A recent Friday evening found me idling at the nearly block-long taxi stand on lower Church Street, the nighttime go-to spot for snagging a cab in downtown Burlington. On weekend nights, the queue of waiting cabs can reach a dozen or more, but the line usually moves quickly enough to make it worthwhile for the cabbies. As I progressed toward the first position, I watched the boisterous crowd milling on the wide sidewalk in front of the popular dance club Zen Lounge.
The American usage of the word has reached its logical endpoint, I mused. If a setting carefully designed for maximum stimulation of the senses and distraction of the mind is now somehow "Zen," then call me the Dalai Lama. The Zen Obstacle-Course Lounge would be more like it. Then it occurred to me that grousing about reality is probably the exact opposite of Zen, giving me a laugh at my own expense.
When I reached the head of the line, a man stepped into the backseat of my taxi. Cab driving is akin to Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get. That sense of discovery appeals to me; I do enjoy the humans, every flavor and filling.
"Harbor Road in Shelburne?" he requested. "Out towards the shipyard?"
A glance into the rearview mirror revealed a balding man, maybe 40, with a vaguely wistful demeanor. "Sure thing," I replied, shifting the transmission into drive.
"Well," he offered, as we turned onto Route 7, "a beautiful brunette kissed me tonight. The first time in over five years."
This statement was intriguing, but I had to clear up the ambiguity.
"Do you mean this particular woman, or any woman?"
"The latter," he replied. "It's been a long five years."
"I guess maybe," I said, chuckling. "That is one California-worthy drought. What's been the problem? You seem like an attractive enough guy."
In lieu of responding immediately, the man took an audible breath, giving himself a moment to calibrate, I imagined, just how revealing he wanted to get with this random taxi driver. Decision made, he plunged ahead. Traveling 35 miles an hour down Shelburne Road at midnight is, after all, the perfect setting for reviewing your life with a friendly stranger.
"Everything for me has changed 180 degrees over the last few years," he began. "In 2007, I sold my software company, which left me with a ton of money but no clear direction in life. A few drifty years went by before I was recruited by a national media organization to run their online advertising."
He then mentioned the prestigious newspaper at the core of this company, which impressed me mightily.
"Wow, that sounds like a major undertaking. Did you have any background in journalism?"
"Nope, strictly the nerdy digital world. And that's the thing — I don't think I really fathomed the forces that were rocking the newspaper world at that time. In the two years I spent there, I never faced such a relentless level of stress. I started having a physical reaction, severe stomach pains and the like. I spent way too much time at the doctor's getting tests, and here's what he told me: 'Either you quit this job or you're gonna die.' Maybe it wasn't exactly that, but that was the gist."
"That's got to be a sobering message to hear from your doctor," I said. "So you heeded his warning?"
"I did. I quit, sold my condo and chose Vermont as the place to recover my life."
"Amen, brother," I said in empathy. "I've been recovering my life here for 35 years. So what are you doing? I mean for work, or — I don't know — hobby?"
"Absolutely nothing," he replied. "I'm a bum."
"I see," I said, chuckling at the self-mocking sentiment. Yup, I thought, a bum living on Shelburne Point, surely one of the most exclusive real estate zones in the entire state. I'm sure he spends quality time around the campfire with his fellow hobos, trading tales of the road. Maybe right at the shipyard in the wee hours, when the rest of the neighbors are asleep in their beds.
We passed the Automaster, which got me thinking about the Harbor Hideaway, that weird, spooky old restaurant and bar that was razed a few years ago to make room for the dealership's expansion. The place had already closed when I moved here in the late '70s, yet somehow it stood empty for decades afterward. I miss it, a throwback to the town's rough-and-tumble bygone days, before things became prettified and, worse, homogenized courtesy of your Olive Gardens and Gaps. Man, I thought, I'll never be a Zen monk with that bad attitude. I'm far too clingy and attached. Oh, well — I never really had the aspiration, anyway.
We took the sloping right onto Bay Road and, reaching the T at Shelburne Farms, took another right out toward the Point. I could understand why this man chose to relocate to this beautiful and lonely peninsula. Sure, it's tony, but if you have the means, why not?
After a couple of miles, my customer directed me on a few turns, and quickly we came on his lakefront property, as gorgeous as you would imagine. "You know what I like about it up here?" he asked. "The stillness. I need it — crave it, to tell the truth."
The fare was twenty-some dollars, and he peeled off three twenties and passed them over the seat. We nodded at each other, and I gave him one of my business cards. I have no problem with the 1 percenters, so long as they're willing to share.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.