Free Ride

by Noam Scheiber | January 13, 2003

One of the perks of appearing on prime-time cable television is the hired car most shows will send to shuttle you between your office and their studio. In the world of political punditry, a subculture frequently derided as elitist, this is a surprisingly democratic touch. I'm a relatively obscure staff person at a relatively obscure opinion magazine. I've made a grand total of four TV appearances during my career as a journalist. Three of those coincided with major holidays--when the usual talent was away. It's not a stretch to say I'm not what would be considered a major TV personality. And yet I'm entitled to the same Lincoln Town Car as brand-name pundits like Bill Kristol and Howard Fineman. I made my first trip in the Town Car in New York a little over a month ago. Because of all the pre-Thanksgiving traffic, it took the driver about 20 minutes to take me the seven blocks to the studio. But, other than that, and the fact that the driver dropped me off at the Port Authority on the return trip (so I could catch a bus to my parents' house in New Jersey), I have to assume the experience was pretty standard. My second go-round in the Town Car was slightly less so. On the Friday before Christmas, I received a message from a producer of this same show asking me if I was available for a weekly political roundup the following Thursday. Technically, I was free. But in practice I was going to be in Wisconsin, visiting my girlfriend's family for the holidays. I explained all this in a plaintive message to the producer, assuring her I would be delighted to do the show but for this minor logistical hitch. She called back and assured me that I could easily do the show from a local studio in some nearby, yet-to-be-determined city. So, at precisely 1:15 the following Thursday afternoon, the now-familiar black sedan pulled up in the driveway of my girlfriend's childhood home in suburban Green Bay to spirit me off to Madison--150 miles away. It was at this point that what had begun as a casual Christmas officially snowballed into a Reese Witherspoon movie. In addition to the obvious, there are a couple of subtle differences between a short trip through midtown Manhattan and a two-and-a-half-hour ride through the cornfields and dairy farms of Wisconsin. The first is the relationship between passenger and driver. In Manhattan, there's no point in pretending that getting picked up in a Lincoln Town Car is routine if it's not. As the driver has picked up hundreds of people, most of whom have presumably taken dozens of similar rides, he will quickly detect even the slightest hint of inexperience or, worse, gauche enthusiasm. I learned this during my New York trip, when I coyly began sifting through the singles in my wallet as we pulled up to the studio. He politely explained that he would be my driver for the return trip as well, so it might be more convenient to tip him all at once. In Wisconsin, on the other hand, the absurdity of having someone drive you 300 miles to do a 15- minute TV segment is far too great for either party to confront head on. Instead, both passenger and driver try to play it off like an everyday occurrence, implausible as both know this to be. "So we're going to Madison today, huh?" my driver greeted me, saying this about as casually as I've ever heard anyone discuss an itinerary. "Yep, yep," I slowly nodded in response, as though I were the kind of person who hired a driver to take me to the 7-Eleven. The second difference is your own sense of self-worth. In New York, every third person is being chauffeured around in a car just like yours, yet you, the uninitiated, are deeply impressed with yourself nonetheless. In rural Wisconsin, where you might as well be riding in the alien mothership that abducted "Rael" in 1973, people can't help but notice you. And noticing them notice you produces a form of discomfort somewhere between sheepishness and outright embarrassment. To mitigate this, I tried thrusting a newspaper in front of my face. But at the exact points when I was most conspicuous--that is, when my driver swung out into oncoming traffic to pass a caravan of slow-moving pickup trucks--I was least capable of taking my eyes off the road. Instead I just sat and winced. To make things worse, it turns out every conversation you have with a stranger in Wisconsin ultimately comes back to transportation. Awaiting me at the studio in Madison were half a dozen questions about my commute, all seemingly designed to get me to admit I'd been chauffeured (the network had arranged for the car from D.C.): How long did it take me? Wasn't it nice that the trip was no longer entirely along a two-lane highway? Did I think it was as easy a trip as did the cameraman's wife, who used to make the same commute in the opposite direction? I fielded each question with a vague "we"--as in, "Oh yeah, we got here pretty quickly"--and then tried to look like I had some important pundit-preparation ritual to get through. Easily the most unanticipated hired-car-related problem in Wisconsin is what to do with your driver while you're occupied. In New York, driver and car seemed to magically disappear, only to reappear as I exited the studio. In Wisconsin, we arrived an hour early, and both driver and passenger were at a complete loss as to the protocol governing long waits. We just stood in the parking lot, stumped, until finally the driver volunteered that he would go get gas while I went inside. This was a 200-yard drive that he mercifully stretched into a 45-minute excursion. But, when he got back, I was still waiting in the glass-enclosed lobby, in direct view of his parking space. Finally it became unbearable to sit in our respective seats pretending we had things to do. I went out and invited him into the lobby, where we watched "Oprah" on the big- screen television and chatted about driving times between major Wisconsin cities. This small gesture of goodwill had the effect of personally investing the driver in my TV appearance. After the show, he perked up and asked how everything had gone. Not well, I said. Before long we were having an improbable discussion about the relative merits of doing television, which, we agreed, was far less satisfying than print and ultimately a poor indication of your worth as a journalist. I think this and the fact that the driver was 20 years older than me gave the situation the feel of childhood soccer practice--when my father would pick me up and I would construct similarly elaborate excuses for my sub-par performance. When we finally pulled into my girlfriend's driveway back in Green Bay, I began fumbling around in my pocket the way people do when they don't know whether to tip and are stalling for a clue from the would-be recipient. But the driver saved me the ordeal, explaining that most car companies automatically add a 15 percent gratuity to the bill. We shook hands and wished each other luck. Then I went inside and had dinner.

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