“Can you pick me up at the bus terminal tonight? I need a ride to Middlebury College. I’m coming in from Montréal, and the schedule says it arrives at the airport at 2 a.m. I guess that means the bus terminal is at the airport?”
It was a Monday, the day generally devoted to my recovery from the weekend blitz. But I won’t — I can’t afford to — decline lucrative out-of-town runs. As they say, I’ll sleep when I’m dead, hopefully on a Sealy Posturepedic in heaven.
“Yeah, that’s right,” I replied. “The buses come in at the airport, and I’ll meet you there. But could you do this? There’s no way to accurately monitor a bus arrival, and the buses often get held up clearing the border. So I assume you’ll have your cellphone with you? Can you call me when the bus clears customs? From there it’s about 45 minutes, and I can gauge my time.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. I’ll call you when we get past the border.”
“Thanks, that’ll work great. What’s your name?”
“Vincent Villardi — Vinnie.”
“OK, Vinnie — I’ll see you tonight.”
I’ve been picking up bus riders for 30 years. Back when I started, Vermont’s bus company was an independent outfit called Vermont Transit, and its Burlington terminal was located on the corner of St. Paul and Main streets, in the old Huntington Building. Throughout the day, buses would arrive from far-flung cities, and we cabbies would line up at the taxi stand across the street to meet the disembarking travelers.
This always struck me as entirely practical and appropriate — a proper bus terminal should be situated in the heart of the city. Eventually the company relocated to a new, larger facility on Pine Street, no longer downtown but at least still in Burlington.
A couple of years ago, Greyhound — which had purchased Vermont Transit — abandoned the Pine Street terminal and moved to the airport. And so we marked the end of an era: Burlington lost its daily flow of bus travelers wandering about the downtown streets, suitcases or backpacks in tow. I miss seeing these peripatetic souls; a small, vivid part of the fabric of city life has vanished.
Meanwhile, I had to remain awake until two in the morning on a Monday night. If all went hunky-dory — no guarantee of that, by any means — I wouldn’t be getting back from Middlebury before 4:00 a.m. My bed reservation in heaven was sounding better than ever.
I was sprawled on my couch watching Craig Ferguson’s talk show when the call came at a little past one. “Hi, this is the guy you’re taking to Middlebury. We just got through the border. You told me to call you?”
“Yeah — Vinnie, right? So you’re right on time. I’ll see you in about an hour.”
Very groovy, I thought and went back to watching Craig banter with Geoff, his gay skeleton sidekick. I arrived at the airport at a quarter to two, taking a position in the contract lane. Aside from a single stray police car, I was the only vehicle in sight, quite eerie for an airport that is positively bustling with traffic most of the day. Five minutes later, a call came in from Vinnie.
“We’re still at the border, so I guess we’re going to be late.”
“Ya think?” I felt like screaming into the cellphone. Instead I said, as calmly as I could muster, “Vinnie, I thought you said you had cleared the border an hour ago.”
“Yeah, we did, but then we stopped again and the customs guys had to recheck something.”
“OK — call me again when you’re rolling. I mean when you’re totally clear of the border.”
“I will,” Vinnie replied. “And I’m sorry about this.”
I hung up feeling like beating my head on the dashboard. Why did the kid not call me back immediately when he realized they were still stuck at customs? Did he not grasp that I was arranging my schedule specifically to meet his bus?
At a minimum, I now had to kill another hour, so I headed downtown for what little business there is after last call on a Monday night. I found just one or two other cabs patrolling the streets for the meager pickings. Listlessly, I meandered around without getting a whiff of a fare. For want of a better strategy, I had just parked in front of Nectar’s, when — boom! — six beefy, tank-topped, laughing men splashed out of the bar and onto the street. They looked about 30, but were behaving like so many 7-year-old boys hopped up on sugar, joyously wrestling and pounding each other with abandon. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and my eyes have seen a lot, particularly at last call.
Finally, three of them gave up the free-for-all and piled into my taxi. “The University Inn, mate,” said the hugest specimen from the shotgun seat.
We ascended the Main Street hill, my customers laughing and bellowing all the way. Amid the hubbub, I asked my seatmate what brought them to town.
“We’re rugby players, mate, from Australia. Could ya guess?”
That statement propelled all three of them into seat-pounding gales of laughter. I laughed along, idiotically, the sheer massive drunken energy pulling me in like a vortex.
Suddenly, I felt my customer’s hand on the back of my neck, stroking my hair. “Ooh, you have lovely hair, you know that?”
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” I replied, trying to process the moment.
“Let’s have a kiss — what do you say?” he asked, now fondling my left earlobe.
Here’s the weird thing: It felt good. The Australian’s strong fingers massaging my ear felt warm and relaxing. Even tingly, dare I say?
Oh, Lord, I thought, now the Republicans are going to hate me!
With his chums in the back nearly passing out in paroxysms of laughter, my fondler said, “I’m just fookin’ with ya, mate. I’m just fookin’ with ya.”
When we reached the hotel, they paid and tipped me outlandishly. Before he got out, the big guy reached over, squeezed my head in the crook of his massive arm and planted a big kiss on my forehead. The smooch burst my sour disposition like a balloon: I had been Aussified by the boys from Down Under.
Vinnie eventually arrived at the airport at 3:15. At the late hour and on the traffic-free roads, I made it back and forth to Middlebury in record time — just over an hour and a half. When I parked and walked up to my house, the first morning birds were beginning their song.