Special Report

Stretching Freedom

Amongst secessionists, right and left, a true freedom fighter arrives on a mechanical white steed.

By 10.12.07

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CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee -- At the end of two days spent watching right and left-wing secession groups prepare to divvy up the nation, I slunk to my hotel late in the evening, stopping only to entreat the bellhop for assurances a taxicab would be on hand at 5:00 a.m. to take me to the airport, and then went to sleep.

The phone rang at 4:30. "The driver's here and he doesn't mind waiting," a young woman with a singsong voice chirped. Carrying only a backpack, I was able with minimal scrambling to be in the lobby a few minutes later where a great bear of a man, imbued with the cheeriest disposition I'd ever seen at such an hour, met me.

I groggily followed his almost-skipping lead through the hotel revolving door and sidled up to the bright yellow minivan outside, intermittently pulling on the locked handle until I heard the Great Bear call, "Mr. Macomber? Uh, over here." Wrong car. As I rounded the front of the minivan I attempted an improvised sign language apology to the annoyed cabbie at whose door I'd been mindlessly tugging. Fingers trailed off in the air, however, when I saw my driver motioning me toward a white stretch limousine.

"Oh, no, no, no...I wanted a taxi," I said, stiffening. I felt a highway robbery in the works, and was prepared to implicate the driver and the bellhop in the conspiracy. A month earlier I'd requested a cab at an airport rental car stand and wound up with a towncar charging twice the going rate. Never again, I resolved.

"I charge the same price," he reassured sans any explicit prompting.

So I slid into the back seat, a full car length back from the driver, flanked by a half dozen large empty holes in the interior sides -- oversized cup holders for buckets of chilled champagne during more exciting journeys, no doubt. En route I fiddled with a set of stereo system knobs, trying to quell the blaring strains of Rod Stewart enough to hear myself think. And then I fiddled with another set to get the bifurcated system muted up to a level allowing communication with the driver. How a stretch limousine ends up competing with minivan taxicabs for passengers at 4:30 in the morning was of much more interest to me than the well-worn tale of how a '70s rock star lost his virginity.

The Driver chuckled at the question. He liked chatting with new people. He enjoyed being on the move. He wanted to start a business where he could be self-sufficient, set his own hours, and build towards something a little bit bigger than he started with.

"I used to drive a regular cab and wanted to keep doing it, but the hoops they make you jump through to get certified are crazy and way out of my budget," he said. The more he tried to play by the rules, though, he said, the more the city regulators seemed to enjoy shutting him out. The board that grants licenses in Chattanooga is partially run by local cab company owners -- would-be competitors, in other words. It's a process that, if not actually corrupt, at least gives the impression corruption is a distinct possibility, as even local press and politicians have begun to note. So he bought a limousine instead. The regulations are much less onerous, and he now happily ferries gobsmacked travelers in absurd luxury for the same rate as a cab.

When I stepped out of the limo at the airport, more than a few heads at curbside check-in turned to cast a quizzical glance. Only a straw hat, a few less teeth and a pair of earth-stained overalls could have made me look less like a VIP. Maybe a couple more pieces of luggage would have created the illusion of my ability to afford such transport.

"You know, I still get to live my dream," he enthused as he held the airport door open for me, "just in a longer car."

As I took my place in the check-in line behind two separatists from the conference, I thought about how grand the secessionists' vision for carving up the country and remaking the newly independent states in their own image -- whether anti-corporate Naderite liberalism or fundamentalist Christian -- had been. Concurrently, however, if not necessarily coincidentally, it was also manifestly impotent. The nation enjoys arguing and self-righteous grandstanding far too much to come to a secession consensus that would disempower some considerable portion of the population of a given state.

Yet, I met a freedom fighter in the South last week, although he would likely never crassly label himself in such a way. He wasn't laden down with copies of essays laying out plans for remaking the world order. No rapturous dreams of a revived Confederacy or liberal utopia fell from his lips. No, this man arrived before dawn on a massive mechanical white steed, carving a path of his own choosing, even in an atmosphere of increasingly suffocating regulation, with a smile on his face and a spring in his step.

These are the kind of counterrevolutionaries we could use more of.

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