"Yeah, I'll be there in 10, Nick," I said on my cellphone to a regular customer. "Where are we going tonight?"
"Knights of Columbus, Jernigan. You know - off Airport Parkway in South Burlington. They're having one of those Texas Hold 'Em tournaments. You know me."
I did know him. Nicolas was a hard-working criminal defense lawyer. On his downtime, he loved to gamble at cards. I had no idea how strong a player he was, but it seemed to bring him relief from the gnawing stress of his chosen profession. When someone's freedom rests on your job performance, that's a lot of weight.
I pulled in front of a modest, single-story home in Burlington's South End. Nicolas popped out the front door, strode to my taxi and took a seat next to me. I truly appreciate punctuality in my clients; I show up exactly on time and I expect them to be ready to rumble. I've been known to subtly weed out customers who perennially keep me waiting.
This customer was perhaps in his late thirties, with a robust manner, dark eyes, black hair and honeyed skin. His family emigrated here from India when he was 6. Nicolas has described to me the everlasting frustration of his father - a former major in the Indian army - that he could never succeed financially in his adopted country. But he was proud of his son, the lawyer, so that provided a measure of redemption.
"Any hot-and-heavy court battles of late?" I asked as we threaded our way to highway I-89.
"Always, man - always," Nicolas replied with a laugh as he shifted around, getting comfortable in his seat. "Lucky for me, there's always a ready supply of bad guys who are - it should be noted - innocent until proven guilty. On occasion, believe it or not, they're good guys who might be actually innocent. I'm in trial this week on a possession with intent. I think the guy really has a good chance of walking."
"Your excellent lawyering, no doubt," I said.
"No doubt," he repeated with a smile.
"Hey, I've been meaning to ask you - have you ever done anything else besides the legal thing?"
"Well, believe it or not, when I first got my law degree, I spent a few years knocking around L.A. trying to make it as a stand-up comic."
"Yowzah! How cool is that? Didja get anywhere?"
"Ultimately, no, though I played tons of clubs. Towards the end, I ended up basically homeless, living out of my car."
"Jeez, man - that's quite a story. Well, at least you gave it a shot. What were, like, some of your jokes?"
"Let's see . . . I did this whole riff about other comics and rock stars, how their acts fall apart if they stop taking drugs. I remember my Exhibit A was Bob Saget. He actually used to be funny before he got clean and sober."
"I see what you're saying," I said with a laugh. "Drugs are underrated, aren't they? Though I suppose you weren't getting many afterschool specials with that material.
"It's all worked out awesome in the end. I love being a lawyer. There's nothing like it. And here I am, living in Vermont with a beautiful Korean wife."
We cruised down Kennedy Drive, taking a left onto Hinesburg Road. I've been at this so long that I have my own GPS located in my cerebral cortex. Rarely do I consciously consider the fastest route between locations; it happens automatically, as if the cab were steering itself.
"Nick, you know, you're a modern global citizen. You've been touched by so many different cultures."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. I really do love Asian culture, particularly my wife's people. They're such hard workers, family-oriented. They don't take life for granted. It's the regular Americans that have grown fat and lazy, I'm sorry to say. They've been given so much; they don't know how good they have it. Like, where's the appreciation? The immigrants - man, these folks are ready to work."
We crossed Williston Road at Gracey's Corner. The Handy family now owns the landmark Gracey's Store & Deli, but thank goodness they've kept the old name. I hate it when stores change names. It throws off my GPS.
I contemplated Nicolas' gross generalizations about these ethnic and national groups. He's a kindhearted and generous guy, so I knew his feelings were not mean-spirited. I guess the various cultures all reveal their strengths and weaknesses, as is equally true of the unique individuals who make them up.
It's ironic, it occurred to me, that in this new millennium all the diverse peoples of the world will have to work together if the human race is to survive. What a poignant yet hopeful time to be alive on the planet, I thought.
The K of C parking lot was filling up with hopeful gamblers. I pulled to a stop, and Nicolas passed me the fare with his typical good tip. I asked, "Ya feeling lucky?"
"Always," he said, throwing me a wink and a nod. "Always."