It was early morning, the start of what was shaping up as my busiest workday in years. Joaquin Acosta sat next to me, a striking presence with his Jheri curls and black eye patch. Didn't Jheri curls come and go with the disco era? I thought. But what did I know?
I had just picked up Joaquin from his dorm at SUNY Plattsburgh. I was taking him to an ophthalmologist's office in Burlington for an assessment of his eye injury. His doctor in Plattsburgh had called in the consult to determine whether some sort of surgical procedure was warranted.
As we drove toward the Grand Isle ferry, I put to him the obvious question, "So, what happened, man?"
"I was sucker-punched at a bar a couple of nights ago," Joaquin replied.
"Did you know the guy?" I asked.
"I don't think so," he said. "I barely saw him before he clocked me."
"That's nuts! Was it, like, a racial or ethnic thing?"
"Who knows? It's hard to tell with an incident like this."
"Are you from the area? Does your mom know what's going on?"
"No, I'm from the Bronx. My folks moved here from the Dominican Republic before I was born. So, I'm first generation. My mom was insistent on coming up to, like, 'take care of me,' but me and my dad managed to talk her out of it.
"My dad couldn't drive up anyway because of his work schedule. He drives a truck for Goya Foods, delivering throughout the five boroughs. When I was a little kid, sometimes he would take me on his route with him."
My customer paused for a moment, nodding his head with a wistful smile. I had the sense that he had surprised himself with that reveal. He continued, "That's actually my best childhood memory, now that I think about it."
Joaquin and I continued to converse for the entire ride to Burlington. I found him to be, simply put, a beautiful guy: humble, grounded and intellectual in the best sense of the word, both curious and studious. We discussed Ta-Nehisi Coates, my favorite writer on politics and culture, and agreed on his brilliance. We shared a similar enthusiasm for Junot Díaz, one of my favorite novelists and, like Joaquin, a child of Dominican immigrants.
Apparently it was my college day, as my next fare was a SUNY Potsdam student, also headed to a doctor's appointment in Burlington. It was early afternoon when I arrived at Zeki Uzun's off-campus digs. When he stepped into my cab, I noticed his lower lip was swollen and had two or three stitches. As Yogi Berra memorably put it, this was déjà vu all over again.
Before I could open my mouth, Zeki said, "You should see the other guy."
I chuckled at his use of that old chestnut. "Jeez, dude — how'd it happen?"
"Three guys — I'm pretty sure they were students — showed up at my door late last night screaming something about a party and that they wanted in. I told them they had the wrong house, but they were hammered and belligerent. Finally, I stepped outside to confront them — big mistake — and one of them must have swung at me. I never even saw it coming. I think I was actually knocked out for a few seconds. The doctors here said there might be a small bleed in the brain, so they want me to see a neurologist in Burlington."
This is crazy! I thought. What are the odds?
"Your heritage is Middle Eastern, right? I said. "Do you think that was the motivation?"
"Not really," Zeki replied. "They were just drunk and stupid. Where the racial thing comes into play is these three white guys knew they could get away with it."
"I see what you're saying. Like, if you were involved in an incident like this, they'd be calling out the SWAT team."
I flashed on our president. He has spent two years signaling permission for, if not actively encouraging, just this kind of behavior. It's as if he's opened the Pandora's box of America's dark soul.
"If you don't mind me asking, are you first generation?"
"I am. My parents emigrated here from Kurdistan. My dad is a petroleum engineer."
"Do you have any siblings?"
"Yeah, I have 13 brothers and sisters."
"Did you say 13? Your poor mother!"
"Yes, she's a champ, all right. It's actually quite common for Kurds to have large families. Granted, 14 kids is kind of, let's say, pushing the envelope."
After dropping off Zeki, I immediately rushed to my next scheduled pickup — one Arnold Clover, a Montpelierite going to Burlington. An hour later, approaching the guy's address, I discovered that it was located squarely at the busy triple intersection of Route 2 and Berlin and Granite streets. This represented an ultra-hairy rendezvous point, made only worse by the building's short driveway, barely 25 feet. And, if I thought pulling in there was scary, backing out with Arnold was a bungee jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.
"Jeez, what's it like living at that location?" I asked, once we were safely on our way.
"Ya get used to it," Arnold replied with his wry Vermont inflection.
After these three long runs to the Queen City — two from across the lake and one from the state capital — my cabbie marathon was about to kick into high gear. I had less than an hour to prepare for the doozy: a trip to New York City. A Vermont nonprofit had held its annual fundraiser in UVM's Davis Center, and the director hired me to drive the event's illustrious guest speaker back to her home in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.
The speaker turned out to be a lovely person: an Indian American woman in her thirties, famous for her activism around encouraging girls to get involved in the traditionally male province of computer coding.
After chatting with me for a short while, she excused herself to catch some sleep, stretching out across the rear bench seats. She was out cold for nearly five hours while, with her go-ahead, I listened nonstop to MSNBC.
As we entered the Lincoln Tunnel, I gently woke her up. She was groggy but cheerful. Emerging into mid-Manhattan at 2 a.m., we saw a tall man crossing the street in an elaborate pastel, paisley-patterned dinosaur costume. This took me aback before I realized what day it was.
"OK, it's Halloween," I said to my customer.
"Either that or a Tuesday night in the Big Apple," she quipped, and together we laughed.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.