"Will you go to Huntington for 50 bucks?" Having flagged me down, the thirtysomething man was speaking to me through my passenger-side window. On this unusually warm late November night, he was jacket-free, and his blue flannel shirt was crisp and clean, as were his blue jeans. He had tousled, sandy-blond hair and an easy smile.
Huntington's a ride, I considered, but $50 is the right number. "That'll work," I told him. "You can jump right in the front."
As we got under way, he chuckled wistfully and said, "You know, here I am running after women downtown, and I realized I'd rather be home in my bed sleeping. You been there, right?"
Not really, I thought, before replying, "Oh, sure. Tell me about it."
This was going to be a longish ride, and a little manly solidarity was called for. Of this I had plenty to spare, although — truth be told — the last time I was "running after women," Gerald Ford was president.
"Anyway, thanks for taking this long haul. I'm Arnie," my customer said, extending his hand.
"Jernigan," I reciprocated, taking a hand off the wheel to shake his. There's something about this common ritual of physically touching another person that instantly creates a bond, however temporary. The act never fails to touch me, pardon the pun.
"So, Arnie, are you working in town? Are you in the trades?" I asked, using the vernacular for skilled construction work.
"I am," he replied with a laugh. "How'd you guess?"
"Probably the cool construction boots."
"Yeah, I do pretty high-end stuff. The company I'm with does a fair amount of work in California, building homes for tech and entertainment millionaires. Honestly, I'd rather be building housing for your average person, but this pays really well. Long term, though, I want to launch my own outfit."
"You'll get there," I said. "Save your pennies. Quit chasing women on the weekends."
"True that!" he said, slapping his knee.
As we turned onto the highway, I asked, "You a Vermont boy? You got family up here?"
"Nope to both. I lived in Queens — you know, New York City — until I was 6. Then the family moved upstate to the Catskills."
"What precipitated the move? That's a big change." It was an innocuous enough question, but little did I know.
"My father was shot in the head and sustained brain damage. After that, he just didn't want to live in the city anymore, so we left. This was the early '90s, and there was a rash of gang-initiation assaults. Maybe you remember this? In order to get into a gang, you had to shoot some random person in the street. Not even a robbery, just like a sick hazing ritual. My dad was an unlucky victim of this."
"Holy smokes! What a thing to go through — I mean, the whole family. Did they ever catch the perpetrator?"
"Yeah, they did — this teenage African American kid. You know, I never forgot my dad never got racist about the incident. He wasn't that way before, and his being attacked by a black person didn't change him. I always admired that."
"So, the family moved and carried on. Was your dad able to function afterward? Like, could he still work?"
"Yeah, he's a tech guy. He still works to this day, but in a diminished capacity."
"How about your moms?"
"Oh, she's great, all considered. She's an artist. One of her works got displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. I got a twin brother, too, who works for the Department of the Interior in ecological forest management. I hate to think what his job will be like now that Trump will be running the show."
My heart sank, as it has five times a day since the election. It feels like I'm trapped, the country is trapped, in an unfolding nightmare. I'm aware that about half of those who voted feel — at least for the time being — the diametrical opposite, but that reality only compounds my heartache. I've heard many who share my view compare the election results to 9/11, but that analogy falls short: Unlike the terrorist attack, this national disaster was self-inflicted.
"A twin brother, huh?" I said, shaking off the election blues. "Do you and he ever experience that inexplicable 'twin thing'? You know, where you feel things at the same time when you're apart? I'm sorry — you must get this question all the time."
"Hey, it's all right," Arnie replied. "And, yeah — we totally have that twin thing. A big example just happened this past spring. I woke up in the middle of the night literally screaming and in a cold sweat. The next morning I called my mom, and she told me Billy had been in a terrible car accident the previous night, at the exact time when I had been jarred awake. He pulled through, thank God. It was scary, though. But I'm glad we have that connection. I can't imagine life without it."
I dropped Arnie at his place in Huntington and found myself revisiting his story as I worked the remainder of my shift. Somehow, his family seemed to have survived an unimaginable act of violence. The resilience was hard for me to fathom, but, as the night wore on, the notion began to give me hope for America. At least a glimmer, which at this point, I'll hold on to for all it's worth.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.