I was motoring along the Northern Connector en route to a pickup on Macrae Road. The temperature outside my taxi was 37 degrees, which felt like 67 degrees in the context of this year's Siberian winter. After three decades in the Green Mountains, I knew that March was far too early to proclaim winter's end, but I gratefully accepted the reprieve.
Rounding a curve at 50 miles per hour, I came face to face with a skunk waddling across the road. Of all the road-crossing critters, skunks appear to react least, if at all, to their potential doom; they are either fearless or dopey. This one didn't pause, just turned to face me mid-waddle before nodding with a "What's up, homie?" All of this occurred a half second before my Buick LeSabre reduced him to purée of skunk.
I hate creating roadkill. I wouldn't say it tears at my soul, but it does leave me doleful. I pulled over on the shoulder and said a quick prayer for my pungent fallen comrade.
Did I mention it was Friday the 13th? I'm not superstitious (having heeded the admonition in Stevie Wonder's famous tune, to wit: "When you believe in things that you don't understand, then you suffer"), but I'm just saying. Later that night, on Kirby Road, a black cat scurried across the street, its eyes aglow in my high beams. Yes, a black cat literally crossed my path. That can't be good, I thought.
Still later that night, I received a call from a regular customer who drinks at one of the veterans' clubs. Clark is a nice enough guy, though he's made questionable life choices. Not that I'm the one asking the questions. Judge not, lest ye be judged — I could easily have it written on the side of my taxi, I so fully endorse the adage.
Stepping out of the club when I arrived were Clark, who's perhaps 50, and a young girl. I knew she had to be at least 21 because of the drinking age, but she looked for all the world like a 16- or 17-year-old. She was slender in her intentionally torn jeans and hoodie, and pretty with dark, darting eyes and a shiny black ponytail. Climbing into the backseat, Clark introduced her to me as Erica. Nice to meet you, Erica.
On the drive over to Clark's place, the two of them chatted amiably, gossiping about people from the club they both knew. I couldn't quite fix the nature of their relationship, but I had a pretty good idea. Prostitution operates in a murky realm, as do all the so-called victimless crimes. My experience — and, as a longtime cabbie, I certainly have had such experiences — is that Burlington's hookers ply their trade on an informal basis. At the bars and clubs, the regulars just know the girls who might be available for the right price. It's all, as they say, on the down low.
When we arrived at Clark's condo, he said, "Erica, go ahead in. The door's unlocked."
Erica gone, Clark got out his wallet to pay me. "She's cute as hell, isn't she?" he said.
I couldn't, in good conscience, go there. I felt like saying, "Yeah, and she's young enough to be your daughter and my granddaughter." But I said flatly, "Sure, she's great."
Picking up on my less-than-enthusiastic response, Clark said, "C'mon, man, be happy for me. I'm telling you, she has some very specific skills."
He didn't have to add, "...if you know what I mean." My imagination is as lurid as the next guy's; I could readily fill in the blanks.
Driving back to town, I felt sad for both of them, but mostly for Erica. It's not that I bring some elevated social or political viewpoint to the table. The issue is complicated and multifaceted, no doubt. All I could say for certain was that this night, in my cab with this particular man and woman, it all felt very sad.
A little more than an hour later, I returned to Clark's to retrieve Erica for a ride to her apartment. On the highway between Burlington and Winooski, we passed two different police cars that had pulled over drivers. Erica said, "Oh, God — I hate cops."
I said, "Well, you know, I guess they have a job to do, don't you think?"
"I suppose. I just haven't had too many, like, good experiences."
In the rearview mirror, I glanced at my customer sprawled out in the backseat. She looked tired and edgy. I got the sense that she was living a life devoid of respite, with no oasis in sight. This was not a person who'd moved into adulthood from a carefree childhood. I'd bet my last dollar on that.
We arrived at Erica's apartment, a sketchy-looking converted office space with three ragged cars parked in front. "Give me a minute," she said. "I have money, I promise you."
"No problem," I said. "Take all the time you need."
She finally extracted two crumpled-up bills, and told me to keep the change. "You seem like a good guy," she said. "I take a lot of cabs. Ya got a card?"
Her request put me on the spot. On the one hand, I wanted to help her out. I knew I could shuttle her between trysts with safety and some degree of protection. On the other, I didn't know if I could keep my judgment at bay, not to mention my heavy heart. I flashed on the skunk and the black cat. This young woman had a feral quality that unnerved me. May God bless and protect her, I thought, internally voicing my second prayer of the night.
"Sorry, Erica," I replied. "But I don't have any cards."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.