“Whoa, bud — let me help you get those legs in.”
The waiter was helping his wobbly-kneed customer — about to become mine — into the backseat of my taxi. This waiter, from one of the tony Burlington restaurants, calls me when one of the patrons needs a ride. During the phone call for this pickup, he told me the guy was going to Westford, a nice 20-mile fare on an otherwise quiet February weeknight.
Once he was settled, I caught the fellow’s eye in the rearview mirror and confirmed, “Ya going to Westford, right?”
When dealing with the potted customer, I’ve learned the hard way that a cabbie needs to keep things as clear as possible.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Jus’ gemme home.”
“OK, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Now, I’m gonna take 128 into the town, and you can guide me from there?”
“Yeah,” he affirmed, letting out a big, boozy sigh.
Not exactly brimming with confidence, I shifted into drive, and off we went. The guy was dressed all Waspy-casual: pastel-green Oxford shirt, blue blazer, new blue jeans and some kind of snazzy moccasins. His hair — perfect waves of silver and blond — could have been modeled on a Greek statue. Follically challenged as I am, the fancy locks made me a bit jealous.
Carefully monitoring the backseat for signs of passing out or — perish the thought — vomiting, I motored through the night. As we eased onto the Circ Highway, the man blurted out, “Are you fucking me? Where the hell are we? I will not be fucked!”
Now I had a very specific decision to make: How would I handle this outburst? There are two basic strategies: get tough on the customer or humor him. I don’t take this stuff personally; my sole aim in situations like this is to pacify the offender and restore tranquility to the mother ship.
“OK, brother,” I spoke sternly, “I know you’ve had a lot to drink, but that’s no excuse to get abusive with me. Any more cursing like that and you’re out of the cab — you got that?”
“Oh, yeah,” he acquiesced sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I appreciate you driving me.”
The split-second change in attitude was startling and welcome. When we reached Westford, I asked him where to turn. He pointed straight ahead, and I complied. A few minutes later, he said, “Where on Earth are we?”
“We’re in Westford, Vt.,” I replied, remaining chipper, though it seemed the fare was quickly going south.
“I need to get to Westport, N.Y. That’s where I live. Exit 31 off the Northway.”
“Great,” I said. There was nothing to be gained by reviewing with the dude how we ended up in Westford; I would simply reverse course and take him to Westport. The specificity of “Exit 31” gave me confidence that this new destination was the real deal. My only concern — one I’d had before, but which now jumped to the forefront — was payment.
“Do you have cash, or do we need to stop at an ATM?” I asked. “The fare to Westport is gonna be $140.”
“We have to stop at an ATM,” he replied.
I pivoted over to Milton and, on Route 7, pulled into the TD Bank. While the guy did his thing at the ATM, I took the opportunity to urinate in some handy bushes. Ah, my life is so much like Lord Grantham’s of “Downton Abbey”, I mused as I peed. The guy took a while, but he came back clutching a boatload of twenties. He got into the shotgun seat and began passing them to me, one by one. I made him stop when he got to $180. “Hey, thanks,” I said. “That’s a big enough tip.”
“I really, really appreciate you taking me home,” he repeated. “You are a noble guy.”
I thought about his use of the word “noble.” After all, I do this for a living. When I get a hair trim, I thank my haircutter and tell her I appreciate it. I don’t think of her cutting my hair as a noble act. But I liked his show of gratitude, particularly the money part.
As we crossed the sandbar in the moonlight, my customer said, “Hey, where’s Cookie?”
“Jeez,” I said, entering the humoring phase of our relationship. “I dunno where the heck Cookie is.”
We hit the Grand Isle ferry dock just as they were loading. On the 12-minute crossing, the love fest began in earnest. Draping his arm around my shoulder, my passenger said, “My name is Theodore, but everyone calls me Teddy. And I got to tell ya, I really appreciate you driving me home tonight. You are one noble guy.”
“Well, thank you so much, Teddy.”
“Me and Cookie are going through a rough patch. I really love her, though.”
Holy crap, I thought. I said, “Teddy, Cookie wasn’t with you in Burlington tonight, was she?”
“Yeah, I don’t know where she is.”
The marital rough patch is about to get a little rougher, I thought, but didn’t say a word.
We got on the Northway heading south. Teddy thanked me every 10 minutes, in drunk-love fashion. By sheer persistence, he finally convinced me of my nobility. Yup, me and the Earl of Grantham.
At Exit 31, we turned off the highway and steered toward the town of Westport. “So do you know many of Cookie’s friends?” Teddy asked, slightly more sober but still loopy.
“No, I can’t say I do. I’d like to meet ’em, though.”
“Well, this summer you must come and visit. I have a beautiful, 25-foot Chris-Craft and we’ll go out boating. I mean it.”
“That’s a date, Teddy,” I said, wholeheartedly accepting the dubious invitation. “I’ll see you in June.”
I dropped my customer at his home on the lake, and realized it would be faster to return to Burlington via the Champlain Bridge. It was my first time on the newly constructed bridge, and I was not let down.
Along the peninsula approach, the span glowed in the distance like a silver bow hovering atop the dark water. When I reached its grand arc, I slowed to a crawl. To my left and right, the supporting cables formed giant Xs strung with brilliant white lights. The thought crossed my mind that I might come out the other side into a new and higher dimension — which, in fact, sort of describes what Vermont has been in my life.