Airport limo drivers are like fighter pilots. Hurtling towards oblivion on the B.Q.E. or the L.I.E., the Grand Central Parkway or Utopia Parkway, the Jackie Robinson or the Van Wyck. The chaos of Queens is the chaos of now. My name is Ziggy Hrbaty. Buckle up. Sit back and relax. I’ll tell you everything.
So you don’t know where you’re going, eh? Well, my friend, I can definitely take you there. Nowadays it seems everyone is headed in that direction. I’m really feelin’ the zeitgeist on Queens Boulevard, a k a “the Boulevard of Death,” flanked by used-car dealers and fried chicken. People from all over the world come to America just to try and walk across that road. If they survive, God has spoken. If not, well.
That’s why I prefer to be behind the wheel of a Lincoln Town Car. At least here I can pretend to be in control of my life (or at least the radio and the air-conditioning). The city is a freak show. It’s best to close your eyes. But I can’t afford to miss a nanosecond. Eyeballs bulging, lids peeled back . . . everyday life absorbed at the speed of light. If the asteroid Apophis really does hit earth in 2029 or 2036, the impact will be nothing compared to the thought explosions inside my head. It’s almost strange to wake up each morning alive.
If you compared us to flying insects, taxicab drivers are like yellow jackets, aggressive and colonial (and serving a single queen), while the limousine driver is more like a solitary wasp. If I hold up a sign with “YOUR NAME” at the airport, it’s because you’re special. I mean, anybody can hail a yellow taxi. But only YOU can request a black-car service. Now that’s what’s called a professional relationship. That’s why I wear a silk tie and double-breasted cashmere suit. Have you seen the “bohemian” clothes on taxi drivers lately — berets and gatsbys and fedoras and whatnot? Please! Let’s get you from point A to point B in good taste.
One night I got a call to pick up a famous actress at LaGuardia Airport. Her name was Veronika (yes, that Veronika!). She had just finished shooting the second season of “U.F.O. Hunter” and was coming to New York to promote the series on a late-night talk show. As we walked to the car, Veronika said I could take her picture with my mobile phone camera and sell it to a tabloid magazine. I told her no, it wasn’t necessary. This really confused her. So I explained how I really wasn’t a fan of the show. This confused her even more. So I told her “U.F.O. Hunter” was predictable and overwrought. And that’s when she started to laugh.
“You’re so right!” she said, lighting a cigarette.
“I thought you quit smoking.”
“My publicist says I quit. Not me.”
It was 3:00 a.m. in late April and the parking garage was nearly empty. Emerging and forgotten celebrities often fly to New York at odd hours of the night aboard special “celebrity flights” because they can’t afford a private jet. Here’s how it works: A dozen or so B-list celebrities are clustered together in first-class, while the rest of the red-eye passengers are curtained off in economy seats. For example, Veronika was on the same flight as the rapper Hamburger (Hollis, Queens, baby!), six bodyguards, and five of the surviving dwarf actors who played munchkins in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.”
Veronika’s agent had reserved a room at the Hotel Edison on West 47th Street near Times Square. But as soon as I merged onto the westbound Grand Central Parkway she freaked, “Turn the car around! I want to go to Montauk!”
She tried to explain, “I was born and raised on Long Island.”
Farther east, at exit 64, civilization ends as the Long Island Expressway enters the pine barren wilderness. Here there are no lights, and the L.I.E becomes a dark nightmare, a post-apocalyptic highway leading to nowhere. The hamlet of Medford is the last place to buy gasoline before entering the no-man’s land. I pulled into a service station with a half-tank because I wasn’t taking any chances.
“Yep, this is my town,” Veronika chirped from the backseat.
“I’m really sorry.”
She opened the rear window as I pumped super unleaded.
“I bet you’re wondering how a girl like me went from Medford to Manhattan. And then Hollywood.”
“No, not really. I was thinking about how much gasoline costs nowadays.”
“Did you always want to be a driver?” she asked.
I stood up straight and glared at her.
“I guess not.”
“So what happened?” she asked as we passed exit 68.
“What happened? Life happened. My generation raged against physical labor, we glorified not doing, and now we’re surprised at our unreality.”
“Dude, what are you talking about?”
“The end of the Cold War was an unearned victory for America, a forfeit . . . the opposing team just walked off the field. There were no cheering crowds, no ticker-tape parade along Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes, because we didn’t feel like heroes. America felt too ashamed to celebrate. Or didn’t know how. And perhaps it was premature because I think the Cold War continues . . . between husband and wife, father and son.”
“Okay, mister, pull the car over. You’re really starting to freak me out.”
Exit 69. Exit 70. We pulled off the expressway and cruised south along Westhampton Beach Highway flanked by scrub oak and dwarf pines. Veronika made a strange observation. “In this soil everything grows stunted and crooked. Even the people.”
We then headed east along Route 27 (a k a Sunrise Highway) through Hampton Bays, Shinnecock Hills, Tuckahoe, Southampton (where the road becomes Montauk Highway), winding our way through Bridgehampton and East Hampton and Amagansett until the South Fork of the island is a thin spaghetti noodle not much wider than the road itself. On the horizon a black tower, the Montauk Lighthouse, silhouetted against a reddish cloudbank. Still standing more than two hundred years after President George Washington authorized its construction. Veronika got out of the car without a word and ran up Turtle Hill. I parked the car.
So there I sat . . . and nothing. I waited. Finally I got out of the car and found Veronika sitting on the edge of a bluff. The surf crashed hysterically onto black rocks a hundred feet below. She pretended not to hear me. Without looking up she said, “Whenever my grandparents brought me here, it felt like we had come to the end of the world. They always looked so sad staring at the sea, as if there was something on the other side of the Atlantic. I tried to tell them, ‘Grandma, Grandpa . . . This is it! This is all there is!’ But they just looked at me and smiled.”
“You should have told them, ‘This is where America begins.’ ”
Veronika laughed. She got up and stepped away from the cliff. This made me feel better. We walked back to the car. She asked me to turn the radio on. A local station was playing “Memory Motel” by the Rolling Stones.
“Okay, turn it off.”
Heading west on Montauk Highway the sun rose behind us like an atomic explosion. We hurtled towards New York City at an astonishing speed.
“So what’s next?” she said.
R.G. Vasicek lives in Astoria, Queens.