- Van Ness House postcard, June 4, 1907
Pinned to the wall above my computer desk is an old picture postcard given to me by a friend. It features a photo of the four-story Van Ness House, an ornate hotel that once sat on the southwest corner of St. Paul and Main streets in downtown Burlington, the current site of a TD Bank branch.
A Google search reveals that the Van Ness opened for business in 1870. It was considered a "world-class hotel" and played host to at least three U.S. presidents — McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and Taft. On May 24, 1951, it burned to the ground.
My postcard was sent from a mother, presumably visiting Burlington on some mission, to her family back in Rutland. Her typically Vermonter message is nothing short of a pithy masterpiece, a mere four words in length and worthy of the Zen poets of classical Japan: "Here all O.K., Ma." The postmark is dated June 4, 1907.
All of that I found interesting, but what riveted my attention — and explains why I've kept the postcard in a prominent position — is the image in the foreground of the photo. On the northeast corner beside City Hall Park, two horse-drawn buggies sit at the curb, one behind the other, their drivers at the ready. These two men, I've no doubt, were hackies — my cabbie brethren from another century. Now, 111 years later, that same location remains a cabstand.
I began driving a cab in Burlington in 1981, working for Benways — one of the town's three taxi fleets, along with Yellow and Bushey's — before going independent within a year. When I started my own service, the city had only five other indie cabdrivers. Five of us worked nearly exclusively out of the airport.
I think back on those days as a libertarian paradise: Beyond a cab license and insurance requirement, there were no regulations on how we did business. We simply lined up at the curb outside the terminal's main door and did our thing.
Our quintet occasionally bickered, particularly on the slower days, but things rarely reached the level of serious disagreement. Basically, we self-governed, working together and never undercutting the price quote of the guy in front of us.
In the early '80s, the Venezuelan economy was booming owing to the country's vast oil reserves in a time of embargoes and shortages. For some reason (the climatic contrast?), the Venezuelan upper crust appeared to relish skiing and vacationing in Vermont. They would fly into the Burlington airport, often with extended families in tow, and we cabbies would drive them on lucrative fares to the various ski areas. At the time, I composed a ditty that the other guys enjoyed and would beg me to sing:
Hello, wealthy Venezuelans.
Won't you take my gringo taxi?
No, don't rent a car or bus it.
That would be grody to the maxi.
Yes, those were good times to be a cabdriver, back when "über" still meant "denoting an outstanding example of a particular kind of person or thing" rather than "a relentless taxi-crushing leviathan."
As I said, for quite a few years only the five of us regularly worked at the airport. The sixth independent cabbie was an older guy who rarely joined us on the queue. He was a tall, stately, white-haired gentleman named Reggie Snow. While the rest of us were in our twenties, thirties or forties, Reggie must have been close to 60 — a man of the World War II generation.
Reggie worked the City Hall Park cabstand driving local folks (and probably few Venezuelans). His company was called Shamrock Taxi, and a green four-leaf clover logo appeared on his cab's two front doors. I know nothing of his biography — whether he was a lifer or took up hacking after another career. In any event, he was a quiet, self-contained Vermonter, not exactly garrulous, and I recall no substantive conversations with him.
But I do remember one summer day when I dropped an airport fare at the Radisson Hotel on Battery Street. Driving back up Main Street, I noticed Reggie idling at his regular cabstand, and something compelled me to swing around and park behind him. He didn't acknowledge my presence, just sat there in his driver's seat reading the daily paper.
Trying to make productive use of my time, I opened my trunk and got out the Windex and paper towel roll. As I began to clean my windows, Reggie folded up his newspaper, stepped out and approached me.
"It's Jernigan, right?" he asked. "You know, you're wasting all kinds of money doing it that way. Let me show you."
He opened his trunk and removed an old newspaper and a spray bottle filled with some cloudy liquid.
"The best thing for windows is newspaper," he instructed. "And my wife makes me up this formula out of plain water with a little vinegar and baking soda. Watch this."
Reggie proceeded to ball up a couple of sheets and spray his windshield with the homemade elixir. With practiced, methodical strokes, he went at it.
"What do ya think?" he asked.
The windshield looked crystal clear, nearly invisible. "Beautiful, man," I replied. "That's a great technique. Thanks for the tip."
"Any time," he said. Then, with the slightest nod, he returned to his cab and newspaper.
I heard that Reggie passed away in the early aughts. I never did give up my Windex, but I've always thought of that exchange as his bestowal of a benediction.
So, brother, if you can hear me up in that celestial cabstand in the sky, thanks for the moment. And, just to let you know — here all OK.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.