"What a night," Tommy, a regular customer, said to me as I drove him to his apartment in Winooski. "You'd think things'll slow down when the foliage season ends, but it really stays busy straight through New Year's."
Tommy's a local guy, dark haired and rangy, in his mid-twenties. His arms are well muscled, I imagined, from the work he does.
"Yeah, that's also my experience," I said. "The stretch from Thanksgiving to January 1st is, like, one long, extended party. There are concerts, shows, office parties and, of course, the holiday shopping craziness. Hey, if it's busy for you guys, it's busy for us cabbies."
Tommy works as a barback at a popular Burlington watering hole. As he's explained to me, the job entails keeping the bartender well stocked with all the beer, alcohol, garnishes and the like required to keep the drinks flowing and the customers happy.
Word person that I am, I looked up "barback" to find there's some dispute as to its derivation. I had always assumed it came from the physically demanding nature of the work — working with your back — but apparently that's not it. Some etymologists believe it refers to servicing the back of the bar, behind the barkeep who serves the actual drinks. Others point to the supportive function of "having the bartender's back."
Whatever the origin of the term, a good barback wordlessly anticipates the needs of the bartender with whom he or she is paired and is essential to the smooth delivery of service. I had the feeling that Tommy was a good one.
We took a right onto Pearl Street. The streets were teeming with students on this weekend night. "You don't wanna run over one of these UVMers," I noted, "because there's a $50 fine."
"Fifty bucks?" Tommy repeated, chuckling. "You don't say. "
It's mean, but I'm not above getting a laugh from my townie customers at the expense of the college students. Plus, sometimes one of them will think I'm being serious about the $50 business, and that's funnier still. Oh, there's no end to the antics I'll pull to keep myself amused.
"So, how's the community service going?" I asked. Tommy had shared that he was assigned 60 hours of service as a condition of probation for an assault charge.
"That's almost done with," he replied. "They got me bagging up leaves this week, which ain't too bad."
My curiosity getting the better of me (newsflash: not a rare occurrence), I formulated the question that had been on my mind.
"So, could I ask you the circumstances of the criminal charge? I mean, if you don't want to talk about it, that's totally cool. I guess I'm just nosy by nature."
"No, I don't mind. I decked a guy, knocked him clean out. And I'd do it again if I had the chance."
"Holy smokes!" I said. "I've never punched a guy in the head, or been hit myself that way. I was knocked unconscious by a baseball bat when I was a kid, but that was purely a schoolyard accident. What were you in — a bar fight?"
"No, I was on a job working for my mother. She runs a small catering business. We were at this office celebration with a crew of about five of us. As we were setting up, one of the guys started getting mouthy with my mother. Now, my mom's no pushover — far from it. But this guy was being a total dick. I really don't know where she found him. Finally, he calls her a 'bitch,' and that's when I decked him."
"My God, what a mess. Did somebody have to call an ambulance?"
"No, he came to pretty quickly and stumbled out. The next day the police were at my door. Obviously, he pressed charges."
"I'll tell you, Tommy — I can sympathize with your loyalty to your mom, but I just don't know if violence is ever a good choice."
"Well, you don't know my mom. I'm her only kid, and she had me when she was a teenager. My dad walked out on us when I was a toddler, and the child-support checks eventually dwindled to nothing. So it was all on my mom. And she figured out how to support us both, working two jobs — whatever it took. She's like a warrior princess. No way am I going to stand by while some asshole is giving her abuse."
We swung around the Winooski circle and over to Tommy's place on West Street. I thought about the admonition against violence that I'd laid on him. I meant it sincerely and try in my own life to live by it. But I wouldn't call myself a pacifist, because I recognize there are exceptions. And defense of the warrior princess may just be one of them.
"So, what's your mom's feeling about all of this?" I asked Tommy as he paid the fare.
"She wasn't too happy," he replied, chuckling. "In fact, she fired me. But the thing is, she did it with a smile."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.