Everybody needs to get to work … even when their office is a freeway offramp

I like driving weekday mornings. The customers are friendly and businesslike. They’re simply headed to school, work or an appointment. It’s all about getting from Point A to Point B.

That was the case for a passenger I’ll call Jay. It was the end of the morning rush, about 9:30 a.m. I was just down the street when the app pinged me to pick him up. While many riders haven’t bothered to upload Lyft profile photos, Jay had one. As I pointed the car toward the pickup point, I remember speculating when I saw his picture — a clean-cut looking guy in a suit and tie — that this might be an airport ride.

As I pulled up in front of his house, in an older but nicely kept section of a major Phoenix suburb, he was waiting outside. Jay wasn’t wearing a suit, or anything resembling business attire. He sported an old pair of jeans, T-shirt and a week-old stubble of beard. And he was holding a piece of cardboard and a can of Dr. Pepper.

Jay wasn’t headed to the airport. He was going to work, for his regular gig begging for spare change at a freeway offramp. He’d already set the drop-off location in the app and knew exactly where he was headed.

Confession: I’ve always had a fascination with the people who set up shop on street corners and freeway off-ramps. What’s their story? When did they realize that, as a result of whatever hand life had dealt them, the path forward was a hopeful phrase scrawled on a cardboard sign, pointed at a steady stream of strangers desperately trying to avoid eye contact?

Now, Jay was in my back seat. On his way to work. And I was lucky enough to have a few minutes to figure out his story.

There’s no way to know where the “truth” was exactly. But what follows was definitely Jay’s truth.

— He used to be a Lyft driver. He said his car had been totaled in an accident, he didn’t have enough insurance to replace it and he had decided begging (his words) would be a way to save money for a new down payment.

— His family was his No. 1 issue, and he blamed them for most of his problems. They were “horrible, awful people” who regularly called the cops on him because they didn’t want him begging at the off-ramp.

— He had been raised as part of an extreme offshoot sect of a major conservative religion, and his falling out with “The Church” had something to do with his current situation — and his issues with his family.

— He claimed he previously worked in the hotel industry, and had been very successful at one point. The hotel back-story seemed to intersect with family members, and as far as I could tell Jay’s issues with them seemed to have something to do with losing his job … the one he must have held when he first created that Lyft profile with the business suit.

— Despite his current situation, Jay was still a rule-follower. The spot we were headed was his favorite because it was one that wasn’t state property posted with No Trespassing signs. So he felt like he wasn’t breaking any laws.

— Is there competition for spots among freeway beggars? A little, he said, but the system seems to run more loosely on a first-come, first-squat basis. If his spot was taken when we got there, he’d simply walk down to the next exit.

— How much did he earn? It varied, he said. In any given hour he could pull in anything from a few quarters to $50. Bottles of water were a frequent offering from sympathetic drivers, even if they didn’t give any cash. Occasionally people would offer food.

On our way to the drop-off point, he asked me to stop at a Burger King so he could grab a straw for his drink and use the restroom (which made me silently question his relationship with the house where I picked him up). While I waited, I snapped a photo of his sign sitting on the car seat. It’s the real deal.

In hindsight, Jay was a little sketchy. But he was happy to have someone take an interest in his story. And I was happy to have him share it.

I let him out in a spot that he clearly had used before. I pulled away and flipped a U-turn to head home, knowing he’d be my last ride of the morning. As I turned  south onto the freeway on-ramp, I looked back in the mirror.

Jay had already clocked in, sign in hand … and was hard at work.

PS – If after reading, you’re inspired to give Lyft driving a try, make sure to use a driver referral bonus when you first fill out the applicationUse code MIKE17396 and we will both enjoy a bonus for rides you give during your first month. (You don’t need to drive in Phoenix for the code to work.)


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I'm a former corporate manager and journalist driving Lyft for fun ... and sharing these stories with anyone willing to play along.

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