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August 29, 2007

They're Back. Deal.

You can love 'em; you can hate 'em. You can have mixed emotions. But, whatever your feelings, they're back - all 10,000 of them. As Bette Davis said, "Fasten your seat-belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride."

Like locusts from the Bible; like wildebeest on the Serengetti Plain; like the best simile you can devise, the students have blanketed the town. The freshmen arrived on Friday, followed by the upperclassmen over the weekend. Friday night's the most fun, watching the UVM freshmen make their way down the hill for the very first time. They travel in packs of no less than 15, safety in numbers being the operative mindset.

Overnight, the tenor of the town changes. Everything is amped up. It's palpable. You can feel it. College-age kids are intense, wired in every possible way and ready to take on the world.

For the Burlington retail and service community, the student population is like a triple-shot of Vitamin B-12. By and large, the students come from middle and upper-middle class families and arrive in town with money to spend. And we local cabbies say, "Giddy-ap!"

Here's a classic "Hackie" story, circa 1997, evoking the intense spiritual relationship, as it were, between cabbie and student. (My, I used to have such a wonderful imagination.) Re-reading this in 2007, it's poignant to note the passing of various Burlingtonia, like The Last Chance, the Blarney Stone and the band Belizbaha . . .

                                           BUFFALO STUDENT

   For the Great Plains Indian Nations, the fabric of their economy, their culture - their very lives - was interwoven with the buffalo herd. Who could forget the awesome scene in Dances With Wolves when, after weeks of searching, the Sioux hunters crest a hill and come upon a veritable ocean of buffalo.  In that single ineffable moment, the tribesmen are flooded with a life-giving knowledge:  The cycle of life has been renewed. This one magnificent beast provided sustenance to an entire people.

   At the height of the summer, I think it was the second week of July, a few of us veteran cabdrivers gathered in an alleyway adjoining the Blarney Stone bar in downtown Burlington. It was just before dawn, no one was about, and that includes, most importantly, the police. We were there to perform a sacred ceremony, and as such, it was not for public consumption. In fact, as far as I know, it has never been limned in written form, only passed down from generation to generation via an oral tradition. I only now commit it to writing having been so instructed by my inner Taxi Spirit Guide.

   We use this location next to the Blarney Stone because it is a dive. Not merely a dive, but the Greg Louganis of dives; the one most venerated by the Students - which is the whole point of this secret ritual. By their dedicated presence, they, the Students, have consecrated this site. So, in a very real sense, it is they who have chosen it, not us. All this may seem esoteric to the uninitiated, but to the true Taxi Warrior, it is simply the Revealed Way.

   Although most of us have reached middle age, we were dressed that night in the manner of young adults,  20 year-olds to be precise. These were ritual garments we had collected throughout the previous year in anticipation of this yearly gathering. Though these rites date back to antiquity, this is a living, evolving tradition:  Each year the clothing changes with the current fashion of the young.  Further, in order to achieve maximum spiritual resonance, we mimicked the various sub-genres of the Student population:  The frat crowd, the neo-hippies, the St. Michaels Boston townies, the Trinity College goddess worshippers, etc.

   We were grateful once again this year for the participation of Mary, one of the few older female cabbies, who that night wore a black, slitted mini-skirt, and a tank top with the bra straps showing - this in evocation of some daring preppie co-ed. Like the rest of us, Mary was too old for the outfit  - though I personally thought she looked kind of cool -  but she understood the requirements and she's nothing if not a trouper. Prior to her joining the ceremony, the spectacle of one of us grizzled guys dressed up like a sorority girl was not, I assure you, a pretty sight.

   We stood in a circle, at the center of which was placed a bottle of Magic Hat beer - a local favorite - and a textbook, this year, Introduction to Microbiology. The subject is irrelevant, so long as it is an actual assigned text at one of the local colleges. One of us brought along a small boom-box and cassettes by three local bands:  Belizbeha, Strangefolk, and of course, the mighty Phish.

   We stood in silence, gathered our concentration, and I popped in one of the cassettes.  We then began moving slowly and rhythmically in the circle. After a few minutes of silent movement, the chant began. It arose spontaneously, first barely a whisper, and then grew to a low bass rumble, "Like whatever, whatever, whatever. . . It's all good, it's all good. . . . Like whatever, whatever, whatever. . . It's all good, it's all good."

   This circling and intonation continued for approximately a half-hour, although experientially it seemed as if time had frozen. Most critical was the focus of our collective attention:  We were calling upon the Great Taxi Spirit to deliver unto us a bountiful Student herd come September. We asked humbly, with feelings of prayerful gratitude, because just as the buffalo was to the Plains Indian, so too is the Student to the Burlington cabbie. And just like these Native Americans also subsisted on fish, berries and various small game, we local cabbies transport the Quebecois tourist, the little old lady, the office and factory worker, etc. But the Students - they are our buffalo, the heart of our economic well-being.

   You might ask what's the point of performing the Student Dance? Of course the Students come back every year at this time; it's the beginning of the semester, for crying out loud! To this I can only reply:  That's what the Sioux said about the Buffalo, and look what happened to those guys.  We veteran cabbies are not taking any chances.

   Now it's the first week of September, about 11 in the evening, and I'm idling at a Main Street taxi stand. I notice a lone young man in baggy pants wandering towards Rasputin's.  My heart beats faster - could it be? Then a group of young women are pausing in front of The Last Chance, and then all at once, they're everywhere! Dozens of college kids are streaming down the hill, getting out of cars, and filling up the downtown streets.

   Tears begin streaming down my face, and I silently say a prayer of thanks.  The Students are back, and all is well in the universe.

August 29, 2007 at 01:20 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 23, 2007

The Return of the Purple Knights

Though it seems way too early, today was the day St. Michael's College dorms opened for the fall semester. Right at the campus main entrance, a bunch of upperclassmen stood out by the curb, boisterously displaying posters welcoming the students back.

Driving by the scene, I thought, How sweet is this? What a wonderful gesture by the older students. Imagine arriving as an incoming freshman, your parents in the front seat, you in the back teeming with excitement and apprehension. The first thing you see when you approach the campus is a glee club laying out the welcome mat. I made a mental note to come back and take pictures for the YoHackie blog.

When I returned 30 minutes later, there were two police cars, a wrecked car and an ambulance blocking the left lane of Route 15 right at the college entrance. The welcoming committee had rolled up their posters and were standing around slightly depressed. Though it was a pretty nasty accident, no one had been seriously injured. But the fun was clearly over.Img_0125

I parked and moseyed over to ask a few of the kids, notwithstanding the damper on the whole day, if they wouldn't mind showing off the posters for a couple pictures. Graciously, they agreed, and even managed to muster of few low-key smiles, to boot. Go, Purple Knights!


Img_0126 Img_0128

August 23, 2007 at 04:18 PM in Just Shoot Me | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack


The process of writing the Hackie column of 8/22, "International Man of Mystery," solved nothing for me.

One reason I write - perhaps the main one - is to decipher my world. Getting my thoughts out of my head and onto the page (OK, the screen) usually illuminates and clarifies. If not that, at least it empties out my brain, which is a good thing, too, believe me. But mostly, writing for me is about figuring stuff out.

As I drove the guy featured in this story, I was entirely perplexed over his veracity. Writing the thing hasn't helped; I remain befogged. I keep going back and forth: Was he really in "international finance"? How about Justin Timberlake? Could he possibly be producing his record?

Oh well. If forced to render a verdict, I would have to go with prevarication. Somehow, I think people actually in international finance don't go around saying they're in international finance.

August 23, 2007 at 01:03 AM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 21, 2007

Like A Virgin

I finally bit the bullet and bought a DVD that I have been regularly renting for years. Thank you eBay.

By 1985, Madonna was the biggest thing in popular music and had hit the road with the "Like A Virgin" tour. A DVD released that year captured the show in her hometown Detroit. (Actually a VHS tape back then, but now on DVD.) I can't get enough of it.

Over the years, Madonna's live shows have grown increasingly elaborate, but back on her first tour it was just the Material Girl herself with two dancers, who also sang back-up, and a kicking six-piece band.

Why does this performance elate me so? Geez, I don't know. A guilty pleasure, for sure. But one thing's certain:  I want to be one of the back-up dancers. I'm not certain of this, but it seems like Madonna was the first to use dancers in quite this way. Yes, the Motown groups had gorgeous, elegant choreography, but not the complex and exuberant choreography of this performer.

The audience is filled with what they used to call Madonna wanna-be's, all these young girls dressed like their heroine, with the nearly rasta-style blond locks, the shin-length stockings with the tears, the full-length gloves and dangling crosses. And who could begrudge them their desire to emulate this woman? Madonna projected a fearless self-assertiveness, a model of both full-bodied fun and female power.

With the now decades-long Zeitgeist-vortex surrounding this performer, it's nearly impossible to hear and view her with fresh ears and eyes. But, in the beginning of her career, when it was all fresh and new - man, this woman was thrilling!

Here's a youtube clip from the concert. (The really cool dancing kicks in at about three minutes.)

    Gonna dress you up in my love, gonna love you, boy . . .

August 21, 2007 at 06:53 PM in Stuff I Love | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

August 16, 2007


The petite lady hit the seat talking and that continued all the way to the airport. It turned out she was an Italian who had immigrated to Denver 10 years ago and was currently teaching French in a Colorado college. The Middlebury College summer language program generates a stream of interesting and lucrative customers, and Angelina was one of them.

"So, you talk Italian, French and, of course, English. That's impressive. Anything else?"

"Well, thank you," Angelina replied. She had those dark flashing eyes which can take you a long way in life. "I also speak Spanish, but I lose it. I don't speak enough, so it goes. How about you?"

"Me?" I said, laughing out loud. "I can barely speak English."

"I can teach you Italian," she said. "It is the most easy. Every word - exactly how you spell it. No exceptions."

"But then I'll have to learn all the hand movements, right? You can't speak Italian without the hands."

"Oh, yes - and also the facial expression."

We zipped up Route 7, happy as calamari in the deep ocean. Man, I dug this woman. I asked, "So, what was your hometown in Italy?"

"Parma," Angelina replied. "You know, where they make-a the cheese."

"Ah-ha," I said. "Beautiful. That's northern Italy, right?"

"Yes, not far from Milan."

"Northern Italy is quite different from the south, I understand."

"Oh, yes - in northern Italy we work!"

We laughed together and I said, "I hitchhiked through the south of Italy when I was a teenager. I can never forget the pizza. So delicious! And they sell it in the bakeries."

A scowl came over Angelina's face. I had hit a sore point. "The pizza is going - how you say? - down the hill now. They make it American-style to please the tourists. The pizza should be the nice thick pasta, the bread, with just a little sauce, really - the fresh tomato. Now they make it thin bread, drowning in the tomato sauce. No good!"

"That's a crime, Angelina. I might never eat pizza again."

I knew that was a promise I couldn't possibly keep, but, in the moment, the solidarity felt good.

August 16, 2007 at 08:37 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

August 11, 2007

Nocturnals Rising

Our girl, Grace Potter, and her band, the Nocturnals, are blowing up, as they say in the music biz. Their major label release, This is Somewhere, is gaining national airplay, and, over the past month, the band has been all over the tube, including appearances on Jay Leno, Craig Ferguson and the Morning Show.

It couldn't be happening to a more deserving local band or a nicer bunch of people. I had the chance to see them a few times at Nectars a couple of years ago, when they were booked every Wednesday night during a frigid January. They blew the room away week after week. I couldn't believe the depth of soul coming out of, then, 22 year-old Grace, this fresh-faced Vermonter (she grew up in Waitsfield.) She and her kicking band ripped it up and owned the stage. I think all of us in the crowd knew how lucky we were to experience this act in cozy Nectars; with their overflowing talent it was just a matter of time before they vastly outgrew these little townie venues.

The first track from the new album that's being pushed is "Ah Mary," which Grace has described as her first political song. It's a triumph, an instant classic, and it breaks my heart every time I hear it. It perfectly captures the pain and terrible irony of the last six years. Because, at this point, for many of us who love this country, it's gone beyond anger. We're heartbroken. For me, the key lyric is, She's the beat of my heart, she's the shot of the gun. And, at the end of the song, when Grace finally says it - Ah Mary, ah Mary, America - I get goosebumps everytime. What a powerful, heartfelt anti-war anthem, just when we need it. And what guts for the band and their label to showcase this song in a time of lingering political oppression and censoreship. They've done Vermont proud.

One thing about "Grace as a sex symbol," something that's been much talked about in the press, including a great, playful piece by Dan Bolles in the current issue of Seven Days.Yeah, Grace is sexy as all get-out. If you have a pulse, it's undeniable. But, she's earthy and natural, and it's clear that the sexuality she brings to her performance is not an artifice. It's just a beautiful, expressive young woman being who she is, unafraid and powerfully. And, as she said in Dan's interview, she's always been a "glamour puss" so glamming it up comes naturally to her, not something new she's now using to raise the band's profile. So, I say:  Go, Gracie, go!

Here's the lyrics to "Ah Mary" and the youtube of a recent performance.

She's skilled at the art of deception and she knows it
She's got dirty money that she plays with all the time
She waters the garden but maybe she just likes the hoses
She puts herself just a notch above humankind
Ah Mary
She'll make you cookies
Then she'll burn your town
Ah Mary
Ashes ashes but she won't fall down
She's the beat of my heart
She's the shot of a gun
She'll be the end of me
And maybe everyone
Call her a bully she'll blow up your whole damn playground
Pour her a drink and watch it go straight to her head
She'll take you so high up and cover her eyes as you fall down
Then in the morning don't be surprised if you're
Ah Mary
She'll bake you cookies
Then she'll burn your town
Ah Mary
Ashes ashes but she won't fall down
She's the beat of my heart
She's the shot of a gun
She'll be the end of me
And maybe everyone
Ah Mary, Mary Mary - America

August 11, 2007 at 12:37 PM in Stuff I Love | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 10, 2007

Capturing the Elephant

The subject of the last Hackie column, "If It's Not Fun", presented a daunting challenge.

The man I was profiling was larger than life, multi-faceted and teeming with contradictory impulses. Within my 1000-word limit, how could I do justice? I had experienced a grand and sexy beast, and, in my account, I feared missing an essential component, like the billowy ears, the curling trunk, the lily-pad feet.

My solution was as it always is:  I trusted my intuition. Writing, for me, is an intuitive creative process. I open myself up and I trust, baby, trust. What "comes through" is what's needed to make the story come alive, and, when I'm lucky, the process works. It's why I love writing almost as much as cab driving.

August 10, 2007 at 02:51 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 07, 2007


The Lime Kiln Bridge spans the Winooski River just before "T-ing out" where Route 15 passes St. Michael's College. The old bridge had been deteriorating for years, this despite two substantial renovations in 1940 and 1991. It was built in 1913, and, owing to its tremendous height in relation to the river, was I believe the only Winooski River bridge to survive the Great Flood of 1927. With its high, graceful arch, the old bridge was a Vermont beauty.

Construction began on the new bridge a couple years ago. In part because closing this road during construction would have been so disruptive, an entirely new structure was built just yards east of the original bridge which remained open until the new one was ready for traffic.Img_0106_2 (The old one was then dismantled.) And because of the historical significance of the original, the new bridge incorporated the beloved, though functionally unnecessary, arch support.

In 2006, Road & Bridges magazine named our bridge one of "Top 10 bridge projects in North America." Considering the thousands of bridges constructed yearly, this is an amazing honor!

So, the new Lime Kiln Bridge has been up and running for months. There remains a little landscaping and sidewalking to be done, but, basically, it's complete.Img_0122  It's gorgeous - both the structure itself and the views of the river and mountains it showcases. The one drawback is the position of the arch:  It's hidden beneath the roadbed, only visible if you climb down below as I did to snap these photos. I recommend a Sunday morning visit. The bridge and vistas are breathtaking.





August 7, 2007 at 01:01 PM in Just Shoot Me | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

August 05, 2007

Cheesy Follow-up

In my last posting, I blogged about the American Cheese Society Conference which took place over three days at the Sheraton. Well, there's more. Yes, more cheesy nuggets.

Saturday night I drove yet more cheeseheads, excuse me, attendees, one of whom informed me of a glorious event scheduled for 10am the following morning: After the competition is over, apparently the participating cheese-makers have lots of product left over that they don't want to repack with dry ice, etc., and lug back to from whence they came. So, there will be a sale to the public, with all the fancy-schmancy cheeses at a buck a pop!

Like most normal humans, I covet a high quality cheese.Sometimes at the supermarket I'll browse the deli section and gaze longingly at the exotic cheeses with the foreign names and try to imagine the subtle, nuanced flavors fermenting, tantalizing beneath the white wrappers. I never, however, pick one up to buy, because I simply refuse to pay $8.75 for a food product the size of a cigarette lighter.

I showed up this morning (Sunday) at the Sheraton. Around the back, just outside the conference center, was a large white tent. In the parking lot sat more Volvo's, BMW's and Saab's than you'd see at a Judy Collins concert. This blow-out - heavily discounted "artisan" cheeses - was like distribution day at the Food Shelf for upper middle-class white people.

Inside the tent was a huge rectangle of brown folding tables stacked with cheese, cheese and more cheese. As you entered, everyone was given an official yellow bag. A woman who looked like a summer camp coach kept announcing:  Not yet! Not yet! No shopping until 10 o'clock sharp. Two more minutes, people! Two more minutes!" 

When the bell sounded, it was like the old TV show, "Supermarket Sweep" or the California Gold Rush of 1849. Sheep that I am, I got totally swept up in the mania and ultimately left with enough cheese to vault my cholesterol to Code Red.

I've been eating cheese now all afternoon. I've eaten too much cheese. I'm bloated.

August 5, 2007 at 05:21 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

August 04, 2007

My Cheesiest Customer

The two women in the back of my cab were atwitter. "Do you know who you're sitting next to?" one of them asked.

I looked over at a perfectly pleasant looking man, vaguely foreign, a smile on his face that would not quit.

"OK," I said, "I'll bite. Is he a famous Belgian sports announcer?"

"Close," the replied the woman. "Garrett actually won first prize today for his homestead cheese."

"Really?" I said. "What - was there a contest?"

"At the Sheraton?" the woman replied incredulously, as if it was hard to imagine a person so totally out of the loop. "This weekend is the American Cheese Society Conference."

"Well, that's really cool," I said, turning to Garrett. "Where's your farm?"

"We're from Indiana," he replied in an accent I couldn't place. "Our cheeses are based on traditional Dutch recipes, but I add my own twist."

"Didja grow up in Holland?"

"I did, but I've been here for 15 years."

We pulled into the Sheraton and turned into the entrance. "The only Dutch cheese I can think of is Gouda," I said with a chuckle.

"You mean ccchhow-ducch?"

"That's how you say it in Dutch?" I asked.

"You got it."

"Well, I'll remember that," I said. "Just like Vincent Van Gahchh."

"Yes," he said, laughing along with his two cheesy groupies. "Just like Vincent."

August 4, 2007 at 08:39 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack