"This is the Shopping Bag. I got a guy here who needs a ride."
The Shopping Bag is a general store in Burlington's Old North End, renowned for its deli, particularly the burgers. I think the place actually won a national burger award a few years back.
"Yup, I can be there in 10," I told the clerk. "Where's the guy going?"
"I couldn't tell you. He stepped out of the store and is waiting on the corner."
I pulled up to Lafountain Street, and a lean young man stepped out from behind the store and slid into the front seat. I noticed his long, black woolen coat and thick black beard. He struck me as handsome, if somewhat gaunt. Before I could speak, he said, "I need to go to Hopewell Junction. That's in New York."
And with that, he sat back in his seat, eyes forward, as if he had just requested a ride to Winooski. I turned to face him, shifting the taxi into park. There was a lot I needed to get clear before embarking on a trip of this magnitude.
"I think I know that town. It's south of Poughkeepsie, right? Off the Taconic Parkway?"
The guy nodded at me in a noncommittal way. I realized, if I hadn't already, that it would be up to me to gain the clarity required.
"OK, let me get you a quote," I said, reaching for my cellphone. The key element in out-of-town pricing is distance, and the mileage to Hopewell Junction was, well, many miles. "I can take you for $400," I informed him, "but I'll need to get the money up front."
"I have $100 now, and I can get you the rest when we get down there."
"How about a credit card?" I suggested. "I can take your card."
"I don't have one," he said.
"Sorry, I can't take you without the cash. I would try some other cab companies. You might find somebody willing to accommodate you."
Without another word, or even a nod, the man slipped out of the cab. Well, that was weird but not unusual, I thought. Sometimes a fare just doesn't pan out.
A half hour later, a call came in from J.R.'s, another convenience store down the street from the Shopping Bag. The clerk said, "I need a cab here for a guy [who]wants to get to Hertz on Shelburne Road."
I wasn't surprised when I arrived at J.R.'s to find the Shopping Bag guy out on the curb. On the drive to the car rental, I considered engaging with him about his plan (I assumed) to drive himself to New York. I sporadically rent cars and was pretty sure that all the companies required a credit card. But I said nothing. Intuitively, I knew that this man was on a journey of his own making, one in which my input would be neither helpful nor, most likely, welcome.
When we pulled into Hertz, he paid me the fare. I put aside my misgivings and asked, "What's your name, brother?"
"Rocky, would you like me to wait a minute? Just to make sure you're able to rent the car?"
"Yes," he said, and stepped out and walked into the rental agency. I was not offended by Rocky's curtness. It was evident to me that social interaction was difficult for him, perhaps unbearably so.
Sure enough, he returned to the cab a few minutes later. "J.R.'s," he instructed me.
We rode back to North Street in silence. By this point, I was getting used to Rocky, so the lack of small talk didn't feel strained or uncomfortable. When I dropped him off, I reiterated my willingness to do the New York trip if he did come up with the money.
The next day, another call came from the Shopping Bag. (Obviously, Rocky didn't own a cellphone.) When I got there, he told me, "I have $200 on me, and if you take me to Macy's, I have a $200 gift card which I can cash in."
That sounded sketchy, but I coveted the lucrative fare, as January was the slowest month. When we got to Macy's, I parked on Cherry Street while he went in to do the exchange. I took the moment to check the weather forecast. Not good, I thought. Snow and sleet were predicted for early afternoon into evening along most of the route.
Rocky came back quickly to tell me the store didn't open until 10. It was 9:45. He also informed me that, when we got to Hopewell Junction, he would be picking up a vehicle at a used-car dealer. The address he gave me, however, didn't come up on Google Maps. And that was the last straw that made me pull the plug.
"Look, Rocky — I'm sorry. I checked the weather, and I can't do this trip today. The driving conditions are just too hairy. Do you want me to take you back to North Street? I won't charge you anything."
"No, I'll get out here," he said, and did just that.
Two days later, the call came from Domino's Pizza at the Winooski bridge, and I duly returned for my fourth rendezvous with Rocky. This time he needed me to take him to an apartment across from Battery Park, wait while he retrieved some stuff, and drive him back to Domino's.
When we got to the apartment, he went in and returned carrying a huge, stuffed black plastic bag. He then repeated the process five times. I had to lower the rear seat of my minivan to accommodate what were evidently all his worldly possessions.
Back at Domino's, he had me pull into the rear parking lot, where I saw he had managed to rent a small U-Haul truck. As we began unloading his bags, the store manager came out and started yelling at Rocky for using the parking lot. Apparently, a tow truck was on the way, for which the manager was demanding payment. Having removed the last of Rocky's bags, I left the premises before the situation was resolved.
Weeks have passed now without another call from Rocky. I'm assuming he made it to New York but have no way of knowing. What brought him to Burlington I'll likewise never know. But for four days, I played a minor role in his journey. Wherever life takes him, I wish him Godspeed.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.