Zero degrees, and the roads were devoid of snow or ice — in other words, an ideal night for us cabbies. Freezing temperatures goose the demand for taxis, and the clear streets allow for making time. I was out there cooking in my trusty Buick LeSabre.
GM manufactured the LeSabre from 1959 until 2005, and mine is from the final model year. Functioning as a taxi, this vehicle — the last of its breed, sigh — has served me well: It’s roomy, easy to repair and handles nicely for an old-fashioned sedan. The only drawback, and it’s a big one, is the anemic gas mileage. On busy nights, I could use an air tanker hovering alongside for regular refueling.
Idling in front of Nectar’s around 11 p.m., I noticed a guy of perhaps 50 shifting from leg to leg on the sidewalk in a losing game to fend off the cold. Sure enough, he approached my taxi, giving me the corkscrew signal to roll down my window. I complied.
“What’cha get to take me up to Georgia?” he asked. The man was short, stocky, ruddy and surprisingly good-spirited, considering the arctic conditions.
I have been on the job for about 10,000 shifts, so quoting fares is second nature to me, seemingly beyond a cognitive process. Entirely intuitively, in what feels like a millisecond, I crunch all the pieces of relevant information — time of day, day of the week, distance, weather conditions, type of customer, etc. — and spit out a figure. For this guy, I kept it a little open, saying, “Well, we generally get 30 to 35 dollars to Milton, so depending how far into Georgia we’re going…”
“Yup, that’s about what I figured,” he said. “I think I’m gonna wait a little longer for my friends.”
Ten minutes passed with him periodically glancing, longingly, toward my toasty cab. Relenting (as I suspected he would), he sauntered back over, giving me the corkscrew redux. “Would you take 40?” he proposed. “My vehicle is at the park-and-ride just off Exit 18.”
“Yup, that’ll work,” I replied, and he circled around to jump into the shotgun seat.
“I was out tonight with my coworkers,” he volunteered, “but I’m too old to stay out for the duration. Those guys are all young bucks.” He paused to chuckle, I guessed, at his use of the hoary phrase. “Me, well, I just can’t do this anymore. I knew I should’ve taken my own wheels into town. Oh, well.”
“What kinda work’re you in?” I asked.
“HVAC and plumbing the last 15 years or so,” he replied. “I’ve done a lotta other kinds of work, though.”
“Well, I grew up on a farm between Jericho and Underhill, so I milked cows my whole childhood, along with everything else it takes to run a family farm. My folks sold the place when I was a teenager, and I worked — in succession — in sheet metal and cement mixing until I found my niche with plumbing.”
“I get the feeling that you enjoy it.”
“The plumbing? Well, it’s not the worst way to make a living. But that’s not my passion in life. My passion is theater. I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager.”
“Really? You mean, like, community theater — that kind of thing?”
“Yup, exactly. I’ve been in tons of shows — South Pacific, Oklahoma!, you name it. Recently I directed my first production, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I also played the leading role of Charlie Brown.”
“A little long in the tooth to be playing Charlie Brown,” I pointed out with a laugh.
He laughed along, saying, “Hey, that’s the magic of theater.”
I said, “My theater debut — and swan song, now that I think about it — took place in sixth grade when I played the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Oh, man, I can still remember … I could while away the hours, conferring with the flowers, consulting with the rain.”
My customer smiled broadly. “That is great, buddy. You shoulda never given it up. You got some skills.”
“Well, thanks so much. The thing is, once I hit adolescence, I got way too self-conscious to ever get back on a stage.”
“Hey, just remember — it’s never too late.”
We were scooting up the highway in a landscape rendered visible by a lustrous full moon in a cloudless sky. Despite my dismal performance in the few science classes I endured in the previous millennium, I do recall hearing that the moon is not self-illuminated but merely reflecs the sun’s light. Call me a Republican, but I’m not buying it. On resplendent nights such as this, I’m pretty sure the moon is doing it on its own.
As we came to the Georgia exit, my customer said, “My other thing — a close second after theater — is demolition derby. Every summer I try to get out there to watch and sometimes compete. Nothing is more fun.”
“Yeah, I’ve gone once at the Essex fair,” I said. “I know what you mean — it’s like seeing a car wreck; you can’t look away. Well, I guess it is a car wreck.”
“I can tell you this: You have not lived until you’ve driven in one. During the derby, you are so friggin’ focused, concentrating like your life depended on it. But I remember, when it was over, my heart was beating so loud, and I couldn’t stop shaking!” He paused to laugh. “I guess that’s what they call ‘post-traumatic stress.’”
I smiled, thinking, This guy is as Vermont as sugar on snow. Just try to put him in a box — dairy farming, plumbing, theater, demolition derby. Dude is living life. “Eclectic” doesn’t begin to do him justice.
In the park-and-ride, we pulled up alongside his big, white Ford truck. “Any new plays on the horizon?” I asked.
“I got something brewing for this summer,” he replied.
“Well, hope ya break a leg,” I said.
“One way or another,” he said. “Either on the stage or on the track!”