Confessions of a Designated Driver
I picked her up at Mutt Lynch's near the Newport Pier about midnight one Saturday not long ago. She was tall, 25, brunette. She wanted to go back to her place, so I drove. But we were in the car only a couple of minutes when she got a cell-phone call. Talking loudly in a Persian accent—she insisted it was New York I was hearing—she endlessly repeated jokes with her friend from the latest Conan O'Brien, stopping only to roll down the window to ask guys crossing the street to show their tits. One guy did.
After she got off the phone, she started talking about her work as a trauma nurse. "I've become pretty fatalistic about death," she said. "If someone wants to kill himself, he's going to kill himself."
Then she started telling me in gory detail about this guy who was in the ER recently. He had tried to kill himself by slashing open his neck with an industrial masonry drill.
All part of the job—not hers, mine. From New Year's Eve until the end of May, I was a volunteer with the Orange County chapter of the Designated Driver's Association (DDA). Ever find yourself at home Sunday morning after a night of barhopping down Main in Surf City, not knowing how you or your car got there? Maybe I gave you a ride.
DDA was formed in Virginia in 1994 to keep people from driving drunk. The seven-month-old Orange County chapter dispatches volunteers to bars in Newport and Huntington each Friday and Saturday night. Volunteers go out in teams of two. A team will meet up with the drunk or drunks who want to go home. One volunteer will drive the drunk home in his or her car, while the other volunteer follows. That's it—no car, no ride. We're not a taxi service. We drive the drunk home—not to another bar or liquor store, although we're asked to do that all the time.
After doing a story on DDA for the Weekly ("Driving Miss Dazed," Jan. 17), I volunteered one night each weekend. Since then I've been punched, grabbed, laughed at, goosed, hugged, called "savior," stood up, kissed and stiffed. Tips are much appreciated, since we pay for our own gas, but they're by no means mandatory. This isn't well understood, as in the case of the hot trauma nurse. When I finally parked her car at her home, she got out and fished through her purse. Eventually, she handed me a dollar.
"Sorry, this is all I have," she said.
"Nah, it's okay," I told her, just wanting to get out of there. "Don't worry about it."
"No, no," she said, pressing the dollar into my hand. "Take it. It's for you. You deserve it."
* * *
Most people I've driven home have been pleasant and coherent. And thankfully I never had anyone throw up during a ride. A few close calls, but no actual discharge. No one has gotten violent, either. Well, not really violent.
A call came in late one night to pick up three guys in an Explorer parked outside of the Stag Bar in Newport. When my partner and I pulled up, we only found two guys.
"I thought there were three," I said, taking the caller's car keys.
"Yeah, the third guy's coming," he said. "We had to walk here."
I looked down the street. A drunk stumbled across Balboa Boulevard, tripped over the curb and then lay down on a bench.
"Is that him?"
The caller looked down the street. "Yeah. Let me go get him."
Five minutes later, we were all buckled in and on the 55 freeway headed to Irvine. The caller was in the passenger seat beside me. In the back, the wasted guy was drooling on his buddy's shoulder.
"That guy's in bad shape," I said, glancing back.
"You think I'm in bad shape?!" the wasted guy suddenly mumbled. Then he started jabbing me in the shoulder. Not hard, but it didn't make driving the Explorer any easier.
"Dude," his buddy yelled as he pulled him back, "don't be doing that. He's a good guy."
Five seconds later, the wasted guy was fast asleep.
* * *
People asked me all the time why I gave up my Saturday evenings to drive drunks home. Sure, I made a few bucks in tips and got to drive some pretty nice cars—the black 2002 Mercedes S500 with wood trim and stone Nappa leather interior was easily the sweetest ride. The feeling of helping people avoid DUIs and maybe saving some innocent lives had its merits, too. But all that pales before the real reason I put on my volunteer-driver badge each week: women.
Like the time volunteer Robert Stevens, a truly gung-ho driver who typically heads out every weekend, got to pick up a 21-year-old blonde and two friends from a college toga party. Before long, the fuel light prompted Stevens to stop at an Arco station. While there, the girl's friends went into the market for beer, leaving Stevens and the toga girl alone in the car.
"Do you mind," she suddenly said, "but this thing is killing me."
Before Stevens could answer, the girl pulled off her toga, revealing only her dainty tank top and panties. She then reached into the back of the car, hunted for her jeans, and got dressed. According to Stevens, she took her time. At the end of the ride, she tipped him $20.
About the most action I ever got came one night at the Little Knight in Costa Mesa. I was handing out DDA cards when a girl grabbed my crotch. She and some friends were sitting in a booth near the door. Actually, she first took hold of the volunteer badge hanging around my neck, dragged me close to her, and then grabbed my crotch. When I pulled away, she pinched my ass. The guy sitting next to her didn't seem too pleased, but the other girls at the table thought it was hilarious.
The very nature of the job is to cruise bars and talk to people—any people, beautiful people, beautiful women people. We have to talk to them. If we don't let people know the service is available, they won't call. If they don't call, I can't save lives or drive black Mercedes S500s with wood trim.
Drunks will often tell volunteers as we pass out DDA cards that we're "wonderful," "so great," "saviors," "shaints" and so on.
"You're an angel," one drunk Huntington Beach girl told my partner Betty—a financial advisor in her mid-20s—during a ride one night. "Are you a virgin?"
Of course, people have also asked if I was a criminal completing my court-ordered community service or if I was part of some Christian prayer group and the price for a ride home was a preachy sermon. Many times, they seemed almost disappointed when I said no to both questions.
People seem to love us when we pass through bars, handing out cards. Yet for the most part, they don't call. I often went through a box of 100 cards in a night—others will go through two or three—but when the night was over, we got just a dozen calls.
Sometimes people think we're a little cooler than we actually are. We don't normally roll on calls from private parties, but dispatch sent my partner and me to one to pick up a single girl during a particularly slow April night.
We arrived and asked the first guy we saw on the patio to let the girl know we were there. He sighed as two friends carried the girl over to us.
She looked 18, maybe younger. No one wanted to say what she'd consumed. She wasn't even conscious and had clearly vomited down the front of her blouse.
"Can you guys take her to the hospital?" my partner asked.
We looked at each other as the girl was seated in front of us on a couch. Other people came out on the patio and asked if we were EMTs.
"Look, this is way out of our league," I said, thinking of all the reasons why I wasn't going to let them pour that girl into my car. "We're not a taxi service. If you guys are serious about getting her to the hospital, you need to call an ambulance."
They asked again. My partner reiterated my concerns, this time more forcefully. We offered to call the ambulance for them.
"No, no," one girl said. "She'll be fine." She sat down next to the still-unconscious girl and partially revived her. "You're okay, right? Yeah, she'll be okay."
* * *
Most calls come in between 1:30 and 2 a.m., when the bars toss everyone out. Late one slow night before the calling time, my partner Dave and I were standing out front of the Blue Beet near the taxi queue, hoping some drunk might see our badges and let us and not some cabbie take him or her home. It had happened before, and we had nothing else to do anyway.
A bunch of people were standing outside the Blue Beet's $1 taco window, ordering and waiting. One tall guy started talking loudly to another in line.
"It's cool, man," he kept saying. "It's cool. You know it's cool, man."
The guy ignored him a while, then turned around and lunged at him. The others in line stepped back as the two guys gripped each other and fell to the ground wrestling.
It was eerily quiet. Neither fighter said a word. They rolled around on the ground an agonizingly long time as everyone stood around—including Dave and I—and watched. Soon people began piling on trying to separate the two guys, but nothing would break the mutual death grips. Someone told security. As one guard and then another raced out of the Blue Beet and pulled the guys apart, a girl who had been standing nearby watching suddenly walked forward and kicked one of the fighters in the crotch.
"What the fuck are you doing?!" yelled one of the guards.
"Fuck you!" the girl yelled back.
The guard and girl yelled at each other as the two fighters dusted themselves off and went their separate ways.
"Just go home," the guard said as he went back inside.
"Keep walking, you small-ass dick motherfucker!" the girl yelled back.
"Just go back to the 909, you stupid bitch!" yelled another guy trying to eat a taco.
The girl walked over to him and slapped him—open handed—right across the face. She yelled at him, mostly more obscenities directed at him and Newport Beach residents in general, as the crowd joined in cries of "go away!" At first she just pretended to walk away, then would return a minute later and yell some more, her pitch higher now, almost like she was about to cry. Then she and another guy left for good.
I looked at Dave. "You wanna get some food?"
"Sure," he said.
* * *
Dealing with jerks is part of volunteering. After all, these are drunks. A guy once called right before 2 a.m., when the service shuts down. He was at Pierce St. Annex and needed to go to Dana Point—and he had a Dodge Viper. That seemed pretty cool, and my partner Cliff and I enthusiastically took it.
We wandered around the cold, empty Pierce Street parking lot, but we found no Viper. So I called the guy's cell phone.
"Yeah, we're in the parking lot across the street," he said. "Blue Jeep Cherokee."
I was so pissed I had Cliff drive the guy and his two buddies while I followed in Cliff's car. After the ride, Cliff said the guys were obnoxious and farted a lot. Oh, and they also admitted lying about the Viper to get us out there. The funny thing is they didn't have to lie—we would have taken the ride anyway. I never saw Cliff after that night.
Just about every volunteer team has gone to a bar expecting a ride, only to find out somebody called just to see if we'd show. Almost as irritating were the fools who tipped with household kitchen items.
You heard me.
"They gave me a spatula one time," said volunteer Robert Stevens. "Oh, it was a great spatula. Stainless steel, beveled edge. Real sharp. Now I just need to get a barbecue."
But at least those guys called. At least they understood that drinking and driving kills people—more Americans so far than all our wars combined. A couple months ago, I was driving some rich types to their East Bluff home in their Land Rover at 2 a.m. We were cruising down Pacific Coast Highway to Jamboree when we saw the flashing lights of some police cars across the street.
"Yeah, look at that!" the guy next me started yelling. "We don't have to worry about them tonight, do we!"
The others in the car started cheering, too, until we got closer. Then they all got real quiet.
In front of their cruisers, a couple of officers were standing outside a small truck that had careened into a tall, stone streetlight. The light was completely gone, crumbled into chunks that had crushed the truck's already mangled cab. The officers didn't seem in a hurry to get inside.
I don't know if the guy in the truck had been drinking. Who knows? Maybe he had one of our cards in his wallet.
If you'd like to volunteer with DDA or just need someone to drive you home, call (866) 949-SAFE.
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