Tony de Rosa sat beside me in my taxi as we drove south on Interstate 89 en route to his home in Lyndonville. An appointment with an endocrinologist — something to do with diabetes — had brought him to Burlington, but his ride back to Lyndonville had fallen through. With his barrel chest, pristinely shaved cranium and strong facial features, he was one formidable presence. "He-man" came to mind as I glanced over at him, though that term went out of favor decades ago.
"So, you still working, Tony?" I asked, striking up the conversation.
"Nah, I've been retired nearly three years." Tony's deep, resonant voice matched his physical demeanor. "In Boston, I was a therapist and social worker," he continued. "I worked with at-risk teenagers, mostly."
"I tip my hat to you, man," I said. "There's no work more important, and it takes a special person. Teens have a highly tuned bullshit detector, don't they? You got to be straight with them, or they'll write you off in a heartbeat."
Tony smiled, nodding but adding nothing. I couldn't quite read whether he wanted to curtail the chat. I'm not one of those cabbies who feels compelled to fill the silence during a ride, but I had a feeling about this guy.
"So, you lived and worked in Boston," I summarized. "When did you come up to Lyndonville?"
"I moved up here just a few weeks ago. I'd spent a lot of time in the area at Karmê Chöling — the Buddhist meditation center in Barnet."
"I see. You're back for some meditation programs?"
"Not exactly, though that might happen, too. I know a therapist who I met at the center who's helped me out in the past. I came up here to work with her again. Unfortunately, it's just not going well, and I'm at a loss."
A he-man carrying a heavy burden, I contemplated, as we swung off the highway in Montpelier onto Route 2 heading east. It was one of those perfect Vermont autumn days: sunny and brisk, the trees ablaze in color. I felt infused with a sense of clarity and purpose, all my doubts and regrets dissolved, if only for the afternoon. What did the Grateful Dead sing? "Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me."
"That's tough, brother," I commiserated. "I've been there myself. So, what's troubling your mind?"
Tony turned to look at me. It felt like he was taking my measure, as in Just who is this guy? I didn't blame him. One needs to be protective of one's precious inner life.
Then he spoke softly and deliberately.
"My daughter, Shauna, has been the light of my life from the day she came into this world. We were super close. Even when her mother and I divorced, we maintained our relationship. But when she married, I had this growing concern about her husband. He wasn't physically abusive with her, but I felt he was controlling. Finally, I had a talk with her. I was as tactful as I could be, you know, like, 'Perhaps you and Trevor could benefit from couples' counseling?'
"She exploded and essentially severed things. Since then, I see her and my two grandkids just twice a year — Thanksgiving and Christmas. And even then, she barely talks to me. This has just broken my heart and put me in a deep funk. It feels hopeless, like a dark hole."
"Do you have any friends you could talk to?"
"I had three old friends, but two of them have passed recently. We all served together in Vietnam. Saw combat, the whole nine yards. The last guy standing is Harry Jackson. He became a counselor like me, serving inner-city kids in Detroit. He's just this beautiful African American guy. But I can't possibly call him while I'm in this state of mind."
"What if the tables were turned?" I asked. "Would you want to hear from him? How would you react?"
"I'd be there in a heartbeat," he replied.
"Well, there's your answer," I said. "Don't sell Harry short. Give him a call."
"You're making a good point," he conceded.
"Well, in that case, I got another thing," I said with a chuckle. "Maybe you should call your therapist and get a referral to a new person. I'll be honest with you — your spirit still seems strong to me, but I can see how much you're suffering. The main thing is to not off yourself, man. I'm sure there's a crisis hotline in Lyndonville. If you need to, give them a call."
"You're right," he said. "I'm going to do that. I knew there was a reason I got in this vehicle today."
"Right back at ya," I said.
Soul to soul, heart to heart, I thought to myself. Isn't this the reason we're put on Earth — to help each other out?
I gave Tony one of my business cards when I dropped him off, saying, "If there's some way I can help, give me a call." As a rule, I don't involve myself in the lives of my customers outside the cab, but it felt right in the moment.
Three days later, I heard from Tony.
"Hey, Jernigan — I just wanted to call to let you know. My daughter, Shauna, got in touch with me, and she wants me to visit. She told me she's ready to let bygones be bygones. I called Harry, also. So, anyway, thanks again for that notable cab ride."
This call couldn't have come at a better time. Earlier that day, I had run over and killed a possum. (I pulled over to check, hoping that the critter was just, well, "playing possum," but sadly, the little beast was undeniably no more.) I hate killing Vermont wildlife; it breaks my heart.
Hearing that Tony was doing well buoyed my spirit no end. The possum was gone, but Tony wasn't.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.