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God and Elvis



Published September 19, 2012 at 6:39 a.m.

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the students have come back to Burlington. While lacking the poetic cachet of migrating birds, the collegians more than make up for it in spending money. True, their arrival also infuses the city with a youthful vitality brimming with creative and intellectual possibility. That’s all wonderful, but me — a typical hustling local cabbie — I’ll take the cash, thank you very much.

It was their first weekend back, and our fine-feathered friends were flocking downtown on Saturday night. The streets pulsated with excitement, movement and energy. Late nights, especially on weekends, Burlington morphs into a playground for the young. It’s truly a different world, and, given my age, one of which I would know next to nothing if it weren’t for my job. Driving a taxi, I’ve been an observer of this ecosystem for some 30 years, à la Jane Goodall in the jungle with the apes. All I’m missing is the pith helmet.

Amid the bustle, I picked up a man rather too long in the tooth for collegiate status. His dress was notably neat and precise — “just so” came to mind; more afternoon-managers-meeting-at-the-office than bar-hopping-in-B-town. His dark eyes gleamed with intelligence; his short, black hair was tightly curled and as impeccably cut as his clothes.

“The Woolen Mill, my friend,” he said, getting into the shotgun seat. His accent tickled my ears. It wasn’t a regional American variation but a foreign inflection I couldn’t quite place.

As we turned toward Winooski, he said, “My name is Ahmet. What is yours?”

I told him Jernigan, and he said, “What a beautiful night, isn’t it? It makes you glad to be alive.”

This conversation was unusual for 1 in the morning. It wasn’t so much his bubbly friendliness — plenty of late-night riders are gregarious and chummy. But the lubricant of booze almost always triggers such affability. This guy, by contrast, didn’t appear intoxicated in the least.

“Ayup,” I responded. “It’s been a great day and a great night — not too hot, not too cold, sunny and warm, slight breeze, just right.” When it comes to the weather, I like to cover all the bases. “Hey, where are you from, man? Your accent is escaping me. Eastern Europe, maybe?”

“No, good guess,” he replied with a chuckle. “I came here from Turkey.”

“Turkey? Very cool. What a great country. Kind of a bastion of progress and modernity in that part of the world, wouldn’t ya say?”

“You know something?” he asked rhetorically, apparently passing on my invitation to talk turkey about Turkey. “I’m only 35, but my father and uncles all died at around 70, so I believe I have only another 35 years left. That’s sad to think about on such a beautiful day. I mean, the thought of leaving this world.”

“Well,” I said, struck by the guy’s sincerity, “if you believe in the continuity of the soul, maybe there’s a better place we end up. Or maybe we come back to this world at some point.”

“No, that’s not for me,” he said, waving away the notion with a flutter of his hand. “I’m an antitheist. I’m certain that this world is all there is.”

“Really?” I said, genuinely surprised. “That’s funny — I would have taken you for a spiritual guy. Anyway, you know some people distinguish between churches and rituals and religious hierarchy on the one hand, and spirituality on the other. You know what I’m talking about, right? A person’s inner personal experience of God, the universal spirit, the great beyond — however you want to call it.”

“No, it’s all the same to me. I’m talking about so-called spirituality, too. It’s all just fantasy thinking. Why do we even need it? Science explains everything, and what it doesn’t, it eventually will.”

“Interesting,” I said, “but I see it like this. If I were to construct a list of the things I hold most important, most meaningful in my life — friendship, family, music, beauty, poetry, kindness, love, for crying out loud — none of these aspects of human existence can be understood by science. To say nothing about meditation or prayer. Can science capture the profundity of these practices?”

Ahmet broke into a big smile. “Absolutely it can, my friend!” he replied with gusto. It was clear the man relished just this kind of polemics. “Science can explain all of those experiences, and quite rationally. And regarding people’s so-called ‘inner experience,’ what if someone told you it is their ‘experience’ — their deepest belief, mind you — that Elvis is still alive? What would you say to that? After all, it is the person’s quote-unquote ‘experience.’”

We were swinging around the Winooski circle at this point, the perfect locale for metaphysical debate. As we came upon the Woolen Mill apartments, I interrupted the conversation at hand to ask, “Upstairs or downstairs entrance, Ahmet?”

“Right here — upstairs will be fine.”

I pulled to the curb and placed the vehicle in park. Turning to face my customer, I said, “If someone is telling me they know that Elvis is still alive, I’d gently tell them they’re deluded because there is obvious, objective evidence that the King has left the building. But that says nothing about the deeper things we were talking about.”

“Well, let’s go through them,” Ahmet suggested. “One by one, let’s discuss.”

Chuckling, I said, “Ahmet, I’d love to. But right now, I gotta head back downtown and make some more money.”

As he paid the fare, a look of concern came over his face. He said, “Brother, I’m sorry if I offended you in any way.”

“You didn’t offend me in the least. I thought it was a very respectful discussion.”

“Well, then, next time we will have to continue this.”

I said, “I’m looking forward to it.”

I sped back to Burlington, thinking, Maybe the next guy also will want to debate the existence of God. Nah. Odds are he’ll probably want to talk about chicks. Or football. Definitely the weather.