The call came in from James, a longtime customer. "Jernigan, where are you, buddy?"
I knew it was James not only by his voice, which is smooth and gravelly at the same time, but because he always leads with "Where are you?" I then counter with "Well, where are you, James?" because, you see, I am the cabdriver and he is the customer, and that's the way it works.
A stickler for protocol, I dutifully replied, "Well, where are you, James?"
"Roseanna and I are at Leunig's with a couple of sweet girls from Belarus. We're trying to get them a ride to the ferry. You're going to dig them, Jernigan. They're great girls."
On the ride over, I thought about James and Roseanna. If a couple could qualify as a Burlington institution, it would be this one. For the nearly 30 years I've been in town, they've been nightlife fixtures, both of them sharing a passion for life on a par with Zorba the Greek's. The onset of middle age had done nothing, as far as I could tell, to curtail their zest for the high life.
When I pulled up to the corner by Leunig's, James and Roseanna were chatting with two long-legged young women who looked as if they had stepped off the pages of a European Vogue - very Slavic with white, lustrous skin and high cheekbones. John ambled over to my open passenger window and said, "Take care of these kids, all right?"
"Thy will be done, brother," I replied with a wink.
After much double-cheek kissing all around, the two girls climbed into the back of my cab. "To the ferry, OK?" one of them asked. She had bobbed blonde hair under a wide, white headband and wide-set, crystal-blue eyes.
"Now, you mean the Burlington ferry? You know, there are three different ferries."
"We go to Essex, OK?"
"Yup, I got you," I replied. "That'll be down south of here in Charlotte."
"Yes, yes, that is it."
As we motored down Shelburne Road, the two women delightedly examined their day's haul. The many shopping bags suggested they'd made out like bandits. Their language sounded chunky and intense. "Hey," I asked over my shoulder, "is that the Belarus language you guys are speaking?"
"No, no," the blonde woman responded, and she and her friend giggled at me, or the question, or both. But I didn't mind; the trill of their laughter could charm the heart of Dick Cheney. "We speak Russian."
"Aha," I said. "I wasn't sure. There is a Belarus language, though?"
"Yes, there is, but everyone just speaks Russian. We learn Belarusian in school, but only for tradition - you know, the culture. It's very close to Russian."
"What brings you two to Burlington?"
"We work at resort in New York near Essex. It's very fancy. We met James and his wife last week when they come for lunch. Galina and I, we waitress for them. They are so nice! They invite us to visit with them in Burlington and they take us to see everything and buy us wonderful dinner."
That is James and Roseanna in a nutshell, I thought. Just the type of thing they're apt to do: befriend two foreign girls and take them out on the town. The lyrics to that Damn Yankees tune, "You Gotta Have Heart," could be about this couple.
"So, you girls waitress at the resort?" I asked. "That's your job?"
"We do everything. Maybe 60, 70 hours for the week."
"Yowza!" I commiserated. "I hope you're making good money for the summer."
"Not really. Maybe, like, $150 to $200 a week. But this is good for us. In Belarus, even teacher or engineer makes only, maybe, $300 a month."
I've lost my moral compass regarding the global economy. On one level, by U.S. standards, this resort is clearly exploiting its foreign workers. On the other hand, these two young women are ecstatic about the opportunity and are earning far more than most everyone in their homeland.
I can't shake the feeling, though, that something's desperately out of whack. A more equitable economic distribution among the various peoples of the world would go a long way toward healing our planetary woes, from terrorism to ecological meltdown. Plus, isn't it just the right thing to do? I caught myself musing, and chuckled. That's me, I thought, another cabbie political philosopher.
Arriving at the ferry landing dock, I quoted them my lowest feasible fare and added, "Tip included." The $150 a week was on my mind. They pooled some money and handed it to me as they got out. I checked the bills before I took off, and noticed $20 extra. I shouted through the window to them as they walked toward the boat, "Hey, I told ya - the tip was included."
The two girls turned and simultaneously flashed smiles worthy of Belarusian princesses. "That's OK," said my blonde friend. "We appreciate. Thank you."
For a hackie like me, I mused as I headed back on the ferry road, it doesn't get much better than this.