Funny how time works its sleight of hand. For the longest time I was one of the young guys, and then — poof! — I'm one of the old guys. For the life of me, I can't recall the transition, the moment of metamorphosis; it seemed to happen in my sleep.
There's but a handful of cabbies around from the early days, just a few of us who have witnessed the transformation of Burlington from the still-sleepy small town of the '70s to the bustling, relatively cosmopolitan city of the new millennium. There's an unspoken bond among us old guys, a knowing look as our taxis cross on the street and we nod or raise a couple of fingers in greeting.
Big Phil was one of the old-timers, a hackie "lifer" who drove for one of the big fleets. Unlike many of us, he never made the move over to self-employment as an independent owner-operator. Driving for the fleets is tough, grinding work, though an experienced driver can make decent money — by working-stiff standards. Every last penny is earned. The 12-hour shifts are exhausting, and the job lacks the most basic fringe benefits that even a tyro burger-flipper can expect these days.
In my experience, the long-term fleet drivers fall into two categories: those with great self-esteem, a positive sense of self, and those with horrendous self-esteem, essentially walking doormats. The former have a way of laughing off the shoddy treatment dished out by fleet owners — and their lieutenants, the dispatchers — and sticking up for themselves when it really matters. The latter are subject to increasingly demeaning treatment as time goes by, until these poor guys are reduced to a serf-like servility.
It's painful to witness, and Big Phil — a loud, big-hearted, Kodiak of a man — was sadly and firmly under the thumb of his boss.
On and off through the years — in discussions at the taxi stands, the bus depot, the train station — I encouraged him to go independent. "After all," I'd say, "you know the streets as well as anyone, you know all the tricks of the trade. Jeezum, Philly, why the heck not?”
He'd reply, "Jernigan, you're absolutely right. I'm gonna save up the money for a decent vehicle and the insurance down-payment, and I'm gonna do it!”
Sometimes we'd even discuss the pros and cons of various model cars as worthy taxis; sometimes he'd go so far as to ask for the phone number of a taxi supply company that sells taxi lights. "A big green one," he'd say. "I honestly think the big colored lights attract more customers.”
But it never went beyond talk. Truth is, the whole thing was my idea, not his. Like some low-rent Tony Robbins, I'd enlist him in my enthusiasm and he'd run with it — more to please me, I expect, than out of any strong desire on his part.
Eventually I came to my senses and dropped the gratuitous exhortation. Independent hacking is no bed of roses, either. Besides, it occurred to me that Big Phil might actually know what's best for Big Phil — a revolutionary notion in my egocentric universe.
Thinking now about Big Phil, I'm thinking about summer, because, whereas winter keeps us cabbies encased in our heated vehicles, the summer heat eggs us out to stretch, mingle and schmooze. (Cabbies, in case you haven't caught on, live to talk, talk, talk.)
A bunch of us are lined up at the Main Street taxi stand in, say, the early '90s, a hazy July night. The noise, the lights, the dewy air — it's summertime in Vermont's big town. Things are slow for the time being and we don't mind, because for some reason it just feels right to linger and confabulate.
With his tremendous girth, Big Phil is spending maximum time outside his vehicle. For him, the summer cab is truly a sweatbox — even when he's lucky enough to get one of the rare vehicles with a functioning air conditioner. We stand side-by-side leaning against the driver side of his cab. Every couple of minutes he does his elaborate back-scratching routine against the door handle, looking like some impossibly overfed, two-legged cat. His movements are graceful, unexpectedly delicate.
We're vaguely watching the raucous teenagers who drive by, their sound systems booming the bass so beyond-loud, the reverberation so unearthly, I feel like my internal organs are about to pulverize. A lot of the kids know Big Phil; he's been a presence out here for a long time. They know his susceptibility to taunts, and the more ill-natured of them hurl insults trying to get him going. Every so often he obliges, and the shouting matches that result are a sight to behold.
Years earlier I'd given up suggesting other "options" for dealing with these whippersnappers. I'd discovered that unqualified acceptance of Big Phil's many eccentricities made for a better relationship between us.
This summer, Big Phil won't be around; he's moved to, of all places, Florida. Since he's gone, I find myself trying to visualize him in the Sunshine State. He's probably behind the wheel of a candy-orange taxi driving down palm-lined streets. His fares are, I don't know, retirees, drug dealers, 'gators, Mickey Mice? The picture never really gels.
Big Phil belongs back here in the Queen City. The thing is, I miss him.