“So, Montpelier is pretty small for a state capital?”
The customer sitting next to me in my taxicab, Joanna Dunwright, was short and pert, with shoulder-length, ruler-straight blond hair. As she spoke, I noticed her slight overbite, a trait I find adorable in women, though not so much in men. (To be honest, when it comes to men, I can’t think of a single physical attribute I’d dub “adorable.”)
“‘Pretty small’ doesn’t begin to cover it,” I replied, chuckling. “Montpelier’s population is about eight thousand. To put that in perspective, the second smallest state capital is Augusta, in Maine, and it has close to 20 thousand people. Heck, Montpelier doesn’t even have a McDonald’s. I actually don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad thing, but folks do seem to mention it a lot.”
“Is the Capitol Plaza a nice hotel? I’ll just be there for one night, and then I’m moving closer to the campus, I guess.”
“It seems like a nice place,” I replied. “It’s downtown, just up from the Statehouse.”
Joanna was a student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, the school perched on the hill overlooking the city. It’s been through a number of incarnations since its founding as a seminary in the early 1800s. About five years ago, it transformed into a low-residency MFA program for writing (among other creative arts) and quickly established a reputation as one of the best in the country. I always enjoy driving VCFA’s students because I like writers, who tend to be voluble, inquisitive sorts.
As we scooted along Interstate 89, the moon was nearly full in a cloudless sky, the outside temperature a balmy 11 below zero. Earlier in the day I had replaced a faulty radiator thermostat — in retrospect, a really good move. “If you don’t mind me asking,” I said, “what’s your accent? I can’t quite place it.”
“Well, I’m an Aussie, but both my parents were Swiss nationals, so my English is a little bit more — I don’t know exactly how to say it — maybe ‘rounded’ is the word. My husband’s accent, on the other hand, is as Australian as koalas and Vegemite.”
She paused to smile, thinking of her mate. “Yes, there’s no mistaking where Ken hails from.”
“Vegemite is that weird, pasty yeast product, right? Everyone here knows it from that old Men at Work lyric from the ’80s: He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich. Do you actually enjoy the stuff? I heard it’s really an acquired taste.”
“Yeah, I like it well enough. But my husband, he loves him some Vegemite. And it’s not that easy to find in Southern California. Somehow, he keeps us in a steady supply.”
It was closing in on 10 o’clock when I pulled to a stop in front of the Capitol Plaza, and the streets were as quiet and still as a picture postcard. As Joanna was paying the fare, a young woman suddenly appeared at my window, which I immediately lowered.
“Are you a taxi?” she asked.
The question, I recognized, was merely a polite way of opening the conversation. When your vehicle is marked “taxi” on three sides and has a taxi light on top, if you’re not, in actuality, a taxi, you’re a lunatic or a major weirdo, or you’ve just stolen a taxi.
“Yup,” I replied. “That I am.”
“Can you please take me to Barre? I seem to be stuck here.”
If I’m not on my way to another call, or en route to the emergency room with a ruptured spleen, I won’t turn down a fare. Inscribe it on my tombstone: “He was available.” On one occasion, after dropping some customers in downtown Montréal, I was hailed by a couple of locals, whom I proceeded to pick up — Oui, madams, je suis un taxi — and drive to their destination before blowing out of town. This probably violated a few municipal regulations, not to mention international treaties, but that’s how I roll.
“Sure,” I replied. “Let me just finish up with this customer. Why don’t you jump in the back to get out of the cold?”
Under way with my new customer, I said, “So, I know how to get to Barre, but you’ll have to guide me to your place, OK?”
“No problem,” she said. She looked like she had just gotten off work, with her hair tied back and a weary demeanor. Still, I could see she was an attractive woman, and there’s nothing wrong with hard work. “I’m living just up from the opera house, in an apartment building my aunt owns.”
“Well, that’s cool, then. Hey, did you miss a ride or something?”
“No, I left my car at work because I had a drink or two. I called up the taxi company, but they said they don’t operate after nine on weeknights. So why do you even bother answering the phone? That’s what I was thinking.”
“Yeah, I’m with ya on that. When I’m off duty, I always turn my phone off. In fact, sometimes when I take a phone call, the person goes, ‘Are you working?’ I know they’re just trying to be courteous, but I answer, ‘If you’re talking to me, I’m working.’ Pretty good, huh? Or maybe too smart-alecky? Anyway, where do you work?”
“At the steak house at the hotel. I do pretty well. It’s not, like, my dream job, but it’s working for me for now. What about you? Do you, like, hate driving all day?”
“Gosh, that would be horrible if that were true! Wouldn’t it? Nope, for some strange reason, I truly enjoy driving folks around all day.”
“Well, then,” my customer said. “I guess you’re a lucky man.”
“Well, then,” I said, “I guess I am.”
Hackie is a twice-monthly column that can also be read on sevendaysvt.com. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email firstname.lastname@example.org.