Cruising past the Cherry Street bus stop had landed me a customer headed for the airport. All the local bus routes begin and end at the corner of Cherry and Church, making it fertile ground to troll for fares. “Too cold to wait for the bus today.”
Some people invite you in, while others seem to pass through the world with a “Do Not Disturb” sign permanently affixed to their lapels. This skinny young man speaking from the back of my taxi was one of the former; he had an open, easy way about him as he relaxed in his seat listening to an iPod, a crooked smile on his face, a gold stud in his left ear.
“I’ll say,” I agreed. “We’re certainly getting a respite from global warming this winter. Maybe if the city ever goes forward with the downtown transportation center, it will include an indoor waiting area. Of course, that’ll cut down on my fares, so you can sense my ambivalence about that piece of urban renewal.”
The guy chuckled and said, “Well, I can see that, mon.”
We wove through the downtown streets, where the congestion was down to normal, post-holiday levels. The celebrations had felt somewhat muted to me this year. Burlingtonians are generally a cheery lot, but no community is unaffected by the vast challenges facing our country at the dawn of 2009. “Daunting” is the word.
“So, what’s going on at the airport?” I re-engaged. “You working out there?”
In the rearview, I watched my customer drop his earphones to his shoulders, a good sign of readiness for conversation. “Yuh, I’m working for the car rentals. It’s a good job — $14 an hour.”
As he spoke, I surmised that this man was a fairly recent Jamaican émigré. Beyond his physical appearance, the giveaway was the distinctive sing-song accent made so familiar by the popularity of reggae music on American radio.
I love the new Burlington. It was a great town when I migrated here in 1979, but white as Elmer’s glue. Over the past two decades, newcomers from all over the world — like this vibrant, young man — have intermingled with the urban Vermont culture to produce a new and, I think, richer community for all who call this place home.
I asked, “How long have you been living in B-town?”
“I’ve been here just one year. When I left Jamaica, I lived the first three years in Florida. I like it much better in Vermont. The hills remind me of the family home in Spanish Town.”
“Well, you speak American English real well for only four years in the country.”
“In Jamaican schools they teach us English literature and history, so I can speak quite proper if I need to, thank you very much.”
We zipped through the university district. Next week the students would be back, and traffic would resume flowing with the speed of Heinz ketchup. (Yearly note to self: It is illegal to run over the undergraduates, even when they jaywalk.)
I have in my repertoire one terrific Jamaican story, and I let it rip. “Wanna hear something? Back in the ’80s, I had the honor of driving around Toots for a full day — shopping, eating out. He was playing with his band in town later that night.”
My customer’s eyes lit up. “Toots of Toots and the Maytals? You don’t say. He is a beautiful guy — one of the giants of reggae music.”
“Yeah, I gotta say it was one of the great days of my life. I can’t describe his positive effect on everyone we ran into. It was like hanging out with the sun.”
“I actually do some music production and promotion myself. The problem is, mostly the pop players get booked here. Like — what’s his name? — yeah, Eek-a-Mouse. He’s OK for what he does, but he’s really just a one-hit wonder. I want to bring the Jamaican artists who represent the higher message of our music and culture. Musicians like Bunny Wailer.”
“Bunny Wailer — wow. That would be amazing. He played with Peter Tosh and Bob Marley back in the day, am I remembering that correctly?”
“Yeah, mon. Back when they were inventing the sound that became reggae.”
We eased into the traffic horseshoe in front of the airport terminal. Some of my fellow cabbies waved to me from the taxi queue as I drove by. I returned every greeting — I do my best to promote good will in the fraternity — though I really can’t keep track of all the new guys.
My customer paid me, tipped me, and said, “Peace, brother.”
“Absolutely — you, too,” I returned the sentiment. “Now, of course, you got me anticipating Bunny Wailer.”
He flashed that smile, sunny like Toots’, and said, “It will happen, mon. Just you wait.”