At least 20 taxi lights glowed in the brisk night air. Welcome to the Burlington cab industry, circa 2009. Over the last few years, the number of local cabs has mushroomed, skyrocketed, exploded — pick your verb. In the face of so much new competition, it’s been a daily battle to maintain my income stream: the pie, as they say, is only so big.
My 19 hackie cohorts and I were clustered in Essex Junction, awaiting the evening Amtrak arrival. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and perhaps 100 students would be in search of a ride to the various local colleges. For years I “owned” Amtrak; most nights, I was the lone cabbie who met the train. Nowadays, there’s always at least a few, and on busy post-holiday nights like this it’s a cabbie convention.
And, like any convention, this one is all about gabbing with your fellow conventioneers. By “gabbing,” of course, I mean complaining. I ambled over to a circle of cabbies to listen in.
“It’s those fuckin’ Bosnians, that’s what it is.” Tommy, a grizzled fleet driver, was breaking it down. “They got all this free city money to put out those four cabs. Am I right, Jernigan?”
I should mention that, among the local cabbies, I’m seen as an elder statesman of sorts, having been on the job longer than just about anyone else. And, like some éminence grise, I’m expected to possess inside information on the jitney issue du jour. But I had nothing to offer on this one. The game here was called “blame the immigrant,” and I wanted no part of it. If it’s not the Bosnians, it’s the Africans; if it’s not the Africans, it’s the Vietnamese.
“I dunno, Tommy,” I replied, intentionally noncommittal. “It seems to me it’s tough out here for everyone.”
At that moment, the warning signal began to flash, and the conductor sounded the whistle. When the train ground to a stop, all hell broke loose.
Despite the stationmaster’s best efforts to shoo the cabbies from the platform, the scene brought to mind a National Geographic television special on Kodiak bears during the annual salmon run. I am myself an older bear, but I am a cunning bear. By hook or crook, I snared my full share: three in the back and one in the front.
The four of them — three going to the University of Vermont and one to Champlain College — appeared glum as we sped along Route 15 en route to town. I wasn’t surprised. It’s no fun returning to school, and when you factor in the tryptophan — courtesy of the Thanksgiving turkey — this makes for a lethargic student body. Well, that’s just tough, I thought. What’s the point of living and working in a college town if you don’t get to talk to the students?
“So, guys,” I got the ball rolling, “did we all have a fun Thanksgiving?”
“Yeah … oh, yeah … uh-huh,” were the few mumbled responses that came my way. This was like pulling teeth.
“How about you?” I spoke directly to the young woman sitting shotgun beside me. Her blonde locks were fastened casually in a wooden hairclip, and she held a small backpack on her lap. Compared with the mopey trio in the back, she seemed slightly less brooding, and I figured I’d have better luck going one on one. “Does your family go all out for the holiday?”
“Well,” she said, “my parents own a restaurant, so when it comes to meals, yeah, we do it up.”
“That is quite cool,” I said. “What town?”
“It’s in Stony Brook, on Long Island.”
“Well, knock me over with a feather — I went to college for a while at Stony Brook! What kinda restaurant do your folks have?”
“It’s French cuisine.”
Ooh-la-la — I licked my chops. I was about to ask if it was a fancy French restaurant, but then I thought, Is there even such a thing as a plain French restaurant? Surely in France; probably not in the U.S.A.
“Didja have to work there when you were in high school? I know how it is with these family businesses.”
“I did. For a while, I hosted. But I found out pretty quickly that I wasn’t, like, hostess material.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Some folks are cut out for that type of customer service and some just aren’t.”
We passed St. Michael’s College, the campus still bustling with activity as their students, too, arrived back from break. Waiting for the green arrow to get onto the highway, I thought about my college days.
“Hey, do you know about the Stony Brook concert bureau from back in the ’70s?” I asked, reengaging my seatmate/captive audience.
“No, I don’t think so. You mean the university ran, like, a concert bureau?”
“It was way bigger than that, and it was totally run by a student government committee, or something like that. For a few amazing years, Stony Brook was the largest concert promoter in the Greater New York region. Just about every weekend, we had a major concert on campus, usually in the gym. One week it would be, like, The Allman Brothers, the next maybe Jefferson Airplane — or I guess by then they were Jefferson Starship. Anyway, it was unbelievable. We didn’t know how good we had it.”
“That sounds awesome,” the girl said. “I never knew about that.”
“And here’s the coolest part: The tickets were $1 for students. Even with inflation, that’s still crazy, ain’t it?”
“Yeah,” she said, “that is crazy.”
As we rolled off the highway onto Williston Road, I announced, “OK — whadda we got? One to Living and Learning, one to Harris-Millis, one to Simpson, and the Champlain College — where ya going — to South Willard?”
“Yup, Rowell Hall, please,” the Champlainer replied.
Dropping them off, one by one, I continued to note the dourness of the collegians. “Study hard!” was my exhortation as I yanked bags from the trunk and took the money. These students will discover soon enough: School beats working for a living, hands down. So, kids … lighten up.