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Fare Judgment

Hackie

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“The Sheraton, cabbie. And if it’s all right, I’d like to stop for cigarettes.” Sitting in the rear, my fare is a lanky man with dark, oily hair and a two-day stubble. His jacket looks new, but insufficient for the cold Vermont night.

“Sure,” I reply. “There’s a Mobil right across the street from the hotel. We can stop there for smokes.”

This guy has got to be another one, I think. I’ve been driving these men around for a few weeks. There’s a feeling around them, like a dark cloud, like bad karma.

“I don’t know how you boys take it,” he says, his accent some variation of a Southeast-ern twang. “This weather is unearthly. What kind of people would want to live in this kind of deep freeze?”

Those are fighting words, or nasty ones at any rate. But I don’t take the bait. It’s taken me 40 years to finally nail this one down: When you take the bait, you get a barbed hook through your lip, and then someone yanks you around.

“What brings you up this way?” I ask, wanting to confirm my hunch.

“Oh, we’re up filling in for the striking electrical workers. We’re out of here this week. That’s not one minute too soon for me, let me tell you. The union just settled the strike. I think they got about eight cents an hour. What a bunch of losers.”

Bingo. Green Mountain Power workers have been on strike, and the company flew in “replacement” workers from out of state. I have the sense they’re getting big bucks, along with accommodations in swank hotels. Yeah, I know, power generation is an essential service, and GMP can’t simply shut down the grid during a strike. Still, it feels like blood money to me.

I hustle up the Main Street hill, biting my tongue. Nothing I want to say to this guy would be kind. It would all be admonishment and chastisement, and why his choices in life don’t cut it. Wouldn’t that be helpful? You haven’t lived until you’ve heard The World According to Jernigan.

I stop at Spillane’s. He gets his Marlboros. We continue across Williston Road to the Sheraton, and pull up to the lobby door of the hotel. “Six bucks,” I say, as icy as the weather.

“Six bucks?” he bellows with a combination of outrage and disdain. “How in hell can you ask six bucks for this ride?”

That’s it, I think, feeling magma bubble up from my gut. I pause a second in order to compose the coming tirade. It’s going to be something along the lines of, “Well, stuff it! You can just keep your mingy Southern ass out of Vermont, coming up here living off the backs of Vermont workers!” Yeah, that’ll do.

“Hey!” I begin, swiveling in my seat to confront him directly. “I’m gonna tell you something, man. Don’t be —”

“I think 20 bucks is more like it,” he interjects, pulling a 20-dollar bill from his wallet. “You work hard; you deserve it.”

“Uh… uh… well, uh…,“ I stutter as he grins at me, the 20 still in his grip.

I’m feeling a lot of contradictory things at once. I had the guy dialed in as a creep, and here he goes laying a 20 on me. I appreciate the huge tip and am grateful for his generosity, yet I’m still agitated about the guy being a scab. I want the money but I know where it’s coming from, and I feel guilty about taking it. I’m in brain freeze.

Finally, after a pause that must seem strange to him, I take the money. “Thanks for the tip, man,” I say. “I appreciate it.”

“No problemo,” he says, opening his door. “Here’s another tip: Move down to South Carolina. This here cold is horse crap. C’mon down and live a little, for chrissake!”

I erupt in a deep belly laugh in spite of myself, because the opinionated, judgmental part of me really wants to stay pissed off. It’s not the money per se, but the man’s largesse has opened a window. Someone who had been one-dimensional — a stock player in my personal morality play — suddenly becomes a living, breathing human being.

“That second tip I’ll have to decline,” I say with a chuckle. “I bet South Carolina has all kinds of allure, but it’s not for me. I guess I’m rooted here in Vermont. Maybe this weather is horse crap, like you say, but I’ll tell ya — if you really, really like horses, horse crap ain’t the worst thing in the world.”

As I drive to my next pick-up at the Woolen Mill, I think about the changes that have come with age. When I was younger it seemed I knew a great deal about life. The good guys and the bad guys were distinct and evident to me. Everything was securely black or white. Now it’s not just my hair that seems to be going gray.

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