A Week Behind the Wheel as a Full-Time Lyft Driver in Denver
This was supposed to be easy, I thought, as I cleaned out what seemed like an infinite amount of annoyingly small Laffy Taffy wrappers, empty Red Bull cans and Wendy's wrappers from my sleek new Hyundai Sonata. My stomach was screaming for a real meal, but it would have to wait. A quick cigarette and I had to be back on the road, hunting for passengers until I hit my ride quota for the week.
Driving all day can wear on you, which seems weird at first, because all you're doing is sitting there. I had only been driving for Lyft for a few days, but I had all the signs of a battle-hardened cabbie: the hollowed-out eyes, the slight limp from sitting for so long, and the complete obliviousness to everything happening around me. My new lifestyle was certainly a self-inflicted wound; no one had a gun to my head when I signed up for the Lyft Express Drive Rental Program, where Hertz will give you a car for free if you cart seventy people around each week (otherwise it's a $200 fee, deducted first from your earnings and then from your credit card on file). But I was sold on the rosy picture painted by Lyft's legion of cheery representatives proclaiming how easy it is to make a boatload of cash driving people around. As a person who's skeptical about almost everything, I should have realized this was too good to be true, but the allure of driving a car after biking everywhere for years was too much to resist.
I drove west toward Denver from the Aurora Hertz in a state of disbelief. All it took was some quick paperwork, and they tossed me the keys to a new car like it was nothing. Did they even know I hadn't been behind the wheel of a car since I moved from the East Coast over four years ago? It took me a minute to remember how to flick on the windshield wipers and high beams, but soon enough I was driving like a Masshole again, which is to say efficient, fast, and somewhat reckless. The novelty of having so much power at the tips of my toes wore off quickly, and I knew I had to start knocking off some of these rides. Since I picked the car up mid-week, I needed a pro-rated amount of fifty rides by Sunday to get the car for free. I really didn't want to drop the $200 for not making my quota, and I knew I had to be smart with my time because I also had another job.
Cheesman Park seemed like a safe bet, so I started there. I found a parking spot and waited. A minute feels like an hour when you're just sitting in a car with nothing to do. Once a half-hour passed, I was completely losing my mind. Is this thing even on? How the hell does no one want a Lyft right now? I had to make myself feel like I wasn't wasting time, so I grabbed a book, found a bench nearby and read. My app was turned on: If someone requested a ride, my plan was to bolt to the car and race toward the passenger. This is when I realized that you can never stray too far from your car while your app is turned on. Lyft passengers expect instant gratification, and if you're not moving in their general direction immediately, they will cancel the ride, which is exactly what happened. It was just a ride but it felt personal: How dare they cancel on me?! This wasn't a good start to my Lyft career, as you also need a 90 percent acceptance rate if you want that rental for free.
I finally got my first ride out of the way and became instantly addicted. From that point on, I lived for the feeling of seeing my phone flash pink, which meant another passenger and a step closer to my goal of fifty rides. After a few fares, I realized that keeping my phone in my cup holder was a bad idea. It didn't put passengers at ease when I was constantly taking my eyes off the road to consult my phone's GPS. A few scary moments in traffic and one phone mount later, and I was starting to get the hang of it.
Like most addictions, driving for Lyft was a love/hate relationship that skewed heavily toward hatred by the end. I loved being able to put my groceries in a trunk instead of on my back, but I hated how much I had to be on the road to hit my mark. The next day, Thursday, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. because I had read that early mornings can be quite lucrative for Lyft drivers. Having not been up this early for a job in a long time, it felt eerie and unnatural to be awake. It was pitch-black, and I couldn't even get coffee, as Dunkin' Donuts wasn't open yet. What I got instead was an older Christian couple heading to the airport en route to Japan to spread the word of God. This conversation kept me engaged, but after a few more early-morning rides, my mind was already in a haze. The rides completely die down by 10 a.m., and then you're left to aimlessly drive around until about 4 p.m., when rides pick up again.
I killed the time searching for barf bags like they have on airplanes at the suggestion of the Hertz employee who said people will be puking in my car on the weekends; it was only a matter of time. It turns out it is impossible to buy barf bags in Denver. Not even the gargantuan Walmarts with Subways and eye doctors have them. I came across some pricey ones on Amazon but decided to take my chances instead of incur more expenses. I bought huge bags of candy and a case of water to make my passengers happy, because my roommate told me the best Lyft drivers are the ones that offer Starburst after you've been drinking all night. The candy didn't last, as I kept it in the middle console and ate it uncontrollably while driving around. Thursday night passed with a few more rides, but I was still a long way from hitting my goal.
By Saturday, I felt as crazy as Robert De Niro's character in Taxi Driver. I was ruthless, overtired, and running on Red Bull, cigarettes and fun-sized candy. I treated my passengers like they were Jimmy John's subs being delivered, not living and breathing humans. The only thing that mattered was the fifty rides. I could forgo sleeping, eating and bathing, but I could not give up on my quest for fifty. I remember wanting to take a nap before my other job, but every time I was about to pull into my driveway the app would flash pink and emit the iconic Lyft sound. The addiction had become so strong that I was not physically or mentally capable of refusing a ride. I kept telling myself I'd give one more ride and then I can finally sleep. The problem is, you have no idea where you're going when you pick someone up, so I ended up far from home, missed my nap and went into work looking like a zombie. After work, I got back in the saddle and started Lyfting some more. I finally hit my fifty rides, but at that point I had become a hazard to everyone around me. It wasn't worth it.
While the overall experience was miserable, I do have some fond memories of Lyfting interesting passengers around. There was the artist who one day had twin babies dropped off at his doorstep by an ex-girlfriend who wanted nothing to do with him or them. I was amazed that he was making a living painting pictures while raising babies he didn't know he had until a few months ago. He even had time to fly to San Francisco to shop some of his art and hang with friends. I was invited to play golf by a man wearing women's sandals because he met a girl at the bars the night before and her dog ate his favorite pair of Rainbows. A gay gentleman in his twenties hopped in the front seat one morning and told me about the mid-life crisis he was creating for the closeted gay executive he was sleeping with. I picked up newly acquainted lovers from a raucous house party at four in the morning and chuckled as they tried to learn more about each other in the backseat. The conversations were at times funny and eye-opening, but it didn't make the experience worth it, especially since I only wound up with about $450 in earnings for the week.
I returned the rental to Hertz the following Wednesday and couldn't get out of there fast enough. The overly energetic Lyft rep at Hertz looked surprised when I wanted to return it. What went wrong?! Why don't you want to continue? I looked at him with dead, sleep-deprived eyes and said it wasn't for me. I noticed the others in the waiting room had the same look of defeated soldiers who had seen too much on the battlefield. But unlike me, they were in this for the long haul, getting their oil changed or switching their current rental out for another.
I did participate in the program one more time, but strictly for the joy of having a car. I ran errands, drove to Arapahoe Basin for some early-season skiing, went on dates, and did all the things I can't do normally on my bike. This time, the last thing on my mind was hitting my ride quota. I ended up with only twelve rides and figured I'd owe a bit to cover the $200 fee, but alas, I was never charged a dime. These days, there's a waiting list for the Lyft Express Program, and while it's tempting to put my name on it, I'm going to resist for my sanity and the safety of my potential passengers. It's probably just time to buy a car.
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