I was dawdling in front of Nectar's between fares. It was a warm evening, one of the season's first, and the club's roll-up window was open to the night air. I could make out the bearded, flannel-wearing jam band on the stage inside, and, with my own window open, I could hear the bouncy music streaming through. I appreciate live music of pretty much any style, and I couldn't help but smile as I sat in the driver's seat tapping along on the steering wheel.
A road warrior appeared at my passenger window, a boxy pack on his back and a smaller version tucked under one arm. "Would you go to Milton?" he requested. His short black hair looked chopped, his beard likewise poorly tended.
"Sure," I said, dragging out the word as I tried to take his measure. He was perhaps 30, his clothes worn but not visibly unclean. Though his demeanor came across as carefree, I could tell it was a stretch for him. Beneath the surface, I sensed anxiety, even desperation.
"Well, that depends. What part of Milton?"
"Do you know where Lake Road is at?"
"Yup, I do," I said. "Above the reservoir, up towards Georgia. I'll take ya on the meter, which'll run probably close to 40 all the way up there."
"All right," he said, then relieved himself of his bags and stowed them in the backseat before climbing in beside them. "I don't have the money on me, but my girlfriend will pay you when we get to her place."
It was nine o'clock on a slow Saturday night. Slow because it was April — with the Burlington festival season still weeks away, few tourists roamed the streets in need of rides back to their hotels. Sketchy as the guy's scenario sounded, I decided to take the fare on a flyer. I gave it about a 50 percent chance of paying off but decided I would accept those odds and not be disappointed if I never saw the money.
"So, where you coming from?" I asked as we sped north on the interstate.
"I been in Tennessee all winter," he replied. "Grew up in Milton, though. My folks had a farm."
We turned off at Exit 17, taking Route 7 toward Milton. My customer said, "I could pay you 30 bucks for this."
I wasn't surprised at this announcement, nor did it anger me. This fare had been chancy from the word go, and I'd accepted that when I let this man into my taxi. But I wasn't about to be obviously hustled.
Immediately I pulled onto the shoulder of the road and clicked on the four-ways. "Look," I said, pivoting to face him. "You've already agreed to pay the metered fare. I could take ya back to Burlington, if you want, or you can get out right here."
"OK, please keep going. I'll pay the meter," he conceded. "Could I borrow your cellphone? The battery's dead on mine."
"OK," I agreed, lifting my phone from its dashboard cradle and passing it to him over my shoulder. "Just make it quick, 'cause I get calls coming in."
He dialed up his girlfriend. "Sharon, where the fuck are you? You were supposed to pick me up downtown two hours ago. Was your phone off? I been trying to reach ya."
Sharon's response was evidently unsatisfactory.
"Don't give me 'Kyle this' and 'Kyle that,'" he said, now yelling. "Is that a guy's voice I hear behind you? This is not acceptable! You been drinking, too, am I right? I'll be there in 10 minutes, Sharon. I'm coming by cab."
We arrived at Sharon's condo in the farthest reaches of a warren-like development. Kyle said he'd go in to get the money — the meter read almost exactly $40, as it turned out — and he'd leave his packs in the taxi. I asked him to please return with the money before resuming the argument with his girlfriend.
He said sure, that made sense to him, and vanished into the apartment. Five uneventful minutes passed before I walked over and knocked.
Sharon (I surmised), a short, cute, chubby girl, answered the door. Before I could say a word, she informed me, "I didn't order this cab, so I ain't paying for it."
"Well, I can appreciate that," I said. Her logic, I had to acknowledge, was faultless.
"Let's go," Kyle said to me, suddenly appearing behind her. "We're outta here."
Back in the cab, I asked, "So what's plan B?"
"Take me to my mom's place. It's that trailer park off Route 7."
"Will do," I agreed, "And we'll just call it 40 even."
"Thanks," he said. "You'll get the money, no problem. My mom'll have it."
Fifty/fifty, I said to myself. I wasn't worried, just curious to see how this would play out.
We pulled up alongside his mother's trailer, a sullen, battered affair. I wondered what had become of the family farm, and how much open land would be worth in Milton these days. More than enough to pay for a nice home, I would bet.
Kyle did the leaving-his-packs thing again and entered the trailer via a hidden key, which made me think his mother was out. Again, five minutes elapsed. I'm never going to see the money for this fare, I thought, and time's a-wasting. I debated dropping his stuff in the driveway and taking off. It was time to fish or cut bait.
Before I made a move, Kyle emerged holding a single bill in his hand. "I got 20," he explained. "My mom should return soon, and I'll get you the rest."
"Twenty'll be fine, brother," I said. At this point, I was tickled to receive any cash from this person. "Peace be with you."
Lifting his bags out of the taxi, he replied, "You, too. What you said."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.