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 - - it was transposed incorrectly as "The Leaping!"

So, look before you leap.

March 23, 2008 at 03:07 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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.

Adios, amigos!

Peace out.

Jernigan Pontiac

March 18, 2008 at 02:13 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

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 13, 2008 at 03:58 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

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 11, 2008 at 12:01 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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.
Daniel McDevitt
Essex Junction

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 6, 2008 at 03:20 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 08, 2008

Like A Rolling Stone

In the last "Hackie" column, "Plan A," I told about my ride with a man who had, like the protagonist in the tune "Proud Mary," left a good job in the city. In this man's case, he quit Wall Street to move to the Burlington area, Winooski in particular, the Winooski Block to be more precise.

The guy had had only a couple of months experience in Vermont having volunteered for Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2003. He spent that time living with a bunch of other "Deaniacs" in a house rented by the campaign on Intervale Avenue.

As of the moment I dropped him off at his new digs, he had essentially no friends or relatives in the area, nor did he have a job. I did have a feeling he would eventually do fine up here; he seemed like a nice enough guy and he had a strong affinity for our state.

This man had executed a huge life shift. When I moved to the Green Mountains, at least I knew some people up here. I've been thinking about the courage or desperation it must take to upend your like so fundamentally. It must be thrilling and terrifying at the same time to find yourself alone in a brand new city.

Have you, or someone you know, ever made such a drastic move? What was it like? How did you make out?

February 8, 2008 at 05:40 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

January 26, 2008

Evoking Mississippi

Though I've been penning the "Hackie" column for 11 years (Egad), the creative process has never grown rote. If ever it should become automatic, that's the day I pack it in. It's actually the precise opposite of rote:  every time I sit down to write a story, I feel as if I'm figuring it out for the first time. This is exciting, albeit daunting. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Some stories turn out better than others. How could it be otherwise? You can't hit a home run at every at bat. But I try.

Last week I was feeling good because, by my own standards, the story - Elegy For Frenchy - accomplished everything I shoot for in my storytelling. Most importantly, I feel as if I successfully evoked a live human being. This is always a challenge in a thousand words or less.

So for the next couple of weeks, at least until the next story appears, I am happy hackie.

January 26, 2008 at 06:15 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 16, 2008

Rude Boys

The last "Hackie" column, "A Happy Hoosier Tale," found me transporting three young men, Norwich College students, to Boston's Logan Airport. In the story, I mentioned in passing the decorum of these students, which I attributed - at least in part - to their school's code of conduct.Their respectful behavior I contrasted with the sometimes belligerent groups of young men I regularly drive around town.

A fare this past weekend illustrated the point, unfortunately.

Three raucous and tipsy twenty-somethings, pizza in hand, sat in my taxi en route to one of their homes in Colchester. "Sat" is more accurately what I wished because they were bouncing off the walls of the cab, involved in a three-way argument.

"You're always judging people without the facts!" my seatmate in the shotgun seat yelled at the friend behind him. "He was in the fuckin' army, dude! He had come from fuckin' Falluja, for Christ's sake. You know how much respect I have for guys in the service."

"I told ya," the guy retorted, "I had no idea. He was dressed like a douche bag - I mean a Stetson hat and studded jeans in Vermont. What the fuck is up with that?"

"Well, that's exactly my point," my seatmate shot back. "You don't know, so why not keep your trap shut?"

The argument went back and forth thusly, with the third guy jumping in, though I couldn't quite ascertain whose side he was taking, not that his ambiguity stopped him from screaming his opinions as well. All of this is well and good if not for the roof-banging and flying pizza.

And that's the thing about testosterone-fueled males: they often lose touch with their surroundings. I kept attempting to calm them down, but they were having none of it. By the time I dropped them off - good riddance - pizza cheese and sauce was all over the floor and seats.

Although fares like this are thankfully infrequent, guys acting this way truly piss me off. It's not the cleaning job after the fact as much as the indifference - lack of honor, really. And that's why I truly appreciate the Norwich cadets.

January 16, 2008 at 03:03 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 11, 2008

"Janet" & Jean

In the "Hackie" column of 12/26 entitled, "A Poetess Blossoms," I wrote about my friendship with a customer I called "Janet." I described her as an elderly resident of a Shelburne senior living community, and a sublime poet. All of that stuff about Janet is true. (As I've said elsewhere when asked if the "Hackie" stories are factual or invented:  My imagination isn't that good.) But - the woman's name isn't really Janet.

While my stories are indeed non-fiction, I regularly alter biographical information concerning the taxi customers I portray. For instance, I almost always change the name and often home locations and the like. I do this because it is not my intention to invade the privacy of others, though - when I'm honest with myself - this is exactly what I've been doing from the onset with these stories. But, I figure, at least I can minimize this problem by disguising various non-essential elements of these encounters.

Of course, the people I write about frequently recognize themselves in the column. Thank God, with just one or two horrendous exceptions, they are generally quite pleased with how they've been portrayed. This is extremely important to me; even when describing, let's call them, "difficult" people, I make every effort to write with respect and compassion.

So I was quite happy this week to receive a sweet note from "Janet" which began:  A discovery! "Janet" bears a remarkable resemblance . . .  so - Thanks for the poetess story, a generous description . . ."

I'm certain that "Janet" won't mind in the least if I revealed her true name, along with the title of her book of poetry. Go out and buy it, and support the true poets of the world!

                                      A Cartography of Peace

                                              by Jean L. Connor

January 11, 2008 at 01:23 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 15, 2007

Lay Those Bricks

The last "Hackie" column, "The Touring Life," spotlighted a house painter living with his "old lady" at the Dutch Mill Motel. Regular readers of my stories may have detected the special respect I harbor for men and women who work in the "trades," those various skilled jobs on a construction site.

In 1979, I "made aliyah" - as the Israelis say - and located to Vermont. The following year, 1980, saw the construction of the Church Street Marketplace. The major construction aspect of this project was the bricking of Church Street. It took a few months, and I often had the pleasure of watching the bricklayers do their thing. Getting those thousands of bricks level and into the correct pattern took a team of experienced craftsmen.

One of bricklayers was an Italian expatriate with the face and body of Michaelangelo's David. The man was godlike - tall and dark, and darn it if he didn't have blue flashing eyes. Before long, the women of Burlington discovered him.

If you're reading this and under the age of, say, 40, it might be helpful to point out that this was still a time when women were less obvious about public displays of their sexual desire. But, this guy - this Italian bricklayer - soon began to excite waves of female lust (not to mention the homo-erotic version as well) from Charlotte to Milton.

The phenomena hit high gear during the heat spell of July, because that's when the Italian's tank-top (which was plenty sexy in its own right) came off by high noon. Women began scheduling their outdoor lunch breaks in droves to catch the show. And the guy did his job, laying brick after brick, seemingly oblivious to the hormonal havoc he was engendering.

And, in case you're wondering - yes, I was wicked jealous.

December 15, 2007 at 05:30 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack