A couple stood on the Pearl Street sidewalk in front of the UU, the church from which Burlington's Church Street takes its name. They appeared to be in their late twenties. At their feet sat two well-worn suitcases and at least one stuffed trash bag. As I approached, the man flagged me down.
"Do you know where the Shelburne Econo Lodge is at? And can you take us there?" he asked me through the open passenger window.
"Yes, and yes," I replied. "I'll open the liftgate for your stuff, and you can jump right in the back seat."
We loaded their bags, and the man helped his companion step up into the minivan. She appeared pregnant, but I didn't dream of asking, "When are ya due?" If my impression were wrong, that question would have allowed no possibility of walking back. It is, indeed, the faux pas ne plus ultra, the gaffe for which the Jaws of Life can't extract your foot from your mouth. I don't care if a woman is the size of a beach ball; if she doesn't affirmatively state, unprompted, "I am pregnant," I make no assumptions.
As we got under way, the man extended his hand to me, saying, "I'm Dominic Gutierrez."
Shaking his hand, I said, "I'm Jernigan Pontiac. It's always good to run into Latino folks in Burlington."
Dominic chuckled. "Well, I'm half Latino and half Italian. And my partner here is Native, from the Mohawk tribe."
"Sweet," I said, making eye contact with the woman in the rearview mirror. "What's your name?"
"I'm Mary Lynn," she replied — minus, I noticed, the gusto of her partner.
"Good to meet you," I said. "A friend of mine spent some time with the Mohawk people for a novel he was writing. He told me that, among the Mohawk, children are given an American name but also a Mohawk name for use within the tribe. Was that true for you?"
"I wouldn't know about that, because I didn't grow up on the rez."
While not quite a Jaws of Life scenario, I realized that I had been intrusive in my questioning of Mary Lynn. There's probably good reason why Native people might employ two names: to provide a measure of privacy and protection from meddlesome white folks like me.
Dominic, on the other hand, was voluble.
"So, we came here last week from Massena with a thousand bucks," he began. "But we didn't realize how expensive housing is in Burlington. And things are so spread out — you really need a car. Mary Lynn is due in January, so we need to get situated. If things don't work out here, we do have family we can live with back in New York."
"Congratulations on the baby," I offered. "Good for you. Is it your first?"
"It's my fourth," Mary Lynn replied. "The three older ones are staying with my mom in Massena until we get set up here."
"How about you, Dominic? You got any others?"
"I have nine kids," he replied, happy and upbeat as ever.
"My goodness, you are repopulating God's green Earth! How many mothers, if I may ask?"
"Seven different mothers."
I mentally took stock. If I'm keeping up correctly, Mary Lynn would be the eighth woman with whom he's had at least one child. That's a lot of humans, a lot of souls emanating from one man. I mean, one who's not a sultan!
It would be so easy to be judgmental. I thought about one of our national political parties, which apparently has as one of its two raisons d'être the demonization and punishment of society's lower strata and racial minorities. (Its other — the flip side of the same coin — is the further enrichment of the very rich.)
But I would not go there. I'll reserve my ire for worthier targets. Such as those with wealth and power who were born on third base and think they hit a triple, who leverage their many advantages in life to accumulate more, and who have no compassion for those with the least.
"Oh, do you think we can stop at a gas station?" Dominic requested. "Mary Lynn needs her munchies."
I pulled into the Maplefields Mobil just past the interstate. When Dominic went in to snag the snacks, I asked Mary Lynn if she'd been craving any unusual foods.
"Each baby has wanted their own thing," she explained. I turned in my seat and took in her sweet, weary face as she spoke, her beauty and dignity shining through in defiance of her rocky circumstances. "This one wants Twizzlers," she added. "I never liked that candy before this pregnancy. Now I'm eating 'em daily."
Dominic returned carrying a bag that was teeming with junk food. "I got you the two different kinds you like," he told his partner. "Strawberry and cherry."
"You're the best, Dom," she said, and I detected the first hint of a smile since she got in the cab. It was like a shaft of sunlight breaking through an overcast sky, and it filled me with a sense of hope and happiness all out of proportion with the passing moment.
And now, I thought, chuckling to myself, I'm hankering for some Twizzlers of my own.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.