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Losing the Groove



Published May 28, 2008 at 12:56 p.m.

Hacking demands a fine balance. The interior of a taxicab defines a delicate psychological ecosystem. Throughout the shift, dozens of customers stream in and out. Sometimes they're fighting with each other; occasionally they want to fight with you. Some fares are deranged and see you as their new best friend; others are cold, demanding and demeaning. As a cabbie, it's up to you - the captain of the vessel - to find and maintain some minimum degree of harmony. It can be a challenge to stay focused amid all the stimulation.

Like most veteran cabbies, I long ago found an approach to the job that works for me. I've been at it for more than two decades without a migraine or ulcer in sight, so that says something. However, on my return last week from a rare one-week vacation, everything seemed to go awry.

It all began innocently enough. A husband and wife out for a romantic dinner at Trattoria Delia called for a ride, and I was Johnny-on-the-spot. From the back seat the man said, "Let's drop my wife off at our home on South Union, and then I'm going to Higher Ground."

"Who's playing?" I asked.

"I'm not sure," he replied. "Apparently some loud and raucous band." He chuckled and added, "Not exactly my wife's cup of tea. I'm actually meeting up with an old college buddy."

We made the stop at South Union, close to the intersection with St. Paul Street, and then continued on to the club. When we arrived, I told my customer it was $9 and he gave me $12. As I drove away, it hit me. "Shit," I said out loud, whapping myself on the head - "I forgot to charge for the drop-off on South Union!" There was not a heckuva lot of money involved - maybe four or five bucks. But such carelessness was utterly out of character for me on the job.

A minute later, still on Williston Road, I got a call from a regular customer at a bookstore who needed a ride back to her place in Cardinal Woods. I told her it would be 10 minutes. Hanging up, I let go of my undercharging error. Someone once told me that the key to a happy life is not sweating the small stuff. The critical corollary is that everything is the small stuff.

I arrived at the intersection of Church and Cherry and waited for my fare to emerge from Borders. After five minutes, I called her back to check. "Jernigan," she explained sweetly, "I'm at Barnes & Noble."

"Jeez, I'm sorry," I apologized. "Man, when you called I was right on Williston Road, too. Just a minute away."

"Don't worry about it," she said. "I'll be here when you get here."

"Fuuuck," I yelled at myself, back in a funk and profusely sweating the small stuff. Where is my head tonight? Undercharging, mixing up the pick-up points? I have got to buckle down and concentrate.

The remainder of the night went smoothly enough, free from any further boner mistakes, at least. But nothing felt right. There was an absence of flow; my interactions with the customers were all slightly askew, and none of the fares lined up geographically, which can seriously diminish the revenue flow. I'd clear in Essex and get a call for the New North End; I'd be up in Colchester and a customer would need me down in Shelburne.

Unsurprisingly, given the tenor of the night, the coup de grace was my very last job. Three girls hailed me in front of RJ's, next to the Flynn. Two of them popped their heads in the front, and one said, "How much to take our girl here to Winooski?"

"Where exactly in Winooski?" I asked.

"Charlene, what's your address, honey?"

Charlene, clearly tipsy, opened the back door and gave me an address in the 200s on Malletts Bay Avenue.

"So, that would be all the way up, right near the Colchester town border?"

"No," she clarified, "just near, like, the downtown."

Number-wise, this didn't make sense to me, but I said, "OK, it's nine bucks, then." The two friends pooled some money to pay her fare, and Charlene and I were off. After circumnavigating Winooski's downtown roundabout and turning onto Malletts Bay Avenue, I said, "Just let me know." She told me a "little ways."

Soon we had traversed nearly the entire length of the Winooski section of the avenue. I was fuming when she finally instructed me to pull over at a hydrant.

"You know," I said, trying to squelch my ire, "I specifically asked you if you were near the Colchester line and you told me no - you were near downtown."

Visibly annoyed, she replied, "I'm two-tenths of a mile from Colchester! I'm not 'on the border.'"

"I didn't ask you if you were 'on the border,' what I said was - oh, forget it."

"Look, do you want more money?"

"Nah, I'll stick with what your friends paid."

"Thanks a lot," she said, slamming the door on her way out, underlining the sarcasm in case I had missed it.

"Oh, no," I said out loud to no one in particular, as I sat there plaintively rubbing my noggin. "Thank you."