Google Maps is helpful but far from foolproof. When I checked the alternative routes from Burlington to Manchester, Vt., it listed Route 7 and Route 22A/Route 30 as a wash, with nearly identical mileage and time estimates.
Well, that's just flat-out wrong, I concluded, closing my laptop. I'm sure the distances are accurate, but 22A — with its long, traffic-signal-free stretches and light traffic — has got to be much quicker than Route 7, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the state. I don't know why I even bother checking, I thought.
So 22A was just the ticket as I motored south with my customer, Shareen Smith, sitting beside me in my taxi. Like me, Shareen was a sixtysomething who had grown up in New York City, so we were hitting it off bigly, to employ the commander in chief's adverb. (Or maybe he says "big league"? I don't know and, frankly, I don't care. The man exhausts me.)
"So, what was it — a heart attack, you were saying?" I asked, rekindling our conversation.
"Oh, yeah — a whopper," Shareen replied. "The EMTs told me that I had technically died. But I knew that already. I heard the music playing in heaven before I came back."
I believed her and didn't think she was speaking in metaphor. If this woman claimed she heard the music in heaven, I have no doubt it was the actual Celestial Orchestra, perhaps with St. Peter conducting.
Shareen was African American, with a slim figure and brightly painted lips. Everything about her exuded honesty and forthrightness; I doubted she could lie if she wanted to. Though we had met just an hour before, I was all about Team Shareen.
"What part of the city did you grow up in?" I asked.
"Mid-Manhattan, the west side — what they call 'Hell's Kitchen.'"
"You know, that's a trendy neighborhood now."
"Well, not when we was kids!" she said, chuckling. "We moved there when I was 6, just after my mom died and my dad got remarried to Teresa. Yes, Teresa was heaven-sent, a wonderful mother to me and my siblings. You see there? I don't even call her 'stepmother.' She was Caucasian and came from this big Italian American family. I give them credit, because they all accepted her marrying this black man with four kids."
"You still working, Shareen?"
"No, I can't anymore. I was a welder and construction worker for years in the Carolinas. I was one of the first women to break into that field and get in the union."
"Wow, you were a pioneer. I bet there weren't too many black folks doing that work down there, either. I can't begin to imagine the shit you went through."
Shareen examined her bright-green fingernails as she considered my conjecture. "Well, put it this way," she said, looking up. "I don't take shit. Those good ol' boys found that out pretty quickly. I think I gained the respect of most of the guys I worked with. Some were just hard-ass rednecks and were a lost cause, but what can you do?"
We were now in the 15-mile stretch of 22A between Fair Haven and Granville where we crossed the border into New York. It seemed fitting somehow, given our shared Empire State roots. It had snowed overnight, and the landscape sparkled in the afternoon sunshine. The sheer beauty acted as a form of visual dopamine, naturally elevating my spirits.
"What about the rest of your family?" I asked. "What did they do for work?"
"Military," she replied, her tone suggestive of some pain attached to the word. "All of them. My father was a staff sergeant in Vietnam. And my sister and two brothers served in Afghanistan and Iraq. I managed to stay out, and I'm glad I did. They all got problems on account of the things they saw over there."
We crossed back into Vermont and approached the tony town of Dorset (though I imagine there were poorer sections up in the hills, far from Route 30). Many of the town properties could be described as lavish: big edifices located up long driveways featuring simple but pricey stone walls or wooden fencing. "Old money" is what came to mind.
We reached our destination, the town of Manchester, known for its upscale factory outlets. I'd heard that they were hurting, along with brick-and-mortar retail stores everywhere — one of the many collateral victims of the digital revolution, cf. traditional taxis. (I can't bear to use the U-word.) Shareen told me she moved to Manchester a few years ago with a boyfriend who was a native. The relationship foundered, but she enjoyed the Vermont lifestyle and settled here.
"I like the housing I'm living in," Shareen said, "but the people are so nosy. I tell them, 'My life is not an open book, but if it was, I'm the reader, not you!'
"The first thing I got to do is check on my friend Maxie," Shareen continued, as she steered me toward her apartment development. "She's a vet, like my family members, so I understand her. After Iraq, she's been a little crazy, and the VA just don't help her. Like, she's convinced that Bill and Hillary are living in her basement and constantly harassing her. If the VA just sent someone over to her place, they'd see that she doesn't even have a basement!"
"OK, what's the second thing you're going to do?" I asked.
"Say my prayers," she replied without hesitation. "My mom, Teresa, raised us Catholic, and we would go to church every Sunday."
"If you don't mind me asking, what do you pray for?"
"I pray that all the little children will be safe at their schools. I pray that all my family and friends will succeed in life. And I thank God that I still have my mind and body together and can support myself."
All worthy prayers and very unselfish, I mused. I hope Shareen won't mind if, for a time, I adopt them as my own.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.