I stationed myself at the foot of the escalator, slightly back and off to the side. At chest level, I held up my sign, on which I had written, “D. PEPPER.”
There is an art to meeting a fare at an airport. You’d think it’s a no-brainer — how hard can it be? — yet it’s anything but. There are 100 ways to screw it up, and the fact that it may not be your fault is cold comfort to the irate customer whom you failed to meet at the gate. Plus, you can lose the fare to another cab or a car rental.
“Excuse me,” I said to an arriving traveler, “is this the US Air out of LaGuardia?”
“Let me think,” the lady said. “Uhhh … yes, that’s it. Hope that helps.”
“Thanks, it does,” I replied, happy for the confirmation that I was indeed at the right spot at the right time.
About seven or eight stairs up the escalator, a smiling, middle-aged woman with a teenage girl noticed me and pointed.
“Hi, Mrs. Pepper — welcome to Vermont,” I said. “I’m Jernigan, and I’ll be taking you down to Middlebury.”
“Wonderful,” she replied, shaking my hand. “And please call me Diane. This is my daughter, Kayla.”
“Good to meet you, too, Kayla. Any luggage?”
“Nope,” Diane replied. “Just what we’re carrying.”
That’s the answer I love to hear. Waiting for the baggage arrival can kill upward of half an hour. “Beautiful,” I said. “Let’s do this thing.”
They followed me out to the cabs, settled into the backseat, and we were off. Given the time of year, the destination and the mother-daughter pairing, I was pretty sure of the answer to the question I threw out there as a conversation starter. “So, what brings you folks to Vermont?”
In the rearview mirror, I could read the excitement on Kayla’s face. She said, “We’re here for a campus tour of Middlebury College. We’ve been visiting a bunch of schools this week.”
“Really? Well, that’s quite cool. What other schools have you hit thus far?”
“Let’s see,” Kayla said. “Yesterday we visited Colgate, and we’ve been to Hamilton College and Bowdoin.”
“Colgate, huh?” I said. “A high school buddy of mine went there. He used to call it ‘Toothpaste U.’ Not to prejudice you one way or the other, but he said it was mostly a lot of really wealthy kids who didn’t have quite the grades or family pull to get into one of the Ivies.”
“That’s funny,” Diane said, “we didn’t like it much, either. After about five minutes, we knew that this wasn’t the place. Isn’t that right, Kayla?”
“Yeah,” Kayla confirmed. “When it’s right you just, like, know it. And vice versa, I guess.”
The parent-and-child college visitation tour is an annual spring ritual. It can be fun, it can be bonding, but the experience is very different for the two generations involved. For the teenager, it’s an exciting outing with Mom or Dad, one more rite of passage on the long journey toward adulthood. For the parent, it’s bittersweet, because they understand something their child cannot: It’s most likely the last time the kid will need them in quite this way. Next fall, it’s off to college, and then…
We motored down Route 7, my customers chatting softly in the back. In a lull in their conversation, I said, “Hey, you want to know something cool about Middlebury College?”
“But, of course,” Diane replied.
“Even though the school competes in Division 3 and doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, it has the highest percentage of students playing in varsity sports. I believe the figure is over 25 percent.”
“Wow,” Kayla said, “that is impressive. You don’t think of Middlebury as a big sports school.”
“No, you don’t, although in certain sports, like hockey and lacrosse, they contend most every year for the national Division 3 title. And, of course, there’s one sport in which they beat out even the big schools.”
“Which sport is that?” Diane asked.
“Did you say ‘quidditch’? What on Earth is that?”
“C’mon, Mom,” Kayla said. “You know — the game they play in the Harry Potter stories?”
“You mean where they fly around on the broomsticks? I remember you telling me about that when you were a little girl. How do they pull that off?”
“Well, they do,” I said, chuckling. “No, they don’t actually get airborne, but they do scramble around on broomsticks and host tournaments in which dozens of schools compete. And, like I said, every year they take home the trophy.”
Diane’s cellphone jingled and she said, “I’m sorry, I need to take this.” She spoke to the dad, assuring him of everyone’s well-being, and told him she loved him. Clicking off, she apologized again, then shared how overwhelmed she feels by modern technology, a common refrain of the post-40 set.
“You’re telling me,” I sympathized. “You know what I’m a little ashamed to admit? I have never, ever sent a text message. I simply don’t get it. Kayla, educate me on this. Why do people love to text? What’s the appeal?”
“It’s simple,” Kayla explained. “My generation is a bunch of cowards. It’s way safer to, like, leave messages than talk in person.”
“That sounds astute,” I said with a laugh. “Best explanation I’ve heard, anyway.”
“Well, I don’t mind texts at all,” Diane said. “Kayla, when you’re at college next fall, I want you to text me, OK?”
On the surface, this was Mom making light banter, but a poignant crack in her voice exposed the tender subtext: In a matter of months, her fledgling would be leaving the nest.
Kayla felt it and placed her hand on her mother’s. “Every day, Mom,” she said, her bright eyes sparkling. “Every single day.”