Ride-share driving is portrayed in the media as a fallback job, or a secondary gig that people take on to supplement their income. On the show Insecure, Issa Rae’s character becomes an Uber driver when she is tight on funds. Especially now with gas prices so high, ride-share is pretty far down on the list of jobs considered fashionable.
From 2015 to 2017, I drove Lyft while in between careers and studying to become a Spanish medical interpreter. And while I wouldn’t call the job glamorous, it did allow for some interesting experiences.
For one, driving provided a fascinating glimpse into the life and minds of people I may have never otherwise had any contact with. It allowed for flexibility and spontaneity in my schedule that I readily filled with exploration of new towns and writing at different cafes. I also used ride-share as an opportunity to work while traveling to different parts of California. Not only was driving in different cities a lot of fun, but also a great way to get to know a new place. Perspectives from the locals who rode in my car enhanced the experience.
Here’s some of what else I took from the experience.
1. Interesting conversations and exposure to a variety of people.
No specific type of person uses Lyft; individuals of all races, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic classes need rides from here to there.
Driving different people in various cities and neighborhoods—from old ladies in rural towns to Black men in East Oakland to rich white techies in the Marina neighborhood of San Francisco—ensured a wide demographic with varied perspectives. And with this exposure came countless opportunities to challenge my ingrained biases and initial perceptions.
Some passengers revealed a lot, to the extent that I often felt like I had a private practice inside my car. Or like my Toyota Corolla was “therapy on wheels” for one-time clients. I parted ways with some knowing more about them than I do about the doctors and secretaries I now see at my job on a regular basis.
A passage from The Little Paris Bookshop feels relevant to that experience: “The odd feeling you get in trains when you open up far more to someone you’ve never met than you ever have to your own family.”
Much of their intimate revelation, I’m guessing, was due to the awareness that they’d never see me again—which may have made it feel safer to unload burdens and disclose personal details.
As Camille Bordas wrote in her New Yorker short story “The State of Nature”: “I don’t always tell my doctor the whole truth, but that’s because my doctor happens to be an old friend—some things are just too embarrassing to tell your friends.”
2. Mindfulness that this too will pass.
As nice as long rides could be if I was with the right person, they could also be quite suffocating if I was transporting someone who was rude or crossing boundaries. Driving came with its share of misogyny, for instance. Some men directed me even when I had a perfectly intact GPS system. Others made inappropriate comments (one, after mentioning he had a girlfriend earlier in the ride, asked me if I wanted to smoke weed and make out with him just as I was about to drop him off).
I learned to deal with these situations by simply telling myself: this too will pass. When I reminded myself that however uncomfortable they may be in the moment, these were just a handful of the many experiences I’d had and the many that were yet to come, it was easier to detach from the negative emotions that could arise from them at times.
As a driver, I never had to feel stuck or trapped. The fast turnover rate made intrusive riders less daunting—while also giving me the opportunity to practice “the art of non-attachment” with passengers I did thoroughly enjoy conversing with.
New passenger gets in. Fresh start. Clean slate. Endless possibilities (Just kidding about that. It’s only a Lyft ride, after all).
We might benefit from calling this to mind during any overwhelming moment in life. Reminding ourselves of our larger purpose outside the immediate situation can helps us to get through.
3. A window into customer entitlement and treatment of service industry workers.
When I drove Uber Eats, one girl asked me to bring her the food to the 14th floor when the elevator wasn’t working, in a neighborhood with very few available parking spots. In addition to this, other experiences brought to mind for me the larger question of the dominant or privileged class’ conception of service people in relation to themselves. It opened my eyes to how we pander to customers, too often allowing them more power than they deserve.
I thought more about the slogan “the customer is always right,” and how it encourages some consumers to feel deserving of king treatment (even if the amount they are paying will provide a below minimum wage to the provider). As Fang Liu wrote, “Many service-oriented enterprises believe that ‘Customer is God.’ With the hope to improve customer satisfaction and loyalty through the service concept of ‘customer first,’ employees are required by enterprises to maintain humble attitudes and behaviors in the process of service interaction with customers, which put buyers and sellers in an unequal position, and to some extent, encourage the emergence and development of customer mistreatment.”
My decision to drive Lyft was largely elective. But many other drivers are working this job to make ends meet. What I think we can do as consumers, to help them, is to manage our own emotions. We can be cognizant of ourselves, and of when we’re displacing our negative feelings onto undeserving (albeit convenient) targets. We can stop ourselves when we notice it happening. We can also let go of the entitlement, wrapped within expectations that some unconsciously hold of those who serve them.
Amazon, Uber, and similar platforms have brought undoubted ease to our lives. They’ve allowed us to live more comfortably. Receiving is more convenient than ever. I think it’s important though, as the expectation for instant gratification becomes ever more normalized within our culture, that consumers ensure that their capacity for empathy and perspective-taking does not diminish.
4. Adventure and spontaneity.
Dropping off a passenger in the Delta, for instance, found me at a riverside bar. Imbibing bar-goers jumped off a water trampoline into the kelp-filled delta water. Bartenders poured mixed drinks while the dolphin tattoos on their arms danced and shimmered. A tanned older woman with a grey ponytail poking through her green visor rented out kayaks at the dock next door. Renters could paddle them to small islands and coves, where they could then pick blackberries from their boats.
In Palm Springs I drank date shakes while driving passengers down a commercial main road lined with palm trees, art galleries, and boutiques. Black sand dunes loomed to our right as they talked about field trips to the date farms as kids growing up in this arid but exotic city / exotically arid city.
Still another time, I got to know the woods of Santa Cruz when I drove a woman from her farm in Aptos (where she offers goat yoga classes) to a small town called Boulder Creek.
5. An experience similar to church confession boxes.
I didn’t always get a good look at the passenger at the start of the ride—and because while driving I could hear their voice but couldn’t see their face, my mind sometimes constructed its own vision of what they looked like (based in large part off their tone of voice or content of what they were saying). Conversations’ lengthiness provided ample opportunity for that image to solidify, which made it both funny and jarring when—as I turned around to say goodbye to the passenger at the end—I was presented with the stark contrast between their actual appearance and the version my mind had concocted.
I think about how the reverse process often plays out when we’re texting or talking online with someone we haven’t met yet. That is, we unconsciously prescribe traits to them, using a superficial means of assessment (edited pictures and curated self-presentations) to draw conclusions about deeper character traits. As author Kira Asatryan wrote, “Evidence shows that we start constructing our idea of who another person is on first contact. Just one picture on Tinder, one tweet we find hilarious or off-putting, and we think we know who the person is.”
Conversely, in the Lyft dynamic I mentally constructed a vision of passengers’ outer appearance through the spontaneous, unscripted snippets of their thought processes that they’d verbally provided to me during the ride.
I’ve wondered how my mind comes up with this image. Is it recreating someone I once knew who spoke in a similar way (even if I can’t consciously pinpoint who that person was)? At what point did it decide on an angular face and thick eyebrows? Did the way the woman said “avocado” compel me to draw in almond-shaped green eyes reminiscent of a girl’s who’d once said that word in exactly the same tone?
Maybe there’s no logic to it at all. Still, I’d like to see some psychological or sociological experiments done on this (kind of joking but also kind of serious).
Driving prompted me to participate in this fun imaginative exercise. It reminds me, though, to be more open-minded about who people are and to not rush to conclusions based on my preconceived notions.
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Photo: Junior REIS via Unsplash