Monday, March 21, 2011

Confessions of a Green Car Chauffeur in Hollywood

The next time you go through LAX and see guys in the baggage claim holding greeting signs and wearing black suits, white shirts, and ties… take a second look… one of them might be me. While the employer will remain anonymous for now, I figured it was time to mention how I’ve been spending my weekends for the past few months. (If you invite me to a party on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, don’t take it personally if I can’t make it. Now, if you’re invitation is much better than lost income, I will take your offer into consideration. Another option you have for spending time with me is hiring me as your chauffeur for your social gathering on the weekend. I’ll see that you get a discount and will only request a very reasonable tip.)

Another surprise I’m going to announce right now: Chauffeuring can work pretty well in a Toyota Prius. I have yet to hear one person complain about getting into a Prius instead of a Town Car. The backseat is roomier than the original Priuses (now called Prii – see below) that you can still see driving by. And it’s a bigger car overall. I’ve been assigned a 2008 Prius with nearly 100,000 miles on it. I did get to test drive a 2010 Prius at an event last year. The 2010’s dashboard technology fills more space and is more graphically impressive, but it’s basically the same car in size and standard features.

Lately there’s been a lot of coverage of the upcoming Prius family – plans include the seven passenger Prius V and compact Prius C Concept – but don't say Prius, say Prii. Toyota got public feedback on how to pluralize the famous brand name now that there's going to be more versions of them on the road. Results were announced at the Chicago Auto Show, and voting was kicked off January 10th at the Detroit Auto Show. It went so well that added the new word to its Prius listing. So it is now official.

When you talk to Prius drivers (me being one of them), they do have good things to say. There are a few criticisms too, including: 

  • The rear window could be better. Most of it is covered by a tinted layer to reduce glare, but it also makes rear view vision less clear. 
  • The car is low to the ground and balanced, but it is slightly clunky and noisy going over speed bumps and the like. 
  • The instrument panel is readable, but some of the data gets old. Is the Prius really getting 99.9 miles per gallon right now, and does that really mean anything? 
  • It's nice but not luxurious – the feel of a commuter car. 

I would add a few good points to this review: 

  • It's safe, reliable, and dependable. 
  • The interior is roomier and spacier than the first generation version, and a good one to pack luggage and drive somebody home from the airport. 
  • The only problem I've seen on a 2008 model with about 100,000 odometer miles is the air conditioning touch screen control panel went wacky recently and had to be replaced. 
  • The base price is about $23,000 these days. When people complain about hybrids costing $5K to $10K more than non-hybrid counterparts, it's hard to criticize the Prius for its price point. 
  • The mileage is very good – usually around 50 mpg combined. That needle doesn't go over to Empty for quite a while, and you're probably only filling up about 10 gallons. As gas prices spike up consistently, my love affair with the Prius deepens. 

As for chauffeuring, I don’t see this being my long-term career. I need the money now, and it’s good to be driving a green car and gaining real world experience about it. I also have driven a CNG-powered Town Car. Remember the story about the angry neighbor stopping by and telling me about his CNG Ford Contours that he couldn’t get repaired? I haven’t seen him since then. Perhaps he and his wife and dog did leave the country in rage over Ford and the EPA.

You do have to gas up the CNG version more often than a regular Town Car (it goes about 75% of the distance of a gasoline version before the tank runs out), and the Clean Energy natural gas stations can be few and far between. And there’s a bad thing that can happen – you run out of natural gas, and you have to be towed and sometimes have a service technician check out the valve before filling up the tank. Either way, you get towed before you can fill up again. You can’t walk to a gas station and fill up a plastic gas tank at the pump to take back to your car, when you’re working with natural gas. The CNG vehicle does have great emissions ratings and an HOV car pool sticker. Natural gas is a better buy than gasoline – especially as gas prices hike – and you do get used to driving it and gassing up regularly as part of your schedule. You can also get a more efficient, longer range natural gas vehicle, many of them LNG and some CNG, depending on the quality of the aftermarket supplier. The match between engine/drivetrain and natural gas as its power source can work well for certain makes and models like the Honda Civic GX and a few of the Ford and GM natural gas conversion light trucks.

There was also the opportunity I had to drive a Lexus RX450h hybrid. I drove a celebrity to an awards show back in October (yes, LA has awards shows that basically go from September until the Oscars in late February). When I drove him and his assistant onto the lot with a “Talent” sign on the dashboard, we were directed to a roped-off spot where media asked questions and flashed cameras. I felt like I was in a movie. Regardless of that, the RX450h was a treat to drive – very smooth, and plenty of power as needed. It’s a very comfortable and luxurious ride with great stuff to see on the dashboard control panel, almost too good as to be distracting. Getting better mileage than non-hybrid luxury SUVs is also a good thing.

I do have a lot of respect for chauffeurs. They have to get up damn early and wait in the dark for someone to come out of the house with their baggage. They get used to showing up early and waiting for someone who’s late, sometimes having to call in to dispatch and let them know. And always be 15 minutes early to the spot, never get lost, meet client requests at all times, and be at a high level of customer service. The tips can be good, and you do get to meet some, well, interesting people:

Five Categories of Hollywood Backseaters 

– Celebrities, usually actors who are referred to as “talent” by the entertainment industry, and where it’s possible you’ll access an event with that word on a dashboard sign to let the studio know you’ve got one in the back seat. One thing I’ve listened to while driving Hollywood celebrities is conversations they’re having where they tell a spouse, friend, or agent about the unsatisfying and frustrating meetings they’ve just had, where people aren’t being upfront about offering the work and what it will pay. Sometimes this involves bad words, such as, “They are totally f%8#cking me over!” Another interesting listen involved a guy who used to be in a famous pop group and had his own TV variety show a few years ago. His complaint was about his Twitter account – where somebody selling a lot of vitamins and supplements tried to sound like they were his buddy posting helpful suggestions about what and where to buy good stuff for their health. He had to out them in a few of his tweets before it stopped. Another crumb of interesting celebrity gossip: some of them take fake names to protect themselves from the paparazzi and annoying fans. One client uses a character name from an Ayn Rand novel. 

Friendly, Fun & Creative – You can have some really cool conversations with Hollywoodites. Sometimes they’re screen writers, production crew, marketing/communications people, or have absolutely nothing to do with entertainment biz, live in LA, and want to be chauffeured. They do ask good questions and have their own opinions about green cars. They actually speak to you as if you’re a real human being, not just a machine driving a machine. 

Distant & Detached – Usually nicely dressed, business like, packed with the latest smart technology that they live off oc. You can drive these people more than once, and they don’t remember you from before. This fact applies not just to Hollywoodites. I hear that chauffeurs know this cross country, cross industry. Business people living off their phone, sending emails, or spacing out in thought. 

Total Jerks – These people, usually men but sometimes women, seem to get a charge out of being total jerks and love that they’re known for spewing out rants and attacks as part of their image. Fortunately they’re rare. They might go to a club, or get picked up from a business meeting, and have plenty to say about their enemies in this world and how they’ve got them all figured out, and will one up them. Their assistants tell them they understand what they’re saying and agree completely, though I don’t think of any of us in the car believe it. 

Tightly Wound – These people are nonstop balls of nervous energy, usually obsessively compulsively attached to communicating with people and controlling as much in this universe as possible. One passenger called her friend and left a long voice mail, then texted her, then called her roommate and asked that she be told about the call and not being able to get through. She ended her trip giving me stark and sullen driving directions, seemingly not liking that I didn’t know her neighborhood like the back of my hand. Another passenger incessantly called a lot of people she knew, mostly leaving them long messages, unable to sit in that backseat with the quiet.

As a chauffeur, you have to pretend you’re invisible at these moments, blending into the dashboard. It’s nice to be treated like an equal human being, but that doesn’t happen all the time. So you focus on being of service, getting them there safely and on time, making sure they have all they need, carry their luggage, etc.

Most importantly, if they don’t tip you, let it go. They may think it’s covered in the corporate account, or be distracted, or don’t believe in tipping, or think they’ve already paid enough, or were not impressed with the service level, or annoyed with you for not being perfect about the driving route. I’ve been given verbal tips on earning cash tips from other drivers, and that’s cool. In the end, I work on letting it go. Tips are great but I strive to deliver a high level of service and get them there safely and on time. The tip is their choice.

Oddly enough, I do get a charge out of leaving for a trip on time. It might be 4:30 in the morning, and I’ve got my suit on, I’ve got the gas card and Nextel radio, and the car is clean and gassed up with a bottle of water and snack in a spotless back seat. I know where I’m going and have left on time. I radio the dispatcher and say, “I’m in route,” and the dispatcher says, “10-4.” Then I breathe deeply and feel I am right where I’m supposed to be in that very moment.

There’s also some very interesting conversations I get to have with other chauffeurs while waiting for clients to make it through the terminal. Like me, some of them have other career tracks they’re on and this work is extra. I do get to spend some time around veteran drivers who work a lot of hours and don’t care for it that much, but this what they do. And then there is that rare breed who love what they do, and have a lot of gifts to share on how to keep that car looking great, how to get out of traffic jams, and essentially read the client’s mind, meeting their needs ahead of time. These chauffeurs get great trips and are requested later by high-level Hollywood execs.

They don’t want to drive a Prius, though. They want to get a client in an SUV or Town Car, where the trips can be longer and the cash flow more plentiful. Sometimes they get “as directed” trips where the client tells you where to go and when to drop them off. I had one of these passengers on a Friday night. I waited about three hours for her to get out of a night club, and it went pretty late into the evening. I fell asleep probably four times until my phone woke me up and she said she was ready to go. The following Friday morning, I looked at my online checking account and saw how much I’d made that weekend. She was forgiven, and I held no grudge.

These long waits do give me more time with my heartthrob, the Prius. I spend a lot of hours in that driver’s seat, or walking around the car, stopping and waiting for a passenger, checking out the curves and lines. I’m used to the subtle sputtering noises and stammers the Prius makes as its motor kicks in, and the regenerative braking does its job. The Prius has its own personality that you get used to after a while, and start to get fond of. I’ve known a few people who are just plain addicted to the Prius and have owned two or three of them. They are true believers and will shop for different versions of the Prii models that are soon to come out.

The first couple of times I drove it, the car was a little awkward for me – having to step on the brake and hit the start button without a key. When stopping the engine, hitting the park button before hitting the power button again. Soon it became automatic, and I came to appreciate the back-up camera, fending off danger to small children and tiny animals.

Okay, that’s enough about the Prius and chauffeur gig. I do wonder if the next woman I get involved with will get tired of my attachment to the Prius, perhaps jealous, and will get wild ideas about doing the Prius in. Hmmm… could be a movie script I pitch to a client.

--Jon LeSage


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