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July 31, 2007


I asked a young man stepping off the evening's Amtrak train if he needed a cab. "Nope, not me," he replied, "but there's some Quakers, I guess, who I think need a ride."

For some reason I knew exactly what he meant by "Quakers" even though he was mixing up his denominations. Sure enough, coming toward me off the rear car of the train was a couple straight from the 19th Century. The man was dressed in high-waisted pants, a flannel shirt and suspenders. His beard was dark and full, minus the mustache, and he wore a yellow straw hat with a black band around the crown. His wife wore a full-length black dress with a white apron tied across the torso to the waist. With the white bonnet snug on her head, she looked like a standing version of Whistler's Mother.

I identified myself as a cabdriver and the man asked, "Is there a Holiday Inn near Burlington?"

"Sure is," I replied, and we loaded up the cab and got underway.

"So are you folks from Pennsylvania?" I asked. These were my first Amish people and I was hoping they'd be chatty.

"Yes, that is where we're from." the man replied. The woman stared straight ahead, though with a slight smile. I got the sense it wasn't standoffishness but cultural modesty that enjoined her from gabbing it up with a strange Yankee cabbie.

"What brings you to Burlington?"

"We like to vacation. We've been all around the country."

"Are the Amish allowed to take airplanes?"

"No, we don't. We can, though, in the case of an emergency. We like Amtrak. We take it all the time."

For the rest of the ride to the hotel we talked about Amish life. It's so rich to hear it from the horse's mouth, as it were. Like I thought I knew something about the Amish because I'd seen the Harrison Ford movie, Witness. Sheesh.I've learned more about life from my cab customers than I ever have from all the books I've read. (Though it's still important to read, kids.)

As we pulled up to the entrance at the Holiday Inn I said, "You know something? Modern people are now reading books and taking seminars to learn how to live like the Amish. Except they call it "simple living."

They both chuckled which I found entirely charming. Then the woman spoke for the first time. "Yes, they all want to live simply, but can they give up electricity?"

July 31, 2007 at 08:16 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

July 28, 2007

Rastaman Vibration


Every town has its contingent of public personalities, and Burlington is no exception. I thought to say, "public characters," but why pigeonhole these expressive people as something less than fully three-dimensional? Characters exist in books and movies; these folks are living, breathing components of our community.

Like, for instance, the Nader guy. As anyone who has spent time downtown can tell you, there is a man who daily rides around on a mountain bike festooned with Day-Glo colored pinwheels, atop of which is a large sign proclaiming, "NADER LIVES!" On the reverse of the sign, it reads, "NADER.ORG." I've thought about going up to him one day to converse, but I fear I would l lurch forward and strangle him with my bare hands, so I keep back.

Another such gentleman, also known for his bicycle, is the Birdman. A Jamaican emigre, he plies the streets of Burlington on a bicycle (see above) that can best be described as an evolving work of art. On weekend nights, he can often be found in front of the nightclubs, his bike stocked with flowers. (Other items found on the bike might also be for sale; I've not figured that one out.)

Last night I spotted the Birdman's bike parked in front of Nectars, and I got out of my cab to take a closer look. The vessel is a movable sculpture emanating such a positive vibe that passersby can't help but stop and gawk.

I noticed this sign, among others, on the stern and snapped a photo. What a beautiful message, I thought.Img_0098_3 And I love the way he fashioned the quotation marks as little exclamation points. As I examined the shot on the camera's display screen, I felt a tap on the shoulder.

"That be five dollars, mon."

I turned around to meet the Birdman at eye level. "You're kidding me, right? I mean, I just wanted a photo of the bike for my blog."

"I'm not fooling, mon. Check out the sign."

I turned back around to examine the bike, and, sure enough, there was another little green sign that read, "Please, photographs $5." Fair enough, I thought. Everybody's got to make a buck. I withdrew a fiver from my wallet and handed it to him. "Can I get a photo of you and the bike?" I asked, trying to at least get my money's worth.

"Sure, mon," he replied with a smile. Img_0101_2

I snapped the shot and asked, "OK, maybe one more?"

"Sure, mon," he replied. "That be another five dollars."

"Really? I think I'll stick with the first one."

July 28, 2007 at 01:07 PM in Just Shoot Me | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

July 23, 2007

Going South: 89 to 91

Let us now consider the sticky dilemma of the out-of-town fare. I'm not here referring to the near out-of-town, like St. Albans, Middlebury or Stowe, but the far out-of-town - N.Y.C., Boston, Portland.

A cabbie can score a big payday if he or she is willing to drive a customer a few hundred miles. So, why hesitate? In a word, risk.

Things occur when you're driving cab, often bad things that you'd rather not experience far from your home base. Vehicles break down, even well-maintained taxicabs. And this is what happens if you break down on Storrow Drive or the Manhattan Bridge: you're screwed! At that point, you might as well just move to Boston or the Big Apple.

Still, what's life without risk? Death, perhaps? So, under the right circumstances I will chance the lucrative out-of-towner.

Last Thursday, I found myself heading to Middlebury with two language program students. (Middlebury College offers a world-renowned summer language program.) I had picked them up at the airport; stormy New England weather had canceled their flights home for the weekend.They were bummed: one had a girlfriend waiting; the other a wife and three year-old daughter.

Says I, "Where were you guys trying to get to by plane?"

One told me Brooklyn, the other Hartford, Connecticut. I respond, "Hmm." As we drove along Route 7, I did the calculation: Apt to be a quiet Thursday night with the Vermont Brewers Festival blowing in for the weekend, 'cause the drinkers will be pacing themselves. The cab's been running smooth. Why not?

"Well, gentlemen," I begin, "here's an option for you. I can take each of you home tonight for $275 a piece."

"You mean in the cab?" one of them asked incredulously.

"Yup, in this very cab. Both Hartford and New York are connected to Vermont by land, so it's all quite doable."

The Brooklyn guy called his wife and they decided it was more than they wanted to spring for. She put the three year-old on the phone and father and daughter had a heart-to-heart about a toy horsey which I gather was named Jonathan. It might have been an imaginary horsey, which is even better.

The Hartford guy (who was much younger, a college sophomore it turned out), called his father, and they decided to go for it. Pickup would be at the Hartford Hilton Hotel. I looked at my watch, figured about four hours drive time, and told him to give his dad a 10:30pm ETA. His dad said, wisely, to call when we're a half-hour out.

We dropped Brooklyn dad back at Middlebury and climbed over the Green Mountains via the Breadloaf Campus Road through Ripton, connecting with Highway 89 at Royalton. The ride down was a breeze. With the Red Sox game playing in the background, Brian told me all about his life with a Japanese father and Irish mother. I mused, at one point, just how diverse those cultures are known to be - the Irish, all emotional and over-the-top, and the Japanese, so reserved and formal. He said, "Let me tell you, dude. You don't know the half of it!"

At one point, after we merged onto Interstate 91, Brian spoke about his grandfather who fought in the only all-Japanese battalion in the European theater. In one decisive battle, this troop, including his grandfather, earned the most Purple Hearts for bravery ever awarded for a single battle in U.S. military history. "All this," Brian explained, "while many members of his immediate family were sitting in internment camps on the west coast. But the amazing thing is, he's not bitter in the least. I've learned so much from him."

We arrived at Hartford way before his dad, who was caught in traffic. (Yes, big cities have traffic jams at ten in the evening.) I parked in front of the Hilton while Brian entered to find an ATM to get me the cash. I followed him into the hotel to - well, pardon me - urinate. Walking into the lobby, I was confronted with at least 200 African-American women, all aged 25-35, and all wearing distinctive crimson-colored blouses and hats. The energy in the big room was thrilling. I asked and discovered they all belonged to a national black sorority. 

The ride back was draining. Forget about wear-and-tear on the cab, what about wear-and-tear on my beautiful middle-aged body? Still, the twenties in my pocket felt crisp, and the Lumina's engine was humming like Ladysmith Black Mambazo as the Burlington lights came into view.

July 23, 2007 at 02:36 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

July 19, 2007

Je Me Souviens

"Do you know a marine store, yes?" the man asked me.

"Sure do," I replied. "West Marine. It's just a little ways out of town."

I was picking up a family of four at the traffic circle by the Community Boat House and Echo Museum. The father climbed into the front with me, while his adolescent son held his mother's arm and hand as she gingerly lowered herself into the back seat. The boy and his similarly-aged sister then jumped in with mom. As they taxied-up they spoke among themselves in French.

These folks were Quebecois, our jolly friends from the north in La Belle Province. The French they spoke bore the same relation to the French spoken in France as Bernie Sander's Brooklyn accent does to the Queen's English. And the analogy doesn't end there. Like Brooklynites, the Quebecers (to grossly stereotype, my specialty) are gregarious to the point of rambunctiousness; they come down to B-town to mix it up and have a good time. In other words, these are not the caricature of the effete, standoffish Frenchmen so mocked in the American press. Which is another way of saying they're the Brooklyn version of French people. Fahgetaboutit!

The mom in the back leaned forward and said, "Drive slow, please. I broke two rib yesterday. I went - how do you say? - tubing with my kids. I am thinking I am 18!" With that the family all cracked up.

"Well, you could pass for 18, if you ask me," I lied. She was an attractive women with stylish, short blond hair and a shapely but chunky body, which seems right to me for a women who has a had couple of kids. Forty-something moms who are rail thin freak me out a little bit. I figure either they've either sold their souls to the devil or they're spending way to much time at the gym.

"You flirting wit my wife, brudder?" the man said, arching his eyebrows in faux aggression.

"Could you blame me?" I replied, and we laughed together, manly men that we were.

We dropped the kids on Church Street as they had zero interest in a boating supply shopping trip avec la mere et le pere. During the summer months, most of the Quebecers I drive have docked their boats at the Burlington area marinas, fanning out onto the waterfront like so many friendly human sea mammals. The beauty part is:  they have no cars; hence, the taxi calls.

Up at the marine outlet in the Staples shopping plaza, the man was like a kid in a candy store. Ostensibly they were there to purchase a fake-grass welcome mat, but everything looked good to him. His wife attempted to rein him in, but sweetly without real dissension. If an overflowing appetite for boating gear was her mate's only vice, I suppose she's way ahead of the game. He ended up buying a new boat radio antenna (picture a car antenna on extra-strength Viagra), some bungee cords and special boat dishes, don't ask.

On the way back to the marina we talked dinner. They had eaten before at Three Tomatoes, but wanted to try a new place. Without pause, I recommended A Single Pebble, Steve Bogart's gustatory tour de force on Bank Street. "Is it very good?" the man asked.

"Well, put it this way," I said. "Eating there for the first time, people come out saying, 'My God, I've never tasted food before.'"

"OK,, OK," he said lifting his hands in surrender. "We are sold. But, if we don't like it, we know to blame you."

"That's a chance I'm willing to take," I said. "Remember to order the mock eel and the fried green beans."

I picked the family up later, at 7:15, for the short ride up the hill to the restaurant. When I showed up to retrieve them a couple hours later, the four of them were standing at the curb scowling. "It was terrible," the man said as he got into the taxi. "Yes," his son echoed, "we hate it."

My brain froze for ten seconds and then they all burst out laughing. "We get you!" the man said. "We really love it. The green bean especially."

"What a bunch of actors," I said, laughing along with them. "You should be in the movies."

July 19, 2007 at 04:08 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

July 18, 2007

The Time of the Lone Wolf is Over

It dazzles me, the commonality of message among wise-men and women the world over. From the Dalai Lama to an aborigine shaman - those with profound inner knowledge speak the same language, offer the same sage advice. In the often chaotic landscape of the 21st Century, don't we need to take heart and direction from the Wise Ones? I know I do.

A friend of mine shared with me these words spoken recently by a Hopi Elder from Oraibi, Arizona. It hit me where I live. This kind of message is not for everyone (so I appreciate your indulgence), but for some it may be meaningful as well:

You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour. Now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour. And there are things to be considered:  Where are you living? What are you doing? What are your relationships? Are you in right relation? Where is the water? Know your garden.

It is time to speak your Truth. Create your community. Be good to each other. And do not look outside yourself for the leader.

Then he clasped his hands together, smiled and said, This could be a good time! There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.

Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. And I say, see who is there with you and celebrate.

At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves! For the moment we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.

The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word 'struggle' from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we've been waiting for.

July 18, 2007 at 04:19 PM in Stuff I Love | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 15, 2007

Hands Off The Mute!

For a full-bodied TV addict like myself, those who mute the commercials don't know what they're missing. To me, skipping the commercials is like eating at a fine restaurant and passing on the condiments and the side dishes. OK, this is a weak analogy, but you get my point:  TV commercials are tasty!

My current favorite ad campaign is for Geico, the on-line insurance company. Here's the premise:  In order to demonstrate the ease of signing up for a policy, they've come up with this kicky tag-line - "So easy, a caveman can do it!" It turns out, however, that there's still a few caveman out and about, and, man, they are indignant. So the ads explore the cavemen's various encounters with callous and indifferent people who are basically telling them to just get over it. Here's the first one which sets up this storyline.

The  brilliant conceit of these vignettes is in the portrayal of the cavemen. They appear as typically neurotic 21st Century guys, albeit with a slightly lame 1970's fashion sense. Other than the thick burrowed foreheads, they're just like us.

One of these ads finds a caveman in the middle of a therapy session. (He's texting on his cell phone while he's exhanging with his therapist which is hilarious in itself.) The therapist is advising him to chill out. He counters with, "Well, what if the ad said, 'So easy, a therapist can do it!'"

The therapist retorts, "Well, that ad wouldn't make sense."

"Why?" the caveman says, dryly. "Because therapists are smart?"

The therapist responds with a weak half-smile covering up a grimace. (It's a precious take.) Just then, the caveman's phone rings. He glances down at the screen and says, "It's my mother. I'll put it on speaker."

I never get tired of this ad. I would watch it daily for the next year.

Another one of these ads currently in rotation shows two of the caveman in a conversation on a porch outside a house where a party is underway. Apparently, one of the cavemen has actually signed up with Geico for his own insurance. (The irony!) As his friend chides him, he says, "What? Do you think it makes me less of a caveman?"

At that moment, a third caveman comes out on the porch, nearly beside himself with delight. He interrupts the other two friends with, "Guess what? Tina's here. We're getting back together."

One of his caveman friends says, "Hey, can you give us a minute?"

The interrupting caveman's head falls in disappointment and he slinks away.

Postscript:  These Geico commercial have become so popular that the caveman are getting their own sitcom come September, thereby giving me something to live for.

July 15, 2007 at 08:00 PM in My TV Addiction | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 11, 2007

Stop the War

"I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have never fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell."

                                 From "On Killing" by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Thinking about this week's Hackie column, "On Leave," brings up the burning issue of politics. Those of you who have followed my stories for a while may have noticed that I shy away from that burning issue. It's not that I lack for opinions; if anything, I'm overloaded with them. It's just that, when it comes to opinions, I adhere to the Clint Eastwood admonition, delivered in his Dirty Harry persona, "If I wanted your opinion, I'd beat it out of you."

I'm also a disciple of my good friend Don's wisdom on this: "If someone wants your opinion they'll ask. And, even when they ask, they don't really want it."

For all these reasons, I don't envision "Hackie" as a vehicle to share my brilliant opinions on politics. Beyond my general aversion to opinionating, is my incapacity when it comes to this subject. I can never figure out how to broach politics within the spirit, let's call it, of the Hackie column. With every sinew of my being (and I am nothing if not sinewy), I strive to write without judgment on the people who pass through my taxi. If I can't find a way to bring a level of compassion to the story, I won't write it. When politics enters the equation, I'm simply too invested, too emotional, too filled with vehemence.

But . . . every now and then it sneaks in. Every aspect of life comes to light as the thousands of fares pass through my taxi. When an active duty airman shared his life with me last week, I knew it was a story to be written. So, I did my best.

It was William Tecumseh Sherman, the fierce and effective Union general, who first uttered, "War is hell." It has become a cliche, but I find the sentiment worthwhile to consider. What is hell? Either in myth or actuality, I conceive of it as a region devoid of love, of God's mercy, of the qualities that make us truly human. Waging war, consciously striving to kill our brothers and sisters in stark violation of the First Commandant, of the Buddhist teaching of non-violence - how can this be other than hell?

Maybe at times it's justified. The American Civil War? The fight against worldwide fascism in World War II? Perhaps sometimes a nation must march into hell to right an intractable wrong. It's hard to say. But this preemptive war on Iraq, with the hundreds of thousands now killed and maimed, to say nothing of the uncountable broken hearts and spirits - it seems to me that it is we who have evoked hell, all in a dubious mission to confront the "evil-doers."

It's brave young people like Brian who are paying the highest price.

July 11, 2007 at 03:32 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

July 09, 2007

Gay and Fabulous

"I love San Francisco," I said to Donny, a regular customer sitting in the back of my taxi with his boyfriend. "You musta had a great time."

"We did," Donny replied, "but, man alive, everything's so expensive in that town. With the restaurants and shows, you could go broke."

"Well, nobody said the gay life was gonna come cheap."

"You got that right," Donny said, chuckling. "You gotta ante up if you're going to be gay and fabulous."

"So what to you guys got planned for today?" I said as we scooted up Pine Street towards downtown.

"It's Gay Pride Weekend," Donny replied, "so there's a bunch of events we're going to hit. First off is the Burly Bear Beer Blast at Nectar's."

"Hmm," I said. "That was the Burly Bear - what?"

"Beer Blast," Donny's boyfriend jumped in. "Last year it was called the 'beer festival,' but I think they wanted the alliteration of the four B's."

"What do bears have to do with Gay Pride?"

The two of them laughed. "In the gay world, bears are kind of slightly overweight, fluffy guys, often hairy. Nectar's sponsors a bear beauty contest."

"Well, that sounds like fun," I said. "What next?"

"We'll probably call you later, Jernigan, to take us up to Higher Ground for the Cirque du So Gay."

"Now that sounds truly gay and fabulous," I said.

"That it is," Donny said looking over at his boyfriend. The affection between the couple was palpable. "That it is."

July 9, 2007 at 02:21 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

July 07, 2007

Hinesburg Leprechaun Horsies


Today I drove a beautiful guy to South Hinesburg, an African immigrant from Guinea now living in New Jersey. (This fare may evolve into a full-blown Hackie story.) I actually don't know if South Hinesburg is a separate entity, like South Burlington or South Korea or South America, or if it's merely an informal designation for the southern regions of Hinesburg. I have a long and checkered relationship with this town, so my information is sketchy and tinged with regret.


I've just passed Lantman's and now I'm a couple of miles south on Route 116. The next thing I know, I'm passing a grassy farm meadow populated by a herd of tiny little horses. Not ponies. Not baby horses. These are midget horses, ideal for Munchkins.


This is mildly distressing to me. As a teenager I "experimented" with hallucinogenics, so flashbacks remain a distinct possibility. I pulled over to the side of the road, whipped out the digital camera and here's the result. Presumably, if you can photograph it, it's real. Anybody out there with actual information on these cute little critters?


(My prowess with the camera leaves something to be desired, but - trust me - this equine was no more than 3-4 feet tall.)

July 7, 2007 at 05:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 06, 2007

The Houdini of Cuisini

Television gets weirder than normal during the summer when the regular shows are on hiatus. Most of the original programming revolves around cheap-to-produce reality shows. For example, one of them features 20-something women competing with 40-something women for the affection of a winsome 30 year-old guy. This is not exactly Death of a Salesman, though I'll probably watch it. My standards are tragically low.

This is especially true when it comes to sports. I will watch any sports competition, from curling to sumo wrestling, if they put it on the tube. (The one exception is car racing, the lure of which I don't grasp. Somebody explain it to me.) Which brings me to the "sports" feature I watched form beginning to end over the 4th:  The world hot dog eating championship, sponsored by Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs and held at their flagship restaurant in Coney Island Brooklyn.

I have great affection for Coney Island - the rides, beach food, side shows and amusement park games - having spent a fair amount of my childhood sneaking off to Coney Island on the D Train from my Flatbush neighborhood with my ruffian friends.

Coney Island was what amusement parks used to be before Walt Disney realized there was a fortune to be had in cleaning up the experience, providing a safe, antiseptic environment for the growing middle-class and their families. Coney Island was a lot of things, but not in the realm of antiseptic. Coney Island was real and raunchy, sexy and ripe with possibility. The difference between Disney World and Coney Island is precisely the difference between Pat Boone and Jerry Lee Lewis. Me - I preferred things with a whole lotta shakin' going on.

Tens of thousands of Brooklynites flock to Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island to watch this event every year, which has been held since 1916. The first year the winner ate 16 hot dogs in 12 minutes. This year's winner ate 66. Yes, 66. That's a lot of hot dogs.

The TV announcers presented the event only slightly tongue-in-cheek. Mostly they used traditional sports jargon, exploring the training regimens and background stories of the various competitors. I was riveted.

Picture the stage in front of the hot dog stand, replete with a couple midgets in American flag-patterned tuxedos and top hats, old men in bowlers, pretty girls in short shorts and halters and various vaguely official-looking judges. After an endless series of introductory speeches and hokey presentations, they came to the introduction of the competitors, my favorite part. Each one sprung onto the stage to the screams of the wildly cheering Brooklyn crowd. Here's some of them:

Kamil "the Hague" Hamersky, a Czech native who holds the world record in plum dumplings and honey-cake. (Everyone of these guys holds the "world record" in one food or another. There's more belts than professional boxing.)

Crazy Legs Conti, a professional magician from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, who holds the world record in green beans. Among his gustatory feats was eating his way out of an 8' box of popcorn. He's also known as the Houdini of Cuisini. (I love that.)

Kenji Oguni from Japan, who holds the record in all sorts of noodle dishes. His nickname is "Darkwater." Oooooh . . .

Allen "the Shredder" Goldstein from New Jersey, who holds the bologna record, of course.

Tim Janus, who competes in modified Kiss make-up.

Rich "the Locust" Lefevre, from Nevada, who, at 60+, is the eminence gris of the competition. He holds the records for Spam and chili. God love 'em.

"Humble" Bob Shoudt, the only vegetarian on the circuit, but "he strays to compete in these major events." I don't know, Humble Bob - there's still the karma.

Patrick Bertoletti, the sweets specialist, holding records in ice cream and key lime pie.

Sonya Thomas, from Japan, known as the "black widow," who holds records in oysters and, oddly, sweet potatoes. I think she must have weighed 80 lbs. wet. As a rare female competitive eater, she's also known as the "Gloria Steinem of the Gullet." Feminism continues to change our world for the better.

Eric "Badlands" Booker, an African-American guy, who weighed easily 375 lbs. You'd think these master eaters would all be huge, but most of them are quite thin, go figure. Eric's specialty is donuts, big surprise.

Chip "Beef" Simpson holds the tamale world record.

Takeru Kobayashi, the Japanese Tiger Woods of competitive eating, he had won this hot dog contest 5 years running. Among many world records he holds is the consumption of calf's brains. Yum. He often competes with orange hair.

Joey Chestnut, America's Great White Hope to steal the title back from Kobayashi.

Spoiler Alert:   Joey won, beating Kobayashi 66-63 dogs! God Bless America !!!

July 6, 2007 at 02:28 PM in My TV Addiction | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack