The Secret Life of Lyft Drivers

Magical Maeya

Photo by Haut Risque on Unsplash

It was THAT kind of phone call.

The one you see in movies, the one you probably only get once in your lifetime — the one that changes your life.

“We’d like to offer you an all-expense paid secondment to Los Angeles for 12 months. Can you be there in a month?”

“Hell, yes!” was what I was thinking as I heard myself respond with a very professional, “Yes, that works.”

A month later, I left my life in Australia and arrived in LA on a beautiful Sunday morning with no clue what to do with myself. I decided to do what I do best — wander aimlessly. My first foray into downtown LA involved accidentally walking the length of skid row and feeling extremely confused while sticking out like a sore thumb in my workout gear. The locals were not pleased and I spent the remainder of that afternoon googling the unique cultural phenomenon that is Skid Row. To this day, I still find the history of Skid Row remarkably fascinating but decided against venturing through it on foot again.

Fortunately for me, my contract included a travel allowance — a rather generous one at that considering I lived four blocks from my office. I had also serendipitously received a Lyft coupon. So, off I went at my second attempt at exploring the city.

My first Lyft driver ever was Etienne and I will never forget him. He had beautifully chiseled features and a genteel personality. Etienne was an immigrant from Algeria who had lovely mocha skin and spoke with an even lovelier French accent. He had come to LA to study computer science. I excitedly revealed that I had just arrived in LA and that this was my first ever ride sharing experience!

“Tell me everything about LA!”

I say, in what must have been the human imitation of an excited golden retriever.

He pauses and considers his response.

“It’s nice….it’s just…it’s hard to make friends here.”

There is something so beautiful about this moment, when a stranger chooses to be vulnerable, even if only for an instant.

He quickly caught himself.

“I mean, I HAVE friends, of course. It’s hard making new ones though. It’s easy to meet people but it’s hard to make friends, you know?”

Etienne proceeds to teach me something about LA. People don’t like to go very far and distance is not measured in miles, it’s measured in the time it takes to reach a destination and that changes depending on the time of day. He had friends in LA but they didn’t live close and so they never saw each other.

I could sense he had wanted to say this out loud for a while. I’m lonely, I want to connect. Maybe it is easier to say that to a stranger, there is less judgment.

I listened and asked questions about his life. What motivated you to come here? What do you love about what you are doing? What do you hope to do with your degree?

They were such basic questions but they seem to change Etienne’s mood immediately. It felt like it had been a while since someone had bothered asking Eitienne about what truly mattered to him. When the ride ended, he turned around, looked me in the eye and said “Thank you” like he meant it. As I closed the door, I felt a warmth cascade over me. I had experienced a sense of intimacy in that exchange. I felt that it had mattered to him that I was in his car. The ride lasted 21 minutes and for the second time that month, my life was changed.

I decided that in a city where I knew nobody and apparently could not walk anywhere, I was going to set a challenge for myself. I would make it my goal to take Lyft rides everywhere and try to create an intimate connection within each of those rides. I wouldn’t just be sharing a ride, I would be sharing care.

After Etienne, there was Paul. He was only 22-years old but his family had sacrificed a lot for him to pursue his dreams as a singer in LA. He was plagued with a lot of self-doubts but his family was unwavering in their belief. He sang to me for 20 minutes and I took his autograph, because one day, that boy will be famous. He showed me that having people who believe in you has power, especially when pursuing a dream millions of other people also want.

Then there was James, we hit it off instantly. He was a charismatic African American man who was a self-published author. He had eyes that seem to pierce right through you and the banter rolled off our tongues the whole ride and continued for many weeks after. It was flirty and just great fun. I loved that he had strayed so far off the path that life had dealt him and was intent on creating his own destiny.

There was Zhao, who had me glued to my seat with his totally crazy, Shantaram-like life story as an immigrant who had hitchhiked across Asia after being kicked out of his rich family in China for being a total lout. He had then built a successful business only to lose it all because of love and proceeded to end up being homeless for years. His family had eventually found him and forgave him right before his mother died but she did not want him to have any share of her wealth. He then managed to pick himself up and somehow make his way to LA but was going through another rough patch because well….he didn’t really like to work. I can’t verify any of his claims but boy, was it an entertaining ride. He taught me that LA traffic is a thing to be reckoned with because, even after everything he endured, he still complained about LA traffic.

There were so many great stories in between. Riding in a Lyft is like being invited into someone’s couch for a while. The drivers had me rolling with laughter, taught me Californian slang (“The” 110, po-po, K-town, hella, baller), introduced me to great music, told me about the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants and gave me the rundown on celebrities (who was nice, who was always broke,etc.), and more importantly, bared their souls.

Of the hundreds of rides that I took (more than 400 according to my receipts), one ride stands out in my mind. It was only 3-minutes long. I was tired and definitely not in the mood to stick to my challenge. My driver made a valiant effort.

“How was your night?”
“You have an accent. Where are you from?”
“I used to live in Australia.”
“Wow, how did you end up in LA?”

I ended up telling him about my career and how my company had brought me out to the United States.

“Wow, you should be a life coach or something.”

I stopped. Somehow this was like a sign that I had spent too long talking about myself. I pivoted.

“Tell me about you.”

His name was Gabriel. He had grown up in a poor neighborhood and nobody he knew had gone to college. He had gotten a job recently and he was doing well, but…..

“I have all these ideas. I think I can do more and start my own business but I don’t know how. My dad hasn’t really been around.”

He was 20-years old and asking some incredibly profound questions. How do I break out of my social norm? How do I break out of the expectations and the limitations that everyone in my world has conditioned me to believe?

“I know I can be something more, do something different. I just need a guide. Even just to know that someone like me can do it.”

The ride ended in 3-minutes but we talked for almost two hours outside my apartment afterwards. I will never forget Gabriel either. That encounter taught me so much about myself — about the impact I can have on anyone I encounter in a day if only I would snap out of my own needs and pay attention.

After a while, I could tell almost immediately if it was going to be a challenge to create intimacy with someone. Not because they looked vastly different but because they would project almost an apologetic air for existing. These were people who didn’t have dreams or any hopes for something greater. You don’t have to want to be a movie star to be hopeful. I certainly sat in the passenger seat of many housewives who had big dreams for themselves or their children. They were not embarrassed about being a Lyft driver, they enjoyed it. This was different, these were people who didn’t believe in themselves. To them, they were “just” a Lyft driver and that must be what the passenger is thinking too. They were often extremely reluctant to talk about themselves, believing that they had little of interest to contribute. I often wondered if they knew they were projecting such a strong message to the world. They taught me that hope and self-love are important and that dreams are the fuel for our soul. People can sense when someone lacks it right away. If I cajoled one of these people into a smile and made them talk about something they were passionate about, I would always be pretty proud of myself.

This experiment taught me a lot about myself. It taught me that I wanted to be the person who could show up unexpectedly and make someone feel good. The pleasant surprise you weren’t expecting that had the ability to change your mood. The person who could instantly make you feel like you were seen and that you mattered. I wanted that to be my superpower.

I’ve since extended my Random Intimacy challenge beyond Lyft rides to new venues — buses, planes, and coffee shops. It’s also progressed beyond conversations in a car to other activities such as dinners, hikes, and even a spontaneous search for temporary tattoos.

But why?

This concept of creating random intimacy is so strange to most of us. You might be one of those people asking — why would you want to create intimacy with a random stranger you might never meet again?

It’s because there is something uniquely meaningful about connecting with someone when you don’t need something from them or when neither of you have an agenda. You’re not trying to be someone else and neither are they. You are just two people, showing up. It’s more honest, more raw, and more pure. I see you, you see me. I feel you, you feel me.

It’s because, in a world where everyone is so wrapped up in themselves, there is something meaningful about being that person who surprises someone and totally changes their day — to being that person they will never forget.

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