The woman who phoned me from Kohl's department store at University Mall was, to use talk-radio lingo, a first-time caller.
How a new customer obtains my taxi phone number is often a mystery to me. Because I've never advertised and have no website or online presence to speak of, my business growth, such as it is, has depended on word of mouth.
Sometimes a newbie will tell me, "Joe gave me your number." But when that information is not volunteered, I rarely ask. It would be an interesting exercise to map the nexus that connects all my customers, tracing it back, one would presume, to a Customer Zero. I actually have a pretty good idea who that person might be, and if I'm right, the guy still rides with me to this day, 30 years and counting.
My new customer, Rainey, didn't say who'd passed her my number, and true to form, I didn't ask. She needed a ride to Fairfax, a tidy fare for a clear and sunny afternoon.
When I pulled to the front of Kohl's, Rainey was standing outside with a couple of bulging plastic bags. Her clothes were unfashionable, if not shabby; her shoulder-length hair lackluster and stringy. I couldn't guess her age; she could have been 35 or 65. Behind her unemotive eyes, I detected an underlying distress. The word that came to mind was "beleaguered."
I placed the shopping bags in the back, and the woman took a seat beside me. "I don't often get into Burlington," Rainey said wearily, "but I needed a bunch of stuff for the house and my grandkids."
Making my way out of the shopping center, I asked, "So, Rainey, are you a Vermont girl?"
"Yup, I grew up in Enosburgh. But I've been living in Fairfax over 30 years, since my first marriage."
"You doing anything for work up there?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah. I'm a schoolbus driver. I been at that for years."
"How does that work? Ya get, like, four hours a day? Two in the morning, and two when the kids get out in the afternoon?"
"I wish. I drive all day long, sometimes 10 hours straight between the regular kids and the special ed. And the boss is always making me cover the shifts for drivers who are out sick, or whatever. I never miss a day. My husband drives, too."
"This is your second husband?"
"Nope, my third. The first two died on me."
I absorbed that information as we exited the interstate at Route 15, en route to the Circ Highway. The loss of a spouse is a traumatizing, life-altering event, perhaps more so when it occurs early in life. I hate to imagine going through that once, let alone twice.
"So, you're on your third husband? Have they all been decent men?"
"The second was the love of my life. He was a police chief. I remember he would make me breakfast in bed when I was pregnant. We had two kids together. And he built us a beautiful house, but when he got sick, we had to sell it. We moved into a trailer on one corner of the property. I still live there now."
"How about husband No. 1?"
"That marriage was a mistake. I was just 18. He would threaten me constantly, waving a gun around the house. Eventually they gave him jail time, and that's where he died, in jail."
Died, or was killed? That was the follow-up question I could have asked but thought better of. "So, how about your current husband. Does he treat ya right?"
"Oh, God, no. He's 12 years older than me, and — I didn't know this when we got married — he never throws anything out! I mean anything. The whole trailer is filled with his junk. I have just a narrow passageway to get to the bedroom. The entire front lawn is filled with rusted cars and appliances. The backyard, too. If I even suggest selling something or getting rid of it, he raises holy hell. This is why I got the depression."
"Rainey, your husband's got an illness," I informed her. "It's called 'hoarding,' and it's a real mental condition. I think there's even TV shows about it."
"Yeah, I suppose so. This is what my sister tells me. But there's nothing I can do about it. It's just the way he is."
"Well, you can see a counselor or somebody to talk it over," I suggested. "This guy got you under his thumb. Heck, it's your house, isn't it? You shouldn't have to live that way."
Even as I said these words, I knew they were essentially useless. Folks get trapped in toxic relationships. Getting disentangled requires a massive, all-encompassing level of commitment. An exhortation from a random, meddling — if well-meaning — cabdriver was, at best, merely unhelpful. At worst, I might have exacerbated her already battered self-esteem.
The Buddhists posit that, before speaking, you should ask yourself three questions about what you're going to say: 1. Is it true? 2. Is it kind? 3. Is it necessary? My speech had arguably passed the first test but had clearly violated the latter two. I chalked it up as a "lesson learned." Alas, yet again.
We reached Rainey's trailer, located off a side road, off another side road. Indeed, the property could have qualified for an episode of "Hoarders" or "Hoarding: Buried Alive." Everywhere you looked, there was junk: in the front, along the trailer sides, inside and pressed up against the windows.
As Rainey paid me and we retrieved her shopping bags, I asked, "By the way, where'd you get my phone number?"
"Oh, I got it from a Burlington bartender I know," she replied and mentioned his name.
Well, what do you know? I thought. It was Customer Zero, still spreading the good word.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.