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Fall Feels Like Freedom



Published October 29, 2008 at 5:10 a.m.

For years, I worked the Burlington bus station, back before it was taken over by Greyhound, when it was still Vermont Transit. I camped out through lazy afternoons when the terminal stood at its historical location — the first-floor corner of the Huntington Apartments at St. Paul and Main streets. After the fire, when the station moved to Pine Street, I dutifully followed, and over the years taxied thousands of travelers. As Burlington’s taxi fleet exploded in the new millennium, I’ve gradually weaned myself off the bus terminal. Too much competition for my blood.

But I recently found myself there — for old time’s sake? — first up in the taxi queue, awaiting the afternoon arrival from New York City and points south. The fare I soon caught was a slender man, perhaps 40, with a graying moustache and wispy beard. I popped the trunk, and he loaded a pair of mottled-green duffel bags before taking the shotgun seat. Giving me a Winooski address, the guy seemed guarded, ill at ease with social interaction.

“Hey, bud,” he said hesitantly as we traversed the Old North End, “any chance of stopping to pick up some smokes?”

“Sure thing, man,” I replied, pulling over to the curb in front of the Willard Street Market.

Returning to his seat, mission accomplished, he asked, “Do you mind if I spark one up? I know I can’t smoke in the place I’m headed. Well, not indoors, anyways.”

“Yeah, why not?” I said, suspending my no-smoking rule for a man who looked like he really needed a cigarette. “Just try to keep it out your window.”

He lit up and took a really long drag, exhaling slowly out his cracked window. As we drove the streets, I noticed him staring intently at every building. “Hey, what happened to all the old downtown stores?” he asked. “I’ve been away, and a friend was telling me that even Woolworth’s is gone.”

“I guess you have been out of town for a while — Woolworth’s has been gone for ages,” I told him. “Church Street’s mostly for the higher-end shoppers at this point. It seems to me there’s more money in town these days, especially when you throw in the tourist dollar.”

We took a right onto Riverside Avenue. The trees along the Winooski River banks were resplendent with what people were calling the best foliage color in years. Muffled squawks came from overhead, and we looked up in time to catch a flock of coffee-colored Canadian geese. Aligned in a fluid V-formation, the elegant migrators sliced the blue sky. “Man, I’ve missed this,” my customer confessed, the emotional truth reverberating in his voice. “I’ve been down south for 13 years.”

“What kinda work were you doing down there?”

“I wasn’t working. Well, let’s say I wasn’t getting paid for working. I was in a federal pen. I just got released yesterday morning. The sentence was 20, but I got seven off for good behavior.”

I paused before saying another word. We had suddenly left the realm of prosaic conversation. Thirteen years in jail, I thought. A third of the guy’s life confined behind bars.

“How does it feel?” I asked.

Before responding, he took one final hit on his cigarette and flicked it out the window. “To tell you the truth, my heart hasn’t stopped pounding since yesterday. Every time I got to sign something, my hand’s shaking like a bastard.”

As we crossed the Winooski Bridge and approached the traffic circle, my seatmate’s eyes grew wide. “What the hell happened to Winooski? It’s like they rearranged all the streets and built a dozen huge apartment houses.”

On the sidewalk surrounding the rotary, two pretty college girls walked and talked together, possibly residents of the Spinner Place apartments used by Champlain College for student housing. In unison, our heads turned. For the first time since he’d gotten in my taxi, a smile crossed the man’s face.

“Some things never change, huh?” I said with a chuckle.

“I’ll tell you, brother,” he said, “that’s not exactly the number-one thing on my mind. First thing tomorrow, I got to get in touch with Voc Rehab. I was told they might front me some money for tools. I used to be a carpenter way back when.”

We pulled in front of a neat, nondescript two-story building. The man said, “This is the address they gave me, so I guess this is Dismas House.” I told him I have a friend who used to work for the organization. This Winooski facility, I recalled, was the third halfway house they’d established in Chittenden County to help ex-convicts reintegrate into the community.

“Well, this is where I get out,” he said to me, and I thought I could hear his heart pounding.

I said, “It looks nice. Hey, I bet you’re gonna do real good.”

“At least now I have a chance, and that’s something, ain’t it?”

I met the man’s eyes and said, “Yup, that is something. That’s really something.”

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