“How long is Long Island driver?” Hannibal Lecter asked from the back of the limo.
Too long, maybe, to drive the worst serial killer ever, popped into my brain as we sailed away from Manhattan’s Mark Hotel. From any other limo passenger it might have been simply a curious question. But Hannibal the Cannibal never did anything without sinister purpose.
“130 miles or so…from Manhattan to Montauk.” Was all I said.
Unable to hear my response, Hannibal switched seats, positioning himself behind my right ear. An unusual set of questions ensued. More than most limo passengers ask about the geography of Long Island or a chauffeur’s personal history. It set me on edge wondering how long before Dr. Lecter would open my skull from behind and Pinocchio my limbs to suit his pique.
Despite his disguise; wire rimmed glasses, hair hanging softly down, the quiet demeanor of an Oxford don, I knew exactly who sat in the rear. Infamous eater of Fava beans and census taker’s livers all washed down with a nice Chianti. Though pretending to be Sir Anthony, recently dubbed by the Queen, I wasn’t taken in by his performance. I was sure Hannibal was driving Sir Anthony even as I drove him.
I had been assigned to take his party, including spouse, ‘mum’ and an exec from the studio footing the bill, to the Sag Harbor Cinema, for a premier to benefit the Long Wharf Theater. The featured film, Sir Anthony’s most recent, Remains of the Day, was already on the Oscar short list for best picture.
When the most adept of city limo services failed to plumb the serpentine recesses of South Fork back roads, drivers often dumped famous passengers at the Jitney’s Southampton terminal. Our chauffeurs were regularly called upon to save the day, whatever remained of it.
I’d driven more than my share of major actors and screen legends for years prior to and while in service for Jitney’s exclusive limo service, but this felt completely different. Having driven for numerous limo companies, from the time I came aboard the Jitney’s limo staff, I grew aware of the uniqueness of their clientele. They the crème de a la crème of who’s who often involved in private dramas beyond any on the screen.
From John Lennon to the Rolling Stones, Al Pacino to Ray Charles, I prided myself in providing unparalleled door-to-door service, as well as answering requests in between, no matter how bizarre. I was practically an expert in the location of every suitable eatery and every working commode between Brooklyn and the Hamptons. And though a fan of this passengers’ work, I took pains to avoid letting him know. Experienced limo drivers would never bore noted passengers with private fan requests. I found myself suppressing the odd sensation to just once have him hissingly utter, “Clarissssseeee…”
Hannibal/Hopkins insinuous userations continued to sound perfectly innocent. But for a driver with a Walter Mitty imagination like myself, even “Drive the route often?” had dreadful implications. I tried to give as little info as possible while still politely answering.
“Virtually every day” I said, then added, “…in season.”
“Been chauffeuring long?” From a man so overly adept with a scalpel, this implied too much interest.
“On and off, since I was eighteen.” I mumbled. “Really? So you know all the short cuts.”
“Cuts” raised goose bumps. More than minimal curiosity in the driver could indicate a wide variety of trouble. The spectrum ran from interference with Paparazzi to keeping a star’s wardrobe pressed while they cavorted without it. Not to mention horny starlets with mayhem on their mind. Professional chauffeurs must be cautious about assumptions regarding passenger invitations considering the sometimes internecine distance between front and rear limo seats.
“Do you have other employment?” caught me off guard. Was he simply trying to avoid the other conversations going on in the rear or was he genuinely interested in me because I was doing everything I could from appearing inappropriately interested. Maybe my minimal answers were having a reverse effect.
Just saying no felt too dismissive. What to leave out. Was he looking for more than travelogue and the thumbnail history of Long Island I had been unreeling? The increasing intimacy of his questions was turning Dr. Lecter into something far less menacing. Someone who might even be a friend.
I took a long pause considering my options. Truth was I had had so much other employment I was embarrassed. Restlessness had seen me through a wide variety of job titles. Revealing too many might indicate I had become the cliché among unpublished writers.
Minimally aware of my passenger’s personal history, I took a left turn that was all risk.
“Well, Mr. Hopkins…I teach driver rehab for Stony Brook University.”
“Really? What’s that? And call me Tony please.”
Few knew of the NYS Drinking Driver program, fewer still understood its fundamental purpose. And lack of knowledge never kept the public from making negative comments regarding things of which they were completely ignorant.
I hesitated, and then said, “Students call it cocktail college.”
Tony laughed. “Great title. You should write a book…”
That I was writing a book about it felt like an even worse cliché. I chose not to respond.
Tony went on. “How does that program work?”
“If arrested for driving under the influence, drivers can take the state course and get their license back sooner.”
“So you work on the side of the angels…am I right?” Tony asked.
“Can’t think of a better way to say it.”
“You may know I’m familiar with Bill W. It’s not a state secret.”
“I’m not a member of AA Tony, but certainly a friend.”
“I’d shake your hand if you didn’t need it to drive.”
“A rain check will do fine.”
Tony introduced me to his fellow travelers as if I were a long lost companion. For the rest of the trip it was as if I had become a member of his party. I ferried them between several East End attractions before dropping them at the American Hotel’s guest house. Tony asked me to return at 6:30 to drive them to the theater less than a block away.
When I returned all four came out in formal attire suitable for Major Hollywood premieres. Once aboard I turned south at Sag Harbor’s flagpole to bring the limo’s passenger side to the curb in front of the theater marquee. A large crowd, even by Sag Harbor standards, had gathered and there were even what looked like a pair of mini Klieg lights announcing Sir Anthony’s arrival. Police cleared a place for the limo. I pulled in and opened the door. Tony was last. I offered my wrist to help him out and he pulled me to him whispering in my ear, “Would you like to come in?”
“Thanks. But it looks like SRO Tony.”
He motioned to the theater manager who said if I wanted, I could stand in the back.
“But the limo…”I protested. Before I could object further Tony asked one of the police who said I could leave the keys in the limo so they could move it if necessary. With no other reason to resist, I strode in beside Tony feeling the tumultuous wave of standing ovation Hannibal the former Cannibal received.
It wasn’t until after the film, following even more thunderous applause, that I understood the character of the butler was his homage to all who labor in domestic service.