I watched a car speed past me on the left doing at least 60 and just shook my head, thinking, Well, that's slightly suicidal. I myself was easing along at 40, even less on the downhills and bridges.
It was 5:30 in the morning and still pitch-black, courtesy of daylight saving time. Normally, I make ample use of my high beams when driving the interstate in the dark, but the steady snowfall rendered that strategy counterproductive. (I did test them for a futile 10 seconds; the effect was like being trapped in a shaken snow globe.)
I was en route to a 7 a.m. pickup of a Plainfield customer with a morning flight departing from Burlington Airport. Absent weather, it's one hour from the Queen City to Plainfield, but checking the morning forecast the night before, I allocated two hours and set my alarm clock accordingly. I also called the customer to move up her pickup time.
The point of this planning was to give myself the requisite time to follow the paramount rule for safe winter driving, one that took me a surprising number of years to pin down: Go slow.
As I exited the highway at Montpelier, the cellphone came to life. On the horn was the hospital emergency room desk with a trip to Williston. "Well, I could do it," I responded, "but it'll be about an hour and a half. So you might want to try another company."
"No, let's book it, Jernigan. No other cab companies are even picking up their phones. It must be the snowstorm."
The Plainfield fare went smoothly, and my ER ETA held true. I parked and entered the waiting room to find my customer, Tom Black, none too happy.
"I've been waiting here for over an hour," he groused as we walked together out to my cab.
"Sorry, Tom," I sympathized. "I know this is not a fun place to hang out once your business is done."
I could have said, "Hey, I got here at the precise time I promised, so don't blame me." But the poor guy had probably spent an overnight in the emergency room with God knows what medical problem. The last thing he needed was a contentious response from me, even if I was technically in the right.
The snowstorm showed no signs of faltering as we drove east toward Tom's senior apartment complex in Williston. "Ya ever have a kidney stone?" he asked.
"Nope, never," I replied. "But I'm told there's nothing so miserable."
"You got that right. I thought they were going to blast it out with a laser or some such, but instead they gave me some medicine. They said if that doesn't help in a couple days, then they'd do a procedure."
I glanced at my customer sitting next to me, and it hit me. "Hey, Tom — you used to drive cab back in the day, didn't you? For, like, Bushey's Taxi, was it? I'm Jernigan Pontiac, and I'm pretty sure I remember you."
"Yup, I thought I recognized you, too," he replied. "Yeah, I drove for all the fleets at one time or another — Bushey's, Yellow, Benways, B & B."
"Oh, sure," I said. "I felt like you were already one of the veteran cabbies when I started driving in the early '80s."
Tom smiled at me, all thoughts of his lousy night at the ER seemingly put to bed. It was in that moment that I recalled the fondness I had felt toward Tom during the time we shared the road as cabbies, and that feeling rushed back to me. We hadn't shared many conversations that I remember, but he was always a friendly presence — I would say even kindly.
"Well, I started cabbing in 1971," he explained. "I always liked it, but my big thing was hunting and fishing. And that was why the job worked so well. I could always quit for weeks at a time to get out into the woods and then go back to driving, no questions asked."
"That's because you were a good cabbie," I suggested. "They needed you."
"I suppose I was."
"Do ya miss it?"
"At times," he conceded. "But I got more time for fishing. No more hunting, though — I got too old for that."
We approached his apartment, and I rolled up to the main entrance. "Ya know what I just remembered?" he asked.
"No, what's that?" I replied, turning to face him.
"In the early days, we used to pull to the back of the federal building on Elmwood Avenue to load up bags of mail. I guess Yellow Cab had the contract. Then we'd drive out to the airport and drop 'em off at this, like, old shack. It was so informal. I don't recall any paperwork or receipts."
"That's awesome," I said. "Things were a lot more informal back then."
"So, you're still at it," he said. "How's the job these days?"
"It's changed quite a bit. For one thing, the city's grown so much. Traffic is snarled for longer and longer stretches of each day. And then there's Uber, which I'm sure you've heard about."
Tom nodded and smiled warmly. It was now his turn to be sympathetic, and I felt it.
"But it's still the job for me," I said, rallying. "I'm out there every day, driving Vermonters all throughout the Green Mountains. It beats working in a cubicle."
We sat there smiling at one another for a beat or two, a picture of camaraderie. Shaking hands, we said our goodbyes, and then he was gone. Tom Black, retired cabbie, was one of the good guys. Running into him warmed me with nostalgia, a welcome feeling on a frosty Vermont morning.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.