I sat in late afternoon traffic, the cellular phone pressed to my ear. I figured it was a bartender calling for one of my customers who got a little too happy at happy hour. I could hear the murmur of conversation as the phone was being passed.
"Oh, thank God!" a woman said. I didn't recognize the voice. "Please tell me you can take me to Waitsfield. None of the other cab companies are willing to do it."
"I probably can," I replied. "Where are you now?"
"I'm at the jail."
"The one in South Burlington? The one they call the four Cs?"
"Let me ask," she said. Again, I heard a muffled exchange. "Yeah, the guard said on Farrell Street. Now, let me tell you up front: I don't have the money on me. My wallet is in the glove compartment of my car, which they towed last night when I got arrested. I have no memory of the entire night, but I have the name of the garage. It's on Route 100. Please, I need to get back to my condo. My husband is stuck there with our kids."
Well, I thought, that certainly explains why the other companies have turned her down. "Hold on for a moment," I said, giving myself time to think this one through.
To go or not to go? Hamlet-in-a-cab, that's me. Obviously, I'm out here trying to make a buck, but if I can help somebody out of a jam, I'd like to do it. That's part of how I see my job. Still, a 50-mile ride to Waitsfield on a promise; that's a tough call. Particularly when the fare is a person who got drunk enough the previous night, with her family back in the condo, to land in the slammer. Is that a person on whom I'd like to place a two-hour, $60 bet?
"I'll be over there in 15 minutes," I said. Call me Mr. Softie.
When I pulled up to the Correctional Center, an attractive, well-dressed woman was waiting on the sidewalk. The outfit was what I think they call "après-ski" a puffy, silver jacket with some designer logo on the collar, velvety black slacks and stylish, furry boots. The well-groomed, manicured look seemed incongruous given the premises. Her hair, though, was a mess; she looked like she hadn't slept much the night before, which was entirely possible under the circumstances.
She folded herself into the front seat. "Thanks for doing this," she said. "It's a lifesaver, you have no idea."
"Well," I said, pulling out, "I probably have some idea."
"Yeah, I guess you do," she said, with a woeful chuckle. "You probably see it all in your line of work."
"I couldn't say all, but, yes, I see quite a bit."
We swung onto 1-89 in a blaze of sunshine. After two days and two feet of snow, the gleaming whiteness was nearly blinding. The highway, though, was clear and dry a tribute to the skill and hard work of the road crews.
The woman slowly rubbed her palm over her forehead and onto the crown of her head, holding it there. "They told me at the jail that the breath test showed an alcohol level of 3.1. That's pretty high, huh?"
Jeez Louise, I thought. "Let me put it this way: if you blew a 3.1, the police may have saved your life, or some other innocent lives, by getting you out of your car."
"Oh, that's great!" she said, and I could see her eyes narrow. "I know I'm not supposed to say it, but it's my husband's fault. He knows I'm on the AA program, and I begged him not to take any alcohol up to the condo this year. He was like, Hey, that's your problem; don't lay it on me. Our friends are going to be visiting, and you know they're going to want drinks.' He's like, Christ, Dana, I'm not going to let your problem ruin this vacation for everyone else!'"
Man, I thought, what a load of crap! This woman's thinking is all wrong, totally shot through with self-deception.
"But what about the AA philosophy?" I countered. "Isn't taking personal responsibility for your drinking like one of the first AA steps?"
"Sure, that sounds great in theory, but you don't know my husband. He's a total cokehead, and he thinks AA is a joke. It's like he wants me to drink. It's so sick."
I was about to chime back, continuing this utterly dis-heartening conversation, when the recent comments of a good friend echoed in my head: If people want your advice, they will ask for it, and even then they generally don't really want it.
I took a deep breath and stayed quiet for a couple of miles. Then I said, "Boy, it sounds like a tough situation, really painful."
She shook her head with a sigh. "That's just what it is," she said, "a real mess, and the worst part is the effect on our two kids."
"Well, good luck working the AA program. It takes a lot of perseverance, but I know people who now live sober because of it."
"Thanks, I appreciate your letting me vent. It's just been a rough 24 hours."
We rode in a peaceful silence the remainder of the trip. What a different feeling in the cab, I noticed, once I stopped lecturing and just listened. I mean, life is hard for everyone some of the time if you're lucky; most or all of the time if you're not. What gives me the right to judge another?
We found the garage, and I pulled next to her car. She fished her purse out of the glove compartment and paid me, including a good tip.
"Good luck with your life," I said.
"You know," she replied, "I think, at this point, it's going to take more than luck."