"What does it matter 'how many folks'?" the beefy man asked me, while his three companions - another middle-aged man and two women - stood on the curb making idle conversation and seemingly trying to ignore their taxi hailer's heavy-handed tactics. "Isn't the fare the same regardless of the number of people?"
I don't begrudge a customer's inquiring about the fare prior to lift-off. Anyone who has been keeping up with the local newspapers is aware of the practice of price gouging among too many rogue cabbies. But this guy's grilling was over the top; I was feeling like a shrimp on the barbie.
"Well, here's how it works," I replied patiently, doing my best to overlook the accusatory subtext. "In Burlington, the cabs get an extra buck for each additional passenger, so that's why I asked about the size of your group. So, if it's the four of ya, the fare'll be $13."
"That sounds a little fishy, if you ask me, but we have to get back to our hotel," the man responded. He turned toward his people and gave a beckoning wave. "C'mon - we'll take this guy," he called over the downtown street din.
As we ascended Main Street, my erstwhile interrogator sat beside me scowling, an attitude that contrasted with his cheerful pastel attire. The similarly dressed threesome in the rear was in a more convivial mood, talking and laughing among themselves. From their conversation, I gleaned that the two couples were friends from North Carolina and visiting Burlington for a convention of model-train enthusiasts that week at the Sheraton. One of the women leaned forward in her seat and asked me, "What would you recommend for a day trip tomorrow? We were thinking about Plymouth or Montpelier."
Plymouth? I thought. What the heck's in Plymouth? Then I remembered: It was the birthplace of President Calvin Coolidge. Someone who visited the site, I further recalled, told me it was about as fun and exciting as Calvin Coolidge himself. And Montpelier - personally, I love the town, but for these folks . . .
"If you have just a day to tour around," I offered, "I'd definitely go over Smugglers' Notch. That's up Route 15 and onto 108. The ride over the mountain pass is breathtaking, and Stowe is gorgeous in the summer. You could visit the Trapp Family Lodge and maybe stop at the Ben & Jerry's factory in Waterbury. That place is a hoot."
"Who currently owns Ben & Jerry's?" my rosy seatmate jumped into the conversation.
"I guess a few years ago the boys sold the company to Unilever," I replied. "But it seems to me it's still run by most of the same people with the same way of doing business. You know - socially responsible, that sort of thing."
"Well, I never eat Ben & Jerry's ice cream," he said. "I refuse! Those guys propagate a left-wing radical philosophy. They're trying to take away my Second Amendment gun rights."
I could see the folks in the back squirm in their seats. The guy in the front was into his "thing," I gathered, and his wife and friends just had to grin and bear it. Whatever my beliefs about guns, politics or Chubby Hubby, for that matter, I was under no compulsion to acquiesce. But I knew better than to provoke. The telltale sign was the manner in which this man enunciated his viewpoint: as a pronouncement, as if counter-opinion were out of the question. Still, without poking the bear, I wanted to at least offer a suggestion for the remainder of his stay in Vermont.
"You know," I said, "a lot of folks here in Vermont agree with Ben & Jerry's social mission. Not all, granted, but a lot. So you might want to take that into account."
"What about guns?" he said. "Don't you folks care about your gun rights?"
"It's just not that big an issue up here. People hunt and all that, so I guess gun ownership is simply part of life. Nobody's fighting much about it."
"Hmm," he voiced, and appeared to lighten up a little.
"So you're a train collector?" I asked, taking advantage of the détente to shift the conversation to less contentious ground.
"I sure am," he said. "I've been collecting Lionel trains since I was a kid. Mostly HO gauge."
"Wow, that is cool. I had a great set of Lionel trains my dad got me when I was a kid. I think they were standard gauge, or scale, or is that the same thing?"
"Not exactly, technically speaking," he said with a chuckle, "but close enough."
"Anyway," I went on, "I remember the transformer could power four tracks at once, and we had all the little houses and landscaping accessories. We sold 'em when my father lost his job and we moved."
"Boy, that collection you describe would be worth a lot of money these days," he said.
"Yeah, I bet it would."
I pulled the taxi up to their adjoining rooms at the Ho-Hum Motel, and the man paid the $13. Despite the earlier unpleasantness over the price, he actually smiled while passing me a nice tip. I didn't know if he was packing or not, but no guns were drawn. For that reason alone, I chalked this one up as a successful fare.