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Fleeting Thoughts


Published December 26, 2001 at 4:00 a.m.

“Yo — 16 to base,” I called into the two-way radio for the third time. I was on the return trip from a drop in Vergennes. “For cryin’ out loud, will ya come in?”

“Sixteen — go ahead,” Jackson, the dispatcher on duty, finally replied. “I was takin’ phone calls, you should know that.”

“All right, Jackson,” I said. “I’m broke down on Route 7, just south of Ferrisburgh. Can you get the tow truck down here?”

I had been driving for one of the three Burlington taxi fleets for a few years as 1981 turned into 1982. I was never one for New Year’s resolutions per se, but I guess in the back of my mind I knew something had to give. It wasn’t the job itself that I needed to change. Then, as now, I enjoyed the cab-driving life. Rather, it was the working conditions that accompanied fleet driving that were pushing me to the breaking point.

Thinking back, I can’t pinpoint what irked me most — it was an amalgam of bothersome factors. The working hours, for starters. You were expected to show up for the night shift sometime after 4 p.m. and work till at least 3 a.m. The vehicles were often missing a crucial feature — a decent heater, say, or a working radio. If you complained, the dispatchers made it clear the owners considered such items luxuries, so you were to quit bellyaching. And many of the dispatchers themselves subscribed to the Marquis de Sade school of management.

Maybe it’s because they were paid peanuts — often less than the commissions earned by the drivers they were managing. So, by way of alternative compensation — a job perk, if you will — they were tacitly granted free rein to torture the drivers. Anything they could do to make our lives miserable was fair game. They hassled us about breaks, time-off, missed calls, you name it.

Sometimes dispatchers would bug you by failing to promptly return your radio call — as I sat broken down in Ferrisburgh, I wondered if this was now the game. In the larger scheme of things, you could shrug off this small vexation, but night after night, it was like being bitten to death by ducks.

“Whaddaya mean you ‘broke down?’” Jackson bellowed through the two-way. “There’s nothin’ wrong with that cab! You get that thing back up to the garage and Ralphie will take a look at it.”

“I don’t think that’s gonna work,” I replied. “I been tellin’ ya all night that the passenger-side rear brakes were whining, and I pulled over ’cause they just started to clang. I really don’t think the vehicle’s drivable.”

“Well, then, Jernigan,” Jackson said, as if he were speaking to a particularly thickheaded 10-year-old, “why doncha get out and take a look?”

“Ten-four,” I said. I hung up the mike, opened the door and stepped out.

This is one worthless ritual, I thought as I walked in the frigid January air around to the other side of the car. I’m a thoroughly useless mechanic and, in any event, didn’t you have to get the car up on a lift and pull the wheel to see the brakes?

I crouched down behind the back tire and took a gander. My eyeballs must have extended a couple of inches from their sockets, à la the Loony Tunes. Right up by the rotor, a small fire was underway. It looked like the broiler in an oven. After a surprisingly long delay — perhaps three seconds — while my brain caught up with the information, I took off down the shoulder to watch the action from a safer distance of about 50 feet. As I watched the flame slowly dwindle, wondering all the while whether the gas tank was going to blow, I could hear Jackson screaming over the two-way.

“Sixteen, where the hell are you? Pontiac, get your ass on the friggin’ radio!”

When I could see that the fire had definitely subsided, I walked back to the taxi and got back on the radio.

“Sixteen to base,” I called in.

“Where the hell were you? You know we got calls piling up here! I told you to get that vehicle back to town, and I’ll put you in a spare if it ain’t driving right. This is the last —”

“Forget that,” I interrupted. “The freaking brake was on fire. It just went out. So get Ralphie down here with the wrecker to come get me. It’s freezing.”

“You said it stopped burning?” Jackson asked. I had a feeling where this was going, but I couldn’t believe it.

“Yeah, so…” I replied with some trepidation.

“Well, then, drive that thing back up here. We can’t spare Ralphie tonight. I ain’t sending him down to Ferrisburgh. We need him in the garage.”

“Are you out of your mind?” I exclaimed. “I told you the vehicle was on fire. If you think I’m gonna drive it one more inch, you’re nuts!”

“You heard me, 16. Get that vehicle up here.”

About an hour later, Ralphie arrived in the wrecker. I was chilled to the bone, but I knew they’d eventually send somebody for me. On the haul back to Burlington, Ralphie told me that immediately after his fight with me, Jackson had pulled out a fifth of Jack Daniels and downed most of it. Ralphie called the owner, and Jackson was carted off to the drunk tank.

“Jackson’s history,” Ralphie said dispassionately. “That was the third time he’s gotten drunk on the job.”

In that moment, something clicked.

“You know what, Ralphie?” I said. “I’m history, too. I’m going out on my own. I’m going to be an owner-operator.”

It was my own personal declaration of independence, kind of like Jim Jeffords leaving the Republican Party. I never drove another night for the fleets. m


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