"Hey, Jernigan — could you pick me up in Winooski and take me to my girlfriend's condo in Essex? I'm at McKee's."
"Roger, Roger," I replied. "I should be there in about 10."
Roger was a new regular customer of mine, and I can't tell you how much pleasure I took from assenting to his ride requests with "Roger, Roger." He'd been using me for about six months, at least once or twice a week, to shuttle between bars and clubs. He was employed in the skilled trades, mostly carpentry and painting, from the evidence of his work clothes. Like many a seasoned construction worker, he told me that, if called on, he could adequately perform most any job on the site. And he was a drinker — still young enough to pull off the day-working/night-boozing thing without totally breaking down.
One of Roger's quirks had to do with how he paid me the fare. My protocol with all my customers — regular or random — is just what you'd expect: Payment is expected when we arrive at the destination. For some reason, Roger liked to pay up as soon as he settled into the cab's shotgun seat. And he wouldn't hand the cash to me; rather, wordlessly, he'd place rolled-up bills in the cup holder between the seats. This always evoked for me the way a john leaves money for a hooker on the desk or nightstand — a discreet act, as if to hide the essential commercial nature of the transaction. In any event, I'm nothing if not flexible; if that was the way the guy wanted to pay me, why not?
I pulled around the Winooski traffic circle and came to a stop in front of McKee's. As usual, Roger came out in less than two minutes (which I appreciated). Dropping into the seat beside me, he said, "I forgot to ask, but could we stop at McDonald's on the way out there? I'm frickin' famished, and the girlfriend wants me to pick up food for her also."
This I hate to do as a matter of policy, so I paused before replying. Fast food isn't necessarily all that fast, and although I could charge waiting time, stopping along the way for any significant period is a money loser for me. I make money when the transmission is in drive, not park. But it wasn't a very busy night, and the guy was, at this point, a bona fide regular, so...
"Sure, we could make a stop at Mickey D's," I said.
We sped along Route 15, passing the Fort before hitting a red light at Susie Wilson Road. For years, I told customers that the street was named after the woman who, back in the day, operated a brothel just past the corner of Kellogg Road. (This was the local received wisdom.) Oh, the embellishments I came up with on each retelling! That is, until some Seven Days reporter did a story about the real Susie Wilson that revealed the brothel tale to be a fanciful myth. Phooey, I thought as I read the article, reluctantly absorbing the debunking. A guy only has so many colorful tales in his quiver.
We pulled into the McDonald's across from the fairgrounds. I asked, "Drive-thru, or are ya going in?"
"I'm going in," Roger replied, and I grabbed a parking spot. I didn't see him again for more than 10 minutes, or half the third quarter of the Celtics game playing on the radio. So, semifast food.
As we took off for the short hop to Brickyard Road, Roger asked, "Did I give you enough?"
"You mean money? Actually, you didn't pay me yet."
"What are you talking about? I put the money in the drink holder, like I always do. Twenty-five bucks."
"No, I don't think you did, brother."
I turned to see Roger's face contort. He looked nearly unrecognizable.
"You're trying to rob me!" he screamed. "Call the fucking Essex police! Right now, call the cops."
"Roger, relax, man. Let me count my money. I know I had 93 dollars before I picked you up."
I pulled over, my mind doing flip-flops. Had he paid me? I'm well into middle age; the gray matter is grayer than it once was. Maybe I'd just spaced out? I quickly counted the money. Ninety-three it was.
"Listen, I don't think you paid me, Roger. I know you usually pay me when you get into the cab, but you just didn't this time."
"Call the cops!" he reiterated. "I paid you the goddamn money!"
At that moment, my course of action was clear: de-escalate. I had never seen this side of the man, but I intuited he was just confused, and not actually trying to scam me out of the fare. Not that his reaction wasn't disturbing.
"Roger, don't worry about it," I said. "I don't think you paid me, but we're not gonna fight about it. Let me just drive you to Brickyard."
My customer fumed for the five-minute ride, still convinced that I had tried to double-charge him. He stormed out when we reached his girlfriend's place. I didn't hear from him again until he called a month later.
"Jernigan, this is Roger. There's a guy here at Murray's — you know, the bar across from the train station. He needs a ride into town. Can you come get him?"
"Sure, thanks for the referral. I'll be there in 20. And, listen — you know you can still call me, right? We just had a misunderstanding last month, that's all."
"Oh, sure. No problem. I've just been out of work for about a month. That's why I haven't called you — I haven't been going out. Don't got the green."
I could easily have dropped this guy from my roster, but I trust my instincts. I think that incident at McDonald's was just Roger having a bad night. One thing, though: The days of cup-holder payments are over.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.