Giving a Lyft

Lyft driver Jana Fairbairn says one key to success has nothing to do with driving skills, but social skills: “You’ve gotta love people.”

When the subject of Uber or Lyft comes up in the news, the story typically involves stock prices, pay rates, criminal incidents or something on the ride-sharing trend.

But Jana Fairbairn sees things up close and personal. The chatty 60-something from Santa Cruz drives for Lyft, cruising her eco-friendly hatchback up and down the Central Coast. Her passengers include students, medical patients needing a ride to a care facility, celebrities on their way to Pebble Beach’s Concours d’Elegance – pretty much anyone who could click the Lyft app when she’s within range.

“The difference between golf people and car people – huge,” she observes, anticipating the crush of fans descending on the area during the upcoming U.S. Open. Although both groups are passionate, the golf fans she carried during past AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Ams are “more homogenous” – especially in dress – compared to the more foppish Concours attire. Even their four-legged companions vary. “Golfers with dogs, they’re not pedigreed,” Fairbairn points out. “At the Concours, oh, poodles with” – at this point she turns her nose into the air. “It’s very fun.”

Fairbairn clearly enjoys her role as a Lyft driver, smiling almost nonstop and laughing frequently as she recalls losing connectivity deep in a Monterey County canyon or the challenges of picking up a passenger at night in Carmel, with its dark streets and vague addresses. She decorates her car for specific holidays, even for the season or just a spot of flair. “And I have a basket of snacks,” Fairbairn says.

Make that three. Behind the driver’s seat sits a tray of Tootsie Rolls. On the back of the passenger seat there’s a tray with Starburst chews. And on the rear seat rests a larger basket stocked with pretty much everything from the snack aisle: granola, kettle corn, dried seaweed, fresh fruit and so on.

This is not an occupation Fairbairn takes for granted. “I don’t do too many things well, but driving, talking, listening and above all giving good advice – I’m a know-it-all,” she says with a laugh.

That penchant for offering to help almost got her into trouble. Fairbairn tells of a call late one evening from a woman who appeared calm, but once in the car asked for heaters at full blast and complete silence. She mentioned therapy and a pending panic attack, then said, “Don’t ask me to talk.”

She told the passenger this was a safe space. The woman opened up, speaking of a difficult breakup and other personal issues. Fairbairn let her guard down and decided she could be of some help. The two agreed to meet up for a hike and shared phone numbers.

“I made a big mistake,” Fairbairn says. “It turned into a pattern of her calling me continuously.”

Finally, Fairbairn contacted Lyft’s safety department, learning later that the company had identified an issue with the woman they would not disclose.

“That was the most disturbing,” Fairbairn notes.

Naturally she is aware of the perceived dangers. While customers might worry about getting in a stranger’s car, ride-share drivers have been robbed or assaulted. So she relies on a routine of identifying passengers through the window – by name and destination – before they enter her vehicle, as well as the intuition gained through raising four daughters, deciphering a person’s eyes, listening with all her senses.

“I always have a Plan B,” Fairbairn points out, “but I’ve never had to use it.” She cites only two incidents, both involving too much alcohol. In one, two young men jumped in the back seat and began mouthing off. This time Fairbairn’s “nanna instincts” kicked in. She simply turned and gave them a stern “grow up” glare. They got the point.

Maybe it’s not the same as Taxicab Confessions, but Fairbairn has heard her share of stories. “Give me a subject, I’ve heard something about it,” she says.

She has been driving with Lyft since 2016, carrying over 1,700 passengers in the tri-county area. After careers as a general contractor and interior designer, Fairbairn took up ride-share driving after her mother’s dementia worsened.

“When her care got to the point where she was needing to go to the emergency room, and it could be without warning – I was it for her,” Fairbairn says. “I loved the flexible schedule.”

What started as a side gig option is now the full-time occupation for many drivers. On May 29, the state Assembly passed a measure that would ensure minimum wage and workers’ compensation rights. The bill is now under consideration by the state Senate.

But for Fairbairn, driving remains something she simply enjoys – learning from passengers about golf, classic cars, reggae or jazz. “I’m driving people from all over the world,” she says with a broad smile.

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