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Paying for It



Published August 24, 2011 at 10:33 a.m.

Downtown Burlington was unusually active for a random Tuesday night. Chatting with my customers, I soon discovered the reason — one of Vermont’s largest homegrown industries was holding its annual conference in town. “Captive insurance” sounds like a policy you might consider purchasing if getting kidnapped is a real possibility in your life. In actuality, it’s something far more prosaic: a method by which large companies can self-insure against certain risks.

I know a little bit about this because, in the 1980s, I used to do some work for the Vermont man widely credited with pioneering the field of captive insurance. During the warmer months, the guy resided in Panton. Come the fall, he would hire me and another driver to transport his twin red and blue Mercedes Benz sports cars south to his Florida abode. Doing 80 mph down Interstate 95, we’d complete the trip in less than two days. Upon our arrival at the man’s Sunshine State compound, he would provide us with airline tickets back to Burlington, along with our fee and a fat tip. At the time, he was said to be the wealthiest person in Vermont.

So, back in the present, conferee after conferee I drove. These were insurance people — polite, nice, clean, not exactly wild men and women. By definition, I suppose, conventions are not for the unconventional. For me, this was A-OK, as mild-mannered customers are my favorite flavor. If a desire to hang with the wild bunch should bubble up, I’ll journey to Burning Man. In the back of my taxi, I prefer the bland and well behaved.

Of course, there can be another element to the out-of-town business conference, even in the mellow Queen City of Vermont.

Later that same Tuesday night, a middle-aged man hailed me from the corner of Church and Main. The look in his eyes suggested he was hot and bothered. “Oh, God,” he said, climbing into the back seat, “this town is loaded with hot girls, don’t ya think?”

“Yeah,” I said. “They don’t call it ‘Girlington’ for no reason.”

I threw the man that response as a bone, hoping to close the subject. When a guy is 20, 30, even 40, actively lusting after the beautiful girls on the street is all well and good. But once you’re old enough to be their father, let alone grandfather, that kind of behavior strikes me as unseemly. If the thought does arise — “lusting in your heart,” as Jimmy Carter once famously put it — have the decency to keep it to yourself. There’s no need to share it with your cab driver.

“Where am I taking you?” I asked, pulling back into traffic.

“To the Sheraton,” he replied. “I’m in town for some boring conference. Hey, if there’s some girls on the corner, pull the cab over. You know what I mean.”

“If you want to get with somebody tonight, you’re going to have to use your charm, man. ’Cause it’s not really that kind of town.”

“Can’t you help me out? You must know what’s going on.”

“Just to be clear — you’re talking about a hooker, right?”

In the rear-view mirror, I could see my bluntness had startled the guy. “Well, I didn’t want to say directly.”

“Here’s the deal, man. This is something I don’t get involved with. I just don’t want the karma, if you know what I’m saying. So, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“Well, that’s totally an evasive statement,” he scoffed. “Just give me a straight answer — are there hookers in this town, and where can I find one?”

I’m not a babe in the woods. I’ve been hacking in Vermont’s largest city for 30 years, and I’ve kept my eyes open the whole time. On a small scale and in a low-key fashion, Burlington features all the great vices known to man: drugs, illegal gambling, prostitution. You crave it, we got it. I simply choose not to participate, either as a purveyor or a facilitator. It’s not that I’m some great moralist; I just find life a tough enough row to hoe without the distractions.

I said to the man, “Am I being unclear? How else can I say it? If you asked me where to score some drugs, you’d get the same answer — I’m just not the guy who’s gonna help you out with that. Anyway, you’re staying at a hotel, right? Why do you think they invented Cinemax?”

“Screw that,” he said. “If you can’t help me, maybe another cabbie will.”

“Your call, brother,” I said. “Do you want me take you back downtown to try another cab?”

“Yeah, I do.”

We had just crossed Prospect, so I took a quick left onto University Place, a U-turn at the Royal/Tyler Theatre and the right back onto Main Street, returning down the hill. Neither my customer nor I said a word; it was tense, but we had reached an understanding.

I pulled to the curb at Church Street, and that’s where our understanding broke down. When I said, “That’ll be seven dollars,” he ignored me and left the cab. Apparently, he was under the impression that our little jaunt up and down Main Street was on the house.

He began to cross the street, walking toward a couple of taxis parked at the lower Church Street cabstand. Through my window, and pointing to the cellphone in my hand, I called to him, “Hey, you know I’m gonna call the cops, right? You do understand that?”

He just kept walking, calling my bluff. I know how the Burlington police operate. If I had called, a police officer would have forced the man to pay me the lousy seven bucks — I’ve found them quite supportive of cab drivers when a customer refuses to pay. But I’ve grown old and wise, at least about these things. I had no point to prove; I didn’t need to “teach the guy a lesson.” So, why bring in the cops? Why take it any further? Certainly not for seven bucks.

Perhaps the guy found a cabbie willing to hook him up. Maybe his need was fulfilled for the night. The thing is, it’s just not any of my business.