Located on Route 17 about two miles from the Champlain Bridge, the West Addison General Store is the real deal: a bona fide, old-school Vermont general store. That's general as opposed to specific. Yup, they carry everything from penny candy to baseball caps to fishing worms. And the floor and shelves are made of wood.
But the core difference between a place like this and the more common so-called convenience stores of the modern world is that the West Addison General Store got soul. And that's what draws me in whenever a taxi fare has me Champlain Bridge-bound.
On a sunny late-winter afternoon, I was gassing up at said Addison store when I heard a cacophony of bird talk from across the road. On a huge field of corn stubble, just barely devoid of its winter snow cover, a flock of geese had congregated. It was hard to tell whether they were looking for food or just chilling. I'm not exaggerating when I estimate their numbers at somewhere north of 200.
Before I went into the store to settle up — no paying at the pump at this trusting establishment — I moseyed over to the edge of the field and called, "Welcome back, guys!" Not a single bird took notice, but why would they?
Traversing the bridge into New York and following the route my customer, Ralph Vitiello, had given me, I soon pulled to a stop in front of his house in the town of Silver Bay. It was hard to miss: a once-stately Victorian gone to seed. Ralph had told me he rents a room there, living with three other men. The rambling porch and expansive front yard were filled with sundry items in various states of disassembly, if not decay. A Hollywood set dresser couldn't have done a better job.
I gave a honk as instructed, and Ralph emerged from the front door, moving slowly. He was going to Burlington for some medical imaging of his right knee, which he told me would probably need replacing. He had shared a lot in his booking phone call.
As he eased into the shotgun seat I said, "Have you seen all those geese hanging around the bridge? There's, like, a million of 'em."
"You mean the ducks?" he replied. His expression was oddly deadpan.
"Jeez, I guess they coulda been ducks. I thought they were geese, but what do I know? I grew up in Brooklyn. All we had were pigeons."
"I'm just busting your balls, man," Ralph said, cackling. I noticed the pronounced Long Island accent and the matching attitude. His hair was thick and lustrous, slicked back with — if I had to guess — Brylcreem. I can still remember the ubiquitous jingle from my youth: "Brylcreem — A little dab'll do ya!'"
"And, yeah, I seen 'em and heard 'em," Ralph continued. "They are some noisy sons of bitches."
"That they are," I agreed. "So, Ralphie, you said you grew up on Long Island, right?"
"Syosset," he replied. "I went to high school with Billy Joel. We had rival bands. I also was friends with Steve Cohen, the school's AV nerd who went on to become Billy's lighting director for his tours. You ever notice that the biggest nerds from back in the day are now running the world?"
"Yeah, I have noticed that. It's like that '80s movie Revenge of the Nerds. So, how'd you end up in the boonies of upstate New York?"
"Finances, my man. After my divorce — my third — I was left flat broke. A buddy of mine had this old family home in Silver Lake. He said I could come up and live there if I helped with the repairs and property management. So, I've been up here for five years now."
"Wow, what a total change in lifestyle. Do you like it?"
"I fuckin' hate it! I feel like I'm in witness protection or something. There is, like, nothing going on up here. I'm going fucking stir-crazy. And don't even get me going about the food. They wouldn't know a pasta Bolognese if you dropped it on their lap."
Ralph paused his rant to fish a letter out of a well-worn satchel he had brought with him. "Excuse me a minute," he said. "This was just delivered certified and it's from a court, so I better check it out."
He ripped open the letter, looked at it and said, "Well, fuck me. I'm being sued for child support! Can you believe it?"
"One of your ex-wives?" I asked.
"No, I only had kids — my son and daughter — with the second one, and they're both in their thirties now. This is from a chick who worked in accounting at the Chevy dealership where I worked before I moved up here. She was gorgeous and also, I came to learn, bat-shit crazy. She claims I had a son with her who's now 5 years old."
"Holy shit!" I said, fully into the drama of the situation. "Could it be possible?"
"Well, of course it's possible. Before things went haywire, we were banging, like, daily. I mean, fuhgettaboutit."
"So, you got to show up in court on Long Island?"
"Yup, I've been 'summoned to appear' on, let's see, April 14th."
"Are you gonna?" At this point in the conversation I had reverted to the full Brooklynese syntax of my youth.
"Fuck no! How the hell am I gonna make it down to the Island with a wonky leg and no bread?"
I was working up an answer until I realized it was a rhetorical question and held my tongue.
"Plus, what can they do to me, anyway?" he continued. "I'm up here, flat broke without a pot to piss in. They can't get blood from a stone, right?"
"I guess that's your silver lining. Like Dylan said, 'When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose.'"
"He got that right," Ralph said, chuckling. "Coulda been writing about me."
We hadn't yet reached the bridge and Ralph had already relayed a couple of extraordinary stories. Here's the thing: In the hour more that it took to get to Burlington, he shared at least five other stories from his life, each one juicier than the last.
Can I get an amen, somebody? Fuhgettaboutit!
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.