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October 29, 2007

Hellacious Halloweenie

Sitting next to me is a denizen of Esox, a bar that used to cater exclusively to the locals but has of late suffered a student infestation. When it comes to Burlington's old-timey taverns, if the establishment is located downtown the process is inexorable:  eventually the students will encroach.

It begins with a few daring trail-blazers casually wandering in and grabbing a couple pints. This is the beachhead. Within a few weeks or months, the place is flooded with collegians. It's a matter of sheer numbers. The students are like Zebra muscles in Lake Champlain, another non-indigenous species that comes on like gangbusters; the local wildlife doesn't stand a chance.

So, I was driving Carl back to his one-room off Colchester Avenue. The guy is a hard worker at a local factory, and, when he's off-duty at nights he likes to sit at the bar at Esox and do his thing. He's heavy-set with dark hair, tightly curled and coming just over his ears and onto his forehead.

Says Carl as we wait for the light at South Winooski, "Jeez, it's busy in town tonight. Saturday night, huh?"

"Well, yeah, it is the weekend, but it's also Halloween."

"No it's not. Halloween is Wednesday, isn't it?"

"Carl," I say, incredulous, but trying not to poke fun at the guy's mind-bending obliviousness. "Halloween is on Wednesday, but people are celebrating all weekend. I mean, did you not notice that about half the folks in town are wearing costumes?"

"You don't say?" he replies, nodding his head. "No, I hadn't noticed." When Carl is drinking, nothing breaks his concentration.

The light changes and off we go. At the next set of lights at South Union Street, a bunch of costumed students are about to cross from the corner of Memorial Auditorium. A few of the girls are dressed crazy sexy, as naughty nurses, wayward cheerleaders - you name it. It seems to me that the mousiest young women can be the most daring in Halloween attire. It's an opportunity to cut loose, and I'm definitely not complaining.

Although the group has the red light and clearly sees me advancing, they slowly drift directly into my path, led by a tall white-skeletoned guy, flapping his arms wildly like he was in a Mexican "Day of the Dead" celebration. I slow to a crawl as I ease up to them. The girls are laughing uproariously as they continue to cross.

Suddenly, the skeleton guy screams and hurtles across the hood of the taxi, falling off to the side and grabbing his leg in agonizing pain. "Ya ran me over, man," he yells, "you ran me over!" The girls join in. "Omigod! The cabbie just hit him!"

Carl taps me on the shoulder. "I think you ran that guy over," he helpfully points out.

"Get the fuck outta here!" I shout through my open window at the guy grimacing on the pavement. "You are so faking. I was just going maybe 2 miles per hour."

"You hit me, man," he continues the performance. "I think you broke my leg. Call an ambulance!"

I had to admire the young man's acting chops. Like any skilled actor, he was committed. Halloween is all about pretending, so I couldn't really got too mad at him.

"Good luck with that leg," I call out, and continue up the hill with Carl.

October 29, 2007 at 01:30 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 26, 2007

Notifying the Authorities

I was idling at the corner of College and Church, warming the globe while attempting to hustle up a fare. A fleet taxi driver pulled up parallel to me and beeped. I lowered my driver's window and the fleet driver lowered his passenger window. I recognized the man behind the wheel; we'd chatted once or twice before.

"Hey, we gotta do something about the taxi stands," he said, getting right to the point.

At this point - and, by "this point," I mean for about a decade - I'm one of Burlington's veteran cabbies. As such, a lot of the younger drivers regard me as an eminence grise of sorts. So, when something feels amiss in the cab-world, they might feel the need to run it by me.

"How so?" I asked.

"Simple. There's not enough friggin' cab spots! Last week I got ticketed for hanging out in front of Smokejacks. I'm going to appeal it, no doubt. What do they expect us to do if they don't create some new taxi stands?"

"I see your point," I said. "Well, good luck with that. Getting the city council to do anything takes a lot of perseverance."

"You write stuff for the paper, right? Maybe you can write something about the taxi stand situation."

"Sure, man," I replied. "I'll see what I can do. But, you know, I'm not, like, a journalist. I just write about the folks I drive in my taxi."

What my many years on the job has revealed to me is the cyclical nature of these complaints. All the potential government entities with regulatory power over the Burlington taxi fleet - the police, the airport commission, the city council - have one thing in common:  the last item on their to-do list is taxi cabs. In fact, all these groups are most happy if anything relating to taxiing stays off their lists altogether.

Regulation of the taxi industry is (a) far from life or death when one considers the various issues facing a municipality, and (b) ridiculously complex. It is, in fact, a classic hornet's nest. If you want to see the proof of this in action, just attend the rare public hearing on anything to do with the taxi business. Oh, it's a circus all right. So, when it comes to this issue, the powers-that-be just punt. Which is basically OK by me; benign neglect is underrated.

What I could have told my friend the fleet driver was that, periodically, the police get worked up about the cabs, issue a few tickets for whatever and inevitable go back to leaving us alone. I've seen it happen over and over again . . .

October 26, 2007 at 06:42 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 23, 2007

One Million Dollars

My life as a cabdriver/writer changed dramatically in 2004 with the release of my first book, Hackie: Cabdriving and Life. Until then, my writing was, by intention, almost entirely anonymous. Although the "Hackie" newspaper column had been around for many years, I never attached a photo to it, and I turned down the occasional request for interviews by the local media.

But, when the book came out, I realized I had to appear publicly to help sell the darn thing. I couldn't afford to be coy if I wanted to move the merchandise! So, I began to do book readings at bookstores, schools and organizations, along with TV and radio interviews.

I've gotten better at public speaking over the last three years. In the beginning I was so nervous that I couldn't even take a drink of water during my presentation lest the bottle shook so tremulously that the audience would catch on! But, like anything else in this world, you can improve on any activity by repetition and paying attention; slowly, but surely, I began to relax and enjoy the ride.

Part of the problem is that writing and speaking are surprisingly dissimilar activities. Just because I had the ability to express myself with some verve and clarity while sitting quietly and tapping at a keyboard doesn't exactly translate to standing in front of a room and talking out loud. But, as I said, I worked at it, and I learned and improved.

In a couple weeks, I'll be appearing at a creative writing class at CVU High School. More often I'm asked to speak at college classes, but I really enjoy being with teenagers.

A couple of years ago, I spoke at a high school class in Concord, New Hampshire. It was in a tough, working-class neighborhood, and don't ask me how they even heard about my book down there. I was introduced; I read a story; I spoke briefly about my approach to writing; and then I opened it up for Q & A.

The audience was a sea of hooded, bored faces, with a few scary-looking pierced noses in the mix. Finally, from the back of the room, a rugged, pocked-mark young man stood up and leveled a stare right at me. He wore baggy sweat pants and a Boston Patriots T-shirt. He asked, "How much'zya get paid for writing that book?"

Without missing a beat, I looked right back at him and said, "I got one million dollars."

I can still recall the sound of his jaw hitting the classroom floor.

October 23, 2007 at 07:38 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

October 21, 2007

Little Pink Houses For You and Me

Fall in Vermont is not supposed to be like this, not that I'm complaining. This past weekend the temperatures bumped against 70, and on Sunday the sky was blue as Paul Newman's eyes in Cool Hand Luke. Img_0242_2

Taking advantage of the gifts of the day, I wandered around the Old North End, taking pics of pastel-colored houses. The trend started a few years ago, and continues to spread. There's a rash of them in the Convent Square neighborhood, where I shot these.

So, when it's time to repaint the castle, be bold and get out the rainbow colors. And not just in Burlington; you folks in the mini-mansions out on Spear Street:  who says a big old house must be only dark green, gray or white?







October 21, 2007 at 05:23 PM in Just Shoot Me | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 18, 2007

My Dear Old Nanny

In the last Hackie column, "Olde School Cabdriver," a customer tells me about her childhood with a full-time nanny. I'm always somewhat floored when I run into a person with that history.

I grew up in a time when most women, even middle-class women, stayed home to raise the kids. It was possible, way back then in the antediluvian days of the 20th Century, for a family to enjoy a decent standard-of-living on a single person's salary. Hard to believe, ain't it? The only nannies I heard about were from books with characters in the English royal family. Plus, mom-at-home or not, I spent every single day, from the minute school let out until dinner, playing on the streets and schoolyard of my neighborhood. The streets were my nanny, baby!

Now, of course, it's not uncommon for a couple with two professional jobs and a couple of kids to have full-time, in-house childcare help. It actually can be less expensive then carting the kids to a decent daycare center everyday. So, I have no judgment about it being elitist or some such, it just is entirely foreign to my experience.

Anybody out there in blog-land have any experience with nannies in their life? What's it like? Did you ever forget who your real mommy was?

October 18, 2007 at 07:10 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 16, 2007

Fare Schwag

I was driving my customer to the Trapp Family Lodge, one beauty of a fare in the heart of the foliage season. It was early afternoon and, after three straight days of gray overcoat skies, the sun had broken through like water through a broken dam.

As we approached the Stowe exit, the Hunger Mountain range was bathed in lemony light. For the past half-hour, my customer had been on a cel call with his home office in Manhattan, something about The Sound of Music and a project involving the Trapp family members, most of whom still live in Vermont.The guy was short, bald and well-dressed, and he spoke calmly but with evident enthusiasm for his work.

Me, I was feeling voluble. I wanted to know this guy's story, so I hoped he was too.

"So," I got he ball rolling 20 seconds after his phone call ended, "you're producing some sort of DVD?"

"That's exactly what I'm doing," he replied, the enthusiasm still in his voice now talking to his cabbie. "I work for the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization, the company formed by the decedents of the song-writing team to manage the performance rights for their songs and plays. We're producing a 40-year anniversary DVD for The Sound of Music, and we want to include interviews with the Trapp children who are still alive."

"That is fantastic," I said. "I'm a big musical comedy guy. My favorite from that era was Flower Drum Song. You don't really hear about that one too much anymore, because, I guess, it's now considered somewhat politically incorrect. I don't see why, though. I always thought it was a beautiful tribute to the Chinese immigrant culture."

"Well, you won't get any argument from me on that one," the man replied with a smile. "You know, we recently released a special edition of the movie version, including commentary with Nancy Kwan."

"Oh my God - how sexy was she in that movie? She stirred my 13 year-old heart, let me tell you." I paused to picture her solo number, "I Enjoy Being a Girl," during which she wears only a white towel. "I guess she stirred more than my heart," I added.

For the remainder of the ride, we talked musicals, from Oklahoma to Rent. I felt transported back to my childhood, when I used to lie on the living room floor and listen to my parent's LP cast albums, dreaming about the stories the songs were telling.

When we arrived at the Lodge we traded business cards and shook hands. We had connected in our mutual love of this uniquely American art form.

One week later, a puffy manila envelope showed up in the mailbox. When I saw the return address, I knew exactly what it was, and, tearing it open, my guess was right:  the special edition DVD of Roger's & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, my best tip, after-the-fact, from a generous taxi customer.

October 16, 2007 at 11:55 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 14, 2007

Wishing Away the Competition

"Shelburne Village," the bulky, red-faced man spoke to me through my open window. "How much?"

"Fourteen bucks," I replied. "Will that work for ya?

"Aw right," he replied, not attempting to mask his reluctance.

Off we rode.

"So, how much are the fleets charging you for this run?" I was trying to assess if my Shelburne quote was out of line.

"Quick was getting twelve, but I think they're out of business."

"You're kidding," I said. "I hadn't heard about that, but now that you mention it, I haven't seen their cabs around for a week."

The Quick Taxi Company had grown, well, quickly, over the last few years, from birth to about a dozen vehicles. I wasn't stunned, however, to hear they'd gone defunct. When a cab fleet grows with such speed over a short period of time, its cash flow might be vulnerable to collapse. Over the years, I'd seen a couple of other cab companies zoom and crash in just this pattern.

Later that night, I pulled up next to a buddy cabdriver outside of Kountry Kart. "Hey Ray," I spoke through our lowered windows, "Didja hear Quick went kaput?"

"Nawh," he replied. "That can't be. I just saw . . . hey, there's one right now."

I turned to watch a Quik Cab go around me. "No, Ray, that's Quik Cab, you know,without the 'C.' That's two separate companies."

"Well, you got me, Jernigan. I have no idea now."

As the night wore on, I experienced the dubious veracity of rumors. Both Quik and Quick cabs were plying the streets. Now it was Ray's turn to pull up to me. "Jernigan, I'm not sure about what you were talking about before, 'cause -- "

"Yeah," I interrupted. "I was all wet. It's what you call wishful thinking."

October 14, 2007 at 05:38 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 12, 2007

Let Us Now Sing the Praises of Shelburne Road

Early this morning - yes, before the break of dawn - I drove a Wake Robin resident to the airport. She's a lively, engaging lady as are so many of the folks who have made their home at this Shelburne retirement community.

She had just undergone the emotional process of selling the family home in Greenwich, Connecticut, which she and her late husband had purchased in 1952 for $15,000. It had been an old farmhouse built in the early 1700's, and, at the time, one of only four homes within a radius of two miles. I didn't ask what it sold for in 2007, but I imagine a home like this, with acreage, in what has now become the toniest of NYC suburbs, probably was valued at something more than $15,000. God bless her - she was a delightful person and deserved every cent of accumulated equity.

Zooming south on Shelburne Road, the moon and stars still visible in the dawning light, I thought about the road I was on. Yes, those magical moments  before daybreak lend themselves to just such mystical subjects.

I recalled the endless community meetings during the design phase of this road-widening project, and how the local store-owners bellyached over the median. As a small businessperson myself, of sorts, I understood their skittishness. Family businesses don't operate with a lot of financial cushioning; any government action that might reduce the revenue stream is met with alarm. But, in the end, I gather that the worst of these fears were unrealized and the vast improvement of traffic flow benefited all concerned.

And, man, Shelburne Road moves beautifully now. I can only imagine the complex traffic studies that went into the final design. When I first saw the U-turns at each light to double back to locations on the left, I thought, Jeez, this has got to be wrong; this can't work this way. But, I'll be darned, it works fine. Ditto, for the truck turn-around at Webster Road where it reverts to a single lane. When they were blasting through all that red rock during the long construction phase, it didn't make sense. But, once it opened up, I went, Ah-ha - now I get it.

So, thanks to all those who designed and constructed this road, including the government administrators from the towns and state. When things go right, how often are they acknowledged? Viva Shelburne Road. Now if we could just figure something out for Williston Road . . .

October 12, 2007 at 03:34 PM in Stuff I Love | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 09, 2007


There is a customer, Luana, I drive once a year back and forth, that is, to and from Trudeau Airport on her yearly visit to her Swiss home of birth. The airport was called Dorval until a couple years ago, and they haven't changed all the road signs. The important thing is to not mistake it for Mirabel Airport which is many miles north of Montreal, tres many miles. I don't know much French, but enough to understand the road signs, thank goodness.

I drove Luana, a retired woman, a couple days ago. I genuinely enjoy her company. She's cultured, and she sits next to me in the front seat and we discuss culture. Among other areas, this includes classical music, fine art, jazz and opera. I feel tres ignorant during these conversations, but I do know just enough to keep up my end of things.

Luana is not a dilettante. That is to say, she enjoys the arts with gusto, and not as an affectation. She's very opinionated, but is always clear that her opinions are merely her opinions. That is the difference that makes all the difference, isn't it?

As one example of her zesty tastes, she loves Placido Domingo but abhors the late Luciano Pavarotti, from his high C's down to his flashy, pocket handkerchiefs. She was able to articulate the differences in the very divergent musical approaches taken by the two tenors, and I got it. I had thought every opera aficionado worshipped Pavarotti, so that was news.

But the point is, how refreshing to discuss Vivaldi rather than the Rolling Stones, or Manet instead of "Grey's Anatomy." At least, for one two-hour drive. (Three if you include the border crossing.)

When we reached Trudeau Airport, I pulled the cab to a stop at the KLM departure doors. I helped her unload, she gave me a white envelope with the fare and we kissed on both cheeks. I felt so very European. Tres European.

October 9, 2007 at 11:23 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 05, 2007

Being Gratuitious

A recent comment on the YoHackie blog asked about the differences in tipping between men and women. Here's one cabbie's take on the issue.

Men seem, on average, to tip bigger than women. I ascribe it to a positive attribute of the macho ethic. Throwing around one's money is one way to demonstrate what a big man you are. This is not to deny other, more high-minded motives in big tipping - appreciation, gratitude, and the like, but men do like to demonstrate their "bigness." Hey, big spender . . .

More interesting to me is the different approach to splitting the fare among a same-sex group. The difference here is stark and follows course, in my experience, 98% of the time. Let's posit a group of four men, and then four women, arriving at their destination.

Among the men, inevitably one of the guys will throw me a twenty, saying, "Take it out of this." Often the payment falls to the guy riding shotgun, merely because he's sitting closest to the cabbie. Sometimes, but not always, one or another of the guys will toss him a fiver or a couple of bucks to chip in. But, either way, there's very little, if any discussion, and the whole exchange takes less than a minute.

Contrast this with the group of women. As we come to a stop, all of the them will begin to speak together, precisely computing the tip, adding it to the fare and dividing by four. Often, this is accompanied with, "Well, Jen, you paid for my last drink, so I'll cover your share," or similar accountings. If they can't come up with correct change so each one is paying the exact equal amount, I might be asked to bust a twenty for fives and ones to help facilitate that task. In any event, for women it's evidently crucial that things add up and everyone stays even-Steven.

What explains this phenomenon? My guess is it stems from the whole hunter (men)/gatherer (women) ancient history hard-wired into our brains for the 99% of mankind's existence as we evolved as a species. I hope this doesn't come off as sexist (or, rather, I hope it isn't sexist), but anyone have other explanations?

October 5, 2007 at 04:49 PM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack