- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - Henry Chen is the first to admit that he was not the person friends turned to for dating advice. “I haven’t had a lot of relationships,” he conceded.

But that was before the 29-year-old Chen, an IBM employee by day, started driving nights and weekends for Lyft, the ride-hailing company, and turned into an accidental chauffeur for the lovelorn.

Now he consoles the jilted. Advises the dateless. Gives out tissues.

“I had a couple break up in the back seat of my car,” said Chen, of Medford, describing a drama that had the boyfriend getting out of the vehicle, the girlfriend distraught, and Chen playing peacemaker. “I told her to keep her head up,” he said. “They just needed a cooling off period.”

Since ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft arrived in Boston, thousands have signed up to ferry around residents and visitors. This new breed of drivers includes off-duty firefighters, social workers, real estate agents, and musicians. Lots of musicians.

They knew they would earn extra money, and, of course, sit in traffic. And many find that the job comes with an additional role: therapist.

Traditional taxis have long served as confessionals. But drivers for ride-hailing services, eager for stellar ratings from passengers- which future passengers see on the companies’ apps -are turning up the counseling a notch, or 10.

“Things get very personal,” said Amanda Carr, a real estate agent and musician who drives for Lyft. “You are basically a bartender without serving drinks. Passengers have kind of an anonymous permission to talk to you. They are never going to see you again, so they can say things they wouldn’t to someone they’re in a relationship with.”

At 52, Carr has a lot of life experience, she said, and she doesn’t hesitate to pass her wisdom along, whether it’s about love or careers. She gets particularly serious with passengers who are considering a college or graduate degree in music.

“I tell them to think about the student debt you will have,” she said. “Pretend it’s the last day of school, and you are the best guitar player in the world. What are you going to do now? Did you learn how to market yourself?”

Lyft driver Gabriel Gill-Austern is finishing up his final year at Boston College Law School, but the fact that he has yet to graduate doesn’t stop passengers from seeking legal guidance on landlord-tenant issues and sexual harassment in the workplace.

“I preface it by saying I’m not a bar-admitted attorney,” he said, “but I do talk to them from a common-sense perspective. They seem to want advice along with their ride.”

The car-hailing companies have become controversial- drawing heat from cabbies, labor lawyers, and advocates for the disabled, among others -but are also very popular.

In January, Uber reported that it had about 10,000 “driver-partners” in the Boston area, albeit some who drive as seldom as once a month. Most of them drive fewer than 15 hours per week, for the company’s lower-cost UberX service, and earn about $19.25 per hour, before expenses, including gas and insurance.

New drivers keep signing up, enticed by flexible schedules and the hope of big bucks. In January, Uber started a billboard campaign in Boston that said, “Drive with Uber. $1,600 every week. Guaranteed.”

In Chestnut Hill, Matthew Sisson, 60, a former steel fabricator and erector, recently started driving for Uber to supplement his other job as a companion for people with mental illness. In just a few weeks, he’s driven hundreds of fares and sold several copies of his new book, “Please, Call Me Moby,” a $15 poetry collection that he keeps on the front seat, just in case.

“We talk about what they do, what I do, their boyfriends, their aspirations, and my poetry,” Sisson said. He treats receptive passengers to an early poem, “A Higher Love,” that’s coincidentally about a car navigation system.

“When I’m lost, I turn to her,” he recites, from memory, from the driver’s seat of his Volkswagen Golf. “She accepts me where I am/and shows me the right path.”

The same could be said of some drivers. Consider the way Lyft driver Gabriel Jose Peguero Cespedes, a 29-year-old singer-songwriter, advised a passenger who was flying home over Thanksgiving and nervously hoping to reconcile with a former boyfriend.

“I could tell she just needed a little support,” he said, recalling the trip to Logan. “I just listened to what she had to say and reflected it back to her.”

UberX passengers driving with Renee Rakowsky- particularly young, single women -might think they’d gotten into mom’s car instead.

“I tell them that I’m an old feminist, but I never pay on the first date because I’m screening for a man who’s generous,” said Rakowsky, a 59-year-old life coach and former executive director of the Boston Women’s Network.

She’s also a former recruiter, as those she’s driving to a job interview have learned. “I always tell them sing your own praises. You’re the only one who is going to tell them how great you are.”

Some drivers, like Rakowsky, relish the personal side of the drive, but others are somewhat uncomfortable playing counselor.

“What do I know?” asked UberX driver Ben Johnston, 34, a former Army officer who did two tours in Iraq, recalling his inner monologue when a passenger asked his opinion on whether a romantic interest was lying to her.

“I didn’t know who this guy was,” said Johnston, of Quincy. “But sometimes (passengers) just want to hear something from a stranger.”


Information from: The Boston Globe, https://www.bostonglobe.com

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