All these stories are complimentary by the publisher and author by the name of Jernigan Pontiac.
While awaiting the evening Amtrak out in Essex Junction, I've taken to playing ball against the side of the station building. Recently, a company in Taiwan has begun producing "Spaldings", the pink rubber ball of my youth. What cost a quarter in the early '60's, is now sold to nostalgic baby boomers at Mills & Greer for $3.99. So I practice my curve ball, my slider, and spend the next day trying to ignore my aching shoulder and back. Such is middle-age.
At the bus stop next to the station one night in early July, I noticed a boy astride a BMX bicycle watching me intently. He rode over closer to me, and got off his bike.
"Hey Mister, do you know when the next bus is?" he asked, as I tossed another one against the wall. I snared the rebound and turned to face him directly.
"Yeah, I do," I said. "There's a bus at a quarter to nine. That's about 15 minutes from now."
"Thanks, Mister," he said, and stood there leaning against his bike.
He looked about nine or 10, with brown hair and thick bangs that fell just above round, dark eyes. His frame was lanky, and the size of his sneakers suggested he was due for a big growth spurt over the next year. There was a relaxed, open feeling in the way he held his body - no sign of the hardness or assumed swagger you see when the boys hit adolescence.
I recommenced throwing the ball against the wall, as the kid, still watching, stood 10 feet to my left. Then I tossed it at an angle, so it caromed towards my new acquaintance. He caught it cleanly, threw it back at the wall, and I caught the rebound on a bounce. The two of us played this way for a few minutes, silent and grinning, the way guys do it.
"Hey, what's your name?" I asked, as I threw a hard one high up on the wall.
He back-pedaled a step and made a nice overhead catch of the big bounce. "Christopher Snow," he said. "You know, I rode here from Winooski."
"You don't say?" I replied. "That's a long ride. What street in Winooski d'ya live on?"
"I don't live in Winooski. I live in Missouri. I've been staying with my Mom and little brother in a hotel this summer. We came here to visit my Mom's boyfriend. She met him on the Internet."
"What about your Dad? Is he back in Missouri?"
"No, my Dad's dead. He died when I was little."
"That's too bad, Christopher." I held the ball in my hands for a moment before resuming the game. "What about your Mom's boyfriend? Is he an okay guy? D'ya like him?"
Christopher scrunched up his face, and now it was his turn to cup the ball and pause. It looked like he was seriously contemplating the question.
"Yeah, he's all right," he said. "He's real nice to my Mom. He bought me a real basketball. It has Kevin Garnet’s name on it. You know, like he signed it!"
"That's great," I said. "There's nothing like a Kevin Garnet signature B-ball. He's a great player."
Christopher began our ball game again. Then he said, "You didn't ask me what I did today."
“I didn't? Jeez, I'm sorry. What did ya do today?"
"I played basketball with my friend, Nate, and then started ridin' our bikes. We rode all over the place. Nate's, like, hyper, so we just kept ridin' and ended up out here. Nate rode back to Winooski, but I got kinda tired. Some of the bus drivers know me and let me ride for free."
As if on cue, the Essex bus appeared at the end of the street. I took out my wallet.
"Christopher, here's a buck. You know, just in case this bus driver doesn't know you."
Christopher took the dollar and slid it into his trouser pocket. His pants hung low and baggy, the way the boys like them these days.
"Thanks, Mister," he said, and shot me a warm, crooked smile. I had a keen urge to pick him up and give him a long hug.
This kid is ready for life, I thought. Whether he ends up here, or back in Missouri, I had the strongest sense that he's going to do just fine. Still, I hoped - with a fierce intensity that surprised me - that the Internet guy had a heart big enough to see it through with Christopher and his family. It will be the lucky man, I thought, who gets to be Dad to this boy.
Christopher got back on his bike. I walked over to him and extended my hand. I said, "Good luck, Christopher. I'll see ya around."
He shook my hand shyly - gazing down a bit, then looking up sideways - but his grasp was firm for a small guy. God, it occurred to me, this kid must have one great Mom.
"Yeah, I'll see you, Mister," he said, and sped off to catch the bus.
LEMONGRASS AND MAPLE SYRUP
A few nights a week in the Queen City's geographical and spiritual center — Nectar's Restaurant and Lounge — a tiny Tibetan man serves up the hot, open turkey sandwiches and french fries.
"Make it a large," I call to him through the sliding, street-level takeout window. Above my head, the town's sole rotating neon sign (grandfathered-in years ago with the then-new signage regulations) beams out "Nectar's" in glowing orange script. The sidewalk is jammed with people as a pumping disco bass line reverberates in the air — it's ‘70s night upstairs at Club Metronome. "Sure, right away," he says. "You want gravy, no-gravy?"
"Hold the gravy, OK? But douse those babies in catsup, willya?"
With a practiced flourish, the small man bangs the fry basket three times against the side of the fryolator, and flips a cascade of french fries into the waiting clamshell box he has balanced in his left hand. He then places the white box on the cutting board and grabs not one, but two red, plastic cylinders. Two-gun style, he paints those taters red, snaps the box closed and passes it to me through the window.
"Here you go. Plenty catsup. Four dollar, please."
He seems genuinely happy to be there, a fry cook in the bustle of downtown Burlington. I don't know what I more enjoy — the Nectar's fries or our short exchange.
A few hundred Vietnamese, Cambodians, Chinese and Tibetans now call Vermont their home. They live throughout Chittenden County, but mostly in apartments in Winooski and the Burlington’s Old North End. For those of us who've lived here for years, the winters are long and frigid. One can only imagine what the first winter feels like to people who have grown up in the jungle climate of Southeast Asia. But, just as it’s always been for American immigrants, things are better for them here, often immeasurably so. They'll gladly tolerate the Vermont winters; it's a small price to pay.
Last July, I remember clearing (cab-speak for dropping a fare) in Winooski at dusk on a warm summer day. In the fading pink and purple streams of light, I saw a half-dozen Vietnamese men sitting along the curb on West Allen Street. (I think they were Vietnamese; in the finest tradition of American cultural ignorance, I have difficulty distinguishing among people of various Asian backgrounds.) They were smoking cigarettes and laughing; they looked relaxed and happy. Across the street, children ran in the small playground. I couldn't say if they were melting in a pot, but it was wonderful to see Asian, black and white kids yelling and playing together. I remember thinking, this bodes well for our community if we adults don't screw it up.
Mr. Chang always arrives on the late bus from New York City. He carries a frayed, green valise in one hand, and a medium-sized, white garbage bag stuffed to the gills in the other. The plastic bag contains fish, or some manner of sea life. I know this because I asked him about the smell the first time he took my taxi. "This is for restaurant," he told me. "I cook there." I’d say the fish (or whatever) is deceased, but I wouldn't swear to it. In any event, it’s a lively, squishy package he places down on the front car mat between his feet. For the remainder of the evening, the car always smells, wondrously, like the ocean.
Yesterday I had the pleasure — some part of me wants to say honor — of driving a recently-arrived immigrant couple. As soon as they entered the cab, I guessed they were from Tibet. Both the man and woman wore similar coats of thick fabric, perhaps cotton batting. The garments were colorful, but of a soft, muted quality. Maybe it's another of my gringo stereotypes, but the Tibetan people seem to be quite short, as were these folks. They both had black hair and broad, handsome faces. Another thing is, they were quiet. Not dreamy, as in reverie, but self-contained, awake, alive. I have always been drawn to people with such a peaceful presence, undoubtedly because my own energy spills out of me like some leaky, dyspeptic garden hose.
Rolling along Hyde Street, I couldn't (of course) help myself. "Tell me," I said. "Did you folks ever meet the Dalai Lama?"
"We have been with His Holiness in India," the man said. "How do you know the Dalai Lama?"
"Jeez, everyone knows the Dalai Lama," I replied. "I think he's even visited Vermont a couple times."
The man smiled sweetly and said, "What do you think of the Dalai Lama?"
Oh baby. The Dalai Lama is the physical embodiment of Tibetan culture, national aspiration and spirituality — like Mahatma Gandhi, George Washington and Mother Teresa rolled into one. Please, I uttered to myself, don't say something sickeningly trite to these people.
"I think he's beautiful," I said. I had not a clue where that came from, but not too shabby, I thought, considering the full-fledged brain lock that had taken hold.
"Yes," the woman said. "He is beautiful."
The Burlington to which I migrated over 25 years ago is different from the Burlington of this moment. When I got off the boat that summer of '79, the town boasted five, count 'em five, pizza places. The current phone book lists 47. The population back then was almost entirely white. Now along with the influx of Asians, many Africans and African-Americans, Eastern Europeans, and even a smattering of Hispanic folks have put down roots in the Queen City.
Change is hard for me. If I return home to find the couch moved to the other side of the room, this throws me off for a week. But if I open my heart and mind to simply experience the new crop of people who work, shop and live here, and who now ride in my taxi, the feeling is, well, beautiful.
THE FOUR SEAS
A middle-aged black man hailed me from in front of the new Dunkin' Donuts on Main Street. I want to say there was an elegance to his dress, but it was more his bearing than the clothes themselves. He wore blue jeans, which appeared brand-new and were sharply creased down the front, a similarly crisp white shirt and a red, batik-print vest. He had a thick moustache, and sideburns from a mid-70’s heyday. On his head was a white hat - a cap really - that I initially associated with a fast-food uniform, but then quickly recognized as the headgear worn by certain practicing Muslims.
As I pulled to the right, I couldn't get a read on this person, which is something I do automatically - student, tourist, businessperson, etc. The anomaly was the large cardboard box, slightly overflowing with clothes, which he carried under one arm. He stepped into the street, and his every movement evinced a subtle grace. When he reached my cab, he made that little corkscrew motion with his free index finger - the universal semaphore for "please open the window" - and I complied. "Brother, could you take me to the Four Seas?" he said.
I take a quiet pride in my knowledge of all-places local, and this was a stumper. "Is that the new restaurant up in Colchester?" I asked, stabbing in the dark.
The name had a Shanty-on-the-Shore ring to it, and something's always opening around Mallet's Bay, often with a seafood theme. Thinking about it for another second - really as the words left my mouth - I realized that the name then would be the Seven Seas.
The man smiled. "I wish, man, I wish. No, I'm talking about the four Cs - the Chittenden County Correctional Center. You know where that's at, don't you, brother?"
"Oh, sure," I replied. "I'm just losing it. Of course I know where the jail is."
Nicknames abound for places around town, including other acronyms. I'm partial to the old Grand Union on North Avenue, which we cabbies used to call, "GUNA", and - this is why it's my favorite - we pronounced it, "goo-nah".
"If you want," I continued, "you could throw that box in the back seat and sit in the front."
He nodded, got in, and I swung the vehicle left towards Shelburne Road. It felt touchy, but I had to ask: "So, are you visiting someone in there?"
"No, I'm checking in. I'm doing eight months."
That threw me a little. I always imagined you enter prison manacled, escorted by two beefy sheriffs, maybe kicking and screaming. It never occurred to me that you could "check in", as if arriving at the Sheraton.
"That's rough," I said. Now, of course, I wanted to know the offense.
Thank goodness, I quashed my inveterate nosiness and chronic lack of tact, and managed to keep silent.
The man, meanwhile, sat quietly watching the passing cityscape. He appeared so peaceful, so humble, I experienced an immediate affinity for him. I can't say why, but in the unspoken, intuitive realm, I felt in the presence of a kindred spirit.
We passed the old Kentucky Fried Chicken, now reopened as yet another Chinese take-out.
"I haven't been back to Burlington since '68," he said. "I don't think there was maybe one Chinese place in town back then. "Now there's probably more than two dozen," I said. "And that's to go along with the 40 pizza joints."
He chuckled. "Well, things change," he said. "Don't they, now."
We pulled onto Farrell Street and up to the entrance of the jail. The complex is surrounded by a tall, chain-link fence, topped by circular, razor-spiked wire. In the late-afternoon sun, the scary barb wire glinted with an extra measure of intimidation.
"Thanks for the ride, brother," he said. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "I'll tell you, I didn't think I was going to see the inside of this place again. Maybe this time I'll get it right. I sure am getting too old for this."
I didn't know how to respond. As he stepped out of the car, I said awkwardly, "Hey, I'll see ya when you get out."
He stopped, and for a moment - maybe two beats - looked directly into my eyes. His gaze was deep and penetrating, which might have seriously unnerved me, but for the softness. He had down-turned eyebrows, and blue eyes that were round and still. It was a kind face, a face of compassion. I continued to watch him as he lifted the box out of the rear seat and turned to walk up to the prison door.
Driving back into town, I found myself speeding. Then I noticed I was squeezing the steering wheel and grinding my teeth. In my job, I drive hundreds of people a month; it's rare for an exchange with a customer to throw me off my game, to hit me so emotionally. But something about this fare had powerfully affected me.
Who knows what crime brought the guy to the four Cs? I may be naive - or so I've been told, more than once - but not entirely. He probably did something really wrong; it could have been abusive; it could have even been evil.
All I knew was this: The fact of that man sitting in jail at that moment had me in knots. Now weeks later, thinking about him still fills me with an ineffable sadness.
DRIVING WITH INTENT
The two big guys stepped from the door of What Ales You, and slumped into the rear of my taxi. With the demise of the Blarney Stone and the legendary Chickenbone - along with the dislocation of The Last Chance as a byproduct of the Flynn Theater expansion - What Ales You has emerged as the bar of choice for the St. Michael’s cognoscenti. It was still early in the evening, but these guys had clearly had their fill, and then some.
“Hey, Mr. Cabbie,” one of them spoke up, draped unnecessarily over the front seat. “Couldja take us to the 200 townhouses at St. Mike’s? Ya know how to get there?”
“I think so,” I responded. “The first 30 or 40 thousand times I took somebody there, it was a little confusing, but I think I got it down now.” I hate it when I get sarcastic, but sometimes it just flies out of me. I guess I was bushed, and in a crappy mood to boot. Luckily, these guys were so soused they couldn’t distinguish sarcasm from orgasm.
“Right on,” the guy replied. “And couldja change that radio station? How about ‘IZN or the Buzz?”
“All right - let’s try IZN, ‘cause I can’t cope with the Buzz.”
Just then it hit me. Don’t ask me how I knew, I just did. Call it a “sixth sense” -except I don’t see dead people, I see deadbeats. All of a sudden it washed over me: these dudes were planning to bolt. Maybe it was their conspiratorial whispering in the back; maybe it was their demeanor or attitude. As I said, don’t ask.
Right at that moment during the ride, I should have asked them - casually, off-handedly, not showing my hand - to pay the fare in advance. But I didn’t, because when push comes to shove, I still doubt my hunches, and I didn’t want to insult them.
Thank heavens fare jumping is the most heinous crime committed against we local cabbies. In the big cities, cabdrivers are subject to armed robbery, assault and worse. Here in Burlington, the worst that happens is - maybe once every few weeks - a fare runs from the cab without paying. It’s infuriating nonetheless, and we harbor murderous feelings toward the perpetrators. Of course, we don’t act on these intentions, because that would be wrong, not to mention felonious. Except, as it turns out in this case, I kind of did.
We arrived at the college, and I pulled into the wide handicapped space marking the entranceway to the sidewalk that webs throughout the 200 complex. One guy got out on the right and began walking onto the path. The other exited on the left, and stepped over to my window. In a play you know, if you have the script, what’s coming next. And that’s just how I felt. It was eerie.
I lowered my window, and said, “That’ll be nine bucks.” He took out his wallet, and even went so far as to flip it open and fuss with the billfold. Then he incongruously slapped the top of my cab, and took off in the direction of his now running friend. It was not at all sudden - due to his drunken state - nor was I even slightly surprised. As I said, I knew the script.
In that moment, however, I went off script. As written, I was supposed to plaintively watch them scatter into the housing complex, cursing them, first out loud, then under my breath for the next half-hour as the night dragged on. Instead, I improvised.
I gunned the accelerator and shot onto the sidewalk, steering directly at them. I have no explanation for this action, short of momentary insanity - a defense, it’s said, the jury rarely buys. The truth be told, under the right - or wrong - circumstances, I’ve been known to veer towards the reckless and impulsive. This was such a circumstance.
Because the sides of the path were piled high with plowed snow, they could only flee forward, and I maintained a steady rate of speed exactly five feet behind their heels. It was like the running of the bulls at Pamplona, me being a bull, and they a pair of unwitting runners.
The headlights - now switched to high beams - illuminated their backs as they clamored ahead. They kept glancing over their shoulders, their eyes saucer-wide in disbelief. They slipped, tumbled, arose and still I came. Through my windshield, they appeared thoroughly freaked out, a picture of abject panic. If this cabbie is crazy enough to drive on a sidewalk, he could just as well be sufficiently insane to run us down. I knew this was running through their minds, and I loved it.
One of them finally hurled himself over the snow bank to his left and escaped. The other managed to scurry around to a series of doors on the ground level of one of the apartment blocks. I came to a stop facing him, the headlights trained on him like an escaping convict. For added effect, I began flashing the high beams on and off. He scrambled from door to door, feverishly searching for an unlocked one. The last door was the charm, and he disappeared into the townhouse.
At that point, I could have called St. Michael’s Security and had him busted. But I didn’t want to waste anymore time, and besides which, I don’t think they countenance sidewalk-driving, even under these exigent circumstances.
More importantly, I no longer needed the money, nor craved justice. I had already gotten my nine dollars worth of satisfaction.
FRIED GREEN OLDSMOBILES
In our region, most taxi fares originate and terminate within the immediate Burlington area. When you take someone to an outlying town Milton, Underhill, Monkton, et. al. you fully expect to return empty. Bagging a return fare in these situations is gravy - pure, thick, savory Nectar's Diner gravy. But sometimes you ask the prettiest girl to the dance and she says, "Yes,” and sometimes you get the gravy. It could happen.
I just dropped a fare at the cheese factory in Hinesburg, and returning north on 116, I spot a large green vehicle on the roadside, hood raised. An older man is hunched over the engine. As I draw close, he waves me down.
"I'm out of gas," he says. "Where's the nearest station?"
"This time of night that would be the Mobil up on Gracey's Corner," I reply.
"Let's do it, partner," he says.
All right! Gimme gravy with my mashed potatoes!
The man climbs in, and right away, I like him. You know how it is sometimes you just like somebody. His hair is pure ‘50s, he looks to be in his ’60s and his attire is vintage ‘70s. Remember Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders? This guy is channeling Wayne. High pompadour white as snow and, though it's still quite cold, he's wearing only a "leisure suit" (there's an oxymoronic phrase) over a ruffled white shirt, white as his hair. The "suit" color, God help me, is mauve. As the French a wordy, articulate bunch if there ever was one put it: chacun à son goût: everyone to his own taste. This guy isn't merely a piece of work, he's an entire work unto himself, and he hits the seat talking.
"Goddam Oldsmobiles! I thought those Japanese mothers forced GM to make cars that work! Can't even design a goddam gas gauge to work right."
Never mind that his car dates back to the Watergate hearings. I think he's lucky the pistons are still pumping.
"Where are you from, buddy?" I ask. "Somewhere down south, I bet."
"You got that right, partner," he replies. "The name's Clyde by the way. I'm from Nashville. I'm up here visiting my sister's family in Starksboro. Boy, she wasn't kidding about the weather. It's colder'n hell up here."
I've been living in Vermont long enough now to have internalized the propensity to talk endlessly about the weather. And enjoy it, no less. Thusly, Clyde and I chat meteorologically, as well as about this, about that, and about the other thing. Never have I enjoyed a more amiable conversation traveling up Hinesburg Road.
Arriving at the all-night gas station, Clyde does the gas can deposit thing, and now we're heading back. Presumably in about 15 minutes we'll be back at his vehicle, he'll pay the fare (with hopefully a good tip), pour the gallon of gas into the empty gas tank, hit the ignition (vroom-vroom) and all is copasetic.
However, when we reach his car, Clyde doesn't pay me right away. Rather, he asks me to wait to make sure the engine will indeed start. He puts the gas in, cranks the ignition and it won't turn over. I watch him make a number of futile attempts at this until he gets out, opens the trunk and fishes out a blue plastic container. As he walks over to me, I see the container says, "Starter Fluid.”
"Okay," Clyde says. "Here's the deal. I'll try to start her up again while you squirt this stuff on the carburetor."
I confess I'm not much of a car mechanic. Actually, that's giving me too much credit. I'm not a car mechanic, period. That said, I trust my intuition, and my gut says, "This is a bad thing."
This assessment is confirmed as I take the starter fluid from Clyde, and notice the prominent warning label: "For use on small engines such as snowmobiles, lawnmowers, etc. Not recommended for use on automobiles." I point this out to Clyde.
"Well,” he says. “That just shows you can't believe everything you read, partner, I can't tell you how many times I've started a car with this stuff. Never once had a problem."
What the hell do I know? Clyde gets behind the wheel and gives me the thumbs-up sign, like John Glenn at lift-off. Clyde cranks. I squirt. He cranks. I squirt. Nothing.
He leans out the window, pompadour first. "C'mon, put some oomph into it. It ain't fine wine."
Got it. He again hits the ignition. I squeeze with both palms, shooting a thick stream directly onto the carb.
“Clyde, how’s it? That's all I get out, because at that instant, the engine is engulfed in flame. Not a sputtering camp cook fire, but huge, four-foot, orange, yellow and red spikes higher than eye level.
I leap away from the car. There's nothing like fire to focus your attention. They should try it at Zen retreats, I think. I'm standing by the taxi which is parked on the opposite shoulder. Clyde, so help me, is still in the driver's seat trying to start the engine.
"Clyde!" I yelp. "Get the hell outta there! Are you nuts!?"
"Shaddup!" comes back. This guy apparently is in Captain of the Titanic mode , he's going down with the ship.
Meanwhile, the flames have abated not one iota. This thing can blow at any moment. Survival takes over. The lizard brain, located, I’m told, somewhere behind and south of the navel screams, "We're outta here!" I jump into the taxi and gun it.
About a hundred yards up the road and still accelerating, I glance at my rear-view and get this last image of the scene: The green, monstrous boat of a car, engine ablaze. I'm not sure, but I swear I can spot the white pompadour bobbing up and down through the flames and the windshield.
So much for the gravy.
LOST LAMBS AND GMC VANS
I had first seen the young woman earlier that afternoon walking along Pine Street near the Burlington bus terminal. I tend to notice people on the sidewalk, because anyone on foot is a potential taxi fare. So I keep my eyes open.
She had been heading in the direction of Main Street with a substantial backpack in tow big, rectangular, frayed and tan. Judging from the bulk of it, I imagined she was carrying all her worldly possessions on her back. Her worn clothes suggested that she was not a middle-class kid out on a lark with a handy credit card if things got dicey. You can never tell for sure, but I had a strong sense this person was likely living on the wings of fate, out on the edge.
It was close to midnight when this same young woman approached my taxi. I rolled down my window and she said, “I’m supposed to meet a guy with a van in front of Shaw’s on I think he said, ‘Shelburne Street.’ Also, he has the money for the taxi when we get there. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, Shaw’s on Shelburne Road. Let’s throw that backpack in the rear seat, and you can sit in the front with me.”
“What about the money part?”
“It’s fine,” I replied. “You just pay me when we get there. That’ll work.”
In most situations I’ll decline a proposal with such an iffy financial outlook. But she wasn’t going too far and, beyond that, like many lawyers (or at least the decent ones), I’m OK with doing some pro bono work now and then, if that’s what it comes down to.
We turned onto St. Paul Street, heading to Route 7. The girl sat next to me, her hands folded on her lap, somehow fresh-faced and dirty at the same time. I don’t mean dirty like a hustler, sleazy and unclean, but literally adorned with the sheen of road dust.
“What brings you through town?” I asked.
“I heard that this was a good place,” she replied. “You know , like there’s good people here. Do you think so?”
“Well, I’ve done my share of traveling back in the day, and my experience is that there’s good people everywhere.”
She chuckled and pulled her long dark hair behind her ears, looping it into a pony tail with a thick, red rubber band. “Well, I don’t know about that,” she said.
I smiled inwardly and thought, there’s a real sweetness about this girl. She then said, “Hey, what’s your name, dude?”
“My name’s Jernigan.”
“Yup. I mean, why would I make up a name? It’s not like I’m a stripper or something. What’s yours?”
“My name is Janice.”
“Well, good to meetcha Janice,” I said, and took the left into the Shaw’s shopping center. Sure enough, there was a GMC van with its dim lights on, sitting in the shadows at the far end of the parking lot. We pulled alongside it and eased to a stop. Janice instructed, “He said to honk.”
I lightly tapped the horn, and a hulking man pushed open the two back doors of the van and stepped out. He wore black jeans and no shirt or shoes. If he was riding a skateboard, it occurred to me, with an unleashed pit bull, he would be in violation of every single posted rule on the Church Street Marketplace. Well, maybe he’d have to spit a few times, as well. His left bicep was wrapped in what looked like Saran Wrap. He walked around to the passenger side of the cab just as my customer was getting out.
“It‘s Janice, right?” he said. “Take a look at this tattoo I told ya I was getting.”
He carefully rolled down the plastic film to reveal a gold and crimson tiger. The colors were startlingly vivid; the big cat looked almost liquid. Janice said, “Nice ink.”
“You think so?” the guy said with a leer in his voice. He looked at least 15 years older than Janice. He strode around to me and paid the fare without making eye contact. “C’mon inside the van,” he continued talking to Janice. “I got another tat to show you.”
“Let me grab my pack,” she said.
“Right on,” he said, climbing back into his vehicle.
Janice opened the rear door of my cab and lifted out her backpack. She then stuck her head back through the door and asked, “You think this guy’s a good person?”
No, Janice, I don’t think so, was the answer that popped into my brain. But I suppressed that and said, “How can I say? I’ve just met him for two minutes. Just take care of yourself, whatever happens.”
The saddest look washed over her face. For travelers on the wings of fate, unfortunately, mercy can be hard to come by.
“I hope he doesn’t hurt me,” she said, and closed the door.
That remark, wish whatever hit me like a kick in the stomach. I couldn’t bear to contemplate exactly what she meant by it. My mind flashed on a bumper sticker I‘ve been seeing a lot lately: “All who wander are not lost.”
True enough, I thought. But some are.
TO BURP, PERCHANCE TO HEAVE
Hackie is a book about cab driving. As such, there is a subject that can no longer be avoided; it must be broached. It is not a pleasant subject and I've put it off as long as possible. Further delay would be a breach of my professional duty. For the faint of heart, or more to the point, weak of stomach, now is your chance to bail out. There will be no further warnings.
In order, these are the three worst things to a cabdriver: an accident, a robbery, vomit. The first two are self-explanatory; let's talk about the third.
"Granted", you might observe, "a customer throwing up in your taxi is certainly unpleasant, but is it so odious as to rank third on the "Pantheon of Hackie Horribles"?
The immediate response is that unpleasant does not do justice to the specter of a vomit-sprayed cab interior. Once the customer blows, you're toast - your night is over. You can't go, "Oh tish-tish, what a mess. I'll have to clean it up at the end of the night.” No, the reality is: go directly to the car wash, do not pass "go", do not collect $200. The cleaning process is measured in hours not minutes, and by night's end, you're left with soaking seats and that inimitable lingering odor.
In the face of such dire consequences, cabbies become hyper-vigilant in discerning the warning signals. In 90% of the cases, the potential puker is thoroughly intoxicated, so you can't rely on the normal process of self‑regulation. Constant small burping noises are a very bad sign, the equivalent of those ominous gas emissions preceding a volcanic eruption. Proclamations such as, "I'm not feeling very good", go unheeded at your own peril.
I've learned the hard way to take immediate prophylactic action. I look the pre-regurgitator right in the eyes and say loudly and clearly, "If you feel, even vaguely, like you have to throw up, tell me right away so I can stop the cab and let you out. I don't mind false alarms; let's be safe rather than sorry.”
This simple warning has served me well: I've succeeded in reducing the daily odds to about 1 in 365. Once a month a customer does his or her thing by the side of the road, but remarkably, I have gone a full year without an in‑cab deposit. Recently, however, the string was broken.
Last week, when a customer picked my taxi as the ideal site for an explosion of projectile vomiting - well, I was bummed but philosophical. As the bumper sticker says, "Shit Happens", and once a year is bearable. Wisk, ammonia, sponges, vacuum, brushes and plenty of water seemed to do the trick. The following morning I purchased six green, Christmas tree-shaped, car fresheners - "Royal Pine" scent - and hung them strategically throughout the vehicle. End of incident - good riddance.
Later that evening, on the lovely Circumferential Highway en route to Essex Center, a 240-pound partied‑out rugby player gave me the redux treatment of the previous night. The only substantive difference was, this second night, the volume was greater.
I turned to tear into the offender, but this great bear of a guy was already slobberly apologizing all over the place. He handed me $20, which I took, and offered to help with the cleanup, which I declined. Maybe his drunkenness heightened the emotional tenor, but the entire turn of events was clearly affecting him.
He actually looked as if he was about to start crying. This was in sharp contrast to the previous night's perpetrator who was pie‑eyed beyond all meaningful awareness of his actions. Although last-night’s guy truly deserved it, yelling at him would have yielded all the satisfaction of reprimanding a flounder.
As we pulled up to his place, the guy had a look of pure despondency. Momentarily transcending my freaked‑out state - two nights in a row of these festivities had left me somewhat, well, "unhinged" - I told him, "Buddy, you have handled this bad situation with as much class as is humanly possible."
With that, he visibly brightened and wobbled down the driveway and stepped into his house. Hooray for him.
Ah, Lady Luck, my fickle mistress. In high school I barely passed the math classes but, if memory serves me, the odds of consecutive night fulminations are 1 in 365 squared! Let's round it out to 1 in 100,000. Gadzooks! I think that qualifies as astronomically. Have I not paid sufficient tribute to the Taxi Gods?
The previous month I had caught a terrific fare to Burlington, Ontario, outside of Toronto. Was that not incredibly lucky? Were my twin nights of vomit some manner of payback, all part of the cosmic balancing act? Such was my thought process that second night at the car wash.
Meanwhile, Cumby's is out of "Royal Pine" and I may have to switch to "Red Spice".