Friday, September 13, 2013

THE UNDERCOVER CHAUFFEUR



Dropping out of the rat race to practice the menial art of chauffeuring held certain dangers for this wildly over-qualified perennial outsider.  I had been licensed to practice law for over twenty years but have always approached the practice of law tentatively.  Yes, I was a reluctant lawyer whose first stint was as a U.S. Army JAG officer.  I have even half-heartedly posed briefly as a journalist and, for a number of years, as an English professor.  Eventually I went off the rails to earn a Ph.D. in Humanities. (This led to nowhere in particular.)  In an effort to earn a respectable living I had tried representing homeowners who were in foreclosure.  However, a quick study of the scurrilous world of mortgage banking, securitization, and its judicial enablers only intensified my cynicism toward The System – I shrank away from that pantomime in short order.  

And so, in my semi-retirement from a string of cul-de-sac semi-careers, I wondered whether a simple job that would permit up-front and personal access to the rich and powerful might be an interesting adventure.  Like a “spy in the house of love” I would in fact be a mole on a “mission from God.”  Yes, I am a veteran bluesman too – a piano player and singer – who thought he might round-out his monthly nut this way while covertly observing VIPS and CEOs and other Big Men (and Women) On Campus around the Washington, D.C. area.  “Who knows?” thought I at the outset – “maybe I could keep a journal and write about my exploits as a self-appointed undercover chauffeur.”  After all, I write too – how else is an outsider who never fits in supposed to fill his creative loafing time between gigs? 

In the early Spring I would find my chauffeur job on Craig’s List.  They advertised the job as being worth $35K-$55K a year.  I soon attended training with two other candidates.  The company billed themselves as the “second largest livery company in Virginia” and as they explained how much I’d be making, I began to understand my real net worth (the numbers did not add up – not even close).  But I said nothing.  I was looking forward to driving.  We were told that people take limos for one primary reason: they want an “emotional experience.”  In order to help provide that, it sounded like the chauffeur needed to be knee-deep in the drama; had to learn to play his part flawlessly.  It meant showing the utmost deference and courtesy, to stay mum unless spoken to, to hold one’s opinions (especially about politics and other dangerous topics).  There was only a brief meet-and-greet intro, pleasantries, and a confirmation of the drop-off location and estimated time to arrive there.

The two other drivers that I started with didn’t work out, and before long I was the sole driver located in the DC metro area.  Mostly, this company serviced exotic backwater areas like Charlottesville, Richmond, Roanoke, Norfolk, Virginia Beach – places like that.  I love to drive, and I expected that driving a Lincoln Town Car would be almost as much fun as cruising along in my old ’69 Cadillac Coupe deVille.  So I jumped in with both feet; I donned my black suit with black tie and white shirt and began to drive.  

For my very first trip the dispatcher sent me to the Ritz Carlton in Georgetown.  I staged myself nearby and was there much earlier than necessary, but I was nervous and was anxious that nothing should go amiss.  I waited and waited, way past the pick-up time – no passenger.  I contacted the dispatcher and reported the status.  Finally it was determined that they had somehow confused the Ritz Carlton with the Four Seasons.  So off I went.  I hopped like a bunny over there, just a few blocks away, and my very first passenger was soon ensconced in the back seat.  She was a tall, young, beautiful woman going back home to Florida, and traveling light.  One of the first things she said was something I (unfortunately) never heard from any of my other passengers – “Whenever I get in a car I have to have music.”  So I fiddled with the pre-sets on the radio and did my best to tune-in something pleasing to her on the programmed dial.  We cruised down M Street and headed across Key Bridge toward the drop off location, Reagan National Airport.  She didn’t seem like a business type (as most of my passengers would be).  Candidly, I wondered whether she might be a high-end call girl.  With the novelty, the music, the pheromones – the emotional experience was mutual.  As I bid her goodbye I thought to myself that this chauffeuring could be a lot of fun.

But it turned out that my first passenger was the exception.  Most of my passengers would get in, exchange some rote words of greeting and immediately get on their electronic devices.  Often trips would be from Dulles or National Airport to a hotel, or from a hotel to an office building, or the reverse.  There were indeed CEOs, usually designated on the trip sheet as “VIPs.”  These were usually busy, self-absorbed prima donnas who were deep into their roles as business executives, exhibiting that tunnel vision that comes with “closing the deal,” being always on-the-go, pressed for time and stressed by the expectations of others. The chauffeur was simply the functionary whose job it was to seamlessly get them from place-to-place.  The driving had to be an elegant and methodical kind of motion with smooth even starts and slow even stops.  We were told never to exceed the speed limit and to always scrupulously observe the rules of the road.  Each driver was required to furnish his own GPS. (I wondered how chauffeurs coped prior to the invention of these ingenious devices.)  We were taught to keep the vehicle spotless, inside and out; to always open the door for the passenger(s); and to notate the time we were on site for the pick-up, when the passenger was on board, and when the passenger exited or was released from the limo at the drop-off location. 

And so, prior to each trip it was necessary to print out the trip sheet.  Afterwards it was necessary to scan that same sheet and then attach it to an email back to the company.  I was allowed to keep the sedan at my home because I was so far from the nearest company depot.  All chauffeurs had a gas card good at any gas station (except BP), but they had a fleet account with an any-time self-serve gas station called Quarles that gave the company a discount on the fuel.  Consequently, the company preferred us to make a practice of gassing up at Quarles.  I earned $7.50/hr. (that included time from and back to my home) and a 15% gratuity built into the contract price, plus any cash tips (infrequent) and $10/hr. for any overhead labor such as trading out vehicles or maintaining them, etc.  

I would estimate that perhaps 85% of my trips were through what are known as “affiliates,” i.e., other limo companies, usually out-of-state, who farmed out work to my company.  If a cash tip was offered, we were required to inform the passenger that a 15% gratuity was already included in the pricing; this was mostly designed to allay any shock that an affiliate might suffer from learning that its clients were being unfairly gouged for our services.  Over ten, bi-weekly pay periods I averaged just over $900 per paycheck, or about $450/wk.  Cash tips were negligible.  Let’s see, at that rate the annual income would be around $23K, far short of the $35K minimum advertised.  Oh well, I wasn’t in it for the money, per se, but rather for the experience, the adventure, the thrill of being a homespun spy who was “not of the body,” viz., alienated from the status quo. 

Actually, I didn’t pick up any stock tips or privileged company info or saucy gossip.  Not really.  After a while I was kind of disinterested.  Still, it was sometimes a challenge to keep my mouth shut.  I am not a natural talker and was often content to just roll on silently to each destination.  But if engaged on a topic that interested me I could indulge in a bit of conversation.  It’s a delicate matter.  Most passengers could care less what a chauffeur thinks and they politely ignored me.  This is completely understandable and I have no expectations that anything I say, if I say anything at all, will be of much interest.  However, occasionally there was a passenger with some semblance of humanity and seeming interest in what I thought or what I had to say.  This, then, was the danger zone.

The problem comes in trying to exercise your best judgment as to the nature and sensitivities of the passenger.  There is one breed of passenger that seems to take delight in complaining about all service personnel; a neurotic, mean-spirited individual that will use whatever you say or do (or don’t say and don’t do) and embellish it with all sorts of lies and innuendo. Thankfully there were only a few like this.  But it only takes a few to damage your professional standing and credibility.  These few had the desired effect and the company and affiliates would eventually become wary of this undercover chauffeur.

In over five months I never missed a deadline for a pick-up.  But one morning I was late.  It was due to an early morning family emergency.  I should have left 15 or 30 minutes earlier than I did, especially on this day.  There were six accidents on the beltway, rendering this faster route impassible.  So I had to work my way across town.  I texted my CEO/VIP passenger that I was running late and texted him updates.  The dispatcher was calling me every five minutes, adding to my stress.  My supervisor called to yell at me, as if that would get me to my pick-up location any faster.  I finally arrived almost a half hour late.  My passenger was not disturbed and was quite forgiving.  But this interlude ended in my abrupt termination.  I applied for unemployment benefits the next day.

Looking back, I had an opportunity to drive some notable passengers:  e.g., James Schlesinger (former CIA and Defense Dept. head in the ‘70s), Dave Power of J.D. Power & Associates (a kindly and knowledgeable gentleman), and an Iraqi advisor to the Pentagon, Dr. Mow Baker.  Mostly, my driving enabled players in The System to get around.  The best trips were multiple stop trips that took a whole day or many days.  Once I was needed at 7:30 AM at a remote dock in Roanoke to pick up a tug boat engineer whose ultimate destination was Tangier Island.  He was a congenial and personable passenger.  After crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel to the Eastern Shore, I dropped him at Onancock where he picked up his ferry. Then I proceeded all the way up the Shore and across the Bay Bridge and home again – a 500-mile trip that was accomplished before noon,   

I appreciated the other chauffeurs, mostly locals from around central Virginia.  They were friendly, salt-of-the-earth characters.  My supervisor too, for all his occasional angry tirades, was a good man with a tough job.  All-in-all I enjoyed the challenges of working as a chauffeur.  The art of chauffeuring – properly – is generally unappreciated or misunderstood.  There are nuances that are lost on the less diligent.  However, I admonish all would-be aspirants to this often thankless job to always keep it simple; if you have more than one brain cell left, trying to cope in this often stuck-up milieu can be frustrating, even irritating.  And if you are a multi-track career virtuoso and confirmed outsider with an ulterior motive like me, beware – you need to adhere to the requirement of muteness in the encounter with another human being and forget who you are and what you know.  Just drive well, be on time and be nice or you’ll soon be suspect and get tossed out on your big behind.  I suspect how I ended up had more to do with who I am rather than what I did or didn’t do on that final, fateful day.

I doubt I will stay in this game; driving for many hours every day is hard on the body, especially the lower back; it can also be hard on the self-esteem.  However, I do need to find some simple, paying task that I can putter around with in my golden years.  It’s good to stay active.  These days, UBER offers a new platform for urban transport, making limos available to the masses.  Young credit card-carrying e-hipsters use this service a lot.  True, it democratizes limo use, but it somehow trivializes the professional chauffeur in the process.

In the final analysis, what did this undercover chauffeur learn?  I suppose I learned that it is not always so easy to be an anonymous cog in the wheels of the Matrix.  At times it can be morally draining.  Better to get with some enterprise that is more contributive to the general welfare of humanity, instead of serving the worn out players in a System that is bankrupt and ultimately doomed.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of profit in truth-telling or in businesses organized by truth-tellers in this phony baloney world.  But I guess I’ll keep searching for one and see if I can fit in, in spite of myself.

2 comments:

lyrac said...

Hi Spyop-I relate to your outsider status. I also play the piano and sing. Let me know if you ever visit Philly!
http://from-the-catacombs.blogspot.com/

osvaldo anderson said...

I like riding a chauffeur. It feels so good.
chauffeur Kent