Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Behind the Wheel, pt. 4: The Book Covers

I know what you're all waiting for. You're waiting for the celebrities. There were celebrities, and I'll get to them soon enough, but the most interesting people I ever carried in the back of a limousine weren't the glossy, well-known faces contrived to be winsome by People magazine. They were the normal, everyday folks.

I learned, several times over while behind the wheel, that even these average people weren't so normal, and that one should never, ever judge a book by its cover. I know it's cliché and that we all do it, I still do, but sometimes you meet somebody and the label you apply to them in the first few minutes just peels right off.

I got the call one day to pick up a couple of tourists at the Holiday Inn Sunspree on Panama City Beach, The Boss wasn't sure exactly what they'd want to do or where they wanted to go. Business must have been slow that week because normally this is the kind of job we would have declined; you just never knew what you were going to get with driving tourists around, it could very easily be a group of 17-year-olds looking for a place in which to drink, hang out the windows and, eventually, get sick.

I drove to the beach and, pulling into the parking lot of the Sunspree, saw a middle-aged couple standing near the doors to the hotel. He had on jeans and a button-down, short-sleeve shirt untucked and a couple days worth of growth on his jaw. His hair looked as though he'd just rolled out of bed and he was sipping on a can of Budweiser. Her hair was bleached to an unnatural yellow and she wore a sleeveless shirt, shorts and flip-flops. They were both fairly rumpled-looking, having only recently unfolded themselves from their luggage.

Surely this couple couldn't be my fare. But when I pulled to the doors, they waved eagerly and thanked me profusely as I opened the door for them to climb in. "This is going to be a long day," I thought.

The first place they wanted to go was back across the bridge, into the city - leaving the beautiful beach and emerald water behind - to go to the mall. I tried to talk them out of it, passively telling them just how far a drive it was (about a half hour) and assuring them that there was nothing there worth seeing. But they'd seen the beach, had their fun there, and were anxious to get to a mall for the afternoon. When I dropped them off and we agreed on a time to meet back at that door, he pulled a wad of cash from his front pocket such as I'd seen only one other time (another story for another time), unwound the rubber band holding it together, gave me a hundred dollar bill and asked me to pick up a bottle of Asti Spumante for them while they were inside.

As I sat in the mall parking lot waiting on them, a bottle of sparkling wine on ice behind me, I dreaded the afternoon. I had no idea how long I was in it for or what would be next, the clients didn't seem to know for sure, either. They just seemed thrilled with being in a limousine and at the mall for a time.

The mall and the Asti Spumante must have loosened them up, because they were very chatty on the drive back to the beach. And very, very nice, asking about the area and how long I'd lived there, about my life and interests. All passengers were strangers and most of them felt compelled to talk to me as the driver, making polite conversation because they weren't quite sure what the protocol was. The protocol is that you are not obligated to talk to the driver. You certainly may because you're paying, but no one is expecting it and the Q&A usually ends up being more awkward than pleasant. But these people were an exception, they appeared genuine and genuinely interested.

Once back on the beach and stopped for lunch, they pleaded with me to join them, but I declined. After lunch they wanted to go play pool and insisted I come into the bar with them instead of sitting in the car. So I sat at a nearby table, drinking coffee and watching and talking some more with them.

They were from Arkansas, he told me, and he owned a construction company that built nursing homes all over the country. They were simple country folks, yet the more we talked, the more I realized that they were loaded. This didn't make any difference in their personality, they were some of the sweetest people I've ever met, but I felt guilty then for judging them initially as backwater hillbillies who were probably in awe of a limousine and a guy wearing a suit. When I finally dropped them back at their hotel after a day of sightseeing and more beers, they warmly said their goodbyes and he pulled out that wad of cash again to graciously tip me. I was sorry for the job to end.

I came to understand over time that that area of the country is full of people like that, simple people who have worked hard and amassed some impressive wealth, yet still live as they were brought up - simply. That goes for their accumulation of all that riches can buy and in the way they treat other people. They're good people whose money didn't seem to affect them or allow it to affect those around them.

They are a far cry, I would also learn, from the wealth of celebrity.