town_carIn the late 80’s and early 90’s work as an editor in the industrial film industry, was rarely consistent. During periods when I didn’t have a job I went to work for a company in Burbank, California called Columbus Limousine.

Columbus, as we used to call it, was a limousine and Town Car service that dealt specifically with businesses and corporate accounts in the entertainment industry. Large organizations like Warner Brothers or Paramount Studios would hire our company to drive their executives and talent from the airport to their homes and also to other locations as required by the job.

Mike Rappaport (not the actor) was the owner of the company and had started the business from the ground up. He was its first driver and in the early days he dispatched from a car while driving. As a result he knew the business from the driver’s point of view. I respected this about Mike. He had a great family and they all chipped in whenever necessary.

beverly_drive_1939His sister Karen, a UCLA student at the time, answered the phones and his dad would sometimes pitch in as a driver if we were short. His father was a retired jeweler in Beverly Hills. Not the Beverly Hills of today’s mega chain glam shops on Rodeo Drive but the old Beverly Hills. Back then the Beverly Hills of Bedford and Cañon and Beverly Drive had “nice” little shops owned by men and women who lived in the neighborhood. Mike’s dad had one of these.

I took pride in my work and I enjoyed driving. I was on time, courteous and I had a black suit. It was curious to me how many drivers couldn’t grasp the uniform idea. They arrived in navy blazers with faux-military buttons and tan slacks, or corduroy jackets with leather elbow patches and pink shirts. It was a fascinating study.

Over time I realized that becoming a limousine driver is like joining a circus. Everyday the customers are different and soon you get the feeling that the people you work with couldn’t work anywhere else.

Ron was my trainer. I rode with him for two days before it was determined I was able to do the job on my own. He was from Boston and had previously made his living as a ski instructor. I think he missed skiing. He was a good driver and a great trainer. From him I learned the three most important rules.

Number one: Safety Comes First. If they miss their plane, they miss their plane. Don’t rush to the airport because they are prodding you to. More than likely you waited an extra forty-five minutes outside their house and now that they’ve made themselves late, they want you to step on it. Don’t do it.

Number Two: Be courteous. Good manners are an international passport to people’s “good side.” And if they are jerks, bad manners won’t help, so stay on the bright side.

Number Three:  Try not to argue with the client. This was the most difficult. Here was the gray area of my responsibility.

An example: A woman writes a book on surviving divorce. It becomes a bestseller and she is asked to appear on a nationally syndicated talk show based in Los Angeles. I pick her up at her home and drive her to the set. After the taping I return to the studio to take her home. Does she want to go home? No. She does not. Where does she want to go? She wants to go to her ex-husband’s office on the other side of town so that he could see her in a limousine and she could talk about being on television that evening.

Could there be anything more ironic? What kind of message was this sending? What if her readers found out?

I nearly jumped in the backseat and gave her a talking to. As an alternative I gently explained that it was against company policy to deviate from the pre-arranged route but that if she had a short stop along the way to her house I would be happy to stop for her and keep it between us. She made a call and decided to stop at her friend’s office instead and I think she felt better as soon as someone saw her in the limousine.

I have spent a good deal of time in limousines and Town Cars, mostly behind the wheel but sometimes as a passenger.  It is a nice way to travel but I don’t feel more attractive in a black car with tinted windows. They don’t make me feel special or as if I am a better person. Riding in a limousine, I am merely me, riding in a limousine.

Maybe the allure of the limo is more common than I suspect but not everyone falls prey to it, especially not studio executives.

A Town Car to them is like a bus ride to you and me. I know because I listened to a few complain all the way to the airport. “Oh god, I have to go to New York on business. I hate the airport. I hate flying. I hate me. I hate you. Blah, blah, blah.”

I called them Chronic Complainers. I doubt they will ever be happy and frankly, I pity them. They seemed to have no idea how fortunate they were to have just emerged from a beautiful home high above Beverly Hills. They did not seem to realize or appreciate that I was driving them to the airport at 6:00 am and they didn’t have to park a car or even carry their own luggage. No, the world was a sorry problem for them and I was just a part of it. Fortunately, they were the exception.

More regularly, I drove wonderful people grateful for my services and the studio’s (ostensible) generosity. We often chatted on the way to the airport and I must say that it was especially pleasurable for me because I love listening.

james_farentinoOne day I received a call to pick up the actor James Farentino. The pickup location was Tina Sinatra’s house, his girlfriend at the time, in West Hollywood.

It was a nice area and not pretentious at all. It was a quiet street off the main boulevard. The kind of place you could imagine Ozzie and Harriet living. It had big trees and lovely homes and although you were only steps from Sunset Boulevard, it felt safe and quiet. In fact, during the day you might not see another person on the street.

I arrived my usual fifteen minutes early.  I made this a practice so that the client could finish packing or getting ready, secure in the knowledge that their car had arrived and everything was on schedule.

I made a right off Sunset, passed the house and then turned the car around so that it would be facing south in order to leave efficiently for the airport.

I went up to the door to let Mr. Farentino know that I had arrived.  He gave me his bag and said he would be a few more minutes. I said no problem and carried the bag away.

I had popped the trunk upon arrival as a matter of course, so I needed only to lift the lid in order to put the bag inside. After placing his bag in the trunk I shut it, but not too hard.  I am a gentle person by nature and have always believed things should be done with just enough force to accomplish the task. Some things need a lot of force, like splitting logs for firewood, most other things need quite a bit less.

Oddly, upon closing the trunk this time, I noticed it didn’t shut and click the way it did ordinarily. In fact, I could see there was a small crack between the edge of the trunk lid and the place where it met the car body. It seemed as if it did not shut properly.

I turned my hands palms up and put the tips of my fingers in that crack in order to lift up the trunk lid and shut it once again. Immediately I noticed my fingers stopped at the first knuckle. I also noticed the lid was not going up. It was not open or closed. Worse yet, it was closing all on its own.

2005 Lincoln Town CarBefore I realized what was happening, it was too late. Apparently some Lincoln Town Cars were equipped with automatic trunk-closers that operated hydraulically. You easily bring the lid to within two inches or so of the closure and it does the rest. Unfortunately, it does this with vise-like efficiency.

Now it is 11:00 am and I am standing outside of Tina Sinatra’s house in West Hollywood. The sun is beating down on my head, I am wearing a black suit and it looks like I’m butt-fucking a Town Car facing Sunset Boulevard. My fingertips, up to the first knuckle, are locked in the space between the trunk lid and the car and it can’t be wider than a quarter of an inch. Try as I might, I can’t pull them out. I’m completely stuck. There is no one around who can hear me, but I can see the cars whizzing by on Sunset Boulevard.

My fingers were really starting to hurt and I didn’t know what to do. My brain tried to kick into some sort of survival mode by invoking the name of the last person I had spoken to before this unfortunate event.

At the exact same time, my pride was locked in a battle with the excruciating pain emanating from the tips of my fingers and coursing through my body. My pain wanted to scream and shout at the top of my lungs but my pride was having none of this humiliating affair and preferred to weather the event stoically until help arrived on its own.

The result was a half-hearted unconvincing plea you could have mistaken for a whimper that sounded something like, “Uh…. er…. Mr. Farentino…?  Mr. Faren-tino?”

The traffic on Sunset Boulevard made it impossible even to hear myself and the heavy wood door separating Mr. Farentino and myself made calling out to him ridiculous. How was I ever going to get out of this? I supposed I could wait until he eventually emerged and then he could release me.

My fingers were turning purple and starting to ache quite badly. Just then a green Volkswagen pulled up to a nearby house across the street. A young woman emerged and started for her home.

“Psssst. Pssssst. Hey–over here!”

I am only five feet eight and standing behind a Lincoln Town Car in a black suit, she could probably only see the top of my head. She looked around as if to see who or what was calling her. At moments like these you realize how helpful waving your arms can be.

With only my voice to deliver me from this predicament, I yelled more forcefully. “Hello, it’s me. Over here!” She turned and looked at me.

“I know this sounds crazy (the only way to begin this conversation), but, it seems I’ve locked my fingertips in the trunk of this car. Do you think you could help me?”

“Where’s the key?”

The car was running, so if she had thought for a moment she would have realized where the key was, but in fact we didn’t need it. I calmly told her, “We don’t need the key. I need you to go around to the passenger side. Open the door and get in. Then open the glove compartment and you’ll see a yellow button on the left-hand side. Press the button.”

As she slowly made her way up the slight incline of the street, I could see that she did not fully understand the gravity of the situation. She approached the car with trepidation and meekly asked, “You want me to open the door?”

At this point all the pressure being exerted on my fingertips rushed toward my brain like an embolism and caused me to explode in a Tourettes-like outburst. “GET IN THE DAMN CAR!”

She moved quickly now and as soon as she was in the seat I continued giving her orders with the same intensity. This system worked well and when at last she pushed the little yellow button I felt a surge of relief as I had never felt before.

Just then, Mr. Farentino emerged and I made my way to the passenger door shaking the blood back into my fingertips. I held it open for him and he greeted me. She looked at him with the “Don’t I know you?” expression so common in Hollywood, as I shushed her and gave her a gentle, “Thank you. I really appreciate it.”

Without further incident, I delivered my passenger to LAX precisely as scheduled. I never saw Mr. Farentino again and I never again put my fingers in the crack of a Lincoln Town car’s trunk lid.