"You know where I live, right?" Tom asked, plopping into the shotgun seat.
"Sure do," I replied. "At the Brickyard."
Tom was a guy I'd driven home perhaps once a month over the past year. Though I'm certain I've given him a card, he has never once called for a ride; rather, he just manages to find me when I'm downtown trolling for fares on weekend nights. He's easy to remember — a big guy with a buzz cut and brawny build, like a middle linebacker. I recall him telling me that he's married and has a toddler-age son.
"Great," he said. "Take me home. I'm, like, really hammered tonight."
As I swung the taxi around to ascend the Main Street hill, I saw that my customer had slumped in his seat and slipped into an altered state. His eyes were half-closed, and he was quietly mumbling to himself words I couldn't decipher. He didn't appear agitated or queasy, thank goodness, so I just left him to percolate gently in his fugue. Frankly, I was relieved; I'd rather not be on the receiving end of a drunken discourse.
The last time I had driven Tom, it was a different story. He hadn't drunk that much and was eager to chat. He's one of those local guys with a Burlington pedigree reaching back to his grandparents, if not further. To anyone who's lived in town for a while, his family name and business would be immediately recognizable. Though not quite at the level of the Pizzagallis or Pecors, his people are a fixture in the Burlington business establishment.
In this previous conversation, he'd told me about his big decision not to enter the family business. "It was just not me," he explained. "I always wanted to teach, so I went for it."
"How'd your parents take it?" I asked. "Did your mother or father put pressure on you, or did they accept your decision?"
"Oh, my God!" he said, with a laugh. "Like, major pressure. My father told me I was nuts, that I'd never make any money as a teacher. Mostly, I know he was just disappointed."
"Well, that takes some courage," I said. "It's not easy to buck your dad, particularly when he's offering you what he perceives as the family jewels. Has he come around at this point?"
"Not really. He still thinks I'm some kind of traitor. But I do like teaching. I'm in my third year at the high school."
"How's the family business surviving without you?"
"It's doing all right, I guess. I have a sister and a couple of cousins who went into it. The problem is all the fucking regulations. Vermont makes it impossibly hard to do business in the state."
Gosh, I hear this all the time, I thought. It's like the official mantra of the small-business owner. Move to Texas, I felt like saying. See what life is like in a state where business interests basically run the whole show.
But I didn't say it because I don't like conflict, particularly over things I don't even feel that strongly about. And, besides, God didn't make me a cabdriver to point out to my customers the error of their ways. What's that aphorism? For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe.
Instead I said, "Now, is that you talking or your pops?"
Tom let out a laugh. "Good point," he said. "Probably my pops."
Tonight, however, Tom was effectively beyond words. I took the highway for one exit and cruised past Saint Michael's College. In the background, the BBC played softly on Vermont Public Radio. I enjoy the English accents and the civil discourse, and the way they're always announcing the hour in "Greenwich Mean Time." I'm not even sure what that means, but it makes me yearn for tea and crumpets — whatever a crumpet is.
As we cleared Five Corners and approached the turn into the Brickyard development, I could sense my customer stirring. Suddenly, I saw and then felt his hand reaching for my crotch. I grabbed it and pushed it back, saying, "Absolutely not, man."
I was surprised, but not shocked. Something was amiss with this man, and I think I had already known it. With a wife, full-time job and young child at home, why was he downtown drinking on a regular basis? And always alone, never with his wife or a friend?
He withdrew his hand and seemed to straighten up in his seat. He said, "I'm not a bad person, am I?"
"Tom, I don't really know you well enough to answer that question."
"Well, I'm not a bad person."
I said, "OK, then — I believe you."
I pulled into his driveway, and, without another word exchanged, he paid me and got out. I wasn't angry at the guy; I didn't even think ill of him. Pain, unattended to, can impel people to act in self-destructive ways. I could only imagine the personal anguish that finds a person groping a cabdriver on a lonely ride home. If I had to bet, I'd guess this was the last time he'd seek me out after a night on the town.