Everyone who worked for Phyllis Diller hated driving that Rolls Royce. The car was huge, an old classic which felt like driving an ocean liner on dry land.
This particular winter afternoon, Phyllis and her husband Warde were flying out to visit friends for a few days, hence she didn’t have her usual dozen or more suitcases, so instead of hiring a limo, Phyllis had me drive them to the airport in L.A. Oh joy.
By the time I dropped them off at the terminal, the sun was setting and I wasted no time heading for her home in Brentwood. Then I glanced at the gas gauge. It was on “E.” Emp-ty, baby. And there was a reason for that. Warde never bothered with something as mundane as putting gas in a car — and mind you, this was before the days of self-service. This was when you pulled into a service station and the attendants rushed to clean your windshield, check the oil and fill the tank. All Warde had to do was buzz down the window and hand over some money. But even that was beneath him.
I got off the freeway at the first exit and with my heart in my mouth, went in search of a gas station. Now, if you’re not from L.A., or familiar with the area around LAX, let me just say this is not a place for a young woman to be alone as dusk is settling. (Can you say “ghetto”?) I hit every red light. When I finally spotted a Texaco sign, I was weak with relief. As I pulled up to the pump, a little man shuffled out of the office and stood gaping. Rolls Royces were probably as rare in this part of town as, well, unicorns. Soon a crowd began to materialize.
The attendant came up to the window and in the most authoritarian voice I could muster, I said, “fill her up, please.” After nearly a minute, he came back and said, “how do you open the gas cap?” I stared at him. He stared back. “It’s locked,” he told me. “Maybe there’s a release button somewhere,” he said as he made a gesture for me to get out of the car. Not on your life! I wasn’t leaving my safe cocoon.
As the attendant and several helpful (I’m sure) onlookers began swarming over the car checking under the wheel wells and pawing at the door handles, I punched every button on the dashboard, crawling underneath and cursing the Rolls Royce designers with every breath. Finally, the attendant returned and said, “can’t find it.” I was ready to cry. “Check the trunk,” someone called out. “Yeah, check the trunk,” someone else echoed. I wondered if they were hoping to find a body in there. I was fervently wishing there was — and that it was Warde’s.
At last! Secreted in the trunk was a latch, and voila — the gas cap popped open! The attendant filled ‘er up and I was grateful that I had enough money. At last, with a huge sense of relief and sweating palms I gently nosed my way through the crowd which had grown to include probably the entire neighborhood. As I got to the driveway, I gave a couple of blasts on the horn and raised my hand in my best imitation of Her Majesty’s royal wave. The crowd clapped and cheered. Some of them waved as I passed. I’m guessing it was the talk of the neighborhood for weeks. Unicorns are mighty rare in that part of the country.