As we lurch incongruously toward both war and the holidays, the words-or rather, the word-of a great philosopher keeps playing over and over in my head. The word is merge , and it was uttered not by some Eastern mystic referring to becoming one with the universe, but by Phil Singer, perhaps Manhattan’s most talented chauffeur.
While Phil was talking pretty exclusively about driving techniques for surviving seasonal gridlock, I think merging is a worthy metaphor whether we’re discussing midtown traffic or bombing Baghdad. It’s the quintessentially civilized act of exercising restraint, even giving way on occasion; it’s a gesture that does not signify weakness, but wisdom and strength. “The secret is alternately merging,” said Phil, who drove Madonna around for 17 months and transported David Geffen for seven years without a single fender-bender. “All of a sudden, you get this one guy who wants to ride the ass of the guy in front of him,” Phil told me over white-meat turkey sandwiches at Donohue’s recently, “and he’s not letting anybody in, and traffic stops for 20 seconds.” Might that guy be our cowboy President?
Apparently, Madonna recognized Phil’s supernatural calm in the face of bumper-to-bumper traffic the first time she got in his car. For the record, the chauffeur said he prefers the “discretion” of town cars to the dash of stretch limos. Which isn’t to say that Phil is a shrinking violet behind the wheel. He once drove along the sidewalk to get the Material Girl to a lunch date on time when the street in front of them was blocked.
“I felt like, ‘O.K., I have a lot of responsibility here now,’” Phil remembers of his inaugural ride with Madonna. At the time, he was only into his third day on the job with Music Express, the limo service to the stars. “She had a lot of stops.”
At the end of that fateful day, Phil said Madonna’s assistant commented on his serenity. “She asked me if I’d ever driven Madonna before,” Phil recalled. “She said, ‘You’re the most relaxed guy.’ It was just one of those things. The universe was serving me a gift. I was ready to receive it.”
Perhaps that’s the next thing to remember about driving over the holidays-or, for that matter, to remember about life. It’s not just about technique; it’s about keeping things in perspective.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not using Phil Singer self-aggrandizingly, as a front man for my own views on road etiquette or attacking Third World countries. I’ve got my flaws as a motorist. Sometimes I drive as if it makes a difference whether I get to a stoplight ahead of the next guy. As a matter of fact, I got rammed by a city bus a couple of years back for just such an offense. I pissed off the driver by beating her to the stoplight and nudging in front of her. For that indiscretion, she hit me intentionally, causing about a thousand bucks of damage to the back of my car. (The M.T.A. offered me a measly $250, the amount they said it would cost them to litigate the matter. They also claimed to have put a disciplinary letter in her file, which I doubt.)
What Phil seems to possess that I lack is a sort of cosmic self-discipline. He apparently acquired it in rehab. “What Daytop gave me,” he said, referring to the program where he was treated for heroin addiction, “was a knowledge of the basics. If you can’t make your bed when you get up in the morning, how can you take up bigger tasks later in the day?”
He believes that the self-esteem he acquired after overcoming his addiction-which took him several attempts-made him think of himself as the equal of passengers that have included Steven Spielberg, Warren Buffet, Paul Allen, Barbara Walters, Barry Diller, Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Barbra Streisand. He even read the trades so that he could converse intelligently with them if they desired. (“It translates into tips,” he confided.)
That’s another difference between Phil and me: I’m sure if I was a driver, I’d be trying to convince my boss that I ought to be riding in the back seat, too. “You have to respect everybody’s link in the chain,” Phil explained. “Too many guys get cocky. Because they’re driving the boss, they have a transference of power. Don’t get me wrong-sometimes I feel it, too. But when I feel most powerful is when I’m at the top of my game.”
David Geffen, regarded as something of a shaman when it comes to recognizing talent, offered Phil the job as his chauffeur after watching him in action for only a couple of hours. At the time, Phil was Madonna’s designated driver, but was still employed by Music Express and getting six bucks an hour, plus tips.
Apparently, Phil was the reason the diva and the billionaire stopped speaking. “All Phil wanted was a full-time job so he could get health insurance for his family and a bar mitzvah for his son,” Mr. Geffen told The New York Times magazine in a 1993 cover story. “[Madonna] didn’t want to hire him full-time. So I did. And what was so remarkable was how angry she became.”
To this day, Phil refuses to admit that Madonna may have been a world-class tightwad. “It was too extravagant for her at that time,” he explained. “People who were once poor and become rich, it takes them a long time to become comfortable with their new wealth.”
He prefers to dwell on the things that he learned from her-an animal awareness of her environment and a refusal to buckle to anyone-and the non-material things she gave him. “I wound up in magazines,” Phil said. “I wound up getting the respect of the paparazzi. They gave me copies of pictures I was in with her, for my children to show their children to show their children. I was able to give my kids a legacy.”
From Mr. Geffen, Phil learned the virtue of a light touch. He recalls the time he discovered that he was a diabetic and his doctor told him to lose weight. “[Geffen] said, ‘You know what? You’ll go on a diet, eat the right food, lose weight, get healthy, and the vanity will keep you thin.’ Out of the clear blue, 10 minutes later, he said to me, ‘And besides, I don’t want a fat fuck for a driver anyway.’”
Mr. Geffen reprimanded him only once. “I made a wrong turn,” Phil remembered. “I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ He said, ‘Phil, you’re so much smarter than that.’ That’s the biggest spanking I got.”
These days, Phil runs the “transportation department”-a couple of S.U.V.’s, a Cadillac, a BMW and a minivan-for an Upper East Side family whose wealth and international reach quite possibly eclipses even Madonna’s and David Geffen’s.
“People may think it’s a brain-dead job,” Phil observed. “Bullshit. It’s a brain-dead job for people who are brain-dead. A good chauffeur is not only a good driver. He’s a maintenance man, a secretary; he’s a navigator; he’s a communicator and a politician and a disciplinarian to himself, so he doesn’t kill some of the other people he contends with driving in New York City.”