"What was up with that freaking guy? I mean, why does he have to talk like that?"
I had four Jersey girls in my cab, visiting Burlington for the annual Vermont Brewers Festival. The one sitting directly behind me was ranting about a guy she'd run into at a downtown bar.
"He's not black!" she continued, her indignation rising. "Does he not realize that? So why is he talking in, like, Ebonics? It's, like, completely lame."
"Well, you know," I began, amused by this woman's passion about the issue, "some white guys are entirely wrapped up in black music and language, and so —"
"Don't get me wrong," she said, cutting me off. "I teach in a school system that's primarily black. I got nothing but respect for African American culture, but, c'mon, for God's sake."
At this point, her friends were laughing out loud. All of them were attractive, and glammed up beyond the Burlington norm — heavy makeup, elaborate hair, short skirts. Having spent my formative years within shouting distance of New Jersey, I appreciated the audacious expressive energy. Though if I had my druthers — and I do — I generally prefer the more subtle charms of Vermont girls.
"Angela, honey," my seatmate said, "we all got your friggin' point. So perhaps it's time to let it go. You're really getting a little nuts about it."
"I'm just saying," Angela replied. She, too, began to laugh — at herself, which signaled she was indeed ready to move on.
Every year since the brew fest's inception more than 20 years ago, its crowds have grown larger and more boisterous. This year was no exception, with the frenzied activity reaching crazy dimensions. I'm not complaining — far from it. It's great for business, and the Burlington police are adept at maintaining social order amid the lunacy.
On Saturday, the festival's second day, I put my cab into action at about 2:00, and never stopped rolling until 4:00 the following morning. That is one long shift even for a young man, a designation I aged out of decades ago. I can still pull a shift like that on a spot basis, though for the past few hours, I hadn't been at my best. Which mostly meant my usual capacity for suffering fools gladly was at a low ebb.
It was close to 4 a.m. when a straggler on St. Paul Street hailed me. He was perhaps in his thirties and clearly a local, and, from the look of the guy, this wasn't his first time closing down the town. He hit the shotgun seat talking.
"Thank God, dude. So glad to catch a white man. I'm so sick of all these black cabdrivers. Could you take me to the Winooski circle?"
Except he didn't use the word "black," which would be offensive enough; he used the N-word. I was about to speak when he added, "You know what I mean? I hate their fuckin' attitudes. I'm not a racist, though."
At the start of my shift I might have handled this differently, but after 14 hours behind the wheel, a couple of hundred miles of city driving and dozens of rowdy customers, my self-regulating mechanism had worn thin.
"Do me a favor, man. OK? Don't embarrass yourself, or me, by throwing in 'I'm not a racist.' Just be fucking honest. Could you do that?"
"OK, I am a racist, then," he conceded. "But you know what I'm talking about, right? These fucking Africans, or African Americans — whatever. Their attitude sucks, right?"
"Actually, I don't know what you're talking about. If somebody is being an asshole, they're being an asshole. It has nothing to do with their race or the color of their skin. There's something seriously wrong with your thinking. I mean, c'mon, man – it's two thousand fucking fourteen."
The guy relaxed in his seat. I was far more worked up than he was. But his brand of casual, "old-boy" racism makes me slightly insane, and it's only grown worse with age. I take it personally. Those black cabdrivers — and the Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians, white guys and all the others — I feel like they're my brothers. So when a customer talks like this Winooski guy, I experience it as an attack on my family. It's not a moral stance or thought-out position; it's a visceral thing.
We hooked a right onto Pearl Street, which turns into Colchester Avenue at East Avenue, the crest of the long downhill. We passed the ballpark and the Ethan Allen monument where our quintessential Vermont hero either is or is not buried. "Get Down Tonight" by KC and the Sunshine Band began to play on the radio.
My customer said, "This is the only disco band I like."
"Yeah, I feel the same way," I said, resisting the temptation to note that the group was half black and half white through most of its lineups over the years. "Didja catch them when they played the Essex Fair maybe 10 years ago?"
"As a matter of fact, I did. They were awesome."
And here's the thing: What was I going to do? Hate this guy? Exactly what does that accomplish? It would only add to the quotient of hatred already dragging down this world. I said what I said, and he will either change his warped beliefs someday or he won't. Maybe it'll take a dozen interactions with other people like the one we just had, and then, one day, a lightbulb will go off.
As the writer George Saunders noted, "We're asleep most of the time, but we can wake up." God knows, I'm sure trying to.