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Exit Paulie



Published September 21, 2011 at 7:59 a.m.

I don’t know how to describe the feeling that’s recently come over the Burlington taxi community, but “pall” comes close. Actually, it’s the perfect word, because it was a “Paul” whose sudden departure engendered this doleful atmosphere.

On July 27, Paul Robar, owner of Benways Taxi — by far the largest taxi fleet in Vermont — was stricken with a major brain aneurysm. He bravely hung in there for a few weeks before passing on August 18, at the age of 55. For those of us who toil in the cabbie trade, his death leaves a Grand Canyon-size crater — such was the space he occupied over the 35 years he built and ran his company.

Paulie, which is what everyone called him, employed hundreds of folks during that time. The payroll included me for the better part of a year in the early ’80s, before I took the plunge and ventured out on my own. It was during a down-and-out stretch in my life that he gave me the much-needed shot I needed to get back on my feet. I know of others Paulie helped out in just the same way.

Over the ensuing years — now as one of his many competitors — I interacted with him on a semiregular basis. What can I say about Paulie the person? He was tough as nails and a big softie with a heart of gold. He was a large man with a personality to match — a Vermonter, a Burlington boy through and through.

Paulie was always at his inimitable best at the public hearings on taxi regulation. Every few years, like clockwork, the Burlington City Council casts its Solonic eye toward the local taxi fleet, intent on whipping it into shape. In a weird way, I look forward to these regular bouts of legislative attention. The process is a piquant blend of grand opera and the World Wrestling Federation.

As to the actual day-to-day operation of the cabs on the streets, if you’ve taken taxis, you know that nothing ever really changes — herding cats is a more promising endeavor than attempting to regulate taxi drivers. But the hearings themselves are a gas and I try not to miss any of them.

Paul attended these meetings, too, and never without his entourage, which consisted of various family members who worked at Benways in one capacity or another, and his minions: a rotating cast of company drivers, dispatchers and mechanics. Paulie evoked a near-fanatical loyalty from some of his employees. I imagine that accompanying him to these hearings felt to them like being in Tony Soprano’s crew and getting to hang with the boss — in other words, an honor.

During the course of a given hearing, it was not unusual for one or more of Paulie’s people to take his or her turn at the mic, but the kahuna himself would just sit there, taking it all in. He was as phlegmatic as the Buddha, his hands folded and perched comfortably on his ample girth. Ommmm

These taxi meetings always go on and on and on. From wherever they hail — and the Burlington taxi pool now comprises cabbies from Tibet, Somalia, Bosnia, Laos and other farflung locales — cab drivers love to talk, if not expound. Every human emotion is displayed, and, at some point, fireworks do erupt. This is de rigueur. As I said, it’s operatic.

Eventually, late into the night, when the council members begin glancing at their watches in a combination of exasperation and desperation, the committee chair announces, “Thank you all for attending and for your valuable input. Before we close, has everyone who has wanted to speak spoken?”

It was then, and only then, that the Great Man would dramatically rise from his seat and approach the speaker’s table. I swear I could hear the inner thoughts of each council member: No, no, God, no! Please, somebody shoot me now.

You see, they all knew Paul Robar. They knew he was going to have a lot to say, and they knew they had to give him all the time he required, because — well, he was the man. Dude knew more about the taxi business than any five other people in town, including, notably, any member of the city council. Plus, he dominated the local people-transport business, deploying sedans, vans, handicapped-access vehicles and limousines. When it came to moving humans by land on motorized wheels in Chittenden County, Paulie controlled the lion’s share of the market.

I had another deep connection to Paulie stemming from his ownership of a business I created in the 1980s. For nearly 10 years, I owned and operated Morf Transit, the company that pioneered the use of taxi vans in Burlington. In 1990, I sold it to a guy named Mark McConnell, who ran it for about five years. He then sold out to Paul, who seamlessly integrated it into the Benways operation. But Paulie maintained the Morf name on the vans, and, to this day, I feel some pride whenever one of them drives by.

As it happened, recent months brought a series of new taxi hearings — booyah! — and I avidly attended a number of them, as did Paulie. After one of these sessions, I found myself standing with him, just the two of us, outside the meeting room.

We chatted for a good half hour, mostly about the hearings du jour, but also about the old days. Though he was not a man to readily show emotion, I dare say we shared a certain appreciation, respect and even affection for each other — two old dudes, veterans of the taxi wars.

And now he’s gone. It’s as if we blinked and Mount Philo disappeared. All I can think is, Big guy, I’ll catch up with you on the other side.

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