I hate to say it, because it's great for business, but Burlington's Mardi Gras is not what it used to be. This year it still drew thousands of people to town, but methinks — to quote B.B. King — the thrill is gone.
I date the onset of the decline to the year the parade was switched from Church Street to Main Street. The floats floating down the Marketplace created a raucous New Orleans atmosphere, with everyone jammed together and residents who lived above the stores tossing beads from their windows. I understand the safety concerns that necessitated the transfer to Main Street, but it's just not the same energy. The concentrated fervor is dissipated, the carnival flavor watered down. It's beginning to feel like just another excuse to hit the bars and over-imbibe.
I do hope the event carries on, but, either way, Burlington is always evolving, with new celebrations cooked up on a yearly basis. That's important, because at this time of year, cabin fever is a real thing; a festive outdoor shindig helps break the grip of moody isolation.
On Mardi Gras Saturday night, well into the bar-hopping portion of the festivities, a gaggle of friends flagged me from the curb. They were clad in colorful hippie garb — but, then again, it could have been Mardi Gras costuming. One of them, a scantily bewhiskered young man in a tilty top hat, approached my passenger window, which I duly lowered.
"Could you take our friend here back to her place? She needs a ride."
"Sure," I replied. "But does she got the cash or a card on her?" This is a precaution I take in these scenarios, having learned my lesson the hard way.
"Oh, we'll pay for her," the guy volunteered. He gave me the address — a high Dorset Street number. Once I determined that the house was in Shelburne and not Charlotte, I quoted him a price, which he paid with no hesitation — including a good tip.
A couple of girlfriends helped my soon-to-be customer into the backseat. One of them exhorted me to "take good care of our girl!" I looked her directly in the eye and said, "You can count on that, I promise."
When friends are taking care of friends, I take my role in the process seriously, and I wanted them to rest assured.
There followed an extensive round of expressive goodbyes, after which I pivoted in my seat.
"Hi, there," I said. I wanted to assess the young woman's relative level of intoxication, mostly to determine if I would need to drive on high, medium or low vomit alert.
"Hi, there," she replied, smiling warmly at me as she whimsically lifted her eyes, which were encircled in multicolored glitter. She didn't appear very drunk at all. If I had to guess, I'd say she'd been hitting the chronic. Do folks still say "chronic" anymore? I wondered. Back when I was actively inhaling, we just called it "pot."
"So, how long have you been driving a cab?" she asked, opening the conversation.
"Well, I'll tell you," I replied, as we motored past the ornate University of Vermont Greek houses lining the Main Street hill. "Longer than you've been alive."
"Seriously?" she said, chuckling. "How old do you think I am?"
"I'd say you came into this world in ... 1993?"
"Hey, not bad — I was born in '94. You think you could guess my birthday?"
"I'm actually good at this," I said. "I just tune in and use my intuition. All right — how about April 17th?
"Awesome, just a week off! My birthday's April 24th. Dude, you could work on, like, the midway. You know, at the fair?"
"Maybe when I retire from cabbing," I said. "Do you live in town, in Shelburne?"
"No, we're staying at my boyfriend's uncle's house for the Mardi Gras weekend. I go to St. Lawrence. You know where that is?
"Sure — Canton, N.Y. I have a buddy who went to SLU. I guess your most famous graduate is Grace Potter."
"Oh, my God — I love Grace Potter. She's my girl."
(The next day, I Googled "SLU famous alumni" and discovered the list included Kirk Douglas and Viggo Mortensen. So, while I, too, love Grace, I suspect Spartacus and Aragorn might give her a run for the money.)
"Do you live in the dorms or off-campus?" I asked.
"Well, I live in what's called a 'themed house.' It's kind of like a sorority or fraternity but organized around, like, a purpose. I live in the Light House. That's L-I-G-H-T. It stands for 'living inspirationally growing healthy together.' We do stuff around community, ecology, sustainable living. We meditate together once a week. Those kind of things."
"That is quite cool. That's a worthy theme. So, did you grow up in the North Country?"
"I wish. I actually grew up in New Haven, in Connecticut."
"Were either of your folks connected with Yale?"
"No, and that's the thing. I hate to tell people where I'm from because they make all these associations that I'm, like, upper crust. New Haven is just a regular town, actually."
"What's your name? My name's Jernigan, by the way."
I was about to lay some gold on the young woman, so I felt names were called for.
"Good to meet you, did you say Jernigan? My name's Jocelyn."
"Good to meet you, Jocelyn. So, I think I got some actually valuable advice for you. Some people are always going to judge you based on, like, faulty or zero evidence. Life's a lot better if you don't even pay attention. I have a sign over my desk that says, 'What other people think about me is none of my business.'"
"I love it!" Jocelyn said. "Got anything else? You're on a roll, man."
I turned for a moment to shoot Jocelyn an appreciative smile. She might have been just humoring an old man, but even so, I liked her spirit.
If I could be of college age again, I fantasized, I'd enroll at SLU — Kirk, Viggo and Grace's alma mater. Maybe I'd hook up with Jocelyn and check out the Light House. As for the chronic...
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.