On a random Wednesday afternoon, I found myself en route to Middlebury with a couple of students in the back seat. I had picked up the two young men at the Burlington airport; unruly East Coast weather had canceled their flights home for the weekend. Understandably, they were both in low spirits — one had a girlfriend waiting, the other a wife and 3-year-old daughter.
Stationed as a lure in front of the Ferrisburgh Dakin Farm Store, the blow-up 100-gallon maple syrup bottle beckoned as we blew past. I asked over my shoulder, “Where were you guys trying to fly to?”
To be honest, this innocuous question carried a modicum of self-interest. Through the years, I’ve learned the value of gently probing my customers to uncover their travel plans. One never knows how and when further cab driving might play a part.
One of the guys told me Brooklyn, the other Hartford, Conn. Hmm, I thought, and began to consider the possibilities. Apt to be a slow night in Burlington with most of the students away on spring break … the cab’s been running smooth … why not?
Why not, that is, offer to take these guys all the way? This raises the sticky dilemma of the out-of-town fare. I’m not referring to the near out of town, such as St. Albans, Middlebury or Stowe. We Burlington cabbies hit those locales on a weekly basis. No, I’m speaking of the far out of town — fares that carry you out of state. A hackie can score a big payday if he or she is willing to drive a customer a few hundred miles. So why hesitate? In a word, risk.
When you’re driving a cab, bad things can occur that you’d rather not undergo far from home base. Specifically, vehicles break down, even well-maintained ones. And AAA roadside assistance is not available to vehicles licensed as cabs. So, if this happens on, say, the Manhattan Bridge, you’re screwed. At that point, you might as well just surrender and take up residence in the Big Apple.
But, for better or worse, I’ve always been a gambler. What’s life without a little risk, I figure? Under the right circumstances — price being the operative factor — I will chance the lucrative out-of-stater.
“Well, gentlemen,” I began, “here’s an option for you. I can take each of you home tonight — directly to your very door — for 300 bucks apiece.”
For the Hartford run, that price was just about right. For the NYC traveler — well, he was getting a great deal, essentially piggybacking on the Connecticut drop-off. Why did I structure it that way? Ahh … if I could simply tell you, Grasshopper. Put in 25 years behind the wheel, and then we’ll talk.
“You mean in the cab?” Brooklyn Dad asked incredulously.
“Yup, in this very cab,” I affirmed. “Both Hartford and New York are connected to Vermont by land, so it’s quite doable.”
Brooklyn Dad phoned his wife and — after some impassioned back and forth — they decided it was more than they wanted to spring for. I could respect that. Before hanging up, though, the wife put their 3-year-old on the phone, and father and daughter had a heart-to-heart about a toy horsey, which I gathered was named Jonathan. It might have been an imaginary horsey, which was better still. All right, I admit it — I got a little misty.
The Hartford guy, Brian — who was much younger, a college sophomore, it turned out — called his father, and they decided to go for it. We arranged to rendezvous with the father at the Hartford Hilton Hotel. I glanced at the dashboard clock, figured about four hours drive time, and told Brian to give his father a 10:30 ETA. His dad requested, wisely, that we call when we got within range.
We dropped downcast Brooklyn Dad at his Middlebury quarters and commenced our climb into and over the Green Mountains. Ripton, Bread Loaf, Rochester, Stockbridge and Bethel came and went, each classic Vermont town reminding me, the semi-cosmopolitan Burlington denizen, of the beauty and long history of our modest state.
At Royalton, we hooked onto Interstate 89. With a Boston Celtics game playing softly in the background, Brian told me stories of his life as the son of a Japanese father and Irish mother.
At one point I chimed in, “Jeez, you are talking about two divergent cultures — the Irish, all emotional and over the top, and the Japanese, so reserved and formal. That must have been one heck of an upbringing.”
Brian said, “Dude, you don’t know the half of it.”
We merged onto I-91, and Brian began to speak of his grandfather, who fought in the Second World War with the only all-Japanese American battalion in the European theater. In one decisive battle, he told me, his grandfather’s troop earned the most Purple Hearts for bravery ever awarded for a single battle in U.S. military history.
“All this,” Brian explained, “while many of his immediate family members, including my dad, were sitting in internment camps on the West Coast. But the amazing thing is, he wasn’t bitter in the least. I learned so much from him. He passed away a couple of years ago.”
We arrived in Hartford way before Brian’s dad, who was caught in traffic. (Yes, big cities have traffic jams at 10 in the evening.) I parked in front of the Hilton while Brian entered to find an ATM to get me the cash. I followed him into the hotel in search of a bathroom. Ambling through the lobby, I suddenly found myself in a crowd of at least 200 black women, all aged about 25 to 35, and all wearing distinctive crimson blouses and hats. The energy in the room was thrilling. I inquired and discovered they all belonged to a national sorority.
The ride back home was draining. Forget about wear and tear on the cab; what about my rickety middle-aged body? Still, the ATM twenties were crisp in my shirt pocket, and the Taurus’ motor was humming like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. When, at long last, the lights of Burlington appeared in the distance, my smile was uncontainable.