Drive, he said

A night in the life of a Sacramento limo driver

“To the Batcave, Alfred. Let’s go!”

“To the Batcave, Alfred. Let’s go!”

Photo by Larry Dalton

Even before the night went to hell, before the woman in the tube top and thong entered his limousine, chauffeur Thomas Snelgrove knew he was in for a bad ride.

It was the 10 p.m. ticket, a young plastic surgeon taking seven friends out for a night of club hopping. The gang included the surgeon’s girlfriend and three other couples, among them a John Belushi-looking wannabe comedian and his wife. It was the comedian who uttered those words that no limo driver wants to hear: “I’ll take care of you tonight.”

“If they walk up and the very first thing they say is ‘I’ll take care of you tonight,’ that’s it. You’ll never find a tip at the end of that ride,” said Snelgrove. “The person who talks the biggest game has nothing. The person who talks like they are broke all the time has more than everybody. The average good guy will take care of you. That’s a lesson of life, I guess.”

The night would prove Snelgrove right. The comedian was watching every penny that night, while the surgeon happily hemorrhaged money. The comedian didn’t see the need to pay the cover of a club he was going to leave shortly after downing a few drinks that cost more than he makes in a night from standup. He was happy kicking back in the limo with his wife and the free booze.

The limo was a 37-foot Ford Excursion with wet bars, a DVD player, a PlayStation 2 and the Sony Xplod 1,200-watt sound system. It’s not really a limo; it’s more of a luxury liner for the road with a turning radius to match. The plastic surgeon put the sound system through its paces, blasting his techno mix and declaring that everything was “so T-I-G-H-T, tight, TIGHT!”

Snelgrove let the passengers off at their first club, the Blue Cue, at 11:30 p.m. They were out again at 11:45 p.m. At 12:15 a.m., it was the Limelight. Fifteen minutes later, they were out again and driving around the city in search of the perfect club. They wound up at 815 L Street.

During stops, Snelgrove stays with the Excursion, tidying the mess as best he can. He never goes into the clubs. “Sometimes, people invite you into the club or come back with drinks for you. I never do that for a couple of reasons. One, I’m their designated driver. Getting me drunk misses the point. Secondly, if you accept a drink or a steak or something, there goes your tip. Because you’re a friend now, no one tips their buddy.”

The comedian and his wife hung out in the limo with Snelgrove and discussed the comedian’s fledgling career with his newfound driver/shrink/counselor.

Snelgrove has only been driving limos for Lakeshore Pacific Limousines for a year. Before that, he drove trucks for 12 years. “This is just like trucking,” he joked. “Except the freight talks back.”

At 2 a.m., 815 L Street closed its doors, but the surgeon and his gang were too stoked to end now. They were looking for trouble. They found it in the parking lot. With her felt hat, bare midriff and black thong peeking above her low-rider pants, the new woman quickly turned the party into a bisexual tailspin.

She suggested the party head to Club Fantasy, a strip club. The men were all for it, the women strangely silent. Nonetheless, the whole group entered the club. After 15 minutes, the surgeon’s girlfriend left the club in tears. From the car, Snelgrove watched the drama unfold with a practiced eye. “She does this every time they go out. She wants to settle down and hates these nights out.”

The strip-club enthusiast was disappointed. She couldn’t understand why the women didn’t like their boyfriends staring at strippers. “Maybe they should get new girlfriends,” she declared loudly. Before the limo could leave, she realized she had left her felt hat in the club. She went back to look for it, and some of the guys went inside to help her. They returned 15 minutes later, hatless.

As the night progressed and the liquor freely flowed in the back seats, the frantic quest for fun became more unfocused. The group’s bleariness seemed to manifest outside the limo, too. Thick fog filled the road. Road signs went from difficult to impossible to read, as the partygoers (now wasted to near insensibility) couldn’t remember how to get to their own homes. A girlfriend remembered what her new boyfriend’s bedroom looked like, but she couldn’t remember the house. The ride took on a hallucinatory feel, the driver looking for invisible streets, half glimpsing signs and taking directions from incoherent people. Somehow, it all seemed reasonable at the time.

By 4:45 a.m., the limo and its occupants smelled like a bar. The exhausted yet still frenetic surgeon owed another $293 in addition to what he had prepaid for the night. “This guy’s never bellyached about paying a bill,” said Snelgrove. “They just laugh, saying, ‘I can’t believe we went over that much.’ Nine times out of 10, people are going to fuss about it, make excuses. These guys were laughing, which is a good feeling.”

Everyone was finally dropped off at 6:08 a.m. “That’s par for the course,” sighed Snelgrove. “This was supposed to end at 2:30.”

Looking at his paltry $57 tip, Snelgrove was philosophical. “I love doing business with people like that. They’re leaving on a good note. I’m leaving on a good note. Everyone’s happy. That’s worth a million dollars to me.”

At 6:45 a.m., back at the shop, Snelgrove had another 30 minutes of cleanup after the hurricane had trashed the inside of the limo. He had started work at 9 a.m. the day before and had another run starting at 9 a.m. If he worked fast, he’d get an hour of sleep.

While cleaning up the limo, he found the woman’s prized felt hat. He laughed.