It was a Saturday night, and the previous day had been the first day of spring, for what it was worth — which wasn't much. Here's an open secret: Vermonters actually enjoy complaining about the weather, and this winter has provided plenty of fodder. Arriving over a weekend of freezing temperatures and snow squalls, the official start of spring was but a poke in the eye, a cynical joke on the long suffering. Yessirree, I can kvetch with the best of them.
A robust man hailed me from the sidewalk. Taking the shotgun seat, he said, "I had plans on taking home this one young lady, but it didn't work out."
"Well," I said, channeling my inner Zen sage, "sometime it do, and sometime it don't."
"Ain't that the truth," he said, chuckling. "So could you take me and my sorry ass back to Essex?"
I assured him I could and steered up the hill, thinking about how the sex drive fuels so much of my business. What else propels a young man out of his warm house in Vermont's distinctly un-lamb-like late March to blow his paycheck on a Saturday night? Three cheers for sex, or the promise thereof!
"Well, at least I don't have to work until Monday," he said.
"What are you in? Lemme guess — construction?"
"Good guess," he said. "I'm working on a $3.4 million home in Saranac Lake. We're one year into a two-year project."
"What, do you commute across the lake for the job?"
"Yup. They pay me three hours drive time every day. So it ain't bad. The only thing I think about is, like, you want to do something to help folks, right? And here I am, spending two years of my life on a home that will be used by one friggin' person. And just part time, too, is what I understand."
"Yeah, I see your point. But at least it's helping out you and all the other guys on the crew."
"Well, yeah, there is that. But you should see some of these homes going up in the North Country. I got a buddy, an electrician, who's working on this place in Bloomingdale. Get this — it's a $13 million property being built for one of the wealthiest women in America."
"Wow, I bet it's all top-of-the-line material and whatnot."
"Oh, you have no idea. My friend was installing this chandelier that raises and lowers by remote control. The thing cost $240,000, if you can believe it. So he's working on it, and one of the fucking crystals falls and breaks. Each one of these crystals apparently costs five grand! So he's totally freaking out, but manages to glue it back together with Super Glue."
"Oh, my Lord in heaven," I said. "Could you imagine? How'd he get away with it? Nobody saw him?"
"Nope. But now, of course, he's sweating bullets every time the lady visits the job site, which is, like, every few weeks."
I dropped the guy at his condo in the Brickyard neighborhood and, coming back on Route 15, a middle-aged guy hailed me from the parking lot in front of Contois Music. He was tall and rangy with a woolen beanie cap and scruffy beard. I pulled into the lot to pick him up, a fortuitous bonus return fare.
Grabbing shotgun (which is a Vermont thing for cab riders and very homey), he said, "Well, figured I better take my shot at the ladies tonight. Like they say, you can't score if you don't shoot."
"Yup," I agreed, "nothing ventured, nothing gained."
There's that sex drive again, paying dividends, I thought and smiled to myself.
"Problem is," he said, "I got this busted lower tooth, which is curtailing my smiling. And I do have a lovely smile, if I say so myself." His laugh let me know, in case I had any doubt, that he was fooling around.
I laughed along and said, "Well, you'll just have to smile with your eyes. So what do you do for work, man, if you don't mind me asking?"
"I'm a forager. I go into the woods collecting mushrooms, wild ginseng, leeks, sometimes wild artichokes. I sell them to the local restaurants. They love my stuff. Of course, it all slows to a trickle in the winter, as you could imagine."
"Wow, I didn't even know that was a thing. Is it, like, strictly legal?"
"Of course! Hunter-gatherer, man — since the dawn of mankind."
This guy intrigued me, living a life so far removed from mine. "So what instrument do you play? You strike me as a musician."
"I do, do I?" he said. "Well, I'm not, but I do love music. I used to go out dancing all the time back in the '90s. Remember the band 8084? I used to follow them around the state. I recall a concert in Morrisville with this beautiful farm girl from up that way I used to see."
The forager shook his head, releasing an audible sigh. It's tough realizing that your best days might be behind you. I thought of that song by the Pretenders with a lyric that never fails to choke me up: "I found a picture of you. Those were the happiest days of my life."
He said, "Jeez, I've had this slight chest pain for, like, a week now. I'm pretty sure it's just a muscle pull, but, shit, I am really getting old."
I said, "Well, you look to me like you still got some life in you."
My customer turned to face me and nodded his head a few times. "Smile with my eyes. That's your recommendation, right?"
"Yup, and if that don't work, try crinkling your nose. Whatever it takes, brother."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.