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Published March 20, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

“Yo, Jernigan — over here!”

Hearing those shouted words, I pulled my cab over to the curb. It was mid-afternoon and I was on North Street, having just dropped a fare in the Old North End. I turned to see a man of about 30 trotting across the street towards my window. His clothes looked shabby, except for a new, nicely styled leather jacket. He approached my window with a big smile, like we were old friends.
“Jernigan, my man,” he said, “Are you free for a while? I need a cab for about an hour.” He drew his forearm across his nose in a scratching motion, brushing his burnt-blonde moustache in the process. His short thinning hair was a similar color. “You remember me, right?” he added.
“Sure, sure,” I replied. “What’s your name again — Mike?”
I had no idea who this guy was. “Mike,” I figured, gives you about a one-in-20 shot. He was probably one of the late-night customers I’ve driven a few times who’s got my card. He was not a regular — my mind hasn’t gone that soft yet.
“No, it’s Tommy, man — Tommy,” he said with a chuckle, as in, how could I possibly forget? “So, how about it? Can you take me?”
“I suppose so. It’s 30 bucks an hour; is that gonna work for you?”
“Let’s do it,” he replied, and scurried around the front of the vehicle, climbing in shotgun.
“All right,” I said. “Where to?”
“Okay, let’s head downtown. I gotta pick up something from my brother-in-law.”
I turned left onto Park Street and took the speed bumps like
a powerboat on choppy seas. Tommy was moving around in his seat like he was itchy — brushing his hair, wiping his nose, checking and rechecking his pockets. On his suggestion, I pulled around to the back of the restaurant where his brother-in-law works, and he fairly leapt out of the cab and into the building. Just as quickly, he was back, smiley and fidgety like before. Whatever he had picked up was small enough to be hidden from view.
“I got to meet my father in Winooski, but could ya cruise down Archibald Street on the way?”
“Whatever you want,” I replied. “It’s your time.”
As we turned onto Archibald, Tommy asked me to slow down, and he began scanning the street with intense focus, like a wagon-train scout in Indian territory. Coming up on Dot’s Market, he suddenly blurted, “Here — stop right here!”
Before the vehicle was in park, he was out the door, darting towards two teen-age boys whom I now saw standing in one of the narrow alleyways between the old houses. They seemed startled when they noticed Tommy coming at them, but there was a great show of hand play and seeming camaraderie when he reached them.
After a few minutes of banter — which I couldn’t make out from my distance at the curb — the three of them went into the house on the right. This time Tommy didn’t return for a good 10 minutes.
Getting back into the cab, he said, “Those were two of my nephews. They’re good kids.”
“Winooski’s next?” I asked, feeling skeptical.
“Yup, I gotta track down my dad and get some money. He owns a few houses in Winooski. He’ll be at one of ’em.”
We first drove to a run-down, single-level corner building on Elm Street. He instructed me to pull into the unpaved driveway, which I did, taking care to avoid squashing the odd plastic toy popping out of the spring mud. Either from a radio or a tape, I heard heavy metal blasting from the house. I want to say it was “Black Sabbath,” but my knowledge of that genre of rock music began and ended with Led Zeppelin. Tommy entered through a side door and there was immediate shouting. He emerged between two other men, who were engaged in a vehement argument.
I could see Tommy was trying to calm them down, but they were having none of it. After another minute or two of fruitless mediation, he returned to the cab.
“Well,” he said, “dad’s not here.”
We were coming up on the end of the hour and, as intrigued as I was with Tommy’s unusual social life, I had a more pressing concern.
“Tommy,” I asked, “do you have the money for this fare, or is that dependent upon finding your father?”
“Yeah, I told you. I need to get money from my dad.”
“Great,” I said. I must really be slipping. Because he had known me, I hadn’t asked for the money up front. The problem was, I hadn’t known him. “Now where?” I asked.
“If he’s not here, that could only mean he’s at the place on West Street.”
My hope was fading as we drove off, pulling in front of a rambling triplex moments later. “All right!” Tommy said. “There’s his pick-up.”
In the driveway sat a red Ford with two paint-splattered ladders hitched to its posts. A bear of a man came ambling onto the front porch.
“Flint said you were looking for me,” the guy called out as Tommy ran up the front steps in two bounds. His dad met him with a simultaneous slap to the hip and shoulder that I took to be an affectionate greeting, but seemed more appropriate to two grizzlies.
The two of them talked quietly for a moment, until his father shook his head and handed Tommy some bills from his wallet. He then reentered the building.
Coming up to my window, Tommy handed me the $30. “I told ya he’d be here,” he said gleefully.
“Thanks,” I said. “Next time, though, I need to get the dough in advance. This is a little too chaotic for my blood.”
“Sure, Jernigan — no problem,” he said, and I watched him jump the stairs for a second time and follow his dad into the apartment.
Good riddance, I thought as I headed back to B-town. Tommy’s a nice enough fellow, but that hour I spent with him was unsettling. Twenty years have elapsed since my “experimentation” with drugs, but you never forget the vibe.


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