All of my taxi business comes to me via word of mouth; I've never spent a dime on advertising and don't even have my business number etched on the side of my cab. As you might expect, most of the mouths in question belong to existing customers who enjoy my service and recommend me to friends. But a few of these mouths also belong to a handful of local bartenders who call on me when one of their customers requests a cab.
"Across from the Divorce Court" is printed on the front awning below the bar's name, so you know the owners of Burlington's Esox have a sense of humor, if a skosh on the sardonic side. As it happens, the bartenders at this venerable Main Street waterhole have been using me for years.
"I got a 'Robbie' for ya, going to Milton," Stacey said. "He seems like a nice guy and not too hammered."
"Thanks, Stace," I replied. "I'll be there in about 10."
After securing the Esox pickup and chatting with Robbie for a couple minutes, I concurred with Stacey: He was a nice, not-too-hammered guy.
"So, how long have you lived in Milton?" I asked, glancing over at my seatmate. Robbie was a short man with longish brown hair curling over his shirt collar. He wore a burnished black leather jacket and sported a medley of chunky rings across what seemed to be the majority of his fingers.
"No, I'm just visiting with a friend in Milton," he explained. "I'm a North Country boy, upstate New York. I've lived there my whole life, mostly in Massena."
"Oh, I see. What did your folks do? Was your pop a factory worker?"
"He sure was. He got hired on at Alcoa right out of high school and worked there his whole life. He recently retired, ironically, so now he just drives my mother crazy. I probably woulda done the same, but almost all the factories have closed by now or scaled way back."
I thought about that economically distressed stretch of towns running west along New York's Route 11 — Ellenburg, Malone, Potsdam, to name but a few. All these towns had their heyday in the robust postwar years, when the United States dominated the world in industrial output. As you traverse the region in present day, a string of boarded-up downtowns vividly puts the bygone to that era.
"So, what have you pursued for work?" I asked.
"Well, I've been scrambling a bit lately, to tell the truth, but I've always had my own businesses. My last one — a bar and music club — did real well, at least for a few years."
"In the North Country?"
"Yeah, it was located in the boonies, for real, in an area south of Massena, halfway between Malone and Potsdam. We converted an old barn, put up a small stage and managed to pull in local and even national acts for the weekends. We regularly had crowds of a few hundred. I was raking in major coin hand over fist. The place was called Northern Stars."
"Oh, great name for a club. So what went wrong?" I asked, and immediately flashed on Road House, that preposterous movie from the late '80s starring Patrick Swayze as a famous bouncer (don't ask) who simply could not keep his shirt on. (Now that I think about it, that character flaw was shared by many of the men he portrayed.)
"Did the authorities shut it down?" I guessed before Robbie could respond.
"No, nothing like that. We were, like, a victim of our own success. After a while, word got around, and a couple of similar clubs opened right in the surrounding towns. None of them featured the big names we attracted, but folks didn't have to drive up to an hour to get there, and that was a big advantage.
"I don't think any of our copycat competitors did all that well, but you can only split the pie so many ways, if you get my meaning," Robbie went on. "Our numbers slowly began to fall, month after month, and finally we just threw in the towel."
As we exited the highway at Chimney Corners and steered north on Route 7 into Milton, I thought about Robbie from the North Country. He spoke with the same grounded, blunt clarity I've experienced talking with the many entrepreneurial, small-business types in the Burlington area — ambitious, hardworking men and women who own and operate delis, hair salons, contracting outfits, landscaping and cleaning companies, retail shops.
In contrast to the often highly educated and well-funded founders of the high-concept cyber startups so attractive to big-time investors, these small-business folks usually come from modest means with only high school diplomas, or perhaps a couple of college semesters, to their names. What they have in common is a powerful drive to succeed and the need to work for themselves.
They also often share, I've noticed, economically conservative political views, with a particular disdain for government "handouts" to the poor and homeless. If I could pull myself up by my own bootstraps, they assert, why can't they? What they may be missing, as I see it, is that possessing that bootstrap-pulling wherewithal is a blessing not every soul can, well, pull off, and that's where compassion comes into play. (Which is a whole other discussion.)
As he steered me toward his friend's home, I asked him if there was a Mrs. Robbie back in Massena.
"No, I recently got divorced," he said.
"Nope, it was actually my third. This last wife I met at my club when I was 42 and she was 21. I guess that might have been the problem."
"Ya think?" I said with a chuckle, hoping that my bit of snark would be taken in the right spirit. So I was glad to see him smile, if wistfully, in response.
And there it is, I thought — Robbie's blind spot. I'd wager his rocky love life has been sapping his energy and clouding his judgment. If he could only sort out his relationship issues, his next business venture could well achieve long-term success. So says Dr. Pontiac.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.