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Published July 10, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Just about every summer weekend brings some event or festival to town. From the Fishing Derby to the Latino Festival to the Chew-Chew, I love ’em all. People out and about in large numbers means taxi fares — it’s that simple. The Jazz Festival was great this year, as it seems to be every year. Music filled the air and throngs of people jammed the streets. I was in my element, pushing the hack long into the night and making money.

Sometime post-midnight on the Pine Street corner, a slight man in a shiny sportscoat flagged me for a ride. He looked like he’d gone to seed. His oily black hair was plastered in all the wrong directions, and his five o’clock shadow had progressed to a dark pall that brought to mind the low-grade gangsters in an old film noir. Still, he seemed full of beans as he approached the taxi.

“Think you can give me a ride, buddy?” he asked.

“That’s pretty much what I do for a living,” I replied. “Where ya headed?”

“Fairfield Inn.”

“Let’s do it,” I said, and he hopped in the front seat.

“This is a great town,” he said, as we got underway towards Winooski. “I’ve heard so many hot bands tonight I can’t believe it. Is it like this every night?”

I was about to make a joke, thinking he was joking, but then I glanced to my side and realized the guy was genuinely clueless.

“Well, Burlington is known for its lively music scene, but this week’s the Jazz Festival, so everything’s really in high gear.”

“Oh, I see. Yeah, that makes sense.”

We began the long decline down Colchester Avenue, passing the graveyard and the Ira Allen monument. Every time I go by here I try to remember — is he or is he not buried at the monument? There was a flurry of news items about this a while back, but I can’t remember for sure. I feel like I should know this, Ira and his bro being the founding fathers of Vermont and all.

“Hey,” the guy suddenly piped up, cutting short my historical musing. “There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask a cab driver. What would you do if someone tried to rob you?”

“Actually, that’s one of the many reasons I live up here,” I replied. “About a month ago one of the fleet drivers was held up, but that was the first incident I remember in 20 years of cab driving. In big cities, of course, cabbies are robbed routinely, killed even. But — knock on wood — cabbing in Vermont I don’t even think about it.”

“You’re missing my point,” he said.

That’s odd, I thought. It seemed like a pretty straightforward query; how was I missing his point?

A strange smile came across his face. “I mean,” he continued, “if I pulled out a knife and said, ‘Give me your money,’ what would you do?”

Now that was a different question, one that bothered me. In the musical Carousel, the male and female leads sing a duet, “If I Loved You.” The thing is — and it’s all so very charming — the audience knows the “if” is academic: It’s going to happen; love is about to bloom. That’s my problem with taxi customers posing hypotheticals beginning with, “If I pulled out a knife…”

I turned again to sneak a quick gander at the guy. I decided I really hated his jacket, and the spooky grin wasn’t doing much for me, either. He was beginning to look a lot like Travis Bickle, the Robert De Niro character in Taxi Driver. How I hate that movie.

“Well, that’s never going to happen,” I replied weakly. “Because — you know… heh, heh…”

“No, I’m quite serious,” he said. “Like right now. If I was to pull out a knife and hold it to your throat, what would you do?”

Fear is a weird sensation, and mine was in full throttle. I really had the proverbial sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. We were approaching the hotel and I had to say something.

I pulled to a stop in front of the Fairfield and shifted the vehicle into park. Turning to face the man directly, I said, “The truth is, I would give you my money in a New York minute. Hell, I’d give you the keys to the car as well. It’s only money, not worth fighting over.”

As the sentence left my mouth I knew that truer words had never been spoken. I’ve lived long enough to know how insane it is to risk life or limb over cold cash. Go ahead, buddy, I thought to myself. Bring it on.

“Ha, ha. You’re all right, cabbie — you’re all right.”

The guy was all smiles now, clearly reveling in the chain-pulling he had just accomplished. In case there had been any doubt, it was now official: I had been fucked with.

“Listen here, man,” I said. “If you think —”

“Ten bucks should cover the fare, right?” the guy interjected, handing me a bill. “And here’s another 20, for your time and patience.”

“Uh, thanks.”

Ah, money, the great assuager. All resentment vanished as I slipped the 30 bucks into my shirt pocket. I’m not proud of it, but I can be bought.


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