I found myself in Essex Junction during back-to-school week, and on a pass by the train station I noticed a man, a woman and a teenage girl standing outside with their luggage. The man was flagging me down — he clearly wanted a taxi. I was momentarily perplexed. The evening train is not due in for another 20 minutes, I thought. Where did these folks come from, and why do they need a cab?
"Where to, folks?" I called out from my open window, pulling up parallel to them. Their dark eyes and olive skin suggested Latin descent.
"Oh, thank goodness," the man replied in a Spanish accent. "Could you take our family to the Sheraton Hotel, please? We've had a terrible day."
As I loaded the bags into the trunk, I could see the woman was distraught. The girl, by contrast, had the facial expression common among teenagers everywhere, particularly after a long day with the parents: detached, sullen and ever-so-slightly bemused. It's a look that says, "You guys are a joke. What cruel fate has placed me under your tyrannical rule?"
"Papi," the woman said to the man as he climbed into the front seat. "I just want this day to be over. What more can go wrong?"
"Jeez, ma'am, it sounds like you folks had a rough day," I said as we took off towards the hotel. "What the heck happened?"
I looked into the rear-view mirror and saw the woman straighten up in her seat and grip the top of her head with both hands, as if to keep it from exploding. Her daughter, meanwhile, shook her head and rolled her eyes. A subtle gesture, but I caught it.
"OK," the woman began. "We came up early this morning to bring our son to St. Michael's College. He's a freshman." The way she said the name of the college, I thought she would burst with pride.
"Where did you leave from?" I interrupted. For some reason, I was immediately drawn into this tale, and I wanted to get it straight.
"The Bronx," she replied. "We left at four o'clock this morning from our home in the Bronx."
"You left from the Bronx?" I repeated. I always liked the fact that, among the five boroughs of New York City, only this one gets "the" before its name. "What, did you fly up?"
"No, no — that's what we should have done," she said. "We took a local gypsy cab, a guy we've used for years around the neighborhood. He said he knew how to get to Vermont, but as soon as we left the Bronx he was lost. We paid him $650 to take us round-trip. Anyway, his car broke down in — what town was that, Papi, where we broke down?"
"Fairhaven, hon," my seatmate responded, dutifully keeping the conversation rolling.
"So, then we had to call a Burlington taxi to bring us the rest of the way. Oh, my, that took hours!" The woman was becoming even more exasperated retell-ing the story. "So we dropped off our son, it must have been nearly five. Then we needed to get back home, and this other taxi driver drove us to the train station at seven. He said the train to New York will come at eight. But when the station man came, he told us the train south is in the morning, not the evening. That cabdriver was cheating us!"
"Ma'am, for what it's worth, I doubt the cabbie was hustling you; he was probably a new driver and was just confused about the train schedule."
That piece of speculative analysis on my part did not calm her down one whit. "Now we have to stay overnight at the Sheraton," she continued, "and it's $200!"
I glanced down at the clock on the radio. It said 8:15. "Folks, if you're interested, I can take you directly to your home in the Bronx. If we leave now, you'll be home by 3 a.m. I'll charge you $400."
I kept driving as they checked their cash holdings. If it's a "go," I thought to myself, it will be my first trip of this distance in quite a few years. People do not generally undertake 300-plus-mile taxi rides. For that distance, flying is generally cheaper.
"Let's go," the father said, decisively. "We need to get home, and between the train fare and the hotel room, it won't cost us any more to go with you."
I passed the man my cell phone to cancel the hotel room and train reservation, and we headed toward Route 7. It seemed like both females of the group were happy about the sudden change of plans because, before we reached Shelburne, they were fast asleep in the back, leaning peacefully against each other's shoulders. This was good news for me: The mother was understandably upset, with every reason to vent, but I don't think I could have taken it for six more hours.
"Alejandro" and I conversed quietly for nearly the entire ride. It was one of those late-night talks where time evaporates and the subjects flow endlessly and effortlessly from one thing to another. He told me that he and his wife emigrated 20 years ago from Quito, Ecuador. It was the classic newcomers' tale: They started with nothing, worked hard and now own a home in the Bathgate section of the Bronx, below Fordham College.
"What kind of work do you do?" I asked at one point.
"My wife does administrative work at a hospital and I'm a doorman at a midtown building. They like to say ‘concierge' — I think they can charge more rent," Alejandro observed with a chuckle.
I dropped the family off at their small, immaculate brownstone at 2:30 in the morning. They gave me instructions back to the Cross-Bronx Expressway, but I must have missed one of the turns, because I ended up completely lost in the barrio. By this point it was after three, I had $500 cash in my pocket, and at every stoplight young guys hanging at the corner bodegas were eyeing my Vermont plates. At last I saw a street sign pointing the way to I-95. Though it wasn't my preferred route, I jumped at the opportunity.