The Limo Driver

I am not superstitious (it brings bad luck)

Where Olive strays from the restaurant business, learns to drive big cars, ferries the elite, attends a wedding, and nearly gets skinned.

At some point in my fledgling Los Angeles restaurant career I got tired of it all – yes, it happens, even to the best waiters – and decided to re-invent myself, or rather recycle myself into a new career. I had seen an ad in the LA Times that read, "Hiring PROFESSIONAL limousine drivers. 5 years experience minimum, limousine driver's license and references required." It sounded perfect. I had never driven a limousine but the ad mentioned 2 weeks training which I figured should be plenty. If I could fly planes, surely I could drive a limo. There's a steering wheel, pedals on the floor, windows, how hard could it be?

I called for the interview and was told that there would be training with another driver for 2 weekends, then a test, and if I passed I would be assigned a car for which I would be responsible. I arrived at the office at the time I was told, 3:00 pm on Friday the 13th. It was OK though because I am not superstitious (it brings bad luck). The office consisted of a what looked like a bedroom with no windows, at least none that I could see because the room was so dark. The large black man lying on the sofa and talking on the phone appeared to be the only employee – receptionist, dispatcher, accountant, manager – and as I sat there waiting for him to finish his conversation I realized he was not only booking business for the weekend, but placing bets on horses, ordering coke (and I don't mean the kind sold in cans), and actually starting to conduct an interview with me. I was nervous and trying to understand which part of his conversation was directed at the person on the other end of the phone and which was for me. He was big, a little wild looking, and was wired up on what I could only assume was the same drug he had been ordering on the phone.

How long have you been driving? (I didn't realize he meant limos)
All my life. I could drive before I could walk.

What company did you work for before this?
I gave him the name of a company in Long Beach that I had seen in an ad, one that was far enough away that I doubted he would call them.

How well do you know LA?
A veteran taxi driver would kill himself out of jealousy if he knew how well I know these streets.

Do you have any references?
Yes, but they are all dead or deported. Not because of me though. (I hoped some levity would break the tension)

He kept on talking, half to the phone, half to me, but I had the feeling he wasn't really listening to my answers anymore, which was good because half the time I had no clue what he was talking about, when suddenly he started to freak out on the phone and pulled himself off the sofa. As he rose I realized how big he was and also saw the crazed look in his eyes. I deduced from the vociferous "go fuck yourself" he screamed into the receiver that someone's employment had just been terminated. He slammed the phone down and turned to look at me, almost as if he was seeing me for the first time. Can you start right now?

Olive Pilot

This was the only question I hadn't prepared for so I stammered yes, assuming he meant start the training. It turned out that because he had just fired the only driver who could have trained me, instead of telling me where to show up for my first lesson he gave me a list of jobs for the weekend, and my first pick-up was in the Hollywood hills in about an hour. Apparently, because I was already dressed in a black suit, white shirt and a tie, he assumed I was ready, as if training was not about learning to drive a limo but how to get dressed. Clothes, it seems, really do make the man. I followed him downstairs to the garage where I could see several cars, five beautiful limousines and two town cars.

Take the old Cadillac limo until I know for sure you can drive. Get it ready, make sure there's plenty of ice in the bar, and go fill it with gas.

He made a photocopy of my driver's license, handed me the keys and a pager and left me. I had never seen a pager before let alone used one, and I had certainly never driven a huge-ass limousine before. I began wondering if now was the time to start panicking. I climbed in the car and took stock of my situation. Fortunately, I was familiar with the first address he gave me, if not any of the others, so I thought that was a good sign. Next, I turned the key in the ignition and the big car started. OK, I thought, so far so good. I can do this. That, I'm afraid, was the most confident I would be all night.

The car was situated so that all I need do was drive forward to exit the garage. For those of you who have never had the opportunity to drive a limousine, it's a very weird feeling. In most cars, the driver has the majority of the vehicle behind him. It's the same with a limo except that it's like having three cars behind you, making corners a real adventure. I began to drive down Ventura Boulevard going towards Hollywood, alternately trying all the buttons on the dash board of this extremely comfortable car. I figured out which buttons were for the lights, which for the separator between me and the passenger seats, the air conditioning, the intercom phone, the stereo, television and so on. There seemed to be a button for everything except a passenger ejector seat, an omission that I would later wish for. I had never seen so many buttons in a car before. We didn't even have cars this big in France, and certainly not with this many buttons. The dashboard of the limo made the cockpit of my airplane look like a toddler's toy.

I turned into a gas station, pulling the rest of the car behind me, and after nearly taking out number three and four pumps in the self-serve aisle, three attendants helped to guide me into the right position somewhere in the neighborhood of the pumps. It was like guiding a 747 up to the boarding gate. I climbed out, avoiding the looks of the attendants who must have thought I was mentally challenged, and went to fill the tank. Is it an American thing to hide the gas cap behind the license plate? Does everyone know about this? (This has changed now. Cars are now designed for the gas tank to be on whatever side is furthest away from the pump.) I began walking around the car, circling it like a Shaman doing some kind of mysterious dance around the limousine. Where is the fucking gas tank, I thought to myself. I had either said that out loud or my confusion was too obvious because a friendly passerby came over and helped me find the magic hole. Merde!

After that, the evening settled into the nightmare of driving this behemoth around Los Angeles, trying to avoid any situation that would require parallel parking or backing up. I would only enter a driveway of it was circular and I lived in fear of dead ends (and I'm not talking about my hair). As I drove, I tried to study the Thomas Guide, a book of street maps that for me was akin to trying to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I couldn't quite manage to figure out which way was north (my plan was to work on one direction a day until I had them all figured out). And so it went for the next several weeks as I spent my nights driving around Los Angeles in a black car that required three parking spaces, ferrying passengers that included drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, movie and music people (some people were all of the above), and occasionally underage rich kids who would invariably want me to buy them beer or, they made it clear, I shouldn't expect a tip. We rent limos all the time and all the drivers buy us beer, they would insist. It's part of their job. (I asked other drivers if they did this and sure enough they said they always did)

And now I'm sure you want to hear the stories – drug-crazed rock stars and rock-crazed drug stars and all the rest. I've never been one to kiss and tell, but then I never kissed any of my fares so I guess I'm free to tell all. Like the time I picked up this very cool guy who seemed normal, at least as normal as anyone who lives in Los Angeles can be. It was about three weekends into my employment with the limo agency and I wasn't quite comfortable with the schedule yet. To give you an idea of what my shifts were like, I worked only on weekends, but since we started at about 3:00 pm on Friday and worked through until sometime Monday morning, we basically worked a week in one weekend. In between fares, we had to maintain the car which meant washing it, vacuuming it out and filling it with gas before it was time to pick up the next client. After I would get home Monday morning I would usually fall asleep if I could (some Mondays I was too tired to fall asleep) and wouldn't wake up until Tuesday afternoon, just in time to take a long nap until bedtime.

Anyway, this normal looking fellow asked me right away where I was from, and so with an accent that would make Inspector Clouseau intelligible, I replied that I was from Paris. I have always been jovial with strangers, an attribute that has helped me get along and has played a part in the luck that has traveled parallel to my destiny. He gave me an address in Santa Monica and we chatted amiably until we arrived at the site. When he didn't move to get out of the car, I asked him what to do. He told me, "Just wait here."

We waited for about 10 or 15 minutes and as I watched him surreptitiously in the rear view mirror he seemed to grow agitated and finally he whipped out a big gun. It looked really big in my mirror and trust me, if a gun looks like that in the mirror, even if the mirror says "objects in mirror can be larger than they appear," it doesn't matter. Big or small, a gun pulled in your back seat looks dangerous – it's a psychological thing. What you don't want to do is turn around and inquire stupidly, what's that? What you really want to do is pretend you didn't see the gun and hope its presence is meant for someone else. Besides, my voice seemed to be missing right at that moment.

Suddenly, he screamed, "I'm going to kill that bitch," flings open the door, gets out of the car and runs in the direction of the alley between two apartment buildings. Relieved to find out that the bitch he was intending to shoot was somewhere well away from the car, and with the awareness that I had just peed myself a little (hard to tell because I was sweating quite a lot too), I began to weigh my options. Of course, the smart thing to do would have been to step very hard on the gas pedal and get the bloody hell out of there, but then I remembered that he hadn't paid me yet. Then, as suddenly as he left he was back with a beautiful woman in his arms. They climbed into the limo, began to kiss a bit, and then he was back to being the cool, normal guy he was before, like nothing had ever happened, like he hadn't just pulled a gun and screamed he was going to kill someone. He gave me another address and says we're going to pick up another person. I somehow unstuck my foot and began to drive. I started to feel better because I now had something to do, drive, and the guy seemed to be over whatever had been eating him before. We arrived at the next address and another woman came out when she saw us pulling up (before cell phones). Fortunately, nothing else happened. I drove the trio around to several more places, got a very fat tip at the end, and that was it. Welcome to America, I thought, because I had begun to assume that everyone in America carried a gun, except for me of course, but then I was yet to become an American.

My average runs lasted 3 to 6 hours and then I would be off to pick up someone else. I never knew who or what I was going to pick up. Sometimes it would be nice, normal people and other times I would get the crazies, freaks and general weirdoes' run after run. God help me, I thought, when the moon gets full.

One summer day I was sent to pick up a bride and groom after their wedding ceremony in Long Beach. The church was located a ways inland and the temperature was climbing towards 110º F. By some miracle I arrived about 45 minutes early so I pulled up in front of the church and turned off the car to wait. Someone came out and advised me that the car should be cool and comfortable inside when the happy couple came out. I thought this a good idea so I cranked up the air conditioner full blast. I had plenty of time so I got in the back seat, flipped on the television and the stereo, and sat back in luxury to wait for the nuptials to conclude. Presently, one of the bride's uncles came out to the car to tell me they were about to come out. I jumped into the front seat and turned the ignition. Nothing. There was no juice in the battery. I couldn't understand it. It was fine before, I thought, and there had been plenty of power to run the A/C, the TV, the CD player...

Being the clever fellow that I am, I quickly deduced what I had done, namely run down the battery with my personal entertainment system. I ran into the church and started asking the wedding guests if anyone had jumper cables. The looks they gave me are usually reserved for a dog who takes a crap in the middle of a pool party, but I kept asking anyway. The father-of-the-bride, a burly man with no sense of humor, was getting plenty steamed as I ran around trying to find a source of power to start my humongous car. The bride, or groom, I never can keep them straight, was sobbing hysterically as I stupidly searched for cables, and a decision was made that one of the guests would drive the unenthusiastic couple over to Hollywood so they could eventually get on with their honeymoon. I wonder if they are still married. At least their wedding day was memorable.

One night I picked up a group of six rather unruly guys, all carrying long poles and all in various stages of inebriation. I figured they must have just finished playing some kind of American game. What the fuck did I know? I picked them up in the valley and they gave me an address on Sunset Boulevard, a place I knew to be a strip club. As we drove they drank the bar, literally, every drop. I couldn't believe they could still walk but they were all big, athletic-looking guys. When we got to the strip joint they told me to wait for them, that they wouldn't be long. They got out with their poles and went in. About 10 minutes later, police cars roared up from every direction, and when I put my window down to see what was going on, I could hear a great deal of commotion coming from the club. Before I realized what was happening, one of the cops had pulled me out of the limo and had me across the front of the car.

Slow down Johnny, I'm just the driver. What the fuck is happening?

Thinking I was the accomplice, they took my drivers' license and were about to cuff me when the boys came tumbling out of the bar. They all began trying to restrain these very big, very drunk young men and they were having a hard time of it. It occurred to me that this would be a fine time to get the hell out of there. The cops had left my license on the hood of the car so I quickly picked it up, got back in the car and drove off, looking back at the melee in my rear view mirror. Once again, it said to me, objects may be larger than they appear. It was the wisest mirror I've ever had.

I got a call for another pick up which turned out to be a very well-dressed black man, kind of cool, polite but not much of a talker. He gave me an address in East LA in a neighborhood called Watts. It was a good thing I had no idea where we going or I might have been nervous. My blissful ignorance was short-lived however, because as we drove we went from good to not-so-good to really bad to scary ass dark neighborhoods with even scarier looking people lurking in the shadows. We ended up at the end of an unlit street. The man told me to wait for him and said he'd be a little while. As soon as he left, I got out, leaned on the car and lit a cigarette. Here I was, a young white man, all dressed up in a fancy black suit, standing next to a Cadillac limousine. I should have just painted a target on my back.

Soon a gang of young men approached, asking me what the fuck I was doing there. Funny, I thought, I was just asking myself the same question, but since these guys didn't look like they would have appreciated my sense of humor, I kept it to myself. More people started to come down the street and I decided to quietly get back in my car and lock the doors, hoping my fare would show up soon. The group grew to about 20 or 30 people, and they started gathering all around the car, touching it, spitting on it, lifting the windshield wipers, and then lifting off the windshield wipers. I was wondering if I should just take off, despite the fact that several people were sitting on the hood of the car and a couple sat on the roof. Leaving was an issue though because the street was so narrow that I would have had to either back up all the way, and backing up was still not in my repertoire, or continue to the end of the street and hope I could turn around, which meant I would have to come back through the crowd of people again. As I sat and wondered what course of action I should take and how strong my windows were, the man finally returned. The crowd obviously knew him and began giving him shit about bringing this skinny white boy here, and assuring him they would have skinned me had he not come back. I didn't know what "skinned" meant but it didn't sound good and I was never so happy to leave a place. I had to drive the gauntlet as the young men kicked the car and called me all kinds of names I couldn't understand. They didn't really have their hearts in it though until my stupid French attitude made me flip them all off as I was inching through the crowd. How I got out of there after that without all my windows getting smashed I'll never know, but I was feeling smug as I exclaimed bravely in my best English, mostly for the benefit of my passenger, fuck those motherfuckers! I've always been known for my clever repartee.

Olivier's Story:

A Life with Recipes,
or A Parisian in America

By Olivier Said
Translated into English by James Mellgren


The Limo Driver
Racket Lesson
Now I have stayed
Live and Drive
Les Anges
Leaving LA
Coyote Ugly
Drinking in English

Olivier Said

Racket Lesson

You know the old saying in the restaurant business. A full restaurant will attract customers as one empty one doesn't. Well it is the same for the scum that wants to racket your place: They have no business in an empty place. And yes there is politic inside the "mafia" system or rather hierarchy. You know` the small fish and then later the bigger fish so on so forth.