"Is it always this busy in Burlington?" the woman inquired from the backseat of my taxi. It was Saturday night of the Mardi Gras weekend. "It was hard to get a hotel room."
This woman and her partner were down from Montréal, visiting town on a ski vacation. While Burlington is not, strictly speaking, a "ski town," it often serves as a base camp for tourists skiing at Smugglers', Bolton, Stowe and Sugarbush. Sometimes even Jay Peak, though that's a hefty commute.
I glanced up at my customer in the rear-view mirror, considering whether her question was a lighthearted joke. "Well, the Mardi Gras festivities draw a ton of visitors," I replied, stating the obvious.
"Mardi Gras?" she asked, genuinely puzzled. "Isn't that in one of your southern states? Like New Orleans?"
I stifled a laugh and explained to her the phenomenon of Mardi Gras in Burlington. Which, it turns out, is not an easy thing to make sense of without delving into the fertile mind of Alan Newman, the storied founder of Magic Hat Brewing, the sponsor of this annual event.
Our unlikely local version of Mardi Gras has grown into one of my busiest workdays of the year, joining such stalwarts as the Vermont Brewers Festival, the July Fourth celebration and New Year's Eve. It turns out that everyone loves a party, and Mardi Gras is nothing if not the ultimate excuse to get publicly wild and crazy. And that type of partying (I'm so glad) often requires cabs.
Friday night is the warm-up for the Saturday parade and all-night revelry. In advance of that, I took a pair of back-to-back Stowe runs during the day on Friday. A morning fare to the Green Mountain Inn left me with a three-hour break before an afternoon pickup at the Topnotch Resort, so it wasn't worth it to return to Burlington. Luckily, Stowe is home to an excellent, and apparently well-funded, library. I considered arriving with pastries for the librarians in a show of appreciation, but, after going back and forth, decided that gesture would be over the top. I contentedly whiled away the three hours ensconced in a comfy chair with a stack of old Vermont photo books.
My Topnotch customer was an accountant from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Not to stereotype the profession, but the guy was as square as a Rubik's Cube. Shooting for conviviality, I made some joke about hosers, referring the old Bob and Doug McKenzie Canadian TV skit.
He said, "What's a hoser? Do you mean Hoosier?"
I proceeded to explain to him the difference between a "hoser" and a "Hoosier." Things didn't go uphill from there, but, then again, I don't expect every conversation to evoke the Algonquin Round Table.
If I thought that Friday was a busy day of cabbing, Saturday put it to shame. The calls started coming in the late morning and didn't stop until the wee hours of Sunday. When it was all said and done, I had driven 15 straight hours, with just a few short breaks to scarf down a couple of pizza slices, gas up and — can you guess? — urinate.
Days like this used to be a piece of cake, but age has taken its toll on my previously Energizer Bunny-like constitution. I can still pull them off on a spot basis, but not without repercussions — though not of the type you'd imagine. Sure, the cascade of hours wears me down physically, but the mental strain is more insidious. Specifically, as the hours pile up, that strain degrades my ability to suffer fools gladly, a crucial aptitude for any night cabbie. And, just when I can least handle it, a customer inevitably tests my patience.
My tester entered the cab at three in the morning as my penultimate fare of the night: a twentysomething girl returning with a partner to what I assume was her parents' home on Spear Street. It was her voice, oozing entitlement, that plugged me in like a charger.
There was talk of a Martinique Christmas vacation, and how it fell "woefully" short of her expectations. There was a lot of clothing discussion — Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Yves St. Laurent. At one point, as we passed the Gutterson Fieldhouse and she was still yapping, I'm pretty sure she ordered a Fendi ski jacket on her cellphone, pausing only to ask her boyfriend whether to go with the blue or green.
It's not that I envy rich people. I just resent (there, I've said it) the ones who exhibit not a shred of gratitude, not a modicum of humility and, therefore, not a clue how to interact with a cabdriver with class or nobility.
We arrived at her opulent Pheasant Way home, where I understand many of the residents partake in pheasant hunts on the weekends, hence the street name. The fare was 15 and change, and she handed me a credit card. To process credit charges, I use a cellphone device called PayAnywhere. The app can be set up with all manner of options, but, as I am a digital dolt, I keep it as simple as possible.
Before entering the fare and swiping her card, I asked, as I always do, "Would you like to add a tip?"
"Can't I do that myself?" she replied. This was the first time in the two years I'd been accepting credit cards that a customer had made this request.
"Sorry, it's not set up that way. If you want to tip, just tell me how much and I'll add it on the fare."
"Well, that totally won't work for me," she explained, petulant as a petunia. "I want to add 12 percent, and I want to do it on my own."
If I were a volcano, this would be the stage where I began rumbling and belching large puffs of smoke.
"Look, I can figure the 12 percent, OK?" I pushed back.
"Just let the cabbie do this, all right?" the boyfriend beseeched her. "I'm completely beat and want to get to bed."
"Oh, just do it, then," the girl said, capitulating. Oh, the vexation, the burden!
I wasn't getting out a calculator, so I ballparked it and ran the charge at 17 even. I should have known better.
"Hey!" she barked when she saw the amount go through. "I think that's over 12 percent!"
"Well, my goodness, I'm so sorry," I said, disingenuous as a Fox News host. "Would you like your 18 cents change? I would be happy to dig that out for ya."
Luckily, before she could respond, her boyfriend opened the door, stepped out and extracted her with a chuckle. I wasn't proud of myself for the shade I had thrown this woman. Attitude is no excuse for attitude, long hours behind the wheel notwithstanding.
Well, there you have it, I thought as I steered back toward town. Maybe I really do have Fendi envy.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.