"So, did you folks have a nice meal tonight?"
The couple in the back seat was basking in that after-dinner glow. I've heard that, statistically speaking, Burlington has the most restaurants per capita of all U.S. cities. I don't know if that's accurate, but in my experience as an observer and occasional partaker, eating out does seem to be the top recreational activity (if you could call it that) among the locals.
"We sure did," the man replied. "We tried Sotto's, the little place on St. Paul Street. I think it's connected to Trattoria Delia next door."
"That's right, honey," his female partner chimed in. "I think the waitress said they share the same kitchen."
"What did you order?" I asked innocently, though not entirely.
The truth is, for years I've been dining out vicariously via the descriptions of my cab customers, to the point where I honestly feel like I've experienced every restaurant in town. The culinary offerings of Burlington's restaurateurs continue to scale new heights, but they don't come cheap. Given the economics of my life, I tend to stick to the off-the-beaten-track ethnic joints — Vietnamese, Thai, Himalayan — where they fill up your plate for about $10.
"I had this delicious fish dish, mahi-mahi," the woman said. "It's similar to tuna."
"When I think of tuna," I said, "it brings me back to my middle school cafeteria and the gooey, disgusting tuna sub sandwiches, more mayonnaise than fish."
"Well, then, I recommend you check out Sotto's," she suggested with a chuckle. "They will wipe away those disturbing middle school memories, I promise you."
The man said, "Our daughter's been telling us to try Penny Cluse, but the time we went there, the line was out the door."
"Oh, I love that place," I said. "They do breakfast and lunch. It's well worth the wait, and you can hang out at Lucky's — I think they call it — their other spot right next door, until your table is ready."
The couple lived at Appletree Point, one of the newer and nicer sections of the New North End. We spun around Battery Park and onto the long, straight shot up North Avenue. I asked them about their daughter, my fellow Penny Cluse fan.
"Melanie's graduating this June from the UVM honors program," the woman said. "She's majored in neurology and organic chemistry. So she's a brilliant kid, but she has no idea what she wants to do when she gets out. Maybe travel or something? We're a little worried about her."
I said, "Hey, think of it this way. She's been going to school now for — what? — 15 straight years? Perhaps she could use a break to, like, cleanse her palate. Go touring in Kazakhstan or something. You know what I'm saying?"
The woman laughed. "I don't know about Kazakhstan, but you sound just like our daughter — annoyingly insightful."
The man was not so lighthearted on the subject. "Melanie is our only child," he explained. "We don't know how much to push her or let her figure things out on her own."
"Well, I wouldn't be too hard on her," I advised. "Keep in mind that, in about 30 years, she'll be choosing your nursing home, so best to stay in her good graces." I was only half kidding.
"I worry that it's all come too easy for her," he continued. "I mean, she has her own car and apartment. When I was a kid, I had to work from an early age. Nothing was handed to me. I just don't know if she appreciates how tough the world can be, and how good she has it."
I could tell this was an often-revisited discussion for the couple. All parents fret over the welfare of their children. It begins when they leave the womb and never ends. And having an only child magnifies the stakes, as does the troubling state of the modern world. Particularly of late.
This is a couple that has obviously done so much right, I thought, as we reached the left turn that led to Appletree. They'd raised a bright, successful young woman, and still they second-guessed their parenting decisions. Maybe that's not a fault, I considered, but part of what makes them such good parents.
Tonight, in their ongoing Melanie discussion, it was Mom who took up the voice of reason. "You know what, honey?" she said. "No kids her age express appreciation to their parents. When you're 20, you just don't."
"I got to agree with your wife," I offered, confident in my capacity as the Dr. Phil of the cabbie set. "I'm sure your daughter is totally grateful for the two of you and everything you've done for her. She just can't articulate it at her stage of life. Give her a few years, and you'll begin to hear it. And she'll do great after she graduates, whether she takes some time off or not."
In the rearview mirror, I could see the man relax in his seat and chuckle. "So what you're saying is, we have nothing to worry about?"
"I'm not saying that," I said, chuckling along. "It just seems to me that you're well on your way to placement in a top-flight nursing home. So keep up the good work."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.