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Songbird in Winter



Published December 11, 2013 at 10:08 a.m.

Sunday is my one day off, except when I work on Sunday, which is most of the time. Perhaps I should quit saying that I’m off on Sundays, but that would be too depressing — the recognition that I work seven days a week. My problem (well, one of my problems) is that I’m constitutionally incapable of turning down lucrative out-of-town jobs, and Sunday is a prime day for travelers returning from trips.

On a Sunday in November, I was booked for two airport runs: a student heading back to Middlebury College and a friend returning to her home in Hinesburg. (These friend jobs are a whole other issue, because taking money from a friend feels awkward to me, even though they always seem to be more than fine with it.)

Both trips went off without a hitch, and by late afternoon — the rain blustery, the sky darkening — I arrived in downtown Burlington en route to my place. My cellphone was switched off, as Sunday is my day of rest (ha!). I longed to get home, put my feet up and engage in that quintessential American male ritual: watching football while eating cholesterol-laden food.

Waiting for the light to change on the corner of Winooski and Main, I noticed a husky girl trotting toward me in the rain. She was pulling a wheeled suitcase and wearing a puffy jacket with a fur-lined hood. I couldn’t tell whether the hood was a part of the coat or attached to a separate garment underneath. I lowered the passenger window as she reached me.

“Could you take me up to the Ho Hum on Shelburne Road?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Let me pull over and pop the trunk.”

I helped her with her suitcase, and she took a seat in the back, unzipped her jacket and dropped her hood. Turned in my seat, I looked into her round and lovely face, open and cheerful despite the circumstances. “I was looking for a cab on the corner of Church Street,” she said, “but there were none there. What’s up with that? There’s always, like, at least one taxi waiting there.”

“Yeah, you’re right about that corner, but the cabs usually don’t queue up until later in the night,” I said, turning the vehicle around in the parking lot of Champlain Farms — known locally as the “murder mart” for reasons too sad to recount. “Plus,” I added, “it’s raining, and that doesn’t help. Anyway, sorry you had to stand around in the rain.”

“Thanks. I think I might have the flu. I’m feeling terrible, to tell you the truth. Oh, and I should tell you this — I need to check at the Ho Hum. If they don’t have a room, then could you drive me to the North Star?”

“Let’s call first to save time,” I suggested. I lifted my cell out of its jerrybuilt dashboard housing and enlisted Siri. “Call the Ho Hum Motel, South Burlington, Vermont,” I commanded. As usual, Siri responded confidently, and, as usual, with a non sequitur. Talking to the woman who lives in my iPhone is like being in a Samuel Beckett play — the two of us never seem to be on the same page.

I handed the phone to my customer, who managed to get the number the old-fashioned way: Google. The Ho Hum didn’t have a vacancy, as she suspected, but the North Star came through.

“So what brings you through Burlington?” I asked.

“Oh, I’ve been here since the spring,” she replied. “The living situation has been shaky, though. But, you know, things always have a way of working themselves out.”

“Have you been doing anything for work?”

“Yeah, I sing on Church Street.”

“Quite cool,” I said. “But that’s gotta be a lot better in the summer than this time of year. What can you make on a good day busking? Can you take in, like, a hundred bucks?”

“Yeah, on a good day. It is getting too late in the year now, though. Today I did 73 dollars. That’ll cover my room, which’ll be 48. So, I’ll be able to afford a decent dinner tonight. That’s what I do — I sing for my supper.”

“Where are you from, like, your home town?”

“I grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, but I left home pretty early. I’ve been all around the country since then.”

“You planning on staying out on Church Street all winter?”

“Hell, no!” she said with a laugh. “Today might’ve been my last day. I’ll probably catch some work at a ski area. You know, like cashiering, cleaning rooms — something like that.”

A part of me wanted to take this girl home with me, tuck her into a spare bed and feed her aspirin and hot tea. Another part of me was jealous. She seemed untethered, or just lightly tethered, to this world. I would say, “free as a bird,” but really — how free are the birds? True, they get to fly — and that must be awesome — but the daily scrounging for their next meal has got to get old, not to mention the living in trees and the carnivorous cats.

In front of the North Star, I lowballed the fare, just my way of supporting the local arts. Seriously, this is one significant advantage to being an independent cabbie: I get to cut the rates whenever — well, whenever I feel like it. Her warm smile let me know she knew I was undercharging her and she appreciated it.

“Good luck, and I hope you feel better,” I said, as we retrieved her bag from the trunk. “Hey, my name is Jernigan, by the way. What’s yours?”

“My name is Blossom.”

“Perfect,” I said. “That’s a beautiful name.” And I thought, In time, I just bet she will.