Licensed Operator

At the top of the hour, the public address system chimes and announces the time throughout the terminal – 10:00 am. Any moment, the floodgates would open and the stream of Monday morning arrivals would begin pouring into the city. After collecting their bags, most would make their way – heads down and buzzing with caffeine – to the train which would whisk them into the financial district. Others would phone local friends and loved ones and scramble to describe where exactly they were on the concourse, scanning the landscape in vain to find landmarks among the symmetrical concrete pillars and pedestrian islands. But there were a handful of travelers – those with a dash of pretension and an unfamiliarity with public transportation – who would arrive eagle-eyed, scanning the masses for somebody like Jake.

Like clockwork, the torrent arrives. One after another, they file off the escalator and break to his left or right, hell-bent on reaching their baggage carousels as soon as possible. A few eye him with curiosity, but move on without a second glace when they see it isn’t their name Jake has scrawled across the whiteboard he holds expectantly. The first wave passes, then another. Half an hour into his vigil, a gorgeous brunette in a yellow sundress and impossibly tall heels drags her carry-on suitcase onto the escalator and begins her descent to where he is standing. Her hair is loose around her shoulders and her face is alight with the excitement of travel – a far cry from the tired expressions the business travelers wear. Jake’s heart pounds inside his chest, praying her last name is Mercer. As she nears the bottom, he pins his shoulders back and attempts to smooth his wrinkled suit jacket with a sweaty palm. Like a lump of gold on a conveyor belt of coal, she slides down to earth, drying his mouth and forcing a dumb smile to his lips. But like the others, she passes him with only the slightest look, leaving his head swimming in a wake of perfume. He is dazed and half-dreaming when a hand tugs at his suit jacket.

“Mr. and Mrs. Archie Mercer, at your service!” says the short, slightly pudgy man at his sleeve.

He is dressed in the working uniform of the retired traveler – a billowing silk shirt taken down to the third button from the top, cargo shorts with each pocket stuffed to bursting with maps, snacks, and a disposable camera, snug diabetics’ socks,  and walking shoes that are at once practical and mortifying. His equally short, equally plump wife wears a similar get-up, although accented with massive visor and earrings dangling with palm trees.

“Archie! You didn’t tell me the kids got us a car service!” she squeals, “I feel like a celebrity!”

Jake shakes the fantasy of the single brunette traveler from between his ears, and bows to each of them in an exaggerated recreation of something he saw in a movie once.

“Jacob Masters, at your service! And Mrs. Mercer, to me you might as well be Marilyn, Audrey, and Beyoncé, all rolled into one.”

He winks at her and she giggles like a much younger woman. Archie laughs too, unthreatened by the multi-generational flirting and with the ease of a man who hasn’t felt a drop of testosterone in his veins for several presidential cycles. The Mercers each pull a small roller bag packed with what he can only assume is enough medication to stop a horse’s heart and a selection of clothes suitable for all climates; Jake insists upon taking the handle of each, tucking his white board under his arm and leading the geriatrics out of the concourse and across the street to the ground transportation lot. They make their way through the lot, passing town cars and limos, taxis, and shuttle vans. The Mercers eye each vehicle with expectancy and a tinge of hip pain. Finally, they reach their destination – a dishwater gray 2002 Subaru with a donut on the passenger-rear and a badly faded State of California multi-passenger commercial license in the windshield. Jake parks the bags and jams a key in the door, swinging it wide for Mrs. Mercer.

“This is your car?” asks Archie, skeptically.

“That’s right, Mr. Mercer. She’s not the sexiest girl at the party, but Sally the Subaru is the most reliable set of wheels you’re likely to find in our fair city. Plus she comes equipped with an added perk.”

Archie stares at him blankly.

“She comes with me, Mr. Mercer!” Jake shouts, startling both the geezers.

Somewhat convinced by his pitch, Mrs. Mercer pushes past her husband and sinks heavily into the front seat, motivated in part by a need to take her weight off her artificial joints. Jake swings the door shut behind her and offers the rear bench seat to Archie, who slides in with all the grace of a cinder block. He catches the silk of his shirt under him, snapping off the button nearest his navel. Jake slams the rear door and circles to the driver’s side, jimmying the handle as necessary.

“Now, Mercers, I have a brief confession to make,” he says, again in the exaggerated voice of high service, “I have misplaced my manifest so you’ll have to tell me where I am headed.”

Archie grumbles in the back, but Mrs. Mercer is quick with her address book. She rattles off a residential address in a wealthy neighborhood Jake knows well. He smiles to himself thinking of the gorgeous streets of mini mansions lined with sweet smelling flowers and high-end domestic cars.

“I know just the place,” he beams, “and it would be my distinct pleasure to take you there post haste. But if I should be so bold, how would you like a real local’s tour of the city first?”

Archie begins to protest, but Jake cuts him off.

“Absolutely no charge. Just my little treat to make up for the inconvenience I’ve caused with my forgetfulness.”

Mrs. Archer is beside herself with excitement and Jake knows there is nothing Archie can do to deny his wife the pleasure of a sightseeing loop. Resigned, he waves them on and the Subaru is off like a bolt into the city. As they leave through the parking lot’s main gate, neither of his passengers notice the sign above which prohibits commercial vehicles of any kind.

Jake merges onto the interstate and before long, they are zipping along part palm trees and sweeping vistas. The meander past all types of historical markers, famous landmarks, and unique hideaways known only to those who have spent a great deal of time wandering aimlessly with a lack of better things to do. At each turn, Jake is quick with a story and Mrs. Mercer is quicker with her camera. After several crisp anecdotes and a brief pit stop at a locally famous hot dog stand, even Archie thaws, and the trio continues lapping the city in earnest. Finally, Mrs. Mercer announces they are late for lunch with their children. Archie agrees and Jake feels something like sadness knowing their time together has reached its end. He makes a U-turn in front of Dick Van Dyke’s one-time summer home and points them toward the children’s American Dream neighborhood. He reaches a hand under the seat and feels for the revolver under the seat, confident he wouldn’t need it but comforted by its security at his feet.

 

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