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Chill, Don't Drill


Published April 20, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 26, 2016 at 8:40 p.m.

"This seems like a safe town," observed my customer. He was a middle-aged guy dressed high-end casual. His sneakers, for example, looked appropriate for the deck of a yacht. That kind of casual. "What would you say?" he asked his cabdriver.

It was college-tour time, when high school seniors visit potential schools. Picture loose squadrons of 17-year-olds, often accompanied by a parent, and a slightly older student chaperone leading them around campus. The primary qualification for such a tour guide, it appears to me, is being able to project your voice with gusto while walking backward. It's a neat trick. The man in the back of my cab was a UVM-tour dad.

"I agree with your assessment," I replied. "There's very little stranger-on-stranger violent crime in Burlington. Most of the violence, sadly, involves domestic situations. If your kid goes to school here, I think you can relax. I mean, as much as a parent ever relaxes."

"Yeah, my daughter's fairly streetwise, I'd say. We've lived all over the world, and she's had to adjust."

"Is that right? What kind of work are you in?"

"I recruit local workers for our company's projects. Lately I've been in Kazakhstan, where we're planning a major installation. We prefer to have the local people involved in construction and operation."

"What's the actual business?"

I had a good idea of the answer and was surprised to feel my heart sink. I hadn't realized how much this issue had vaulted to the forefront of my social consciousness.

"We're in energy. You know, oil and gas."

This is what I felt like telling him: Sir, you have a teenage daughter. Someday, maybe, grandchildren. The planet is hurtling toward global climate chaos. Tell me, how do you sleep at night?

But I held my tongue, for two reasons. First, I refuse to be one of those cabbies who believes it is permissible to harangue their customers. And second, I didn't have the heart for the inevitable discussion, which likely would have progressed to an argument. Human-caused global warming is an established scientific fact — and one that is not particularly hard to grasp. But Upton Sinclair's quote is spot-on: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Why get into it with just such a salaried man?

So I didn't go there, and I instead exchanged pleasantries about UVM and Vermont until we reached my customer's hotel. I drove back to town feeling dispirited, like I had chickened out. Plus, there was the matter of my hypocrisy. My income literally depends on the burning of fossil fuels — some 200 gallons a month, give or take.

Comedian Henny Youngman, the so-called King of the One-Liners, said he slept like a baby — up every two hours screaming. I can relate.

The following morning found me at Plattsburgh airport awaiting the arrival of an old customer. The still-under-construction terminal was teeming with workers and equipment but sufficiently completed to serve the public.

I hadn't driven this customer in a year, since he had separated from his wife and moved to Stowe. The man is quite wealthy and spends a lot of his time in Florida, which was just where he was arriving from — on a direct flight via Allegiant Air. The airport has made a big push to attract Canadian travelers, and nonstops to Florida provide a major marketing lure. Our friends to the north love them some Sunshine State.

I met Sal at the jury-rigged gate. Our warm greeting was genuine, I think on both our parts. Though our personalities and worldviews are very different, we are strangely simpatico. When I'm with him, I feel like Dorothy when she first meets the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard thunderously introduces himself as the "great and powerful." She responds, voice quavering, "I am Dorothy, the small and meek."

This is an exaggeration of our dynamic, but the guy is physically imposing, brash, opinionated and confident, all traits I've not been accused of possessing. Well, except maybe for opinionated.

The ride from Plattsburgh to Stowe was a long one, including a ferry trip, and we chatted the entire way. Sal, it turned out, had been seeing a woman, a Floridian, for about a year now. He shared some personal aspects of this new relationship, including his support for her as she faces a cancer diagnosis. But the most notable, not to say mind-bending, fact about this woman is her financial status: She's worth more than a billion dollars. That's billion, as they say, with a "b," placing her in the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent.

Sal reported to me, with no sense of bragging, what his life with this woman was like. A couple of days ago, they had flown to California on her private jet to buy a special bottle of wine. They both enjoy sports, so they regularly jet off to sporting events in other cities and get front-row seats. The woman recently bought a 75-foot boat, and now they're looking at beachfront properties so they'll have a place to dock it. She buys houses, Sal said, like other people buy shoes.

As we headed down I-89, Sal lectured me about politics. I would have guessed he'd be a solid Trump guy, but he's more of an Ayn Rand-style libertarian. He's very big on the "makers and takers" — the line of reasoning that got Mitt Romney in such hot water during his 2012 presidential campaign. I listened to my customer as I drove, more to the distinct melody and rhythm of his words than to the meaning. He reminded me of someone singing heavy metal, a genre of music I can appreciate in small doses.

"Where did your girlfriend get her money?" I asked during a gap in his exposition.

Sal replied, "Well, she has had good-paying jobs at different points in her life, but her wealth is inherited from her father."

"What was his business?" I asked, my sense of déjà vu palpable from the previous night.

"He started a Texas company," Sal explained. "I guess they were into a lot of things, but mostly oil and gas."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Chill, Don't Drill"


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