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Cinco de Mayo



Published May 18, 2011 at 7:39 a.m.

When a fare goes south to Hinesburg, it really goes south.

“Pull over, pull over — I gotta hurl.”

For cab drivers worldwide, these (or some variation thereof) are the magic words. “You got it,” I said as I immediately braked, killed the radio and pulled off the shoulder onto the edge of a farm field. We were on Route 116 somewhere between St. George and Hinesburg on the night of Cinco de Mayo — or, as I like to call it, Psycho de Mayo. I’m a great fan of the cross-cultural experience, but Vermont gringos tanked up on rum and tequila cocktails are not bueno.

“Now get completely out of the cab,” I called out. My customer roundly ignored the protocol. But he did manage to open his rear door fully and extend his torso away from the vehicle so that, when the eruptions commenced, the cab was spared. As he petered out, I passed him back a few napkins.

“Man, you are prepared,” he said with a weak laugh.

“Like a Boy Scout,” I said, shifting back into drive.

When we reached his place — a trailer park up past CVU High School — he requested a pen. “Why do you need a pen?” I asked, fearing the one possible answer. I flashed on my long and checkered history with Hinesburg. When a fare goes south to this town, it really goes south.

“I got a check.” Bingo.

“When you got in the cab I asked you if you had cash, and you said yeah.”

“Well, alls I got is a check. Is that OK?”

Suuure,” I replied, trying — but not that hard — to contain the dripping sarcasm. “Sure, I’ll take a check. Why the hell not?”

I handed him a pen, and he extracted a beat-up check from his wallet, inscribed it and passed it over to me. The check had been made out to a local grocery store, and my customer had crossed out that name and written that of my cab company above it. The thing was sketchier than Picasso in his blue period and probably bouncier than a baby boy on a trampoline.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked.

“Hey, it’s good — I promise you,” the guy replied, putting a dubious version of “genuinely hurt” on his face.

I pocketed the check (as if I had a choice) and headed back to Burlington. Near the spot where the guy had made his farm-field deposit, a black cat shot across Hinesburg Road, and I swerved to miss it. This was the third time that night a cat had run out ahead of my cab, and now I was officially spooked. I must have heard that Stevie Wonder song a thousand times to no avail — I’m still superstitious. That’s it, I thought — for the rest of the shift, I’m keeping my head down and my nose clean.

And so I did, making it through the bar closings without further unpleasantries. At three in the morning, what I assumed would be my last call of the night took me all the way down North Avenue past the Northgate Apartments. On the drive back, a young hippie couple flagged me down at the corner of Cayuga Court, and I pulled to the curb and lowered my window.

“Could you take us to the food bank and then wait and take us back?” asked the guy.

“You talking about over on North Winooski?” I asked.

“Yeah, I gotta do something and then return.”

“Let’s do it,” I said.

On the ride over, the couple talked with each other in the backseat. Despite the hour, they were wide awake, which is possible when you’re 20 years old. I’d have bet dollars to doughnuts on the purpose of this mission: scoring some weed. Their relaxed and fresh-faced demeanors argued against stronger drugs, but they were most certainly going to cop; there is simply no other likely reason for a 3 a.m. round-tripper.

I turned into the food bank’s parking lot, and the girl said, “Do you want me to go with you, Justin?”

“I don’t think so, Caitlin. You might as well just wait with the cabbie. I’ll just be, like, five minutes.”

Justin got out, walked up North Winooski and entered a three-story apartment. Caitlin chuckled and said, “Brother, you might as well cut the engine. Five minutes for Justin is not like five minutes for other people.”

I took Caitlin’s suggestion, and, after eight hours in a rumbling taxi, the quiet was amazingly peaceful. I did leave the radio on, though, and the silence was broken by Janis Joplin’s “I Need a Man to Love.”

“Dude, Janis was the best,” Caitlin said with a sigh. “You know, sometimes I feel like I was meant to live in that era. I don’t really fit in to these times.”

This was not the first time I’d heard such a sentiment voiced by a young person. Glancing up to sneak a look at Caitlin in the rearview mirror, I saw a sweet kid with frizzy blond Rasta braids hanging below a violet-colored knit beanie. I’d say this girl was right: She would have been right at home in the ’60s. Chaotic as things were back then, I think peace and love in the 2010s is a harder row to hoe.

“When I was 8, my dad took me to Highgate to see the Dead,” she continued. “I got to see Jerry right before he died.”

“Can you remember anything from the show?”

“I just remember having such a great time. My dad got me a temporary bear tattoo on my arm. My mom got so mad — I refused to wash it for, like, weeks. I also remember this totally, like, drunk or stoned guy walked up to us and he goes, like, ‘Humana humana humana.’ We started laughing so hard! And, to this day, my dad and I constantly say that each other, ‘Humana humana humana.’”

Caitlin and I chatted a little more, but mostly just listened to the music. It was close to 15 minutes before Justin returned, but I didn’t mind — I had enjoyed chilling with Caitlin. It was a mellow conclusion to what had been a rough night of hacking.

The Hinesburg check bounced — quelle surprise. The guy called me a few days later to apologize, swearing he’d immediately mail me a new check. I’m still waiting, though not exactly with bated breath.

“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email