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Jazz, Trains and Baseball



Published June 25, 2008 at 5:38 a.m.

The evening Amtrak train arrived late as usual, giving me ample time to obsess. I've heard that heads roll in Europe when trains are late. Leaving aside John McCain's positions on any other issue, this is one reason I could never vote for him: He's a sworn opponent of any "subsidies" for Amtrak, as if a public transport system anywhere in the world could operate successfully without massive government support.

When the train pulled in, I shifted my mind off politics - not an easy task, with the upcoming November election - and scanned the disembarking passengers for potential taxi fares. Coming toward me was a stocky black man with an older couple following behind. All three carried and wheeled a panoply of luggage.

"You the cabbie, man?" the man in the lead asked me.

"That I am," I replied. "Where ya need to get to?"

"Me and my folks are up here for the jazz festival, and we have reservations at the Doubletree Hotel."

As I helped load their baggage into the trunk of my taxi, I said, "I guess y'all must be staying for the whole week - this is a lot of luggage."

"Yeah, we are," the man replied. "Me and my pops have been talking for years about coming to Vermont for this thing. He just retired, so the time seemed right."

We got under way, with the younger man riding shotgun and his parents in the back. Like his son, the father was a big man - not tubby, but big-boned and barrel-chested. Either of them could have played linebacker in his school days. The mom just sat quietly and smiled, pleased to be on a road trip with these two men in her life.

"So," I said over my shoulder, "your son tells me you just retired. What kinda work were you in?"

"I was a subway conductor for the MTA in New York City." The pride was evident in his low, gravely voice.

"No kidding?" I said. "I grew up in the city and took the subway all the time. What line did you work on?"

"Oh, man, let me think. Through the years, most every train in the system. The last few years, I worked the Sixth Avenue line, the "D" train, from Manhattan all the way down to Coney Island. Do you folks got any mass transit up here?"

"We got a pretty good bus system, but no trains. I did read that Burlington once had trolley cars. When the city did away with the system and dug up the tracks, they held a big public ceremony where they burnt the last trolley car."

"What's the point of that?" the son chimed in, chuckling. "I mean, that's kind of harsh."

"Yeah," the old man continued, "my brother was a conductor, too, and my boy here is a station agent."

I was getting more impressed by the minute, not to mention nostalgic. "So, you sell those little gold subway tokens?" I asked my seatmate.

"Used to," he said. "For years now, it's been a card system. Cheaper for the city to operate that way."

"Oh, man - I used to love those tokens. They were, like, beautiful little gems."

"I'll agree with you on that, but you know how things go."

We passed St. Mike's and waited for the green turn arrow onto the highway at Exit 15. What a weird highway exchange, I thought. You can't get on heading north, or exit going south. One day I plan on researching the reason for this anomaly. Yeah, like, when I retire.

"You folks need any recommendations for good restaurants in town?" I asked.

My seatmate perked up. "Off the Internet, I got the name of Bove's, some Italian joint, and a barbecue place, something like 'Big Daddy's' or 'Fat Daddy's.'" The whole family cracked up. "Maybe it was 'Big Fat Daddy's,'" his father shouted out from the back.

Chuckling along, I said, "Well, those are good restaurants. I'm sure you'll enjoy 'em both . . . Hey, I wanted to ask - any musical acts you're especially looking forward to?"

The father said, "We got tickets to Ornette Coleman. I've been playing his records for years. I wanted my son to see this man before he dies or quits playing. He is a master on that horn, Lord help me."

We spun around the cloverleaf at the Burlington exit and rolled to the front of their hotel. I helped with the luggage, and the old man paid me, throwing in a nice tip. A faraway look came over his eyes, and he said, "Hey, do you know why the Brooklyn baseball team was named the Dodgers?"

I did, but I wanted to hear it from his mouth. I said, "No, I sure don't."

"It's a good story. Brooklyn was laced with trolley-car lines back in the day, and folks was always having to dodge them in the streets. So that's why the team was called the 'Dodgers.'"

"You used to go to Dodger games?" I asked. "The team left to L.A. when I was just a toddler, so I never did."

A smile came over his face that could have lit up Ebbets Field for a night game. "My dad took me every chance he could. He would say, 'Boy, you keep your eye on Jackie Robinson, and when you have kids, you tell them about him.' And, yes, sir, that I did."