On a good night, a typical night, my work shift unfolds like a graceful dance performance. I glide through the city and its environs, effortlessly pirouetting with customers and traffic alike. I know just what to say and do in order to pacify even the most challenging individuals who pass through my cab. As for the more common, easygoing fares, friendly conversation and cheer abound throughout the night. At quitting time, I’m tuckered out but untroubled and satisfied.
On other nights — which, thankfully, are few and far between — I feel like a ballerina who can’t help but crash into the other dancers. Rather than click, I clunk. And that describes a recent Saturday night. With customer after customer, there seemed to be no meeting of the minds, just continual misreading, misunderstanding and attendant conflict. I kept thinking: What was off? Was it me, or Burlington?
The first wave of turbulence arrived at dusk as I was trawling the waterfront toward the close of the Burlington Wine & Food Festival. This is a relatively new entry in the city’s summer lineup of weekend events, and I didn’t quite know what to expect. I was hoping that — à la the Vermont Brewers Festival — it would serve as yet another excuse for folks to get publically hammered, thereby generating scores of wobbly revelers in need of taxi transport up the hill. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that these wine drinkers were not as rowdy as their beer-quaffing counterparts. Bottom line: I was getting no takers.
Just as I was about to cut my losses and vamoose, a middle-aged man with two teenage girls hailed me from in front of the ECHO museum. He asked, “How much to UVM and then to the Hampton Inn?”
“Does 20 bucks work for you?” I replied.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” he agreed, and the two girls got in the back while the man took shotgun.
One girl was his daughter, the man explained, and the other — whom she had met just today — was going to be her roommate for their upcoming freshman year. This weekend was orientation.
“Well, take one of these,” I instructed the girls as I removed two business cards from my visor and passed them over my shoulder. “I’m going to be your cabbie for the next four years.”
With some hesitancy, each girl took a card, clearly not knowing quite what to think. It was just a flyer, anyway. Come September, they would quickly learn of the free University of Vermont bus that takes students back and forth to town. Since the advent of that @$#%! bus, UVM taxi fares have dropped 95 percent. Good thing I’m not bitter.
We dropped the roommate off at the Harris Millis Complex and continued to the hotel. In front of the Hampton, the man gave me a 20, and then asked if I could make change for another so he could give me a tip. Slightly confused and only vaguely paying attention to what I was doing, I took the second 20, and — don’t ask me why — passed him back the first one. I then counted out three fives and five ones, and he gave me a $6 tip. Only when he and his daughter had entered the hotel did I realize I was left with only the tip.
I stepped out and trotted into the lobby, but my customers were nowhere to be seen, having probably hopped on the elevator. I considered talking to the front-desk person to try and get the guy’s room number — a long shot — but dropped that idea when I saw the line at the desk. I returned to my cab thinking, Fuck, I am out $20.
My next fare was an older, biker-looking dude with long, graying blond hair tied back in a prodigious ponytail. He and his wife were from West Braintree, in central Vermont, and they were up here for a weekend getaway, unrelated — the man made quite clear — to the wine fest.
When we reached their hotel, I told him the fare, and he handed me some folded bills, saying gruffly, “This’ll definitely cover it.”
As they exited and walked toward the door, I looked down to count $61, which worked out to a $50 tip. I was frozen.
When I’m certain that a customer has given me too much money, I return it as a matter of course. On the other hand, every once in a while someone will give me an outrageously fat tip. Plus, I figured, the universe was generously making up for the 20 I had just lost at the Hampton. (The universe can be nice that way, especially when I’m grasping at anything to rationalize my own skeeviness.)
So I decided the crazy-big tip was intentional, and drove off. I had conveniently bypassed the foolproof solution to this ethical dilemma: I could have simply jumped out, stopped the guy and asked him, “Sir, did you mean to tip me $50?”
My behavior had bad karma written all over it, and — this is key — I knew it. When you know it and don’t stop yourself — in other words, when you’re not an innocent naïf — the consequences seem to come fast and furious. Sure enough, the rest of the night was one long procession of vexed and surly interactions. I felt like one of the “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
The coup de grâce came from the four Frenchmen of La Quinta, a quartet of gentlemen with some connection, I was certain, to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They were not Québecois, but four Parisians living and working in Montréal. And they were in town for the wine fest, the snooty bastards.
Please, I love the Wine & Food Festival, and I love French people from France, but the combination of the two was more than I could bear on this fraught night. When we pulled up to La Quinta Inn, I asked for $12, and the guy sitting beside me bleated, in his totally froufrou Parisian accent, “You are overcharging us! You are overcharging us!”
I said, “Fuck you. I am not overcharging. If you’re not gonna pay it, just get the fuck out.”
With a vinegary scowl, he counted out $12 and handed it over before leaving in a huff. There was no tip, no merci. It was the perfect cap to a perfectly revolting evening of cab driving.
And to revisit my original question — Was it me, or Burlington? — I’m thinking it was me.