2017 was 10 minutes old when a slender blond woman hailed me from Main Street in front of Mr. Mikes Pizza. My first customer of the New Year, I thought, pulling to a stop.
She stepped into the shotgun seat and asked, "Do you know where Franny O's is?"
"I do," I replied, slipping my taxi back into gear. "Just so you know, the bar changed names last spring."
"Oh, I heard new owners took over, but I didn't realize they changed the name of the place. What's it called now?"
I drew a blank, which I attributed to advancing age. I'm lucky these days to remember my zip code and Social Security number. I've also lost track of which celebrities have or haven't died, except for Keith Richards, who is apparently immortal.
"I can't remember," I told her. "Something very Vermonty, I seem to recall. We'll see when we get there. Well, duh."
"I look forward to finding out," she replied with a kindly chuckle.
Turning onto Pine Street, I asked, "So, how's the New Year treating you so far?" I thought this an exceedingly witty question to pose at 12:15 a.m. on January 1.
"To tell you the truth," she answered, "I'm looking for a big turnaround this year. Two weeks ago, my husband asked for a divorce. I have no idea why. We were just married for six months. I suspect there may be another woman involved, but I just don't know, and he won't explain it to me."
"Jeez, I'm so sorry. That is rough. Did he move out or something?"
"Nope, I did. Earlier this week, I packed up a U-Haul and left our apartment in Boston. I'm back living with my folks in Stowe. I'm just going to lay low for a while and figure things out."
"That sounds like a solid plan. Did you grow up in Stowe?"
"I did. But I'm looking at a place in Winooski with an old friend I hooked up with. She told me Winooski is like Brooklyn. I'm not quite sure what that means, but it sounds good."
"Yeah, I think the analogy goes, like, Brooklyn is to Manhattan as Winooski is to Burlington — a less-expensive, hip enclave. I question how true any part of that is, but you do hear it a lot."
We reached the end of Pine Street, took a left onto Queen City and pulled up to the bar. The new sign read "Sugar Shack." My customer laughed. "You're right — it is a Vermonty name!"
As she paid the fare, I said, "Listen, life throws stuff at all of us. Nobody gets by unscathed. And it sounds like a cliché, but in my experience it's true: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. You'll get through this, and you will be a stronger person because you'll know yourself better."
When I'm on the receiving end, unsolicited advice is rarely helpful. To be blunt, it usually sucks. So, unrequested, I'm loath to inflict my views on others. But I trust my intuition, and when it feels right to offer gentle encouragement to a younger person, I don't hold back. I consider it my responsibility as an elder of the tribe.
My customer smiled warmly and said, "Happy New Year."
"Same to you," I reciprocated. "Hang in there. I'll see you in Winooski."
Hustling back downtown, I was hailed by a group of six or seven young people in boisterous spirits. It's great having the minivan, I noted to myself, pleased with my new vehicle.
Gaining access to the back row of seats entails releasing a latch to slide the middle seat forward. I've learned that this is not readily apparent to my customers (particularly the drunk ones), so I jumped out and walked around to facilitate. As I reached the side door, a young Asian man confronted me, demanding to know what I was doing. Though I thought it odd, I began to explain the rear seat issue.
"Oh, man," he interrupted me. "You're the cabdriver! I'm so sorry. I thought you were, like, some random dude trying to steal our cab."
"No problem," I said, chuckling. "It's the busiest night of the year for taxis, so I understand your concern. Sometimes you gotta fight for your cab."
I did the seat thing, and, with everyone loaded in, we took off for the Comfort Suites down Shelburne Road. The Asian guy sat beside me, riding shotgun. "I'm so happy!" he said. "I just proposed to that beautiful woman in the back, and she said yes!"
"Well, that is just awesome," I said. "What a way to start the New Year."
"Look at my ring," his fiancée said, drooping her arm over my shoulder in a tipsy maneuver.
I glanced down at her dangling hand and caught the dashboard lights refracted off the glistening rock. "That's beautiful," I said. "Congratulations."
The groom-to-be said, "We're going to love each other forever and ever."
The couple locked eyes, which shone like her diamond. I flashed back on Sting singing, "When we walked in fields of gold." Romantic love, at its highest and brightest, elevates the human spirit and gives us a taste of the divine. Keeping it alive — well, isn't that the rub?
I silently said a prayer for the young couple that their love would endure. May neither of them end up in Winooski, or Brooklyn, picking up the pieces.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.