“Just trying to get some change for the parking meter,” I explained to the Greyhound ticket agent.
The middle-aged woman raised an eyebrow and looked me up and down. If the expression on her face was any indication, apparently I was quite the distasteful sight to behold. Oh, well. She, on the other hand, cut a striking, if somewhat intimidating, figure. I don’t know if it was the too-snug company-issued pantsuit or the rust-tinged beehive hairdo with the Bic pen pointing out the side like the needle on a compass, but the whole package kind of turned me on.
“We don’t give any change,” she said, without even a token nod to the ersatz cheerfulness of customer service. Pointing to the right, she added, “There’s a change machine in the vending room.”
“The vending room it is,” I said, thinking, A date, then, is out of the question? “Thanks so very much.”
I was in the Albany, N.Y., Greyhound bus terminal — my first time in this light-and-happiness-starved edifice. Before returning to my taxi to feed the surprisingly pricey parking meter, I figured I might as well check on my customer — a young musician coming up from New York City. The following day he was scheduled to perform at Middlebury College, but snowy weather had canceled his airline flight. Hence the bus alternative.
“Is this Shaun?” I said into my cellphone. “This is your cabdriver, Jernigan. I’m at the bus terminal and wondered if you knew your ETA.”
“Oh, this is perfect,” he said. “I’m already here. I caught an earlier bus.”
I turned around and noticed a young Latino man, maybe 20 or so, speaking on his cellphone over by the long wooden bench seats. We simultaneously pointed to each other, nodded and walked over to meet.
“OK, Shaun,” I said, shaking hands, “ya ready to roll? Need to hit the men’s room or anything? We’re looking at close to three hours for the ride.”
“Nope, I’m good,” he replied. “And thanks for being here, man.” He was short and skinny with clear, brown skin, closely and precisely cropped black hair, and diamond earrings — one in each ear. His was a stratosphere of cool so far beyond my demographic that all I could do was smile in admiration.
Retracing my steps out of the capital city took nearly all my concentration, which Shaun, relaxing next to me in the shotgun seat, seemed to notice and respect. One day — when hell freezes over — I’ll install a GPS device. Until then, I’m on my own.
Once safely northbound on Interstate 87, I figured it was about time to get the conversation under way.
“So, you’re a musician, I understand. What’s your instrument?”
Shaun chuckled and said, “Well, my instrument is my head, basically. I’m a beatboxer. Do you know what that is?”
“Yeah, I do,” I replied. “A couple of seasons ago, ‘American Idol’ had a contestant who was beatboxing. He went pretty far in the competition, if I remember. So, yeah, you make, like, percussive sounds — like drumming, almost?”
“You got it,” Shaun said, chuckling again at the minor street knowledge of the old dude. “I’ll be performing with a few dancers and singers at this college. I guess it’s way out in the boonies. Man, this is a long way from the Bronx.”
I said, “Well, the little I’ve heard, I’ve really dug it. I’m a drummer from way back when, so I can relate. How’d you get started at this?”
“It was my older brother, man. When I was, like, a hyper 7-years-old, he was playing some really dope hip-hop singer, and he said, ‘Shaun, see if you could sing along with that.’ I just started beatboxing. I mean, it came out, like, naturally. And I, like, never looked back.”
“Have you played with any big-name performers?”
“Oh, yeah — I have had mad good fortune. My biggest gig, a few years back, was with Alicia Keys. I toured with her — it was crazy. I was just 16, so my Moms and Pops went with me. But, Alicia — man, she was so beautiful. She took me under her wing, like a little brother or something. I learned a lot.”
“That’s tremendous, man,” I said. “I love Alicia Keys. She seems like — I mean, beyond even her music — a really high person. So, when you perform with somebody, they sing and you beatbox behind them?”
“Yeah, that’s the basic idea. This summer I’m doing some gigs with this awesome Michael Jackson impersonator, and I’ll back him up on the tunes, like you said.”
That was all the prompting I needed. I launched into Billie Jean is not my lover, / She’s just a girl — and, on cue, Shaun began the beatboxing, the sounds of an entire percussion section filling the cab: clicks, clacks, bangs, pops — who claims that I am the one, / But the kid is not my son...
“Jesus, man,” I said, winding it down after a couple of verses, “that was so much fun. You are really gifted, my friend. I can see what Alicia was thinking.”
I’ve taken this route back to Vermont many times, but it never gets old. At Exit 20, we abandoned the interstate for the improbably situated factory-outlet village just north of Lake George. Polo! Brooks Brothers! Orvis! Tommy Hilfiger! I could feel my credit cards begin to tingle in my wallet. Next up were the Revolutionary War towns of Fort Ann and Whitehall, then — ahhh — the Vermont crossover at Fair Haven. Once we started north on 22A, my customer’s eyes grew wide.
“What do people do here?” he asked.
I chuckled and said, “Do you mean for work, or for play?”
“For anything, son. This reminds me of, like, ‘The Waltons.’ You feel me, man?”
Having spent my formative years negotiating Brooklyn’s concrete-and-asphalt jungle, I was entirely feeling this Bronx boy. When I first arrived here, I looked at the Green Mountains with eyes similar to Shaun’s. My perspective has since been transformed, but I still remember.
In the driveway of the Middlebury B&B where he was booked for the night, I said, “Shaun, I’m looking to see you on the Grammys within, say, five years. I mean it. Your talent is awesome, but, as important, you’ve got this shining, positive energy.”
Shaun took the compliment graciously, and we said our goodbyes. Later that same night, I checked out his many YouTube videos, where he can be found under his stage name, “Anointed S.” I was blown away, and I’m officially lowering the Grammy watch to three years.