I pull into the Holding Pen at Newark Airport, a mini-UN behind barbed wire, with black cars jammed into impossible parallel parking spots and a few token SUVs hovering in the corner of the lot. You can’t walk more than three cars long without hitting a game of Texas Hold’em (the Russians), a chess match (the Sikhs), or the market gurus touting their next buys (a few of us Italians with Poles thrown in for diversification).
“Knowledge is power,” my buddy Marco told me when I first started driving. Marco just retired to Wildwood where the blues are jumping right in front of his beachfront cottage. After three years behind the wheel, I’ve switched his motto up a little: “Knowledge is in the Back Seat.”
You have to have a good enough ear to take in what’s going on in the back seat. That’s why I’d rather drive a Town Car or a Suburban any day over a gas guzzling limo. You can hear your rides much better.
You might think that the limo riders are the richer ones, and therefore the ones with the insider information. But you’d be wrong. The smartest, richest guys are the ones who request the SUVs. They’re the ones who aren’t too good to share rides, and also that way they can save their own company’s nickel and reinvest it and make even more moolah. These guys make a buck by being smarter than the next guy. If they could, they’d sit up front with me since they usually get car sick in the back, being control freaks and all.
When I drove my first business owner, I said to myself, that’s what I want to be someday (but not the car sick part) –– self-employed. I can spot ’em a mile away in the waiting area outside of Baggage Claim, Door # 3. These are the guys –– and they are mostly guys, pardon me ladies –– who wear old khakis and fraying golf shirts from the local YMCA outing that their company sponsored, and black windbreakers from the fancier golf outings they get invited to each year by the vendors who have more dough to blow but less to show for it at the end of the day. Supply Chain Fashionomics, I call it.
When the entrepreneurs get to my car, they put their own luggage in the trunk, god bless ’em, and then they crack the window. This way they don’t get car sick.
The Holding Pen at Newark Airport is how I got my big break. If I wasn’t doing this gig, I’d probably be a mechanic like my dad and his dad. See, I’m just a regular Joe, a wise guy from Paterson, who likes to be in the driver’s seat. I also seem to get along with guys from all walks of life. The new drivers lose money to me under the shade of the beach umbrella stuck into the gravel lot. The old timers like to watch the games, and they’re also too smart to throw in a ten spot and watch me knick away at their tips. The Sikhs appreciate having an audience over their shoulder during a tense moment of Check. The Chinese, who are terrible drivers and gamblers but speak good English, play this weird game called Go. And their kids are probably going to go to Princeton while my kids are lucky they get into Glassboro State, or what do they call it now, Rowan?
That’s what I want to be someday –– rich enough to buy a college, or at least a building on campus. I had a ride last week whose kid is applying to Yale and he’s worried that his son would be embarrassed if they named a dorm after him. Who’s he kidding? This is the same guy who runs his own hedge fund. You don’t make enough money working for Pru or J&J to name a dorm after yourself. That kind of money only comes from sweat equity, or luck. Or maybe both.
So I sit here in the lot and wait for my next ride, some brownnosing lawyer for one of the last remaining investment banks. I get the call that his flight from Zurich has finally landed and he’ll clear Passport Control in 20, but I take my time leaving the pen. Some rides aren’t going to tip you no matter what, so there’s no point being on time. It’s more fun to watch ’em sweat from afar, waiting beside the Starbucks in the bowels of Liberty.
My ride’s furiously batting away at his Blackberry, probably berating his secretary that I’m late, as I saunter toward him, holding up my handmade “Nelson” sign. I write it so it looks more like “Neison,” just to confuse him a little. He barely looks me in the eye as he shoves his little black roller bag at me.
“Good afternoon Mr. Nelson. Are we going to Short Hills?”
He rolls his eyes and nods ever so slightly, like it was a dumb question. Actually it wasn’t that dumb a question. A year ago I picked up the wrong Mr. Johnson and delivered him all the way to Yardley, Pennsylvania, before finding out he lived in Princeton. Whoops.
Mr. Nelson sports a grey lightweight wool suit and white shirt, blue tie, like he’s ready for a Presidential debate. But because he’s a lawyer for an investment bank, he’s probably broken the law too many times to run for President. I myself don a black shirt, black pants, black jacket, aqua tie. This particular brand of uniform hides dirt and looks spiffy compared to the dumpy looking suits of my fellow drivers. Who needs a suit unless you’re interviewing for a job or getting buried?
Mr. Nelson confirms, Short Hills it is. A nice easy ride from Newark, a hop, skip and a jump over the foothills of the Watchung Reservation.
“How was your flight Mr. Nelson?” I attempt to politely make small talk as we walk to the car, but he ignores me and jumps on his cell phone again.
“Fine, fine, excuse me, I have an important call to jump on.”
I bet you do, I think, morphing into limo driver mode, the quiet, deferential man in a cap. But I don’t look so good in a hat. Now that the hair is disappearing, a cap might be a better look on me, if not the Hair Club for Men.
We head north on the Turnpike and then breeze onto 78, with a wall of traffic coming at us from the west. I thank my lucky stars I’m not stuck in that mess. I’d hate for Mr. Nelson to have a conniption fit if he were to miss his tee time at Baltusrol.
The word from the back seat, which I pretend not to hear, is “Umhum hmmm, maybe. Sounds like a plan.” I focus my attention on the road.
Mr. Nelson types furiously into his handheld. I’m not sure if I should try to make any more small talk or just give up. I look in my rearview window and opt to be friendly one more time.
“Did they give you any food on the flight, sir? I have some pretzels if you’re hungry.”
“Continental served its last meal today. I’m good.”
Hmmm, The Last Supper on my favorite airline? I sure hope it isn’t going the way of its brethren and charging for box lunches, which is a stretch to call them even that. I like picking up Continental rides better than USAir or American, which is the worst. With Continental, people seem to be a little more on time and a little less grouchy after a snack.
I pass dreary shopping centers and car dealerships lining 24 and escape the ugliness to deliver Mr. N to his manse on Long Hill Drive, a stone’s throw from the dregs of The Oranges, which I always used to think sounded very hoity-toity until I got a taste of them first hand.
Just like I predicted, I get no tip and barely a thank you. But as I drive away, it dawns on me, maybe I actually did come away with a tip.
It’s almost 6 when my last pickup of the day cancels on me, so I forego a last pass at the Pen and head to my apartment in Metuchen. Driving down the Turnpike, I keep thinking about what he said, and try to piece together his cryptic phone conversation. Something about a board meeting tomorrow and it will be all set. What will be all set?
I turn off 27 into my garden apartment complex –– still looking for the plants — and lug my tired body up the concrete stairs. The cat has coughed up a hairball or something gross on the front mat –– my own special Welcome Home gift. I step over his present, flip on the light switch, and plop down in front of my computer, complete with my own little Bloomberg setup. One of my rides gave me a short cut to his Bloomberg terminal that lets me see real-time quotes and market data on my Dell laptop. I type in CON and see what’s what. Nope that’s not it –– it’s CAL. Wow, some volatility lately, and today’s price is about half of what it’s been in the past six months. I toggle over to my E-trade account and drop a ticket that’s way more than my usual 100 shares of a $10 stock. And then wait.
The next morning, I’m driving back to Newark, listening to 1010 WINS for tunnel and bridge traffic updates when I hear the big news: Continental and United are merging. I almost have a wreck. I’m 10 minutes away from the Holding Pen, where I’ll hopefully be able to hop on a laptop and take advantage of the situation. I`m so excited I’m about to piss in my pants, which gives me an idea for their new name –– Incontinent. I’m sad and glad at the same time –– sad for my favorite airline to be torn asunder, but glad for whatever might be awaiting me on E-trade.
I pull into the outer lot of Liberty, home of the free and the brave drivers of our country’s captains of industry, and think. What if I could be like them? I nab a 15-minute spot and jump out, only to see my Polack friend Freddie, who’s ecstatic about the news.
“We’ll get the Chicago business now, right buddy?” he says, a big Cubs fan since there are lots more Poles there than here.
“Who knows, who knows,” I smile, heading to my laptop connection, the Indians, of Asia, not Cleveland, who sit under a little Wifi tent in their corner of the world and day trade in between rides.
“What’s going on, my man?” I beam as I walk towards Panjit, the ringleader of the crew. He half grins. I only grace their presence when I need their connection.
“I should ask you the same question!”
“Oh, I made a little bet –– just wanna see if it paid off,” I admit. They’ll know soon enough.
I walk to the back of the tent where a card table is propped up and several laptops lay in waiting for their next customer. I plop a $10 bill into a rusty can sitting between them, and ask a 20-something kid leaning against the tent pole for today’s password.
“Ash2ash,” he answers. They’re always coming up with passwords with some sort of inside joke on the news –– this particular incident being the dearth of our business in the past few weeks. That damn volcano in Iceland had me cooling my heels in the holding pen for days.
I chuckle and squat down in front of the laptop and type in the secret code and pull up E-trade. CAL is now trading at $23, almost double its price of yesterday. I gasp as I do the math in my head.
I bring up my account, pull up my holdings and quickly click the SELL button beside CAL. I’ve just made enough money to buy a new car, cash down, and set up my own business. No more getting called from HQ. I’m the new HQ.
The front seat has just moved to the back.
Wendell Wood Collins is the director of corporate relations for Princeton University’s Bendheim Center for Finance and writes the entertainment blog for Princeton Online.