As my daughter and I hurried from the Metro station to the Inauguration last January, we passed rows of limousines parked near the Capitol. Clad in parkas and backpacks filled with food, radio, camera, blankets, we sneered at the long, shining vehicles.
"Disgusting!" we muttered. "Gas guzzlers! Ridiculous! Why can't THEY ride in sensible cars?"
Months later, I was riding in a limousine and loving every silly, luxurious, pretentious minute. I wouldn't want to own one, but for a celebration, traveling limo style can't be beat.
Most people ride in a limousine twice -- when wed, when dead. A gift from a friend proved that limousines can be fun, especially for someone used to arriving in a practical, economy car or en famille in a beat-up brown station wagon.
The Cinderella evening occurred when my husband and I agreed to celebrate a mutual anniversary with friends. As a surprise, the other couple sent a limousine to pick us up and carry us around for the night.
When the sleek, navy blue Cadillac pulled up to our house, a crowd of kids and dogs gathered, eyes bugging. The adult neighbors probably thought someone had died until they saw us emerge, dressed to the hilt. The uniformed chauffeur, George, poured champagne for us to sip as we eased our way into the city. I felt as if I had won "The Dating Game." I was rich, pampered, beautiful, sinfully indulged.
In a limo, you do not worry about wrinkling your dress, or cramping your legs -- you could lie down with room to spare in the palatial back seat. No wind blows your exquisite hairdo. No noise ruffles your calm. No heat, cold, rain, snow interfere with your enjoyment. The quiet purring of the powerful engine positively soothes.
After joining our friends, we were driven to the chosen restaurant where we leisurely sipped, supped and celebrated two happy marriages and a friendship that began 16 years before when two optimistic, innocent couples met on their honeymoons.
After dinner, we cruised around the nation's capital sipping more champagne and admiring the sights, always lovely, but taking on a new patina through the tinted glass windows. We stopped where we deigned without the frustration of looking for a parking place. We drank to our heart's content; our driver would get us home .
After suitable celebration, we were whisked home quietly and serenely, knowing we could--relying on George's discretion--do as we pleased in the pale blue velour back seat. (Limousine drivers undoubtedly could tell tales to keep gossip columnists in material for years.)
Impressed with the festive air the limousine added to our anniversary, I thought of other people and occasions that would get a lift from a limo, such as:
Out-of-town friends off on a sightseeing tour, a sweet-16 or graduation celebration. Or picture yourself arriving at a class reunion in a chauffeur-driven limousine.
A beautiful someone who hasn't yet fallen for your charms? How good looking, important, intelligent you'll seem in the glow of a limo's back seat.
The business benefits are obvious. To get work, you must look like you don't need work. A client arriving to discuss a big deal? Pick him up in a limousine.
A tour of Washington Christmas decorations -- a spin past the White House, the Pageant of Peace, a stop to admire the store windows, the National Cathedral--capped with a warm brandy at your favorite watering hole?
The possibilities are endless. While chauffeurs' lips are sealed about the details of who, where, and when, they are willing to divulge some inventive things people have done with limousines:
One gentleman popped the question and presented the girl of his dreams with a diamond ring while cruising to dinner; another couple spent an entire evening riding around the Beltway. Children have surprised parents with a ride to their anniversary dinner. One woman arranged for her children to go wherever they wished once a month in a limousine.
"People who rent a limousine for a night on the town are full of life, and the drivers get a real joy out of it," says Andrew Brown, owner of Andrew's Limousine Inc. During his 19 years in the business, he has served many famous people, including Bob Hope, but he gets a big kick out of the customer for whom the limo is a lark.
As for limo protocol, Brown advises the new customer to "act like you have a million dollars because it takes million-dollar people to ride in a limo."
Be sure to let the chauffeur open the door for you entering and exiting. You can pass the time until he gets there by gathering up your possessions. (So that's why the queen carries a big purse -- so she has something to gather until her door-opener gets to her.)
A casual, slightly aloof attitude, is best. A "golly-gee-whiz-do-you-believe-it's-me?" manner is not what you're after.
Many limousines have tinted windows that passengers can see out of, but gawkers can't see into. It's great fun to watch passers-by as they wonder, "Who's behind the tinted window?"
If you spot a person you know and want to be seen by, you can roll down the window and give the royal wave. (You know, THE wave of the royal wedding procession: Bend arm at elbow, smile benignly and wave your hand and forearm gently to and fro, keeping fingers slightly apart. No need for excess here; a Richard Nixon or George Bush wave will never do.)
All this luxury and fun, of course, doesn't come cheap. Most chauffeured limousines cost about $25 an hour with a three-hour minimum. Tipping is optional, says Brown, but most people who are satisfied with the driver's service tip 15 percent.
For the budget-conscious, consider that standard limousines hold six passengers, larger ones, even more. Thus, three couples can split the expense. For those who really want to splurge, "stretch limousines" with wet bar and color TV might be just the thing. Perhaps the ultimate indulgence is an evening in a Rolls-Royce.
And remember, if you could actually afford it, it wouldn't be half as much fun.