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Sunday Drivers

Hanging out with the Hollywood chauffeurs -- While the stars are out at the Oscars, it's their drivers who are partying

They call it Hollywood's biggest party. But even on Oscar night — just a few short yards up into the Hollywood Hills, where the searchlights from the Kodak Theatre cut into the darkening sky to play chase with the circling helicopters — there is a more exclusive party going on, a secret affair that few civilians will ever see. Like the swallows that return to Capistrano, the limos that flock to the Hollywood Bowl are one of nature's greatest mysteries.

Around 3 o'clock, the drivers drop their celebrity clients at the red carpet, then negotiate a maze of orange cones into the six-tiered parking lot of the world-famous Hollywood Bowl, an outdoor concert hall. Their cars are black, always black — white is for prom. The drivers greet one another with laughter, a sea of men in dark suits watching DVDs in their limos and playing poker at round tables. They are diverse in age, color, and background. No one seems to care about political correctness: The Italians make fun of the black guys, who give it right back; everyone makes fun of the Russians. Nothing can kill the mood. ''This is our bread-and-butter night,'' they say. ''This is our Christmas party.'' There are 571 limos parked in perfect formation next to the covered patio where the Oscar ceremony plays on flat-screen TVs and the drivers dine on buffet pasta catered by the Bowl. The smell of spaghetti fills the chilly March night.

It would be awesome if the first rule of the Limo Club was, You do not talk about Limo Club. It's not. Driver personalities vary from salesman to creepy uncle to stoic, but everyone is willing to talk. Our guide into this elite fraternity is 10-year veteran Bill Dreschner, a gregarious part-timer who works a day job training managers for Costco. Bill is very quick to tell us that the chauffeurs' fish tales — stories of the unspeakable things that happen when the partition is up — are frequently exaggerated. ''You only believe one percent of that,'' he cautions. ''Ninety-nine percent of it never happened.'' But we hear about it anyway — about the actor dressed like a lobster, smoking a joint in the backseat; about the actor who got severely coked up on his way to do an interview about getting clean; about breast-feeding and boob jobs and another kind of job that starts with b. We start to wish we hadn't asked.

The Limo Club's actual rules are simple: Never outdress the client. Treat everyone the same. What happens in the limo, stays in the limo. There is debate about whether the men are ''chauffeurs'' or ''drivers.'' To some, ''chauffeur'' denotes a servant in a hat (the ''old-fashioned'' hat is also a bone of contention in these modern times). To others, ''driver'' sounds unprofessional. ''It has to do with a work ethic,'' one chauffeur muses — this one a rare female, a unicorn among the horses.

At 7:30, there is a screech and a crunch outside the lot. A white car has been sideswiped by a black car, and 571 limo drivers crane their necks to look. This is not where you want to have an accident, not tonight, not in front of the pros. Someone says, ''Maybe that's a sign as to what's gonna win Best Picture.'' When we look at him confused, thinking about broken things, he raises an eyebrow back. ''Crash!'' Yes, it is indeed a magical night. And at around eight, as driver after driver rises to answer the PA system's restaurant-style repetitions of ''Car 2252, your client is ready,'' Bill drives us away from the emerging chaos. We pass north of the Kodak to sneak a glimpse down the hill, following the trail of cones leading to the searchlights from the other party, where the celebrity clients are waiting. For a limo driver, the client is always waiting. But ideally not for too long: That'll mess with your tip.

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