March 25, 2008
This is it. The Yo, Hackie! blog is going, going, gone . . .
It's been a wonderful year of blogging. I got to share my TV addiction. I took and posted a ton of on-the-job pictures. I commented on the stories-behind-the-stories that go into the biweekly columns. And most fun, I wrote about "stuff I love." Actually, the most fun was exchanging with blog-readers who commented on the posts.
So, to all of you out there: Keep in Touch : )
Peace and Love: Jernigan Pontiac
March 23, 2008
Le Mot Juste
Those loquacious French have an expression for the perfect, the most precise word in a given context: le mot juste. Say what you will about our friends from France, but they excel in the linguistic arts. (Also, they're not shabby when it comes to cooking, perfumery, wine and love-making.)
In the last "Hackie" column, I found what I felt was le mot juste for the title. The problem was that the perfect word is sometimes an unusual word, one that few people retain as a part of their working vocabulary. So, how perfect is it if few folks will know what it means?
I have had a running conversation with my Seven Days editors on this very subject. Essentially, my esteemed editors think that rare words - those that few readers will know - should be avoided as story-stoppers. Why jar the reader out of the flow of the narrative?
I get this point, but feel that a writer has an obligation to introduce their readers to new and tasty words and thusly expand their vocabularies. I read the New Yorker magazine weekly and always come across words with which I'm not familiar. I write them down on the spot. When I later check my dictionary, I go, "Ah-ha - that's a nice word."
So, this story was about a baby born on Leap Year's Day, i.e., February 29th. There is a terrific word for such a baby: a leapling. To me, it evokes the word, "yearling," and just love the sound of it. Therefore, with my editors' approval, we did use that for the title.
As a coda, when the story was posted on the paper's website - www.sevendaysvt.com - it was transposed incorrectly as "The Leaping!"
So, look before you leap.
March 20, 2008
Lucky hackie got booked for a fare into the Eastern Townships of Quebec. My customers and I tooled around the border towns just north of the Richford crossing. At one point in the festivities, we visited a stable for a sleigh ride.
Our Vermont Justin Morgans are a gorgeous breed of equine, but - let's be honest - they're kind of shrimpy.
These Belgians, man oh man, them are horses!
March 18, 2008
Happy Trails to You
As George Harrison wrote, all things must pass.
Seven Days is making some changes to the newspaper's on-line presence and the "Yo Hackie" blog will not be part of the new configuration. Next Wednesday, March 26th, will be its last day of life, and there will be no last moment commutation from the Governor. (I actually had my lawyers call Douglas and he said, "No f-ing way.")
Folks, it's all good. I had a good run with this blogging thing, nearly a full year. I've had the opportunity to exchange views - via the comments - with many readers, and I thank everyone who took the time to read the blog and/or post comments. It's been fun and meaningful.
Thanks also go out to the paper, and, in particular, to the on-line editor, the fabulous Cathy Resmer. Cathy, it's been a delight to work with you over the past year. You have been nothing other than encouraging and supportive.
I'll probably post a few more times over the next week. After that, the fortnightly "Hackie" column will do all the talking for me. As always, feel free to stay in communication with me through my email address which you can find at the end of every column.
March 13, 2008
Don't Be A Hater
(Warning: This post it rated "R" - chockfull of expletives.)
Last weekend was a horror show of weather. It's always worse at the beginning and tail end of the winter when the temperature hovers around freezing and the precipitation can't make up it's mind what it wants to do, so it opts for a little of everything - sleet, freezing rain, snow. It was amidst these grueling driving conditions that I drove a couple to their home in Williston, just east of the driving range.
Have you seen the bumper sticker, "Mean People Suck?" Well, if that's a truism, then the male half of this twosome sucked. He spent the entire trip tearing down a number of supposed friends, family members and - surprise, surprise - all the while subtly berating his female partner. I have a high tolerance for human foibles; I suffer fools gladly. But people who are flat-out mean get to me. They do suck!
We arrive at their pad and the woman quickly gets out. Really, why spend another second sitting next to this guy? I tell him it's $15. The man, who was slightly tipsy, begins the hunt for his money. No problem, except he is taking his sweet-ass time. Most people understand that time is money to a cabbie and make an effort to pay-up with alacrity. This dude is taking all the time in the world, lah-di-dah, without a "sorry" or any acknowledgment to me whatsoever.
Finally, he says, "I don't have cash, here's my credit card."
"Sorry," says I, "I don't take plastic."
"Why the fuck not?"
"What can I tell you? I'm just not set up to take cards. Do you have money in the house or do we need to go to an ATM?
He says, "Hey, bud - no need to get lippy. I'll get you a check," and steps out of the cab.
Shall we count the ways? There are so many things about this guy that are pissing me off. For starters, how about, "Sorry about this, man. Would you be able to take a check?" And that's my mind to a "T": replaying the dialog in my head, placing new words in the offender's mouth.
Five minutes pass. That is a long time for a cab to sit idle on a busy night. As he approaches the cab, I open the passenger window and, without a word, he throws a check onto the shotgun seat and retreats.
I look down at the check and it's for 15 even. "Hey," I yell out towards the man, "thanks for the tip."
Before we proceed further, let's note that - with this sarcastic crack - it was I who got the ball rolling.
From his front door, he turns and says, "Hey asshole - fuck you."
I say, "Well fuck you, you mother-fucker."
Interestingly, neither of us is actually screaming. That's how you know this is bad.
"Get out of that cab, you cocksucker, and I'll beat your ass."
"Oh, go fuck yourself," I retort. I look at a Blazer sitting in the driveway. "I'm gonna fuck up your car when you get in the house." That's a lovely escalation, I think to myself.
The guy's face turns the color of a ripe eggplant, and he charges at me screaming, "You mother-fucking . . . "
There might have been the exchange of a few further pleasantries as I took off down the street.
Let us review. What have we learned from this story? What is the moral? Simply put: anger begets anger; hate begets hate. If you know this, as I do, then don't take the bait. Let me repeat this: don't take the bait.
Given my checkered history, I fear I may need to relearn this lesson a few more times before it takes hold . . .
March 11, 2008
Ten Years After
In the most recent "Hackie" column, "A Friend of Grace," I write about two customers of mine, Gracie and Janet. After penning this story, it occurred to me that, 10 years ago, I had written a previous piece about Gracie, entitled "Mustang Sally." This might be unprecedented for me to feature the same person in two stories.
So, here's the story from 1998. (The names are different because I always alter the names of the folks I write about.)
“He’s gonna kill me,” she sobbed. Her voice was trembling, like someone overwhelmed by bitter cold, the tone a combination of fear and pleading. It disturbed me, and that’s saying something. In 20-plus years pushing the hack, I’ve seen and heard a lot. I haven’t seen it all — new things happen every day — but I have seen a lot.
Her head and bare arms extended through the passenger window as she stood on the curb gazing at me through mascara-streaked eyes. “I’m dead,” she said quietly, and now the change in feeling was more unnerving in its flatness. “I’m dead,” she repeated. “I’m dead.”
What on earth has Sally gotten herself into this time, I wondered. Each of the previous times I’ve given her a ride home – and there have been many – she’s carried with her, like a suitcase, an air of excitement mixed with lurking danger.
Usually I can spot her a block away, wildly hailing for a taxi, two or three guys in her wake. The men may be gesticulating at her with determined animation, exasperation written all over their faces. Sally jumps in laughing and shaking her head as if to say, “Do you believe this?” But despite the outward show of insouciance, I always sense that I’m the get-a-way car and that Sally’s give-and-take with the men is far from innocent.
“Hey, Sally, what’s going on?” I asked.
She was now gulping breaths as if she was having difficulty getting enough air. “I lost my purse. It had my keys. He’s gonna kill me, I swear, he’s gonna kill me.”
“Look, do ya need a ride somewhere?”
“Yeah, I need to get to my friend’s house on Ferguson Avenue, but I don’t have any money on me. I lost my purse.” With that, she started crying again, big round tears cascading down the sides of her face.
“Just get in, will ya?” I said. “Don’t worry about the money, OK? You’ll get me next time.” I knew she wasn’t hustling me. There had never been any problem with her paying the fare, and she always tips well, to boot.
Sally gave me a grateful smile and settled into the front seat. Her smile is a knockout. The fact is she’s a total knockout; there’s no other way to put it. Her hair is a wild blonde mane. Her eyes are like two gray-green emeralds, glistening even when she’s not crying like she was this night. She’s quite tall with long graceful legs. Tonight, as was typical, she wore a short cocktail dress of some outrageous neon color, and shiny silver pumps.
Despite her overflowing charms, I’ve never flirted with her, and I never will. The reason is simple: it’s patently self-destructive to light up sparklers around a Molotov cocktail.
“Oh, God,” she pleaded. “Why is this happening to me?” Sally had managed to stop crying, at least for the moment, but was no less distraught. “The one night I take my husband’s car downtown, I lose the keys. He’s gonna kill me.”
I try to keep my nose out of the business of my fares. I really do. I’m neither a social worker nor a therapist, and, while I’m friendly towards my customers, they’re not my friends. But when it comes to my regulars, those folks I’ve driven weekly, sometimes for years — well, these people have become part of my life, notwithstanding how I deem to categorize the relationship. This is why I didn’t self-censor my natural impulse to reach out to Sally.
“Sally, tell me something, OK? Are you frightened that your husband is going to physically hurt you?”
“No, that’s not it,” she replied. “My first husband beat the crap out of me, but not Ron. But he just makes me feel so bad, like I wish he would just hit me; that would almost be better.”
“Sally, that’s called emotional abuse and, sometimes, you know, that can be worse than being hit.”
She raised her eyes. “That’s it, Jernigan! I’m so glad you just said that because that’s what it is. I said that to him once, but he just told me I don’t know what I’m talking about. It made me feel crazy.”
“You’re an adult,” I said. “You shouldn’t live in fear of anyone, no matter how bad you screw up sometimes. I mean, losing your keys — big friggin’ deal.”
“Well, it’s not just the keys.” She paused briefly. “It’s the car. It’s not at my friend’s house, and Ron’s not going to be happy about it.”
I was about to say, “What the heck does he care where you take the car?” when it hit me. I’m a little slow on the upbeat at times. As a Bostonian friend used to put it, “And then the sun rose at Marblehead . . .” Sally’s friend, as it were, was of the male persuasion, and she was about to be busted. This does not, in any respect, justify her husband’s abusive behavior, but at least I now understood the source of Sally’s panic.
We arrived at the friend’s house. The car, her husband’s car, was parked right in front. Worse yet, it was parked in the driveway, all Exhibit “A”-like. We pulled to a stop and Sally just sat there glassy-eyed, dreading getting out, not wanting to play out the rest of the night’s drama. She then turned towards me. For all the world, she looked only like a scared little girl, not the twice-married woman-about-town that she was. I just shrugged and said, “Good luck.” With that, she left the temporary sanctuary of the taxi and walked slowly towards the house.
Is it a matter of luck? It baffles me why some us find a modicum of peace, security and comforting love in this lifetime, while others float along rudderless, buffeted by the wind and rain. Some say you reap what you sow, but it seems to that only some are blessed with the good seed. All I know is Sally deserves better, and I have no idea how or if she’s ever going to find it.
I wish she could metamorphose into the wild mustang that she is in spirit. I’d find one of those horse trailers and hitch it to my taxicab. Then we’d drive out west and I’d set her free. But I guess you only catch that fare in hackie heaven.
March 06, 2008
Only rarely does a Seven Days reader write a letter to the paper commenting on a "Hackie" column. I used to worry that this means that no one is reading it, but then came to the conclusion that the lack of letters has more to do with the "vibe" of my stories.
Controversy breeds letter writing. Freyne's "Inside Track" generates stacks of letters. Art and music reviews are another biggie. It seems that, monthly, someone sends a letter reaming the paper's long-time movie reviewer, Rick Kisonak, for his utter lack of intelligence, aesthetics, etc. This personally affronts me, not because Rick is a friend and colleague, but because I find him to be a superb reviewer - historical, generous, open-minded and open-hearted in his opinions.
In "Hackie," I am not trying to stake out positions or to be judgmental about the people I observe. Therefore, I rarely get under people's skin or rub them the wrong way. Hence, why write to complain?
Someone did write a letter last week, infuriated about the story, "Coming of Age." Here it is in its entirety:
I have found Jernigan Pontiac’s submissions to be good and bad, but never until today offensive [Hackie, February 20]. So, Jernigan, rich daddy slips you three hundred bucks and you clean up puke with a smile on your face? And O.J. pays $2 mil to get off a murder charge while the average Vermonter couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer to defend against a jaywalking ticket. Would you have written a different story had daddy been working-class and only could have covered his fare? It is unfortunate that our so-called democracy is truly a plutocracy, and it is sad that our journalists are just as taken in by the aura of wealth as are the masses.
In this tale, I drive a quite wealthy man and his son. During the ride, the son vomits in the cab and the father lays a huge tip on me to make up for it. I am appreciative of this and end the story with me cleaning out the cab with, indeed, a smile on my face.
The letter-writer's ire, as I understand it, is with rich people getting away with stuff because of their wealth, and journalists, like myself, going along with it. He cites O.J. literally getting away with murder as an example. As the guy puts it, "Would you have written a different story had daddy been working-class and only could have covered his fare?"
Two things. First, I'm thrilled the guy cared enough to write a letter - I covet the attention. Second, he has apparently confused me with a journalist. I'm a story-teller, plus I am working-class, for crying out loud - a cabbie out there everyday trying to hustle-up a buck.
This was not the case of a rich guy using his money to cover-up some nefarious activity. Nobody did anything criminal or even unethical in this story. The guy's young son drank too much on his birthday and threw up in the cab, that's all. The fact that the father laid some heavy green on me was, in my view, a gracious act.
Here's my view about folks with money and folks without money. I've met street people who are nasty and selfish, and corporate bankers who are salts of the earth, generous and kind. And vice-versa. It's how you live your life, not the size of your wallet.
Now, that last paragraph should generate some letters!
March 03, 2008
Driving crazy hours in the taxicab, I listen to a lot of radio. Endlessly. Sports, music, talk - everything.
Here's two Tarzan stories I recently heard on the radio.
Grandma in the Trees. Mia Farrow is one of my favorite actresses and human beings. Well, I don't actually know her personally, but I've heard her interviewed a few times. She's a true humanitarian who seems to live her beliefs. Her mother, Maureen O'Sullivan, was one of the great actresses of the early years of the movies. What a beauty, too. She appeared in a bunch of the first Tarzan movies as Jane Parker, Tarzan's girlfriend. This is a story that Mia tells.
Apparently Mia wanted to introduce a couple of her younger daughters (she has 13 kids, mostly through adoption) to the movie work of their grandmother. So she sits the girls down, pops "Tarzan the Apeman" into the tape player and goes into the kitchen to cook some food.
In a little while, the two little girls wander into the kitchen, quite upset, tears rolling down their cheeks. One of them cries, "Mommy, what's grandma doing in the trees?"
Pass the Doritos. There is a guy who has researched and written a book about the retirement years of chimpanzees in America. Unique among the various animals used for lab research and entertainment, chimps are not euthanized when their working life is over. So, that's good. I guess these creatures are just too human-like to execute.
As entertainers (and who doesn't love "Clyde," Clint's best buddy in "Every Which Way but Loose?" OK, Clyde was technically an orangutan), I was surprised to learn that chimps are only usable as actors for just a few years, maybe ages 2-5, because, when they grow to full adults, they're much too ornery and aggressive to perform for humans. So, these movie chimps have 60-year retirements!
The chimp that played in the early Tarzan movies is, amazingly, still alive. Cheeta is about 70 and lives in a beautiful home in Palm Springs. He spends most of his days sitting around munching Doritos and drinking diet ice tea. (He's diabetic.) His favorite activity - I kid you not - is watching his old Tarzan movies.
March 01, 2008
Slip Sliding Away
How awesome is Patchen Road?
True, the South Burlington constables ticket speeders all day long along this stretch of road. (To paraphrase Nancy Reagan: just slow down.)
Never mind the speed traps - Patchen Road is the mother of all shortcuts. It will take you from Gracey's Corner on Williston Road, over the Interstate, onto Burlington's Grove Street, and thence onto Chase, Barrett and over the Winooski Bridge or the hook-up with Riverside Avenue. All hail Patchen Road!
Last week, amidst rush hour, I employ this road. After taking the left from Grove onto Chase, in front of me I see a long line of cars backed up on Barrett. No problem-o, thinks your trusty cabbie, and I yank a right into the back entrance to the Chace Mill. The Chace Mill, you see, puts you on Mill Street just before the bridge, with never a traffic back-up. How savvy am I? I offer myself this congratulation.
Immediately, I find myself sliding down an iced-over driveway into the backyard of an abandoned house. I had missed the Chace Mill cut-through, it seems, but one or two driveways. As I drift sideways to a stop in front of a long battered garage, I'm filled with a sick sinking feeling. My intuition says, you are not getting out of here on your own power. I know this is true because I've been doing this for one thousand years and I can see that the driveway is steep and entirely coated with thick ice.
And, if it hasn't already, here's where my stupidity kicks into high gear. I proceed to waste a full half-hour in a futile effort to storm the driveway. I half wish somebody had video'ed me, because it probably looked like a Buster Keaton film. I rev and rev and charge forward - at best, 25% of the way up - before the wheels begin spinning and I slide back down. After the 17th attempt, you would think I'd throw in the towel, but, by that point, any shred of rational thinking had evaporated; I was on automatic, a rat in a cheese-less maze.
So, I finally call Spillane's and the tow truck driver arrives promptly. He is a big tough guy and I can see that he fully appreciates the doofus-like quality of my predicament. He doesn't want to risk getting likewise stuck, so, remaining at the top of the driveway, he hooks me up with a long cable and slowly winches me out.
The charge was $75, and I throw him an extra five for a latte el grande.
February 27, 2008
Thinking of Moonie
One would think that after 11 years I'd have the column writing down pat. But I don't. What follows is a recently composed would-be story. I realized, after the fact, that it didn't pass muster as a "Hackie" column. Not that it wasn't good enough, but it fell outside of the "Hackie" brand that I have established: it's insufficiently tied to the taxi biz and it's too much my musing about life. (A little of my thoughts per story go a long way.) Read it and I bet you'll understand what I mean.
In any event, I hope it will make a dandy weblog post.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“What's the good word, Jernigan?”
Thus spoke Mayor Clavelle. It was 1999. Bill was in the White House; “W” merely the 23rd letter of the alphabet. Sigh . . .
“I don't know, Mayor,” I replied. “But you must be doing something right. Everyone's walking around town in great spirits.”
“I don't think that's me,” he said, his wide round face lit up with a smile. “I think it's the beautiful weather.”
That's one for the books, I thought. How often does a politician decline credit for good news?
The city dedicates a parking space on Main Street for the mayor of Burlington, a modest job perk on what can sometimes be a thankless job. The mayor's spot is directly behind the taxi stand so I would often run into Peter and we’d chat some. Our Past Distinguished Mayor – for those who don't remember – was one of the all-time champion schmoozers. I'm no slouch in that department myself so – what's new?
At times a mayor perfectly reflects the temperament of the city he or she governs. Ed Koch – Da Mayor – was New York City: brash, cocky and perpetually slightly irritated. How'm I doin'? was his mantra, and New Yorkers let him know in no uncertain terms. (The denizens of the Big Apple exhibit a subway car of colorful traits, but “uncertainty” they don't know from.) Similarly, from 1996-2004 in San Francisco, Willie Brown was the embodiment of the City by the Bay: flashy, outrageous, cutting edge in his ideas, but down-to-earth just the same.
In Burlington, I think we definitely had that type of match in Mayor Clavelle. Bernie Sanders, as mayor, was a firebrand, a passionate ideologue who nonetheless delivered on an agenda of progressive modernization. But as much as there was to admire about Bernie’s municipal reign, he was not by any stretch your prototypical Burlingtonian.
Does anyone still remember Peter Brownell? For one lone term, 1993-95, this other Peter temporarily interrupted Clavelle’s long-time mayoralty. I recall Brownell as the “reluctant” mayor: if nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve. An eminently decent guy and competent administrator during his brief ascendancy, he clearly had some problem with the “vision thing,” as Bush the Elder once dubbed it. Also, let's just say, he was perhaps a tad charismatically challenged.
Peter Clavelle, on the other hand, was born to be Mayor of Burlington. He grew up in the Onion City, part of a large and close-knit family at the center of the larger tight community that was Winooski in the 1950’s and ’60’s. First, as one of Bernie’s right-hand people and, then, as his mayoral successor, Peter brought to public life all those qualities so endearing to Vermonters: self-effacement, practicality, a genuine affinity for the common man and a passionate desire to do the right thing. This appeal didn’t quite translate to his 2004 gubernatorial bid, but didn’t the man known with affection around town as “Moonie” embody the best of the Queen City spirit?
Huey Lewis once described the stark choice facing every rock star: you can either goad the kids to run with the devil or you can sing about the power of love. I always believed the same dialectic applies to political leaders. They can either call forth the best impulses in the electorate – the yearning for justice, compassion and decency – or they can evoke and stoke the public's fears, prejudice and selfishness.
In my lifetime, the national political figure that most inspired me was Bobby Kennedy. After his brother's death in Dallas, he drew into himself like a wounded animal for almost a year during which he read widely and soul-searched his destiny. He emerged with a commitment to serve, to do all within his power to bring forth the highest ideals for which our country stands.
After winning a senatorial race in New York State, Bobby ran for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. By all accounts he was a phenomenon on the stump. Among national politicians, only he and he alone could speak to the aspirations of the disaffected young, the increasingly angry black population – Dr. King had been assassinated earlier in February of that year – and the hopes of the broad middle-class. Plus, on the most pressing and divisive issue of the day, he had come out decisively for ending the Vietnam War.
On June 4th, he won the California and South Dakota primaries. The Democratic nomination was becoming a real possibility, and who doubts that he could have handily defeated a washed-up Republican nominee, Richard Nixon?
On the night he was shot – just after midnight on June 5 – I was all of 14 years old. When I woke up to the news, I took off on my bicycle riding aimlessly through the streets of Brooklyn, tears streaming down my face, repeating over and over in my thoughts, C'mon Bobby, hang in there. I didn't know at the time, but I was praying, me and millions of others. But his time was up; the following day he died.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it keeps coming back to me: I don't know if Barack Obama has what it takes to effectuate the hopes and dreams he so magnificently inspires. But – my God – isn’t it worth the chance?