I'm at a time in my life when I'm obsessed with minimizing future regrets and, to that end, I feel compelled to agree to just about any experience. How else do I explain saying yes to being a driver in a motorcade for Vice President Biden, being handed the keys to a 15 passenger vehicle and chauffeuring around a bunch of his 20-something staffers and some local journalists?
The email came to me via a friend of my daughter's who had worked for the Vice President last year. The request for drivers was for the following day. I didn't consider it but I mentioned it to my husband who said, "You've got to do this. You'll be 'inside the ropes'. It'll be so much fun."
"First of all," I said, "you think watching the golf channel is fun so right away we have different reference points for fun. Second, most of your clients are in the news business. What if I wind up driving one of them and they find out I'm your wife. They could think 'wow what's going on with him that he's sending the wife out to be a driver?' The repercussions could be disastrous."
"I don't have any clients that cover Biden so you're safe. Come on, it's something different. What else are you doing tomorrow?"
I did have a prescription that was ready for pick up at the pharmacy that day, but I had to admit it that wouldn't be an all day kind of thing. And even if I added my plan to scour the Internet looking for volunteer opportunities to work with wildlife rescue organizations in Africa, the day was pretty open.
I tried to convince my two sons to do it, but they legitimately had work to do. When they, too, thought it sounded like the coolest opportunity, I decided to postpone Africa and apply. I faxed my social security number and a of copy my driver's license to the person in charge. And so I was chosen.
I needn't have worried about discussing my husband's career with the passengers in my van. It turns out that people are not particularly interested in making conversation with their driver. "Hi," I said when the six people in my van were seated. "I'm Phyllis. I'll be driving today. Let me know if you need anything. Does everyone have their seatbelts on?" Suddenly I had taken on the role of a flight attendant. Beyond a couple of perfunctory grunts, and one "we're fine," they had no response to my greeting. Weirdly, they just wanted me to drive. Which I did, barreling through red lights and cruising on the I-10 East to the 110 North with only the motorcade on the road. People on the streets peered with anticipation into our cars hoping to catch a glimpse of someone, anyone who might be recognizable. My job was to keep my eyes glued to the van in front of me and imitate its moves exactly. That van had an open back with SWAT guys with guns sitting in it, so not wanting to give them any cause for concern, I followed their movements as if we were synchronized swimmers.
Things went pretty smoothly until we got to our second stop and the Secret Service wanted me to parallel park the van. My own car, the one I drive in my regular life, seats only 4 people and that car has a back up camera. You would think someone who is piecing together this 15 passenger van might say, "guys, should we put a back up camera in this sucker or just equip it with a pair of binoculars so you can see what's behind you when you park?" Apparently they chose neither.
"Use all your mirrors" Secret Service man #1 said to me. I tried this. He was asking me to park not only between two cars, but to first back up and thread my way down a very narrow street. I thought to myself, "you guys probably took a month long course to learn to do this and you're giving each other side-ways glances and raising your eyebrows because you can see that I'm feeling a little insecure here."
The real problem was that behind the van, I had two more Secret Service guys giving me a bunch of hand signals like the ones the guys on the tarmac give to pilots parking their jet. And the two of them had different techniques for what "a little more to your right" or " now go left" meant so the result was that I was making little S shapes as I backed up, like an ice skater dancing backwards. Then they gave an urgent "stop, stop you're ok" signal even though I wasn't really parked against the curb.
This didn't sit well with the two Secret Service men who were in front of the van and who had their own hand signals that looked suspiciously to me like they were throwing their hands in the air in disgust and then smacking their foreheads in disbelief. I think I read those hand signals correctly because the next thing I know one of the men from the head smacking group came over to me and politely suggested -- these guys were intensely polite to me even as they gritted their teeth -- that we switch places. I got out of the van, which by the way, I more or less needed a crane to do, and he parked it. At that moment I desperately wished I knew the proper hand signals for "I was an executive in the entertainment business for 20 years, I have a Masters degree in psychology and I'm only doing this because my whole family thought it was a cool thing to do." Instead I stood there and watched him park it effortlessly feeling as if I let down all womanhood.
After my team parked the van, we drivers were asked if we wanted our picture taken with the Vice President. Hell yes, I wanted a picture with him. We were ushered into a room with about 30 other people who worked at the community college that Biden was visiting and we waited... and waited... and waited some more. Finally after over an hour the Vice President glided into room, charming, handsome with those chickletly white teeth that seem to precede him like some spotlight illuminating his entrance. We were all lined up waiting for our moment with him. The protocol is that some assistant on Biden's team comes up to you and whispers, "what's your name?" and then he escorts you the 10 feet to where the Vice President is standing in front of a black curtain and an American flag that had been set up for this photo op.
"Mr. Vice President, this is Phyllis." Mr. VP looks at me, shakes my hand and says, "Hi Phyllis." Then he looks a snip more closely and upon seeing that I was his peer in age if not in gravitas, said "How'd they rope you into doing this?" I didn't think it was time to open up a philosophical discussion about ages and stages in life, so I just told him that his granddaughter and my daughter were in the same sorority at college and that he spoke at my daughter's graduation. Neither point had anything to do with how I wound up driving his staff around, but he seemed to enjoy the connection. As he shook my hand and we faced the photographer, I inexplicably placed my left hand on top of his hand that was shaking my right hand and we smiled into the camera. The result is that we look as if it's our prom picture and that something very special was happening between us.
The day came to a close a couple of stops and a few hours later. I came home with a pin from the secret service, a couple of cool pictures to Instagram, and a pretty decent tale to tell. All that and I still had time to pick up my prescription.