The last hitchhiker Michael Harrell picked up was kind of a mistake. "I stopped for this guy because I needed someone to help with the driving," Harrell explained. "He took one look at my cooler and said 'Do you have anything to drink in there?' I said 'No, just Pepsi.' 'Pepsi's OK' he said, and he reached in and took one. Didn't ask if he could have one. Didn't say thank you. I mean this guy had problems. So he was telling me about all his problems, and as he was telling me, he kept taking himself another Pepsi. I pretended we had to stop for gas. Sent him into the store to fetch some more Pepsi so I could get him out of the car and drive away."
Yet here Harrell was, a few months later, in the West Palm Beach morning sun, swinging over to the shoulder of the feeder ramp to pick me up. "Get in boy," Harrell told me. I piled into the backseat. As any gentleman would, he proceeded to introduce himself.
"My name's Jose Motherfucker," he said, turning around to inspect me. The passenger in front of me turned around too. "My partner here is Pedro Piss-ant. What's your name boy? You little snob..."
Michael Harrell is one to talk about snobs. Michael Harrell is a snob's snob. He used to be an accountant--according to him a millionaire accountant--but he abandoned that for a line of work that allows him to travel. An average of 23 hours a day.
Every spring and fall for ten years now he has transported luxury cars to and from Florida for well-to-do northern snowbirds who spend the cold months in their tropical condos and cottages but are too feeble or busy to drive their cars the distance. They call on Michael Harrell.
"The business is run on my personality," said Harrell. He's in his 40s, with premature white hair and a posture as stately as the pillars of the mansion he claims to have once had. "Most of those who work for the wealthy behave servile, like butlers. I do not. I was to the manor born, from one of the oldest families in the south. Our land was granted to us by the king of England. I'm accustomed to having nice things and I know how to treat them."
It was the height of the spring season, and Harrell was on his way to Sarasota to pick up a car that needed to be delivered to Highland Park. Harrell was driving "Big Daddy," a pin-striped American luxury van that still looked new after 100,000 miles. His trailer was hitched to the rear.
"Michael comes home, takes a shower, and he's gone again," says Harrell's Palm Beach secretary Wilma Edelen, known to clients as Wilma Darling. She earned the pet name by using "darling" as a catchall nickname--"and because it's very Palm Beach," says Harrell. "Clients always remember Wilma Darling--even if they can't recall having breakfast."
That was one of his senility jokes.
"I don't work for the clients' satisfaction," Harrell offered. "I work for my own satisfaction. That's why they like me. If a client displeases me, I fire that client. Very few fire me. The only other way I lose them is to the grim reaper. There've been four this year."
He's not impressed by their wealth. "When they brag about where they've been, I've been there. Or their luxurious belongings, I've had them. To me, too much money can be a headache. My great joys are my work, relaxing in the off-seasons, traveling, and living simply but elegantly. I still have money, but I'm not going to be ostentatious about it."
South Carolina, where Michael Harrell was born and reared, is part of the southern "yarn belt." They celebrate April Fool's Day year-round.
But Harrell can prove what he says about his fortune and lineage with photographs. At least, he could until they were burned up in that awful fire--the same one that took his mansion.
Serving as a relief driver was Harrell's beefy 21-year-old nephew Theodore Harlan Broughton IV. "My nephew Harlan has a pathetic aversion to work," Harrell lamented as the young man scuttled out to make a pickup at a Cash Station.
"All the children in our family have been spoiled to the gills, my children included. We've turned out a generation of wastrels, of selfish oafs, of noncontributors, nonproducers. They're all sitting around waiting for their parents to die so they can collect the inheritance. Boy are they in for a surprise."
Harlan hurried back to the van. Soon Big Daddy was pulling the empty trailer out of West Palm Beach, and across the interior of southern Florida, over quiet one-lane highways flanked by citrus groves and cattle farms, toward a brand-new Lexus on the other side of the peninsula.
"This is the Florida few people know," Harrell remarked. "Away from the beaches and amusement parks, Florida is mostly ranching and agriculture. You can see how easy it is for drug runners to land their planes in any one of these pastures."
The landscape moistened as we neared Lake Okeechobee and the northern reaches of the Everglades. Hairy cedars, cypresses shaggy with Spanish moss, and palm trees--as smooth and straight as concrete beams, or wild and cartoonish the way Dr. Seuss would have drawn them--intermingle above a sea of tall grass.
Great white herons, turkey vultures, and snowy egrets shaped like inverted pop bottles with long drinking-straw beaks wade in swamps amid giant lily pads, softball-sized alligator eggs, and plump brown cattails.
The pitter-patter on the windows wasn't the sound of rain but of hovering love bugs, locked in midair embrace and finding their tragic finish by the hundreds against the windshield and grill of the rig. (Three gas stations later, up in Georgia, the three of us were still scrubbing at their black bodies and the gluey translucent residue.)
The midday air in Sarasota hung stale and lethargic. Bushes with blossoms of every color and descripton burst out into the lazy streets. We rolled by pastel buildings facing boat-filled docks, across azure bays so clear and shallow you'd barely need to swim to cross them.
The client, an elderly man of pleasant but fragile demeanor wearing golf casuals, stood waiting for us at the gates of his condominium complex.
"You were here before. Do you remember where we live?" he asked Harrell.
"I've been a lot of places before. I have 200 clients."
The client chuckled. Harrell didn't. The condo was more than a block away, down winding private streets. As we slowly navigated them, the client hobbled alongside the van, attempting to foster a jocular conversation. Harrell ignored him. He didn't offer him a ride.
"Now do you remember where it is?"
"I have 200 clients," Harrell repeated, and rolled the window up. "They do things like that. A lot of them will actually stand out in the road and wait for someone to get there. Can you imagine having that little to do?"
Finally we reached the waterfront condo where the black automobile was parked.
"Get the ramps," Harrell ordered me.
"The ramps! The ramps! On the back of the trailer!"
By the time I figured out what he meant, Harlan had already laid out the ramps and driven the car onto the trailer, and was commencing to secure the rig.
"Let's go, let's go." Harrell prodded him to get in the van while the owner of the car stood by, his hands and mouth quivering with botched attempts at dialogue.
We moved north on Route 75, past Tampa Bay, Harlan at the wheel; the rig wiggled a little but maintained 60 miles per hour, the speed Harrell believes is optimal for tugging a Lexus. "Any faster and the trailer starts to wiggle-wobble," he said.
Palm trees slowly gave way to palmetto shrubs. In northern Florida the interstate was bordered by high walls of forest, the trees barely visible through the cascading waves of vines.
Night fell as we stopped for gas. Ten miles later we passed a blue sign showing a peach and a cursive message: "Welcome. We're glad Georgia's on your mind."
Harrell, whose next shift would begin at midnight, called it a day at the office. It took three seconds to commute to the back of the van, where he plowed out on the couch.
But Harrell's workday is never fully over. He doesn't trust other drivers enough to really sleep.
"Why are we wiggle-wobbling? Harlan, slow down.
"Harlan, you'd better go back," he hissed. "I think you missed a pothole."
At 2 AM Harrell ended my sleep for the night. "Hey! Come up here and talk to me, I'm getting drowsy." Then he added: "Are you sure you don't know how to drive?"
I know how to take the CTA.
The Atlanta skyline rose before us, at least ten of the buildings crowned with pyramidal hats, a few of them filigreed and lovely with lights. "I know this country mile marker by mile marker," Harrell said matter-of-factly. "We're gonna stop at the next exit, it has a Shell."
This late at night, with nothing better to do, he began to disclose the tricks of the luxury automobile transport trade.
The trick to comfort is dressing loose and driving barefoot.
The trick to staying awake at the wheel is picking up hitchhikers.
The trick to building a clientele is to do the job so well that clients brag about you to their friends.
The trick to driving in luxury is to vacuum the rig constantly and avoid the right lane: it gets torn up because more trucks use it.
The trick to getting out from behind dawdlers on a one-lane is to pretend that you're going to rear-end them if they don't get out of your way.
The trick to safety is not to play the radio.
Since he allows few stops, except for gas, Harrell makes an art of living behind the wheel. When he's running a caravan of two or three cars, with only one relief driver, Harrell shaves, washes his face, brushes his teeth, fixes sandwiches, vacuums, reads--and when no one is peeping from the window of a passing truck, he relieves himself behind the wheel in a special jar.
"One time I was alone in the van on a straightaway," he recalled. "And I had to go really bad, but my tinkle jar was all the way in the back of the van. So I put Big Daddy on cruise and ran back there to get my jar."
Since he's on the road so much, Harrell has plenty of time to make up and test out all sorts of little driving games. Or at least to make them up.
"This isn't a boring job," he said apropos of nothing in particular.
The rig ascended the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, which are neither great nor smoky this far west. We crossed over into Tennessee, and the sloping city of Chattanooga, which hugs the Tennessee River.
Continuing on toward Nashville, the interstate rolls over the foothills and jackknifes back and forth between Georgia and Tennessee and two time zones. According to Harrell, but not his road map, there's even a pinch of Alabama.
And if the constant signs welcoming the traveler in and out of various states weren't bizarre enough at 4:30/3:30 AM, the three or four enormous fireworks factories alongside the road were easy to mistake for spacecraft with giant glowing force fields.
As the sun rose, and the drivers switched again outside Nashville, I dozed off, completely missing the state of Kentucky.
I awoke to the chromatically muted landscape 80 miles short of Indianapolis. A light rain began to fall from the egg carton sky.
Proceeding northward, the countryside grew grayer; leaves diminished into buds and then disappeared altogether into bare brown branches. Forty miles outside the city limits a series of orange caution signs commenced to warn that construction in Indianapolis might cause delays, but the signs were only bragging. We breezed right through the city. According to Harrell Indy couldn't muster a traffic jam on a Friday afternoon.
"That trash heap looks like a mountain range," Harrell remarked pointing to a landfill along I-94 just inside the southern edge of Chicago. He said anyone who stays the winter at this latitude is a masochist.
I tried to explain that cold weather builds character, tall buildings teach humility, but the argument was wasted.
"Chicago is one big slum to me," he declared. He thought for a minute. "Except for the Gold Coast. I have 14 clients there..."
"You're still young," he told me. "If I was your age, I tell you what I'd do: I'd ditch Chicago and move down to Palm Beach. Become a gigolo--a high-class gigolo. There are bars you can go to where rich old widows pick up their young studs."
How old are these widows?
"Seventy or eighty--but they're in shape. They have breast implants, thigh implants. Everything. They'll wear you out!"
Forty degrees Fahrenheit; 25 hours, 5 states, and the same number of gas tanks from Sarasota, Big Daddy passed the Botanic Gardens on the way into Highland Park. We found the client's house, plopped the car onto the driveway, and turned around, heading for Florida. A traffic jam on the southbound Edens put Harrell a bit behind schedule. There wasn't even time to drop a quarter and let someone know I'd been home.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.