Donal “Sully” O’Sullivan unlocks the door to his gleaming black Lincoln town car, a majestic vehicle that stands out in a row of smaller, dusty economy cars. The new-car smell wafts throughout the limo, with its leather seats and complimentary water bottles for passengers. Sully climbs into the driver’s seat and closes the door, disappearing, along with the secrets of his clientele, behind dark tinted windows.
Sully has been a limousine driver in Los Angeles for the past ten years. He is fifty-eight years old, tall and lanky with a chiseled jaw and grey-blue eyes. His Irish brogue makes everything sound like it will have a punch line. He has driven Hollywood executives, B-list actors and world-famous celebrities. “Every time I look at the telly, I see somebody that I have a story about,” he says. But Sully won’t gossip or divulge their secrets. “If somebody takes you into their confidence in a really personal way, especially the rich and famous, you have to rise to that level of trustworthiness.”
Without naming names, Sully, like most Los Angeles drivers, knows which celebrity clients insist on smoking cigarettes or cigars in the limos, despite no-smoking policies. One such passenger is an Oscar-winning bad boy, and the other a Grammy-nominated rebel. The celebrities end up paying steep cleaning fees, because the smoke-tainted cars will be taken out of commission until they are detailed and deodorized. The driver might spend the next week driving around with the cherry scent of industrial-strength air freshener.
With exceptions, most celebrities are decent to the limousine companies they work with, offering regular business and giving the drivers respect. Sully knows this, and I do too, because my husband and I own a limousine company. I run marketing for the company, take reservations and dispatch runs to drivers across Los Angeles. Among these drivers past and present are everyone from former CEOs to retirees, musicians, actors, former Marines and a nurse.
Despite erratic hours, unsteady pay and the tedium of chauffeuring, the drivers I’ve met over the years approach their jobs with dignity, even though they sometimes don’t get breaks. When a driver is on an “as directed” job, he or she is at the mercy of the client’s schedule. Usually they can grab a meal and a bathroom break when a client has been dropped off for lunch or at a meeting. But when there are no facilities in sight and a driver “has to go,” they might rely on empty water bottles. The tinted windows help them be discreet.
Sometimes, clients get sick on the ride. One driver spent a week chauffeuring around a high-end designer who had bronchitis. He ended up getting bronchitis too, and was out for a month. Every limousine driver has had to deal with vomit, especially during prom season, but also when called for weddings and bachelorette parties. If not cleaned up and sanitized immediately, vomit can cause a car to be taken out of commission for days.
There is an etiquette that exists among all of us in the limo business, particularly when it comes to celebrities. We know that the more high-profile celebrities use code names, like Red McGee (an Oscar nominee with strawberry-blonde hair at the time) and Street Halo (a statuesque lead actress in a popular cable drama). We know silly stories, like the one about an assistant who once hired a car service for her boss, a famous actress, and requested a code name for the sign at the airport, to throw off the paparazzi. But there was one problem: The assistant forgot to tell the actress she had a code name. The actress walked right by her driver and ended up taking a cab.
Sully tells the story of how one high-end designer trusted a limo driver to keep a certain A-list celebrity’s wedding attire — including the bride’s $50,000 Swarovski crystal-and-lace wedding dress — in his car overnight. The driver stayed up all night guarding the car. The next day that same driver could have taken a photo of the bride and that gown and sold it to the tabloids for a million dollars. He did not take the picture.
We keep the names of those involved in embarrassing matters under wraps, like the executive who flaunted his affair as the driver picked up his mistress, or the rocker who had prostitutes delivered by town car, or the excessively high-maintenance B-lister who seeks out paparazzi, then accuses the driver of alerting them. While the hotel elevator footage from the infamous Jay-Z/Beyonce/Solange incident earlier this month quickly made its way into the hands of TMZ, you didn’t hear a word from any chauffeur about what happened after the trio slipped into their town cars outside the hotel.
Sometimes, working with the non-famous clients can be riskier than working for celebrities. One driver I know was hired to do an all-day “as directed.” His passenger seemed shifty and nervous. They stopped at two fast food stores, a grocery store and a stamp-and-coin store. The driver panicked after the passenger ran back to the car dodging gunshots. It turns out he had inadvertently been hired as a getaway car. His passenger had robbed each place they stopped. The driver called the police, and his passenger is now serving nineteen years for armed robbery.
Still, Sully prefers not to drive famous people, especially those who are known to be difficult cases. “There’s the same money with someone who’s down-to-earth,” he says. “I don’t care how famous you are. I prefer decent, down-to-earth people.”
I met Sully three years ago when he carpooled with me and my husband to a limousine convention in Las Vegas. During the five-hour drive he endeared himself with his stories, songs and anecdotes. Sully emigrated from Ireland in 1986. He once worked on oil rigs and tug boats and then, encouraged by friends and casting directors charmed by his big personality, ventured into acting.
In 1996, the film director Costa-Gavras cast Sully in the Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta film Mad City after a casting director raved about Sully’s talents. That precipitated a move to Los Angeles from San Francisco, where he was living after he emigrated from Ireland, and Sully’s entry into a life of chauffeuring while pursuing acting. He started working for the limousine company BLS, “driving around producers and directors for peanuts,” he recalls. He moved up to working for MLS at The Beverly Hills Hotel. In 2002, he purchased his own Lincoln Town Car.
Sully laments that Los Angeles isn’t hospitable to the limousine industry anymore. In many places, limos have been pushed out by valet services, and there is rarely anywhere for them to park and wait for clients. To get around this, drivers “trick” the system. One might park at an expired meter and keep the car running with the window down to make it look like he is searching for quarters. Another keeps an old parking ticket handy and puts it on his car if he is parked illegally while waiting for a client.
The limo business declined with the economic downturn in 2008, and it has taken another hit with the emergence of ride sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. They are only loosely regulated, while taxi and limousine companies are highly regulated by the Public Utilities Commission.
Great drivers drive defensively, anticipate and take care of clients’ needs, Sully says. It is not about the ride as much as the experience. Great driving, he says, is an art.
One of his pet peeves while driving is the lack of human interaction. “In the pre-cell phone and data-device days, people had great chats with you in the car. Nowadays people get in the car and they hardly look at you. They are speaking on the phone or checking their email. Traveling in the car used to be downtime for the client and they relaxed. They are far from relaxed now.”
Sully understands that many people do not want to have conversations, but he enjoys those rare human connections. Discernment is important. “Friendly, not familiar” is the golden rule. Most drivers get it. Some don’t.
Wayne, a former driver I know, was prone to hijacking conversations, sharing too much information and being too familiar. One client coined a nickname for him, “Fountains of Wayne,” because he was prone to weeping. Once, a client commented on pretty Christmas lights while Wayne was driving her home. He launched into a monologue about how his former girlfriend moved out during the holidays, into an apartment right next door to him and got a new boyfriend. He described his despair every time he heard his ex and her new boyfriend having sex. The client, now in her own driveway, couldn’t make an elegant escape because Wayne had started crying.
The relationship between driver and client is a tenuous one, sometimes filled with heartwarming moments. A few celebrity clients are known for being especially generous. One mega action-adventure movie star learns each driver’s name, and makes sure they have water and access to the bathroom. Once he even asked a driver to join him and his family at his house for a spaghetti dinner. Another, a beloved sitcom nonagenarian, insists her drivers be served dinner at her special events, just like any other guest.
Once, a driver drove an executive and his family home from a month-long vacation rental. They still had a week left on the rental. The executive handed the keys to the driver and told him to enjoy. He and his son did. Another client found out his longtime driver was getting married. The client offered his mansion up as a wedding venue.
One of the downsides of the job is the monotony of waiting. Listening to the radio is out, because it wastes fuel and drains the battery, so drivers find other outlets. Some find a shady place to park and nap. Others key into social media or play games on their smartphones. I asked Sully what he does to pass the time. He told me he sings.
A traditional Irish singer and performer, he has memorized hundreds of songs about suffering, joy, victories and failures. He bursts into one song.
Well, here I am from Donegal
I’ve feel quite discontented.
For to see the way that we’re run down,
Not highly represented.
For to see it is a general rule,
To make out pat a knave or fool.
But never mind he’ll play it cool.
And stand up for old Ireland.
After a tea break, Sully awaits a call for his next job. Before driving away, he lowers the driver’s side window and finishes his song:
Do me justice, treat me fair, I won’t be discontented.
And I’ll not be laughed at anywhere, but highly represented.
Lubov Demchuk-Dean is the marketing director for Excelsior Limousine and a novelist based in Los Angeles.