I was driving back into town, passing UVM’s Davis Center, when I spotted a girl standing near the curb on the opposite side of Main Street. She was speaking on — or she might have been just checking — her cellphone. It was early February, 3:00 in the morning, and the air was cold, the wind gusty. I tapped the brakes and made long-distance eye contact. Sure enough, she flagged me for a ride, and I came to a stop, switching on my four-ways.
(This four-lane, nonshouldered stretch along the campus is not the safest place to pull such a maneuver, but the late hour allowed for it. Somewhat different rules apply at this time of night, as the police and we cabbies know.)
The girl ran across the street and jumped into the backseat. “How’d you know I needed a cab?” she asked, breathing hard.
“Lucky guess,” I said. The truth is that years of hacking have given me a sixth sense about pedestrians. In my book, every one of them is a potential fare; any cabbie worth his salt is constantly on the lookout. I asked, “Where can I take you?”
“Buell Street, please. I don’t have any money on me, but my roommate is up, and I’ll get it from her when we get there.”
On the ride over, we chatted about her college career. She was a senior and didn’t know what her future held postgraduation. I said, “Hey, you’ve been going to school since you were, like, what — 6 years old? It’s not the worst thing to take a break for a year or so and just work a random job and enjoy life. You’re entitled, sister.”
My customer laughed, and we continued the amiable banter until we pulled up to her place on Buell. Assuring me she’d “be right out,” she bounded out of the taxi and ran like a sprinter up a driveway two houses farther up the street. The choreography had all the hallmarks of what we cabbies call a “runner.”
I wasn’t shocked — I was merely surprised. To truly stun me, she would have had to extract a Glock from her purse and do the highwayman thing. But it was, as I said, surprising. She seemed to be a nice person, and we had had such a chummy chat. If she didn’t come back with the money — the scenario I fully anticipated — I’d leave it to karma to sort it out. No way was I abandoning the warm vehicle to hunt her down; I’d sooner eat the eight bucks.
I waited about five minutes — futilely, as I expected. Just as I shifted back into drive, a woman approached my cab from a house across the street. I lowered my window, and she asked, “Are you here for me?”
This is an interesting question, metaphysical in its implications. One may assume she meant, “Are you the cab I called?” But I chose to understand the query in its more expansive sense, and — cosmically speaking — I was there for her. And that’s how I came to answer: “Yes, I am here for you. Jump right in.” (And shake a leg, honey, before your actual cab shows up.)
“I need to get to Farrell Street, behind Shaw’s,” my new customer instructed me as she settled into the shotgun seat. I couldn’t precisely place her accent, but it was European and charming. Despite the late hour, the woman’s makeup and hair appeared faultless, with perfect black bangs. Her 3 a.m. beauty was, anomalously, fresh faced.
“Sure thing,” I said. “You know, you’ve got a great accent. Is it, like, Eastern European?”
I know it’s forward to bring up ethnic origins with a stranger, but — as with traffic rules — the rules of etiquette grow fluid in the wee hours. Or maybe that’s just me rationalizing my boorish behavior. In any event, the woman didn’t appear to take affront.
“Have you heard of Moldova?” she asked.
“I believe I have. Is that one of the republics that gained independence in the fall of the Soviet Union? It’s a little tiny country — do I have that right?”
The woman chuckled and said, “Yes, it is a small country, maybe the size of Maryland. It’s located between Romania and the Ukraine.” I could tell from her patient tone that this was a geography lesson she was often called on to deliver. “That’s where I’m from. I moved here three years ago, when I was 20.”
“Are you working in town?”
“Yes, I do the insurance billing for a medical practice. It’s a good job, but I’d like to go to graduate school and get an advanced degree.”
“Well, good for you. Are most of your people still living in Moldova? You ever get back?”
The woman sighed and said, “All of my relatives are still in Moldova. We do Skype quite a bit, but, you know, it’s not the same.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Skyping is great, but it’s not like actually being with someone, you know — in person.”
“It is not an easy situation,” the woman volunteered. “I am an only child, and also the only grandchild and niece in my family. It’s really hard for all of us, me being in America.”
Her opening up in this way I recognized as another facet of the wee-hour taxi ride. As the night marches inexorably toward a new day, the normal boundaries between strangers begin to melt away. This is when — if the stars are aligned — the taxicab becomes a bubble, a safety zone that facilitates a sometimes startling degree of heart-to-heart communication. It’s not something I instigate, but I respect it when it occurs. I consider it part and parcel of being a night cabbie.
Under the spell of the bubble, I reflected on the immigrant’s odyssey undertaken by this young woman — an arduous journey perhaps as old as humankind. To pack up all the possessions you can carry and leave everyone and everything you know and love — all this on the far-from-certain hope of a brighter future. Our community is graced with many such courageous people, and I bow down to each and every one of them.
When she passed me the fare, I let slip the words, “Hey, thanks for paying me.”
She looked up quizzically, saying, “Why wouldn’t I?”
I chuckled and said, “Don’t ask.”