lot of sleep. He doesn’t mind. “Do people care how late you stayed up for that Magmar? No. What they care about is that you have that Magmar.”
Two more of my eggs hatched on Fifth Avenue: a Psyduck, which is a favorite Pokémon of mine based solely on the fact that its defining characteristic is a chronic headache, and an Omanyte, a fossil Pokémon.
Ash dropped me off not far from the Plaza Hotel, two hours after we set off. He planned to meet up with old friends, with whom he’d recently reconnected over the game, to play some more. He doesn’t know how long Pokémon Go’s popularity will endure, but he’s determined to enjoy it while it lasts.
“This could be a fly-by-night craze, a Furby. If it lasts for a month, so be it.” he said. “There’s nothing you get out of Pokémon Go besides personal joy. This is for me.”
In my time with Ash, I hatched three eggs, caught about a dozen Pokémon—a total that would be much higher if my app had worked properly, or if I had been more focused on hunting than talking—and visited more Pokéstops than I could count. But the company alone was well worth the cost.
This is the truth about Pokémon Go: It’s not about finding Pokémon. It’s about finding other people. The game is better played in a group than as an individual—in part because you can share the attractive powers of lures and pool information about recent Pokémon sightings, but primarily because it’s simply more fun that way.
“Not too often you’re able to walk up to a stranger and talk about nothing,” Ash said. “You’re here right now because of Pokémon.”
Interested in taking a Pokétour? You can find Ash's Craigslist ad here.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.