Sitting beside me in my taxi, my customer, Linda Avena, appeared serene as she gazed out at the passing landscape of snow-covered homes, barns and fields. It was a crisp and sunny afternoon in the newly minted year and decade. Optimism is a hard quality to summon these days, but the sheer natural beauty of Vermont never fails to lift my spirits, and it seemed to be working its magic on Linda, as well.
We were en route to Linda's home located "out in the boonies" of Washington County, north of Calais. She might have mentioned how she got stranded carless in Burlington, but I don't recall. I was just grateful for this good fare on what had been, thus far, a typically slow postholiday week.
"Man, you're lucky to live in rural Vermont," I said. "I would, too, except my profession keeps me glued to the Burlington area. Nope, there's no such thing as remote work for an independent cabbie like me."
"Yeah, I love it up here, too," Linda agreed. She was a slim, handsome woman, perhaps pushing 60. "I'd been living in New York City for about 40 years before returning in 2015."
"What precipitated the move to New York back in — OK, lemme do the math — was it the '70s?"
"Very good," Linda said with a chuckle. "The answer to your question is, however, a long and involved story. Are you sure you're up for it?"
"'Long and involved' is my favorite kind of story," I replied, chuckling in return. "Those adjectives are like catnip to me."
"Well, believe it or not, my family sent me to New York to attend a communist school when I was a teenager. It was located in this old Greenwich Village brownstone."
"OK, you got me there," I said. "A communist school? I know that in the 1930s, the Depression years, many Americans were drawn to communism as a solution to the profound failures of capitalism, but didn't that basically come to an end when the unimaginable evils of Stalinism were widely exposed postwar?"
"Wow, you know your history, Jernigan. And, yes, the lure of communism faded for the vast majority of people, but my family was hard-core. My grandfather was an Italian immigrant and granite carver. For years, he actually served as chairman of the Vermont Communist Party. It doesn't get more committed than that. I was young and just went along. Frankly, at the time, I was excited to escape the rural life and move to the Big Apple."
"So, what was the school like? Heavy-duty propaganda? Daily sing-alongs of 'Solidarity Forever'?"
"Actually, we did sing that quite a lot, now that you mention it. I compare it to Catholic school. Mostly, it was like a regular school but with an overlay of the 'religion' of communist theory. For me, that part went in one ear and out the other. Anyway, I graduated with a legit high school diploma and felt liberated to live my life my way, for the first time, really."
"So you stayed in the city?"
"I did. In fact, I managed to find a suitable place in the Village, a neighborhood I really loved. I lived with a bunch of other young people in this old-style rooming house, kind of like a cheap hotel. What made it exciting was that a number of the rookie players on the New York Giants were living there, as well, and I became good friends with all of them."
"The Giants football team? Holy smokes, Linda — that must have been an amazing time in your life."
"Yeah, they were great guys. Keep in mind that this was years before the players won the right to free agency, so they didn't earn the million-dollar salaries that are common now. It's hard to believe, but I think my guys were making maybe 15 grand a year, if that. So, while they had some fame, they weren't exactly living in the lap of luxury."
"What was your relationship like with these young men?"
"Looking back, I think I played the role of kid sister to them, or maybe den mother says it better. The Mondays after the games, I would help nurse them back to health — or at least enough health to get back on the field the next week. I'm sure you know what a brutal sport pro football is and what a toll it takes on the players' bodies. I remember preparing ice baths for Billy Taylor — Billy was nicknamed the 'BT Express' and has remained a close friend to this day.
"But aside from the injuries and all that, we had so much fun," Linda continued. "I remember going out with the guys to Studio 54. You've heard of that place, right? In the early '80s, it was the most celebrated and notorious dance club in the city, attracting celebrities galore like Andy Warhol and Brooke Shields. Oh, boy — it was a crazy and wonderful time."
Crazy and wonderful, indeed, I thought as I steered my taxi north through Maple Corners in Calais and onto the dirt roads that mark, more than anything else, the passage into the boonies. At times, it feels akin to a borderline to me, so much so that I find myself surprised by the absence of a gate and guardhouse.
Even after my decades of hacking and the thousands of conversations with customers to which I've been privileged, each new person remains a revelation. What an arc Linda's life has followed: from a red-diaper baby in backwoods Vermont to Greenwich Village and befriending and partying with pro athletes at Studio 54 in its glittering heyday, and then back to the Green Mountains. Ya think Linda Avena has a memoir to write?
After a few miles and a couple of lefts and rights, we pulled up to her home, a modest ranch surrounded by some robust wooded acreage.
"This was my grandfather's home," she shared. "I still remember the constant meetings and all the serious and intense people who would visit during my childhood."
Yes, it's a cliché, but it never seemed so apt: If those walls could talk...
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.