The college students are present in Burlington for about three-quarters of the year. When they’re away during the summer, the town is a very different place. Whether it’s better or worse is arguable, and I go back and forth on that one. In any event, our five local colleges aren’t going away, so the debate is — pardon the pun — academic. Like the weather, August sidewalk sales and the ferry foghorns, college life is part of the city fabric, including the students’ yearly migratory pattern.
And now they’re back. Their first full weekend in town, Labor Day weekend, never fails to astound. The students are everywhere! Like seagulls, or locusts! The town’s baseline energy level doubles overnight. I kind of love it, and it freaks me out. But I do have a core principle, and it goes like this: Students take cabs, so I like them.
Saturday night saw the freshmen moving up and down the Main Street hill in packs of about 35. Apparently, there’s safety in numbers. Within a couple of weeks, groups of friends will coalesce, and the wildebeest-herd-size groups will shrink. But at least for the first weekend, every newbie is in the same boat.
Late that Saturday night, I had two of these freshmen in the back of my taxi. One of them appeared Asian, biracial. He was boyishly handsome, with a great jaw line and tousled black hair. Glancing in the rear view at his friend, I saw a wiry, red-haired kid. We were en route to an “after-hours” party in Essex Junction, at the family home of a classmate one of them had met during the first week of classes. They were excited.
“Dude, this is so great!’ the handsome guy said. “I’ve met a lot of people this week, but now we get to hang out with some, like, real girlies.”
“It’s gonna be awesome,” the redhead agreed, and they executed an elaborate fist-bump/handshake maneuver.
“So did you guys know each other from high school before you came up here for school?” I asked.
“No, but it’s a cool story,” said the redhead. “We met on the Megabus coming up from Boston last week. Two Massholes, right? Justin started at St. Mike’s, and I’m going to UVM. And, coincidentally, we’re both transfers from other colleges. Anyway, we, like, really hit it off, and we’ve become buds.”
“That’s all quite cool,” I said. “When you’re in a new city, it helps to have a friend. I’m sure you’re both gonna make a lot of other new friends at school, but still. Hey, have you guys picked majors?”
The redhead said, “I had been studying childhood education at UMass, but I don’t think I’m really cut out for it. So I’m thinking of switching to neurobiology.”
“Oh, no kidding?” I said. “I got a nephew who’s quite successful in that field. I respect you getting out of education if your heart’s really not in it. Teaching is such a tough job, and it doesn’t even pay that well. I mean, don’t get me wrong — no work is more important. But I feel like you gotta be 100 percent committed to be a good teacher.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of been my thinking, too,” he said.
“So, Justin — how about you?”
“I’m into computer science,” he replied. “UVM has a pretty strong department.”
“Can’t go wrong with that,” I said. “I wish I had studied computers when I was young. Of course, back then they had only recently discovered electricity.”
And so the jolly small talk continued apace, up Route 15 and past the Champlain Valley Fair, all buttoned up for the night. We found the street we were looking for, a pretty obscure one, and Justin said, “OK, this is the address. You can pull up right here, just behind this Jeep.”
“All right, then — it’ll be 18 bucks.”
The redhead got out his door and began to walk up the driveway. Justin took out his wallet and opened it up. Then, in a flash, he bolted out his door, and the two of them took off at sprinter’s speed, disappearing behind the house. The entire choreography seemed rehearsed.
I was flabbergasted. I sat drop-jawed behind the wheel. I was angry, sure, but mostly I was confused. A customer running out without paying is nothing new. It probably occurs a few times a year to any cabbie. Normally, however, you can see it coming; something feels amiss. But these guys had been so friendly and forthcoming. Was any part of their story true? The Megabus? Transferring schools out of Massachusetts? Were they really even students?
I fancy myself a good judge of character. Maybe that’s the problem. When I was a teenager, I thought I was a crackerjack pool player. Inevitably, I ran into a real player who cleaned my clock, along with my entire wallet. Overestimation of my own skills, it occurred to me, might be my lifelong Achilles’ heel.
The next day I related the incident to a friend. It was her opinion that everything my two passengers had said was a lie, all part of the hustle. “No way,” I countered. “They seemed so sincere, so genuine. Plus, what about all the specific details? What kind of people would come up with all that?”
She just smiled and shook her head, as in Jernigan, Jernigan, Jernigan.
Bingo. Right there was my weak spot, and it probably explained why this incident so threw me. It wasn’t the loss of a minor amount of money. It’s that I simply don’t want to believe people can be so calculating, so mean. I don’t want to live in that world.
Then it hit me: Oh. My. God. I’ve become Taylor Swift.