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On the Town with a Lyft Driver in Los Angeles

Driving a Lyft in the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles can be a harrowing experience. It can also lead to some memorable moments.

by Daniel Kohn
Jan 20 2014, 6:27pm

Driving a Lyft shift can make you do things you never thought you could say no to. After I strapped on the hot pink mustache to my car's grill, I get summoned to pick up my first fare on a Saturday night. It’s from a girl named Amanda. I pulled up to her apartment in LA's Miracle Mile neighborhood and saw her and three other girls waiting in front of a Spanish-style building. They tell me they are headed downtown to a rave and begin talking amongst themselves.  As we’re about to hit the I-10 freeway, the girl in the passenger seat up front, Kim (not her real name), made me an offer I usually can’t refuse: a pot brownie and some Molly.

I thought about it for a second or two, and then politely declined. Kim was a bit surprised. “Who turns down a pot brownie?” she asks incredulously. I laughed and said I had a long night ahead of me. Since I appear to be a normal driver, she kept insisting that I join them for the party. Kim finally gave up and we continued chatting about random things like soccer, their post-college jobs and their plans for the night, which include wooing a lucky dude.

Once we finally arrived downtown, I was asked one more time if I wanted to partake in any of their activities. I declined once again, which sent them on their way. By the time I got home a few hours later and finally parked my car, I noticed something in my cup holder: a hit of Molly. I shook my head, opened my apartment door and chalked it all up to another night of Lyfting.

I first heard about the company in April when my sister told me she was shuttled home by a driver who had a mustache on the front of his car. The best part, she said, was that the ride was donation based. For those of you who don’t know, there’s a suggested amount that Lyft asks "Pax" (the slang term Lyft drivers use for passengers) to pay the drivers based on their experience. You can pay more, you can pay less, but that choice is arbitrary. Soon thereafter, I noticed more cars zipping across town with the company’s trademark pink mustache.

Sometimes your preconceptions about Pax can be entirely wrong. One night, I swooped up a group of what appeared to be rowdy bros who I assumed who were on their way to a bar to continue the party. Instead, they were headed to a concert in Hollywood and in a spacey state of mind. After a few minutes, they told me why: they dropped acid just before I arrived. I thought the group could be one of the typical nightmare rides I’ve heard about on the Lyft driver message board. The four bearded bros are on their way to a concert and hey, who am I to get in the way of a good trip? It turns out the dudes also brought some booze in red Solo cups. Usually, if these fellas were my friends, I’d tell them to spill it out. But I want my 5-star rating and hopefully a tip, which was an unspoken understanding when I let them be. As we cruised down Santa Monica Blvd., I hoped I didn’t get pulled over.

Of course, as we move through West Hollywood on our way to the Fonda Theater, I notice a DUI check point but it’s too late. I can’t move because there’s traffic on both sides of me. I nervously and slowly continue until I see a slew of cops. The guys put their cups down just to be safe, but thankfully, the checkpoint is on the other side of the street so we’re home free.  After we’re in the clear, everyone high-fives and they pounded my roof to the soundings of some EDM courtesy of KCRW that I blasted in the background, all seemed well. When we got to the venue, we fist bump and I’m on my way.

So why did I become a Lyft driver? To help pay off my astronomical student loans. I attended an elite graduate program to get a degree in a shrinking industry. Thanks to the government’s strict policy on student loan default, there’s not a lot someone with a Master’s degree can do in order to pay back those daunting loans unless you’re making serious, banker money. Lyft is an added source of income that doesn’t require too much work and can be fun.

After I kicked around the idea for a couple of months, I applied to be a driver. At first, the thought seemed ridiculous. My buddy and I joked about becoming Lyft drivers due to the easy money. While he never went through with this, I did. My decision was mostly due to my father’s past experience. When my dad was in law school in the late 1970s, he drove a NYC cab for extra money and to put some of that cash towards paying down his student loans.

With Lyft’s growing presence, many cab drivers feel threatened, and rightfully so. They work in an antiquated system that routinely overcharges passengers, are rude to their customers, and their driving skills/knowledge of the city’s roads leave much to be desired. But they have on more than one occasion gone after a Lyft driver, and this is one of the primary reasons why I always keep a baseball bat in my trunk, just because you never know when a cabbie is going to fuck with you.

So far, I haven’t had too many awkward rides. I’ve learned how to steer the conversation towards whatever interests the Pax, and even if this means fibbing about my background. I've assumed the types of professions that on are typical for an Angeleno, which makes my story more believable. I’ve been a comedian, an actor, a student, and even a painter. No one has ever questioned it It’s just another layer to their experience.

On a busy Friday night that saw me start in West Hollywood, I ended up in Santa Monica where I picked up a young lady and her boyfriend. As we sat beside the Santa Monica Place mall, the girl (we’ll call her Deborah) told me that her inebriated boyfriend (we’ll call him Bobby) may be take a few minutes to which I respond, “he better not barf in my car.” She seemed stressed about the situation. I thought, if only I had the pot brownie that girl offered me.

Bobby sat slumped over by the fountain on the corner of 3rd and Broadway. I couldn't see much, but what I did see was the all-too-common sight of a man too drunk to stand. Maybe he is going to yak in my car. Several minutes later, he finally composed himself, so we hit the road.

Bobby tried to make light of the situation, in a way only a drunk bro can. It pissed Deborah off to no end. She smacked him a few times, before landing a forceful slap in his face. I was worried that a domestic dispute would break out in my backseat. Thankfully, nothing happened and Bobby eventually passed out. I weaved in and out of traffic on our way back to her Mid-City apartment. As we slogged through the Friday night traffic, I noticed something strange. I thought Deborah had her hand on my shoulder. I glanced back and it turned out I was wrong.

By the time we got back to her West Hollywood apartment, Deborah, who hadn’t seen my face since our quick fist bump (something that begins and ends every ride) out of concern for Bobby, woke him up and thanked me for the ride. Bobby gives me a haphazard slap on my back. Deborah gestured like she was going to try to chase him down, but he had disappeared into the building. Suddenly, she stopped.

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like Zac Brown?” she said.

I responded no, and asked if that’s a good thing.

“Yes,” she said with a wry, flirtatious smile with her hand on my right shoulder. After an awkward pause, she jumped out of my car, glanced back at me and went on her way.

Before my first ride, I had no idea what to expect from Lyft. I knew I’d be driving strangers around in my own car in the hope that they’d compensate me well, but was it worth compromising my free time? So far, the answer is, "I guess?" I’ve pulled in some decent money, and I’ve gotten a taste of some of the interesting people the melting pot of Los Angeles has to offer. Lyfting has been a journey where your night can yo-yo between the absurd and ridiculous. The last time I checked, that wasn’t a bad thing.

@danielkohn

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