Tales from the front seat

Stretch: Lifestyles of the rich and famous include riding around in limousines.

April 05, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN STAFF

The Arab princess arrived with so much luggage -- 250 pieces of it -- that a U-Haul had to be rented to cart it away. When the football players were too big to fit into their hired limousine, a second six-person stretch was dispatched to carry them all in comfort.

Waiting on the tarmac or curbside for these celebrity clients -- and attending to their unique requests -- are guys such as Gary Day, Eugene M. Smith and Clark Jones, one-time salesmen and department store managers who now earn their living in front seats of limousines crisscrossing Baltimore.

Their customers are the royals, Hollywood stars and corporate high rollers behind the tinted glass. This clientele carries its own baggage, and it's not Louis Vuitton.

When you're driving the sister of Saudi King Fahd, John Travolta or the du Ponts, getting there is the least of it. It's about giving the clients what they want -- within limits.

It's about pampering the privileged, however neurotic, for $50 to $75 an hour.

"My [clients] have the American Express card; they don't ask how much," says Smith, owner of EMS Limousine, where clients include Fortune 500 company executives.

But the clients do have a few rules of the road: Keep two hands on the wheel, send a driver who doesn't wear cologne, follow approved routes, stay a safe distance from the car in front and don't get out and open the car door (that job belongs to "security").

Smith has his own rules, telling his drivers: "Your job is to drive ... hear or see nothing. Speak when spoken to."

When actor-singer Will Smith got married in Baltimore, some limousine drivers picking up guests didn't know the identities of their passengers, just the address of their destination, says Clark Jones, who owns Bit of Elegance car service. "A lot of those things are hush-hush."

But Gary Day, whose American Limousines also worked the Smith wedding, remembers this: "After the wedding, they sent wedding cake down for all the drivers.

"One of my favorite stories is when Robert Goulet was here," Day continues.

After a performance of "Camelot," Goulet stood outside the theater, signing autographs for fans, including an elderly woman with a walker. As Goulet got into his limo, she turned to walk home. Day says the actor asked her, "Young lady, where are you going?"

Goulet offered to drive the woman to her mid-town retirement home. When they arrived, the woman thanked Goulet, Day recalls, and said, "Nobody would ever believe I got a ride home with Robert Goulet." "He said, `Oh yes they will.' "

Goulet got out and escorted the fan inside.

"It's the wanna-be important people who are very demanding and want to be important," says Day, who operates his company out of a fuchsia-colored building in Highlandtown. "The important people are laid back and nice."

Discretion is always advised, though not always practiced.

"I'll tell you a funny story," says Day, whose 26-vehicle fleet includes Lincoln Town Cars, limousines, vans, trolleys and buses.

Day received a reservation for "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" who would be arriving at Signature, the Baltimore-Washington International Airport terminal that caters to private planes. Two limousines were ordered.

"You'll never guess who Mr. Smith is?" says Day, 40. "John Travolta. They had a car for him and one for his wife and baby."

Day says the movie actor didn't want to travel in the same vehicle as his family "in case something happened." The driver said Travolta "was a very, very nice guy," Day notes.

When Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' post-Super Bowl partying ended in a deadly fight, the driver of his rented stretch limousine became the star witness. Day and others empathize with the owner of All Stretched Out limousine who had to travel to Atlanta to retrieve the bullet-scarred limousine. Police escorted his driver back to Baltimore.

"It was great publicity for them," says Day, "but it was publicity you could do without."

Certain clients have certain needs. Satisfied customers tip well, very well.

Gene Smith, whose trademark is his black felt Stetson, built a bed in the back of his limousine to transport an important client home from the hospital. He also drove a wealthy elderly woman from a nursing home in Baltimore to a grandchild's wedding in upstate New York. He stayed overnight in a hotel and drove the woman home the next day.

A former client, a corporate executive from Colorado, recently called Smith to ask a favor. Would Smith buy a Winnie-the-Pooh bear and two white roses and leave them on the step of his girlfriend's house?

"I did it," says Smith.

Big-time lawyers have asked Smith to drop them off around the corner from the court house.

"If they're going into court to argue about money," they don't want to arrive in a limo, he says.

Smith draws the line on some things. "Some guys want you to get them women," says the 62-year-old former salesman. "I don't deal with that. Limousine drivers can't serve liquor, but passengers can bring it."

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