"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Running Cars

This story first appeared in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in the late 1980s. It appears here with permission from the author.

Running Cars

By Pat Jordan

Rod Chadwick, 38, is running cars in the hot sun. He sprints across the street to the parking lot. A tall, leanly-muscled man in a t-shirt, sweatpants, and soiled sneakers. He has a Sam Shepherd face, only more gaunt, with hollows for cheeks and slits for eyes. The face of a pale Indian or a tightly-strung, ascetic.

It is four o’clock on a lazy, Sunday afternoon in May. There is a long line of stopped cars leading from one end of the street to the awning over the entrance to Shooter’s Bar and Restaurant on the Intracoastal Waterway in Ft. Lauderdale. A BMW-M3 convertible. A Ferrari Testarossa. A black Corvette. An Excaliber. A Lincoln Continental with blacked-out windows. A pink, Volkswagon Rabbitt convertible. A British Racing Green Jaguar XJ-6. A Chrysler Le Baron with a rentacar sticker on its bumper. A dove-gray, Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL. A Guards red Porsche Turbo with the slant-nose front end.

The locals are driving in from their day at the beach. Strippers, both male (“Crazy Horse Saloon”) and female (“The Booby Trap Lounge”). Bartenders and cocktail waitresses. Businessmen and lawyers. Plastic surgeons and insurance fraud experts. Importers and exporters of South American goods. Real estate ladies. Hookers. Body builders. Cattlemen and pepper farmers. Mistresses. Drug runners. DEA informers. A bouillabaisse of Ft. Lauderdale locals winding down their weekend with a few Cuba Libres and Rum Runners at Shooter’s overlooking the water. They sit at the bar, watching the white yachts, blinding in the setting sun, cruise up the waterway. They mill around the docks, seeing and being seen, alongside the docked speedboats. A band in Hawaiian shirts is playing a medley of Jimmy Buffett’s greatest hits from under the shade of a palm tree. A man on a docked speedboat invites a girl on the dock to come aboard for a drink. Maybe a little cruise, he adds, grinning. The girl smiles, shakes her head, no. A local girl who knows that such an invitation always ends with her confronting two options. Suck or swim.

The older men have swept-back, silver hair and gold chains nestled, just so, in their fluffed out chest hair. The younger men are tanned, muscular, with droopy mustaches and spandex bicycle shorts. The older women are pale, heavily made-up, with ash-blond hair that is cut severely short, but not so short as to expose the face lift scars behind their ears. They are wearing long, silk dresses and textured nylons held up by white lace garter belts and, occasionally, an ankle bracelet that reads, “If you can read this, you can eat me.” The younger women are tanned and trim, with brassier, blond hair and oversized breasts recently implanted by a Peruvian plastic surgeon in Miami. They are wearing spandex, mini-dresses or satin jogging shorts with high-cut Reeboks and some of them are still wearing their g-string bikini bathing suits with their stiletto, high-heeled shoes, their American Express gold cards tucked into the top of their bikini bottom.

Rod Chadwick, sweating in the hot sun, holds open the driver’s door of the slant-nose Porsche while a fat man-boy of twenty, struggles out from behind the steering wheel. The man tells Rod he wants his car parked up front, for everyone to see. He slips a $20 bill into Rod’s hand as deftly as a quarterback handing off to a fullback. Years ago, Rod had a football scholarship to Georgia Tech, where he majored in architecture. He transferred to Catawba College in North Carolina and switched to a history major. He helped support himself even then by running cars. When he was graduated he did a little student teaching but decided that was not for him. He opened a frozen yogurt business but didn’t like working indoors. He worked on construction for a while but even that was too confining. He began to run cars again. He has been running cars on-and-off for over twenty years. A valet, now pushing forty, or, as the writing on his t-shirt says, “Automotive Relocation Engineer.” That was Donnie Brown’s idea. He owns the valet-parking concession at Shooter’s and a number of other South Florida clubs, where the valet parking business is rivaled only by Southern California.

Donnie is 28, chubby, preppy-looking with his rosy cheeks and dark, Princeton-cut hair. He was a swimmer and football player at Pine Crest, an exclusive prep school in Ft. Lauderdale. When he left school he missed the jockey, macho image he had as a football Player so he took a job running cars during the 2 a.m.-to-4 a.m. shift at Club Dallas out on Federal Highway near the airport.

“It was a redneck club,” Donnie says, sipping club soda at Shooter’s bar. “They hired me and a few other football players because we weren’t afraid of the rednecks. Nobody else wanted to work that shift.”

It was a rough shift, Donnie says. The rednecks would get drunk and mean by 2 a.m., and spoiling for a fight. When the bouncers threw them out of the club, they were still spoiling for a fight and now the valets had to deal with them. Even while they fought the rednecks, Donnie and his friends had to protect the cars in the lot. One night, a furious patron followed Donnie and his friends home after work. He pulled alongside their car, pointed a .44 Magnum at them, and began firing.

Even on quiet nights, the valets at Club Dallas still had to deal with the transvestite hookers who worked the cars pulling into the lot. The valets brought rotten eggs to work and fired them at the hookers. The eggs smelled so badly that the hookers had to go home and change clothes. It discouraged them from working Club Dallas.

Donnie laughs at the memory of those hookers dripping egg. Like all valets, he loves to tell valet stories. He once parked a Mustang and the passenger side door flew off. It skated across the parking lot like an oversized hockey puck. The other valets leaped in turn, like kids jumping rope, as the door skated under their feet. The girl who owned the Mustang apologized for not telling Donnie that the door always flew off when making a left turn. One night, a valet wrapped a customer’s car into a tree. To console the girl who owned it, he drove her home in his car and did not come back for three days.

“She never did file charges against us,” Donnie says. He smiles. “Girls are attracted to guys who run cars. The guys are usually young, in-shape, and have an image of being rebels.” Often such girls show their attraction to valets by the way they step out of their cars. “The ones who don’t wear underwear are always the worst,” Donnie says. “They make a point of flashing it when you hold the door open for them. Then they make eye contact and smile.”

Often those girls are in the car with a rich, older man who is financing them but whom they don’t really like very much. When those girls “flash” a young, handsome, hard-working valet it is as if to form a bond between them, as if to say, “This old bastard may be paying for it but I’m letting you see it for nothing, honey.” One such girl emerged from the passenger seat of a Ferrari at Shooter’s one night and winked at the valet who held open her door. Then she waited while her date, fat man in his sixties tried to get himself out from behind the steering wheel. His belly got stuck behind the wheel. The valet tried to pull him free. A crowd began to form. Someone laughed. The fat man’s face grew flushed as he struggled. The girl, embarrassed, began to backpedal into the crowd. When the fat man was finally freed, the crowd broke into applause. The girl was gone.

“Guys in Ferraris and sports cars are usually the best tippers,” Donnie says. “Guys in Rolls Royces are the worst. They’re more conservative and cheap. Now a guy in a Mercedes 560 is a better tipper than a guy in a 190. Guys in middle of the road cars are the most unpredictable. If they go out to dinner with their wife, they only tip a buck. If they go out drinking with the guys they tip better. Tourists are bad, too. Most of them come from the north where there is little valet parking. They don’t understand it. One night we had two identical white rental Lincolns pull in. When they left we gave the wrong car to each tourist. We discovered our mistake when one guy came back and accused us of eating the pizza he had left in the back seat.”

Donnie laughs. “I always liked running cars,” he says. “It was a freelance thing. A valet knows everything. He can’t hold a real job. He has to have that sense of freedom, the camaraderie thing. It usta be that valets were just street kids cleaned up a bit. Now, they’re college kids who plan to go on to bigger and better things.”

Donnie has gone on to bigger and better things. He has gone from a runner of cars to the owner of his own valet service, “Continental Valet Co.” He has a beeper on his hip. He plans to organize a country-wide valet service some day. Already, he has organized Shooter’s valet service in Cleveland. Still, like most former valets, he can’t quite get the job out of his system. Every so often, he likes to run a few cars, just to keep his hand in it.

“My parents and my girlfriend say I can’t run cars forever,” he says. “I say, why not? I’m making $50,000 a year. I got a beeper with an 800 number.”

Rod parks the slant-nose Porsche in front of Shooters and sprints back to the awning to open the door of the pink, Rabbit. A girl steps out and says, “It’s my prize, Rod. Take good care of it,” and slips him a $5 bill. Rod tells her not to worry. Then he parks the Rabbit and returns to the awning.

“Sure it bothers me,” Rod says. “A 20-year-old kid in an $80,000 Porsche. I’ve driven some of the most exotic cars in the world. Testarossas, Lambos, Silver Clouds, and all I can afford to own is a beat up, old, Volkswagen. The best a valet can do is make a living. Then why do I do it?” Rod’s thin lips smile. “For the freedom. The action. And the characters. I minored in theater in college and some of the characters I meet belong in a play.”

He got his first valet job at seventeen and the first night he went to work he watched in disbelief as his boss chased a man around a car because the man had given him a ten cent tip. When he worked at Club Dallas, a long haul truck driver pulled up to the valet stand in an eighteen-wheeler with a loaded trailer. “It was the wildest thing I ever valeted,” Rod says. “The guy had on a cowboy hat, boots, the whole outfit. He slipped me a five and went inside. I sat in the cab for ten minutes trying to figure out the gears, but I parked that SOB. Another time I opened the door for a guy in a Testarossa and the handle came off in my hand. I thought the guy would go nuts, but he just said, ‘That handle’s been giving me trouble since I bought the car.’ and handed me a twenty. Sports car guys are the best tippers. The worst tippers are the guys who just came into money. They go off the wall if their car gets the slightest scratch. I tell ‘em, ‘Jesus Christ, mac, it’s only a car!’”

Women are bad tippers, Rod says, because they think it’s a man’s duty. Except for women in the bar business and those attracted to valets. Some women see in valets, scuffling for a buck, everything they’ve tried to distance themselves from in their life. Valets remind them of their meager past and it angers them. “They call us, scum,” Rod says. “They yell, ‘Get a real job, scum!’”

Just then a boy in his late teens comes up to Rod. He tells Rod he’s thinking of running cars and wonders, “Should I work for tips or a percentage of the take?”
Rod doesn’t hesitate. He says, “Depends on whether it’s a locals’ club or a tourist club. Whether it’s during the season or not. And whether you’re good at hustling the front spots.” The kid nods, thanks Rod, and leaves. Rod turns and says, “Running cars is a day-to-day thing. There’s no future. Oh, we have our fantasies, the beautiful car, the beautiful babe, but after awhile you get pragmatic. They’re unrealistic fantasies. Now, a $100 tip is real.”

* * *

Roland Venton, dark and threatening in his wheat-colored suit, stands in the doorway of his bar, Roland’s, out on Federal Highway and watches the cars pull into his lot. It is six o’clock on a Friday evening and Roland’s is where all the local high-rollers begin their long, party weekend. The men are dressed mostly in suits and ties and the women in dresses and business suits. No shorts or g-strings get by Roland’s suspicious eyes. A Mercedes 450-SL convertible pulls up to the entrance. Nigel, the manager of Roland’s valet service, opens the driver’s side door. As he does, he leans over and slips his valet ticket on the inside of the windshield as a tall, beautiful brunette slides out, her skirt hiking up to her thighs as she does. She walks past Roland with her head held regally high, like a deposed monarch walking into exile past her serfs.

When Nigel returns to the valet stand beside the entrance he says to one of the valets, “Her name’s Loretta this week. Crimminy, she’s changed her names three times this month.” He laughs. “I wonder what Loretta does for a living?” Nigel is in his thirties, a soft-looking man with orange hair and a British accent. He’s been running cars for eight years, ever since he came to Ft. Lauderdale from his native Birmingham, England.

“I love the people,” he says. “You meet every kind. Plus the women. They got fat husbands and lawyers for boyfriends. They see valets as something different. When you open the door for a woman you always lean over a bit and put the ticket on the inside of the windshield just as she’s getting out.” He smiles. “It’s all in the positioning.”

Then, like most valets, Nigel begins to tell valet stories. One night Roland asked Nigel to drive home a customer who was too drunk to drive. “He starts putting his hands all over me when we get to the New River tunnel,” Nigel says. “Jeez, I shoulda known. He’s from California. I stopped the car at a gas station and leaped out and ran. The guy just sat there drunk. But he wasn’t so hammered he didn’t know what his preference was.” Another night, Nigel says a girl came in with her boyfriend and parked a Corvette. They got into a fight in the bar and the girl came out alone. She asked for the guy’s keys and drove off. The guy came out and called the cops on her. Nigel went with him to the police station. The cops said there was nothing they could do about it. The guy got abusive, and before long, five cops had to subdue him with nightsticks. “I almost ended up in the slammer,” Nigel says. He shakes his head as another 450 SL pulls in. A young, handsome valet gets in the car, adjusts the mirror and begins to comb his hair before he drives off. “We hired one guy to run cars,” Nigel says, “and the first night he steals a Corvette and wraps it around a pole. The police report said there was a guy wearing a Roland’s valet shirt running down the highway. Another night, somebody stole a Ferrari in the back lot. We found it parked at Shooter’s that night, before the owner ever came out of Roland’s. The keys were on the seat alongside of a parking ticket. We got it back to the owner just as he stepped outside. ‘Boy, that was fast,’ he said, and gave us a nice tip. To this day, he still doesn’t know his car had been stolen.”

* * *

Dougie is leaning against his white Buick Regal low-rider that is his pride and joy – second, of course, to his beloved surfboard – in the parking lot of “The Booby Trap Lounge, Home of Stylish Nude Entertainment.” It is ten o’clock on a Friday night and “The Trap” is filled with nude dancers under conical lights and businessmen and working men, most of whom prefer to park their own cars, rather than valet them with Dougie. He could not care less. He gets a deuce for every car parked at The Trap, whether he parks it himself or not. He makes between $30-and-$100 a night as a valet, but he’s not much into running cars. He sees it only as a job that frees his days for surfing. The first thing Dougie does when he wakes each morning is call the weather bureau for a surf report. “If there’s a big blow coming,” Dougie says, “I don’t show up for work.”

Dougie is 23, with curly, blond hair and a wispy mustache. A street kid who refers to non-surfers as “zombies” and “Kooks” and The Trap’s customers as “Dudes,” as in, “Sure, Dude, you can park your own ride, but it’s still a deuce.”

“We get mostly businessmen, construction guys, and Columbian drug dealers,” he says. “The Columbians pull up in their Ferraris and don’t even get out of their car. They say, ‘Wait a minute, man, I gotta call Columbia.’ They call on their car phones. Man, those dudes got three and four beepers on their hip. But they tip nice. The worst tippers are the undercovers. They drop in once a week to make sure the girls don’t show no pink. I can smell ‘em coming. Old Spice and polished black shoes. They never tip.”

While Dougie is talking, Angel, one of the Trap’s dancers, comes outside, carrying a duffle bag. She tells Dougie she is waiting for a taxi. She had to leave work early, she says, because she took sick.

“That’s too bad,” Dougie says. Angel reminds Dougie of the night he was working the lot at The Trap and a girl came out of the club naked and sat down beside him and started to cry. “It was amateur night,” Dougie says. “She lost, but she thought she should have won. She was so upset she just ran out of the club and sat down with me. Cars were stopping allover the street. It’s a miracle there were no accidents.” He smiles, shrugs, as if to say, “one of the little perks running cars at The Trap.”

Inside The Trap, JB, Jimbo, Jimmy Brown, who owns the valet concession at The Trap and a number of other less flamboyant South Florida clubs, is having a club soda at the bar while a friend of his, wearing only boxer shorts, is oil wrestling a dancer in a make shift boxing ring on center stage. JB, smiling, watches his friend grapple with the girl coated with baby oil. He turns back to the bar and says, “I couldn’t have anyone but Dougie work The Trap. He’s street smart. He knows how to deal with the strippers. If I had a college kid here the strippers would take advantage of him. Dougie just cools them down with his ‘Heh, baby, it’s cool. Chill out.’” JB smiles, “I couldn’t pry Dougie outta the trade.”

Most of the valets JB hires are athletes, preferably soccer players or track stars, because they can run all night long like thoroughbreds. When JB owned the concession at Roland’s his kids used to run 600 cars a night. Non-athletes never lasted through a weekend. “Women are good runners, too,” he says. “They have patience with customers. The boys don’t, they just compete for tips. One kid, Mike, was always competing with the other valets to see how fast he could bring up a car. After work, he wanted to race the other valets for their tips.”

One of JB’s valets smashed up an exotic car on his first night and was never seen since. Another took a Lamborghini Countach he was supposed to valet for a little cruise on The Strip, picked up two girls, and didn’t return until late that night. The Lambo’s owner just laughed. Still another of JB’s valets took out a car and robbed a bank with it.

“But the funniest thing I ever saw,” says JB, “was the night Dougie went to get a jeep for this customer. Someone had stripped it in the parking lot. No dash, no seats, no steering wheel even. Dougie pulls the car in front of the club and he’s sitting on the floor, steering the jeep with a pair of pliers around the column. He gets out and says, ‘Heh, Dude. You always drive like this?’”

JB is 38, of Portuguese and Italian extraction by way of Boston. He came down to Ft. Lauderdale for his honeymoon in 1974, fell in love with it, and after his divorce three months later returned for good. He worked mostly as a bartender in local clubs such as Jack Foley’s “Bootleggers,” where he made the acquaintance of a number of successful bar owners, like Roland Venton. They took a liking to him. He was a hard-working, savvy kid, who knew how to be respectful to older men. Roland, particularly, took JB under his wing. He told him there was no future in bartending, and suggested that JB get in the valet business. JB began by running cars.

“I was 32 and I didn’t have enough money to go to the dentist, but I was driving Lambo’s every night,” says JB. “The first one I drove I couldn’t even open the door. One night, this gorgeous chick comes in in a Jag. I open the door for her, she gets out, I hop in and shut the door on the hem of her dress. When she walked away her entire dress just peeled off her. She stood there, naked, screaming hysterically. What’d I do? I parked the Jag.”

Roland gave JB his first break when he turned over his valet concession to him. Then other club owners followed suit. Today, married again, JB drives his own exotic car, a new Porsche turbo. Still, he can’t resist the urge every now and then to run a few cars himself. He was running cars at a club a few months ago when a highly placed member of George Bush’s presidential campaign stopped by during the Florida primary. The man, who was trailed by a flock of secret service types, was so drunk and abusive that JB refused to park his car. JB took the man’s keys and shoved them into the man’s shirt pocket. The pocket ripped.

“We lunged at each other in a second,” JB says, “and then all of a sudden all these secret service types are all over me with drawn guns. The cops came. They said they didn’t care who the secret service guys were, they were going to arrest them anyway.” JB laughs. “A lot of time the attitude of the customer determines where you park his car. If he’s abusive you bury his car and make him wait. We like to park exotic cars upfront so we can keep an eye on them. The cheapest Mercedes radio costs $1500, you know. Insurance is killing us. It can cost from $5000 to $12000 a year for a valet service, depending on the number of spots you have in a lot. The most important thing about running a valet service is to remember that for a lot of people their sole possession is their vehicle. They may have a stack of payment books like the yellow pages, but still, it’s their pride and joy. You gotta make nobodies feel like somebodies. No matter what kind of car they’re driving, a Mazda or a Rolls, you gotta let them know that car is special. Most times, the Mazda guy will be so appreciative he’ll tip you more than the Rolls guy. The Rolls guy figures you’re only a valet so why bother to impress you. Then he’ll go-into the club and spend $2000 on champagne. Here’s another thing about a Rolls guy. He’s always the slowest guy to get out of his car and the slowest to get back in it. He wants to make sure everybody gets a good look. You know what I mean?”

It is midnight on Saturday in North Miami. There are three white stretch Lincoln limousines parked out front of “The Crazy Horse Saloon.” A ladies’ bachelor party at the male strip club. The limo drivers, young women in white shirts, black ties, and drivers’ caps, are lounging around on the hoods of their cars. Farther down the road, in a shopping mall, Façade’s is just beginning to come alive. Façade’s is a late night disco out of “Saturday Night. Fever.” Nobody much goes to Facade’s before midnight, and even then only on Thursday and Saturday nights. The Facade’s crowd is mostly young, very rich; very macho, very “dressed” in black silk suits or dresses, and very Latin. It is a city club. It differs from Shooters in the way that Miami differs from Ft. Lauderdale. Ft. Lauderdale is older, more laid-back, a beach town filled with men and women who’s idea of dressing up is to wear as few clothes as possible. Miami is a city of bright lights. It is filled with young Anglos and Latins on the make. It is the kind of city where such people go to “make it” before moving up to a bigger city like New York or LA. Ft. Lauderdale is where people go who have already made it in LA or New York and don’t want to pay the price anymore, who want to, as Dougie would put it, “Chill out.”

At the entrance to Facade’s, a burly, handsome man in a tuxedo is checking IDs before letting customers past a roped off area into the club. There is a line of potential customers, mostly Latins, in shinny, dark suits and dresses. The men, in their twenties, invariably wear dark sunglasses and some of them, straw hats. The dark-haired, dark-eyed, young women have red camelia’s in their luxuriant air. Steve, the manager of Facade’s valet service, surveys the crowd and says, “Arrogant, rich Latins. They’re swimming in money. Twenty-three-year-old kids jump out of $125,000 cars with $10,000 worth of jewelry on them.” Steve shakes his head. “They look like they were chopping banana plants only a week ago. You wonder, huh, where did they get so much money so soon?” Steve laughs, a good-looking, articulate man in his twenties, who is wearing a tuxedo shirt, bow tie, and black pants. All the valets at Façade’s are dressed formally. It is Donnie Brown’s idea. Donnie owns the valet concession at Facade’s.

“It’s a very classy club,” Donnie says. “People go there to put on a show. They’re all wearing their Mr. T starter kit and driving fancy cars. I’ve seen kids leave a valet a $100 tip. One night, I had this kid running cars who used to be a gymnast. This young Latin kid slipped him a $100 to park his car up front and the gymnast was so happy he did a backward flip. The Latin kid thought that was so cool he told him if he could do it again, he’d tip him another $100. The gymnast did it again. It was four a.m. Pretty soon a crowd began to form. The gymnast kept doing these flips and the Latin kid kept slipping him hundred dollar bills and everyone was laughing.”

* * *

Rod Chadwick is sitting in a chair, under the shade of Shooter’s awning, eating a tuna-melt sandwich. It is a quiet, weekday afternoon and there are no cars in sight. Some of the other valets are across the street at Fran O’Briens’ sports bar. They’re having a beer and playing video games until the late afternoon crowd pulls into Shooter’s.

Rod chews his sandwich quickly, like a man who’s used to eating on the run. Even with no cars to park, he seems nervous, edgy, filled with energy he needs to disperse someplace. Running cars.

“I never got a straight job because I need my freedom,” Rod says. “I take my valet job seriously, though. I’d like to be respected as someone who does his job well and not thought of as scum. If there’s a valet fantasy, that’s it. To be respected as a human being.”

Just then a Mercedes 560 SEL pulls in under the awning. Rod jumps up and hustles over to the driver’s door. He opens it, hands the driver, a man in a business suit, his parking ticket, and watches as the man goes inside. Before Rod gets into the car to park it, he notices something on the windshield. He pulls a rag out of his back pocket, rubs it across the windshield and then, satisfied, gets in the car, and drives it across the street to the parking lot. Then he sprints back to his tuna-melt.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver