"Will you take me out to Essex?"
A short brunette — looking ultra-cute as she stood there shivering in her fluffy woolen hat — was speaking to me through the passenger window as I idled on the lower Church Street taxi queue. Frigid air rushed into the vehicle. The night was one for the books: close to zero degrees in mid-March, with a steady wind.
I appreciated her asking about the relatively long run, though for me — as opposed to many of my cabbie colleagues — the answer is consistently "yes." Although the short, quick fares can be more lucrative, I figure everyone deserves a ride home, and I'm your man for the job.
"Sure — jump on in the front, if you like. Git outta the cold, girl!"
Chuckling, she followed my suggestion, stepping inside and buckling up. I immediately reraised her window, and warmth was quickly restored. Aaah.
"So, did you take in the Mardi Gras festivities today?" I asked as we pulled out and took the right onto Main Street. This was the weekend of Burlington's Mardi Gras celebration, and the arctic weather had put a damper on this year's parade and nighttime barhopping. If New Orleans is the Big Easy, call us the Big Freezy.
"No, not really," she replied. "A bunch of us got together for a girlfriend's 30th birthday."
"Oh, that's a big one. Definitely worthy of celebration."
"Yup," she said, sighing. "We're all over the hill now."
Her perspective made me smile. If this woman and her friends are over the hill, then my peers and I are over the Himalayas. I honestly might have a couple of shirts that are 30 years old. "So, are you a Vermont girl?" I asked.
"I am," she replied. "In fact, you're taking me to my childhood home in Essex. We're visiting my parents for a few days. My husband and I moved to Maine a few years ago. Jeff grew up in Essex, too. We have a little girl, one and a half years old. We're working on moving back here — I mean, we'd love to — but the real estate prices have grown a little steep for us. I know we'll figure something out, though."
"Are you working in Maine?"
"I sure am. I'm a middle school art teacher."
"Oh, my goodness — middle school!"
"Oh, yeah — the emotions are flying. But I love my job. That moment when a kid has made something and the light bulb goes on, and they realize they have the power to express themselves creatively — I'll tell you, there's nothing better."
"Do you pursue art outside of the teaching?"
"Not as much as I'd like to. Mostly, these days, it's graphic design. I'm also loving pottery."
"Well, maybe you or Jeff will strike it rich one day, and you can devote yourself full time to your art and pottery."
"Don't think I haven't fantasized about that," she said, chuckling. "But the truth is, even with the financial means, I don't think I could ever give up teaching."
"I get that," I said. "You strike me as one of those lucky people who have truly found their calling in life. Passionate teachers like you are real jewels — no, I mean that — even though you're barely paid the medium bucks, let alone the big bucks you deserve."
We passed St. Mike's, hooked the left at Susie Wilson and rolled onto the Circumferential Highway. This road is totally not circumferential, it occurred to me — not yet, and not by a long shot. They should rechristen it the "Dogleg Highway," I decided, until such time as it's ever completed, an outcome that seems dubious.
My thoughts drifted to the woman's toddler at home with the grandparents. "Your little one, is she making words yet?" I asked.
"A few. Mostly she talks in her own made-up language that probably only Jeff and I can translate. Her big thing is pointing at stuff and asking, 'What that?'"
"Well, she's trying to figure out her world. I can dig it. I'm still working on that myself. Has she begun painting yet?"
"Oh, I've been encouraging her, and just recently she made her first — well, we'll call it a painting. I was like, 'Jeff, we've got to frame it!' He's a little concerned that I may be smothering her with all the art stuff, and he might not be wrong."
"Hey, that kind of smothering doesn't sound too bad. What'd you name her, if I may ask?"
"We named her Vera."
"Oh, what a great old-fashiony name! Was it an ancestral family thing?"
"Yes, from a great-aunt. My mom comes from an enormous family, and she had two aunts who never married — Natalie and Vera. They were both great ladies and always encouraged and mentored me in my creative pursuits. The toughest thing was choosing between the two of them, because I loved them both so much."
"Well, Vera was a great choice, and that name pays tribute to both the aunts. I'm sure they're smiling down from above and looking after their great-grandniece. Jeez, do I got the family terminology right?"
"Gosh, I'm not sure myself," she replied with a laugh. "But I love the image and the sentiment."
As we turned onto Old Stage Road, my customer asked, "What about you? Did you grow up here?"
I had to laugh because, driving cab, I'm asked this multiple times each shift by locals and visitors alike. "Alas, I did not," I replied. "I arrived here in 1979. In my heart and soul, I feel like a Vermonter, but I was mistakenly born elsewhere."
"Oh, tsk-tsk," she said, smiling at me from the shotgun seat. "You're a Vermonter now. Take it from me."
Coming from this Essex girl, I did take it, and it felt like a benediction.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.