The person I picked up had just completed a late lunch at Istanbul Kebab House, the Turkish restaurant on lower Church Street. I took a gander at him as he figured out the shotgun seat-belt situation; he was a fit middle-aged guy with still-reddish hair and a trim beard to match.
How cosmopolitan is Burlington circa 2020? I thought as we pulled away from the curb, southbound toward my customer's hotel room in Shelburne. When I moved here in 1979, your Queen City dining choices in "ethnic" cuisine consisted of a sprinkling of Chinese and Italian joints. Now we have eateries featuring savory dishes that span the globe.
Of even greater import, this vast expansion of food choices mirrors the ethnic and racial diversification of the local population itself. What an amazing cultural transformation over a mere 40 years, I mused.
"Bradley McGuinn," the man said, a broad smile on his face as he extended his hand toward me. "Brad."
"Jernigan Pontiac," I said, reaching over to shake hands. I appreciated both the pithy, old-school introduction and his willingness to press flesh in this age of rampant germophobia.
With an unsolicited, enthusiastic greeting like that, it was a safe bet that Brad was amenable to a chat. And, as luck would have it, so was I.
"So, Brad — where ya visiting from?" I asked.
"Oh, I live in Montpelier," he replied. "Once or twice a year, I treat myself to a weekend in Burlington. Mostly for the food, to be honest."
"Nothing to be ashamed of about that," I said. "B-town's culinary offerings are a friggin' cornucopia, if I'm using that word right. What do you do for work, if I may ask?"
Someone once pointed out to me that asking about work is a very male conversational opener. This is, of course, a generalization, but women often talk through a list of other, more personal matters before broaching the W word.
"I do etchings — engravings, to be technically accurate — for tombstones and other stonework. At times, I get a commission for a portrait, which is fun. It's all handwork and folks appreciate that. Enough, anyway, to keep a roof over my head."
"Has digital technology cut into your business?"
"What do you think?" Brad replied, chuckling.
"I think yes," I answered, chuckling along. "Hey, I can relate, having suffered at the hand of the digitized black plague known as Uber. Not that I'm bitter."
"Oh, I can see that," Brad replied, and we laughed together.
"Do you have a piece of work that you're most proud of?" I asked. "Like, where your vision for the engraving was most fully realized?"
"I did, but I couldn't show you a picture. I was renting in East Montpelier in 2011 and lost nearly everything in the Irene flooding. Everybody had told me to digitize the old photos of my work, but I never got around to it."
"Oh, man! What a loss. Were you at home when the river rose?"
"Yeah, I was napping on the couch when the water came up through the floorboards. I had, like, two minutes to evacuate. A neighbor came by knocking wildly at the door, and it was a mad scramble choosing what to save. The whole thing was, like, so unreal, like something out of a Stephen King novel. In less than an hour, the entire house was totaled, just washed away."
"Jeez, I can't even imagine."
"But, in the end, it was only things. I'd been through heavier loss earlier in my life. My mother grew up in great wealth. Humbly, she always said, but I'm talking about cooks, butlers, chauffeurs — the whole nine yards. Her father, my grandfather, was an engineer who had perfected the first practical central heating system and owned patents on the key components. This made him a fortune.
"My own father left our family when I was 11," Brad continued. "He was a tough man to have as a father. Outwardly, to the world, he was friendly and jovial, but he harbored a burning jealousy toward anyone he perceived to have 'more' than him — talent, money, friends, just about anything. And this resentment extended to our mother and me and my siblings."
"Sounds like a harrowing emotional environment to grow up in," I commiserated.
"Nothing that six years of therapy couldn't cure," Brad said. From the look in his eyes, I could tell he was being not flippant but serious and that the therapy had done him a world of good.
"The coup de grace, so to speak, was when my mother died, and we got our first look at the will," he continued. "We kids assumed we'd be inheriting perhaps millions, but apparently my father had, at some point, pressured our mother and engineered a change in the estate distribution. He received the lion's share, and the four of us split a pittance, like $65,000. We went to lawyers but were told it was totally legit."
With that, Brad exhaled and paused for a moment.
"So, as I said," he said, "I've grown familiar with loss."
Taking in this man's story, I reflected that I, too, have experienced loss. I daresay I share this in common with every other human who has ever walked the planet. And, from my understanding of the feeling, I can guess which one of the losses hit Brad the hardest.
I'd say it wasn't the destruction of his work photos and sundry personal belongings in the flood or the treacherous theft of his inheritance. As he told me, "It was only things." What takes the deepest toll is emotional loss, like being raised by a father who, living with his own damaged and unhealed heart, continually lashes out against his near and dear ones.
Pulling up to Brad's hotel, I thought, Six years of therapy sounds about right. Good on him for taking the leap, putting in the time and getting the help he deserved.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.