This time around, I shall not be opening limousine doors for Republicans -- as I did at the 1981 inaugural.
My friend had assured me it would be a breeze. His limousine company always needed extra chauffeurs around inaugural time. That event and the World Bank convention are the times when there are too many dignitaries for the available limo drivers. That was when the limo companies would temporarily hire anyone with a driver's license to help out. All I had to do, he said, was cart some big shots around town, show them the sights, smile so wide I exposed my back molars and then sit pretty and wait for the Big Tip. My friend had had tips of $100 and more.
I didn't have a chauffeur's license, I pointed out. No problem, he said. Worst'll happen is the cops bust you, and the company would pay the ticket. With the crowds, chances were they wouldn't catch me anyway, he said.
My income was low and I needed to support the love affair I had just started with the woman who was to become my wife. I told him I was available.
Wearing my job interview suit, I drove to the company's obscure depot off Indian Head Highway. I almost lost my way. I have a bad sense of direction. This was not good for a chauffeur, I said to myself. This must change. I picked up Car No. 7, a long black limo that stretched out past the horizon.
My job was already laid out for me. Some Republicans, a husband and wife from California, were coming to National Airport. I was their driver for the weekend. I pulled out on the Beltway and headed for National Airport to pick them up.
They were easy to spot. They were the bewildered ones trying to find their baggage claim tickets. I had written their name on a big card, so they could find me. The husband laughed when he saw my card. It's Parkinson, he said, not Tarkenton. They were in a good mood. They were here to celebrate the brand new government and get royal treatment in Washington, D.C.
Instead, they got me. Their first inkling that their visit wouldn't be glitch-free came as we drove to their hotel, the Hilton on Connecticut Avenue -- via McLean.
"Where are we going? Isn't Washington that way?" the husband asked.
"Yes, but I thought I'd give you a quick view of Virginia on the way," I lied, pulling a screeching U-turn on Turkey Run or whatever the heck it was, and returning to Key Bridge.
They made pleasant conversation. What would I like to be? A writer, I told them. A screen writer. Nice business to be in, they said. Very nice. They hoped I would make it. Although they constantly mispronounced my name, I liked them despite my Democratic leanings.
They told me their schedule -- pickups at the hotel in the morning, sightseeing and a big Saturday night party at the Kennedy Center.
I was there the next morning at the Hilton promptly at 8:30. It was one of the few appointments I was to make on time.
They wanted to go to "George Washington's place." I took them to Mount Vernon, battling my poor sense of direction at every turn in the road. It took rather longer than necessary to get there: We saw Alexandria several times on the way. But they took it well, being from California. They were nice Republicans. I drove them around the Mall, the Jefferson Memorial, the Capitol, all the while wanting desperately to be with my sweetheart.
Could I point out some of the sights as we went along? they asked. Sure, I said. The long thin one is the Washington Monument and the short dumpy one is the Jefferson Memorial. That's the Lincoln. And that's the Potomac.
Six years in this town and I still knew only the most obvious ones. I waited for the inevitable question that I would be unable to answer.
"What's that one?" He asked, pointing to an obscure white public building, which I later found out was the Supreme Court. I was on my own. I dared not reveal my ignorance. So I paused only a beat before answering: "The Needlemakers'," with a air of bored, self-assured knowledge.
"The Needlemakers' Museum. Dedicated to the women of the South, the ones who made all the uniforms for the Confederates in the Civil War."
There was an interminable silence behind me. I began to perspire, thinking I had given the game away.
"Isn't that nice," said the wife eventually. Relieved, I tried to keep them in conversation so they wouldn't make me have to lie anymore. They would be in town only for two days, I figured. They'd never know the difference. How I wished I could be lying in the soft protective darkness with my new lover, away from the world of intrigue -- and celebrating Republicans. But the money . . . .
They were looking forward to the inaugural party Saturday night. I was to pick them up at 8:30. It sounded so easy. A short drive down Connecticut and over to the Kennedy Center. I was so conscientious, I left the woman of my dreams early. I took Calvert Street, off Wisconsin. The road had many potholes from the cold weather. One of the limo's tires caught a pothole and sagged. When the car continued to sag long after having left the pothole, I realized I had to change the tire.
I breathed deeply. There was no point in panicking, I told myself. I could still change the tire and make it on time. I had 20 minutes. No sweat. The car jack was there. The spare tire. I changed the wheel and started the car.
Something was wrong. The car kept turning in on itself, trying to somersault and roll on its side like a wounded, floundering hippopotamus. My limousine was dying.
I pulled the key from the dead black beast, called the Almighty to witness and ran to the guard box at the new home of Vice President Bush. The guard graciously let me use the phone after I told him a group of key Republicans were waiting for my car. I then called the company. My limo was an ex-limo, I said. Could be a broken axle. At any rate, I needed another limo. Immediately. No questions. Clients were waiting. Okay, they said. Be about 20 minutes. I called my Californians, who were not in their room. I tried paging them at the lobby, but the receptionist said there were too many people millling around to find them. I lit a cigarette and waited for my new limo. The second-in-command himself arrived 30 minutes later in an enormous limo.
A silver one with funny wings at one end. He climbed from the cockpit, his face gray with worry. I watched anxiously as he got under the car.
He was up in seven seconds. "There's nothing wrong. You put the tire on backwards," he said with cold venom. Before I could apologize, he ordered me to use the big limo and take care of the Californians.
I flew to the Hilton. There was nosign of them. No sign of anyone, in fact. Everyone was enroute to their respective parties. I was facing the chauffeur's equivalent of Death Row. My mess-up was so resounding, I could only sit in the dark silence of the driver's seat in disbelief. From that point, I concluded, there was nothing I could do. The Californians had most likely taken a cab to the party. The only thing to do was to go to the Kennedy Center on the off chance they would be at the entrance. I did so and walked up and down the center's Hall of Nations in vain. No Californians.
I decided I might as well visit my sweetheart, since my career as a chauffeur had just run into a wall. I went to her and she gave me comfort. I returned to the Kennedy Center around the time I figured the party would end. I found them.
They wouldn't have listened to any excuse, so I told them the truth. It wasn't good enough. His face bulged red, she hid hers from view in grief. I apologized sincerely, mentally kissing my tip goodbye. I took them back in silence to the Hilton. The only job ahead for me now was to pick them up in the morning and take them to the airport -- without going by McLean.
I was there bright and early. I apologized again, but their sulks had not left their faces. The silence was embarrassing as we drove to the airport. I contemplated hara-kiri.
I helped them with their bags at the airport. The inevitable final moment came when we were to say goodbye. He took me aside quietly, away from his still-grieving wife. They had had a miserable time, he told me. He asked me to please pursue my writing profession wholeheartedly and not try a career in transportation of any kind. I assured him he should consider that request honored. I apologized again. I didn't deserve a tip at all, he thundered. I agreed. Handing me a small brown envelope, he disappeared into the National Airport lobby to catch up with his wife.
I walked dejectedly back to the limo, feeling terrible for ruining the Californians' visit. And furthermore, I could see there was only one bill in the envelope. I got into the car and slumped against the seat. I watched the planes take off for awhile and then decided to open the envelope before returning the limo. Maybe it was a fiver, I thought optimistically, as I tore it open. I pulled the bill from the envelope -- the 100-dollar bill.