[This is Hackie's very first column. We are republishing it in honor of the column's 10th birthday. Congrats Hackie!]
It's a quiet, late Tuesday night in downtown Burlington. The students are in their dorms; Tuesday is not one of their big nights for bar-hopping. Weekends -- beginning with Thursday night -- you can bank on a lot of student runs. The other four nights are touch-and-go. Twenty-plus years in the taxi business and I've yet to discover how they seem to collectively make this decision, and don't think I haven't given it a lot of thought.
The baffling, if not cosmic, aspect of the nightly migration down the hill, is its all-or-nothing quality. Like wildebeest on the Serenghetti plain, you rarely spot just one or two. It's the whole herd or nothing. How does the word get out? Is it posted on the Internet, or does an inner Gen-X clock instinctively move them downtown en masse? I am -- as those very students would say -- clueless.
Without the students, nightlife activity is at a minimum this bracing, early spring evening. I'm parked at a downtown taxi stand turning the ignition on and off, and, with it, the heater. I hate wasting gas but it's cold. I'm seriously weighing packing it in when a grizzled regular appears at my window.
"Take Joanie home for me, will ya?" he says.
Standing, wobbling next to him is a disheveled friend, a drinking buddy for the night is my guess. The woman has seen better days. That's no problem for me. Take away the intoxicated clientele and the taxi industry -- worldwide, I imagine -- goes belly up. Working the night shift you learn to be around drunkenness or you quit the profession.
My regular helps his friend into the back seat and heads back to the gin mill. I give her my usual, "Where we going?", look up at the rear-view mirror and await the answer. It doesn't come.
I turn in my seat and look at my fare: Frazzled, smeared make-up, could be 40, could be 65. A lifetime of hard living has a way of eroding the accustomed facial aging indicators. Again I prompt, "Anywhere in particular?"
Her pale blue eyes lock on me, and she whispers, "Take me home."
I reply, "Gladly, but you gotta give me an address."
Now understand, I want to take her home. It's my mission -- I take folks out, and I take folks home. I garner both money and a sense of purpose from doing this. I watch this woman in the back seat try, really try, to recall where she lives, but the alcohol has taken her beyond this cognitive awareness.
It's a slow night; I give her a good five minutes to come up with this crucial piece of information. When it becomes clear it isn't going to happen, I ask her to please leave the cab. Her blue eyes shine at me like two, small stage lights, and she repeats, like a prayer, "Please, take me home."
I put the car in gear, ease out of my spot and drive up parallel to a parked police cruiser a block away. I flick on the four-ways, roll down the front passenger window and give the officer the run-down.
The officer knows my customer by name, but not, unfortunately, where she lives. The cop asks her nicely, but she's not going to leave the taxi. "Joanie," he says, "we can do this the easy way or the hard way, it's up to you."
Joanie has staked out a position tonight, and that position is no retreat, no surrender. She's staring at the officer, but says not a word.
For the Burlington Police Department, this situation is not Waco, Texas. Tonight there'll be no mediators, exchange of demands or swat teams positioned on the rooftop of Nectar's Restaurant. The officer calls for back-up, and another cruiser -- blue lights and all -- pulls up in two minutes.
Both officers are a little peeved, because at this stage, I gather, paperwork comes into play. They put on latex gloves, and with well-choreographed positioning -- this is by no means an unprecedented scenario for either of them -- hoist my erstwhile customer out of the taxi and into the cruiser. Thankfully, at this moment of engagement, Joanie offers only token resistance.
At the end of the night, it's rare for me to second-guess myself. Experience has honed my instincts, and I think I handle myself pretty well out there. But tonight, as I pull to a stop, kill the ignition and turn off the taxi light, I wonder -- could I have given Joanie a better shake?
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