Arts + Life » Hackie

Roger Wilco



It was a huge snowfall for so late in the season, just over a foot and a half in Burlington when it finally stopped coming down on Thursday. By Friday afternoon, it had reached 40 degrees, and the streets streamed with snowmelt. Toward evening, the temperature dropped below freezing again, and the Queen City became Ice City. Then, at 7 p.m., as a finishing touch and gratuitous dollop of fun and games, a one-hour snow squall deposited another inch or two atop the iced roads. The end result was that "black diamond" degree of driving difficulty so prized by discriminating motorists everywhere.

I wasn't about to lose a Friday night's worth of taxi revenue, so I hit the road at eight o'clock, ice and snow be damned. Such is the life of a Vermont cabdriver; if you can't deal with wintry road conditions, you are in the wrong line of work.

The entire night was a grind. Not just negotiating the treacherous roads, but contending with the customers. It was one of those nights when everyone seemed ornery and dour. (Like many ER nurses and cops I've met, I am a firm believer that the city itself has a communal personality, complete with mood swings.) And even the relatively jolly fares were acting weird.

Two girls, a tall blond and short brunette, hailed me and jumped into the back seat. "Zephyr Road, please," the blond requested. "Do you know where that is?"

"Sure, yeah," I replied. "Just north of Taft Corners."

"Take the interstate, please. It's quicker."

I beg to differ, I thought, but said, "Roger, wilco."

"Roger who?" the blond asked, stumped by my archaic lingo.

"I'll take the interstate," I clarified.

The interstate was no breeze. If the plows had been deployed to salt it, I couldn't tell. The instant we turned off at the Williston exit, the blond said, "Pull over. I can't wait any longer."

I shot over to the shoulder, where she leapt out and did her thing by the side of the road. While she was out there, her friend said, "I had no idea she was feeling queasy. I mean, we definitely hit a few bars, but still."

I said, "Man, I couldn't even tell she was drunk. Your girl can hold a drink. Well, on second thought, she is vomiting al fresco, so maybe not so much."

Deed done, the regurgitator returned to her seat, and I passed her a complimentary napkin. "Thanks," she said. "It took a lot to hold that in until we got off the highway. I almost didn't make it."

I didn't like the sound of that, and said, "Well, speaking on behalf of cabdrivers everywhere, do not wait if this happens again. It's fine to do it on the highway. The main thing, I mean, the overriding principle, is not in the cab. So thanks for that, anyway."

I couldn't tell how she took my slight admonition, but I couldn't let that pass without setting her straight.

My very next fare was a girl and two guys in front of Nectar's. The guys were clearly drunk — no ambiguity there — but the girl appeared alert. As the boys plopped into the back seat, she asked me, at my window, to drive her friends to Patchen Road.

"Do they got money?" I asked — always the 64-thousand-dollar question.

"Bart, you got money on you?" she asked one guy, the incrementally more sober of the pair.

"Yeah, I got money, I got money," he replied in a slurry, bored tone.

On the ride up the hill to Williston Road, the guys in the back were quiet as a couple of dormice, which is how I like my customers, especially drunk ones. When I turned toward Patchen Road at Al's French Frys, I called out, "So lemme know when we get to your place."

That's when I noticed the snoring. Glancing up at the rearview mirror, I saw the two of them were out like lights. I pulled over and shifted into park. Reaching over the seat, I shook Bart's leg. "Wake up, man," I said. "We're on Patchen Road."

One eye slowly opened. "Yeah, right," he said, and promptly returned to his golden slumbers.

"Wake up, Bart!" I shouted this time. "We're at your house."

That was a little white lie, but at this point I just wanted these guys successfully extracted from my cab so I could head back downtown and make some actual money. My hope of getting paid for this fare was fading fast. Given their extreme level of intoxication, I knew it would be fruitless, and I might as well just skip the song and dance. I'd seen this movie before.

Suddenly conscious, Bart popped out of the cab and stumbled around to the other side. Opening the door, he said, "Walter, g'your ass up. We're home."

After some coaxing, prodding and poking, Bart ultimately dragged Walter out of his seat, and the two of them staggered up the street. I hate getting stiffed, but I was thrilled to see them out of the cab. The way they had been out cold, I thought I was going to need the Jaws of Life.

My last fare of the night was a tall African man in the front, whom I matched up with four folks — three girls and a guy — who squeezed into the back. All five of them were drunk and unhappy, which I had already identified as the theme of the evening. The backseat customers were going to South Winooski; my seatmate was bound for Shelburne Road. He had told me the exact address — three times, in fact — but I simply couldn't make it out with his pronounced accent. I did get "Shelburne Road."

On the short hop up South Winooski, the man in the front kept trying to engage one of the girls in the back. She was having none of it and grew angrier by the minute. When I stopped at their destination, he said, "What do you say, darling? Maybe you want to come home with me?"

At least, I think that's what he said. He was probably a newly arrived immigrant; his English was sketchy. And he was inebriated. I believe I got the gist, anyway.

The girl exploded. "Stop talking to me, you freak! I can't understand a fucking word you're saying. Just shut the fuck up!"

"Hey, now!" I bellowed into the cab, to all concerned. "Peace, peace, peace. No need to get all bent out of shape."

The girl's friends calmed her down, one of them paid me, and we were on our way — me and the African dude.

"Oh, my," he said to me. "She was angry girl."

"Yes, she was," I said, nodding my head and chuckling at this entire discordant night, now mercifully coming to an end. "Don't let it get you down, though," I counseled, speaking as much to myself as to my customer.

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