I was in Charleston, S.C., a few summers back. My Southwest Airlines flight had a 3:10 p.m. arrival, and it was on time on a hot, humid day. I picked up my bags and went in search of a ride to my hotel. I take a hotel shuttle whenever I can. Sometimes a hotel shuttle is not available. This was the case in Charleston. A friendly lady at the information desk said I had two options: A regular shuttle or a taxi.
As I walked outside the terminal and headed in the direction of the transportation island, I saw a sign that read: Taxi to downtown – $30 or Wait for 15 minutes and the shuttle is $12. I decided to wait for the shuttle.
The transportation coordinator directed me to a white van. As I climbed inside the shuttle, I greeted two women passengers sitting in the second row. I took my seat in the back. I immediately noticed the van’s engine was not running; consequently no cool air was blowing.
It was a sweltering 98 degrees outside in the Carolina sun. It had to be well over 100 degrees with a heat index beyond 110 inside the van. It was so hot it was funny. The other two passengers and I began to lightheartedly discuss our predicament. Ten minutes passed with absolutely no air movement. It felt like an oven inside the shuttle. One woman laughed as she finished sweating off the last remnants of her makeup. After what seemed like an hour and 15 minutes, our shuttle driver, an older black man, showed up.
“I guess I could start the engine and get the air conditioner going,” he offered in a rather weak and embarrassed tone of voice. All three passengers looked at each other as we collectively rolled our eyes. For the next five minutes, the air conditioner struggled to abate the heat. It was like throwing an ice cube in the ocean.
Finally, the driver returned and steered our shuttle in the direction of one of the Old South’s great cities. We had three stops to make. Mine would be the last one. In 10 minutes we were negotiating the streets of downtown Charleston.
Our first stop was the Charleston Marriott. The woman who had sweated off all her makeup got out there.
Next, our driver took us meandering through an old residential section of downtown Charleston. The houses were all two-story and stacked together like building blocks. They were all connected by narrow streets and back allies. At our second stop, the other woman looked a bit confused as she disembarked from the shuttle. It seemed she was in disbelief that her daughter lived at the address to which she had been delivered. She hesitated outside the house, called her daughter on her cell phone; and after a brief conversation, began to climb the stairs that led to the second floor.
As the shuttle pulled away, the driver looked back to make sure the woman made it inside. Then, we were on our way.
After winding our way through traffic for the next five minutes, we came upon a discouraging sight. In front of us, down a long street, at least 20 cars were backed up at a traffic light. My driver hesitated for a split second as he sized up the situation. Then, he eased out into the left lane and began to pass the other cars. That is when I realized we were not on a one-way street. He continued down the street at a steady rate of speed.
At that moment a car turned down the street at the stoplight and headed in our direction. The other driver slowed for a moment when he saw us coming. My driver didn’t blink, or brake. He kept right on going. I began to think, “This has all the makings of a game of chicken or a slow-speed head-on collision.”
Only two car lengths separated us when suddenly, my driver made a hard left turn and headed down a narrow alley. At the far end, I could see one of those storage pods sitting halfway out into the alley. A car was parked on the other side. The gap between the two was ever so narrow. My driver was not daunted. As we silently sized up the situation, he decided to go for it. I promise you, there was less than three inches clearance on each side of the shuttle as we sliced through.
Once we cleared the eye of that needle, he accelerated to the end of the alley. Two cars were approaching from the left. My driver decided he could beat them. A hard right turn took us out into the street. I cringed, expecting to hear the sound of horns glaring. No horns. My driver was on a roll!
At the end of that street, he hesitated as he looked to his left. Nothing coming! Again, we surged out into the street. Ahead, I could see the traffic light that had all the cars backed up. It was green! As the shuttle blew under it, I looked to my right. The line of 20 cars had grown to 30 or more. I smiled to myself.
I leaned forward in my seat.
“Nice piece of driving,” I said to my driver.
He could not hide his pleasure.
“I’ve been driving a shuttle or a taxi since 1978,” he offered, with a broad smile. “I know all these streets.”
“What is your name?” I asked.
“William!” he said. His voice had a proud ring to it.
I will not soon forget William. There is nothing quite as comforting, or exciting, as being in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing.