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The New Jersey Alphabet




I glanced to my side to observe a short, stocky, fortysomething guy wearing a billowy white cotton shirt. His pate appeared clean-shaven. This is a dude who can pull off that look, I thought. I’m bald myself, but if I were to go full cue ball, I think the result would be an unmitigated disaster — picture Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.

“Giles, that was a blast, but I think once a year is just about right!”

The woman in the backseat of my taxi was talking to her husband, the bald dude, who was riding shotgun. I was driving them back to their home in Jericho.

“Yeah, honey — I gotta agree with you on that one,” Giles said. “But it sure was fun getting out on the big lake.”

“Let me guess,” I jumped in. “You guys hit the booze cruise tonight?”

“That obvious, huh?” the woman replied, and I watched her laugh in the rearview mirror. Like her husband, she was short, and she was full-figured and curvy, with a big smile and a tumult of thick, black hair — beautiful in an earthy way. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have to be back on the job tomorrow morning,” she said. “Goddamn reality!”

“What kinda work do you do?”

“I own a cleaning company.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Did you start it?”

“I did, and I built it up year after year. We’re now up to about 18 employees.”

“Well, that is quite an accomplishment. I know what a tough business it is — how hard it is to find good people willing to do the work.”

“Not so much for me, but that’s because I go for full-time positions and pay my folks well. I figure it’s all about having good people. That’s what makes or breaks the business.”

“How about you?” I asked, turning my attention to my seatmate. “You doing something for work, or do you just sponge off your productive wife?”

“I wish!” he said, and they both laughed. “No, I’m a contractor. I mostly work solo.”

“What kinda stuff? I mean, do you specialize in drywall, painting, roofing?”

“Nope, I do the whole ball of wax — you name it. I call it ‘turnkey.’ The customer tells me what they want — remodel a kitchen, add a bathroom, whatever — and I take on the entire job.”

“That’s, like, crazy impressive to me. How’d you pick up all the trades?”

“When I was younger I apprenticed. And that’s the thing — young people now just don’t wanna work! I mean, you spend a few years, you learn a skill, and eventually you can make good money. But you gotta be willing to put in the time.”

We swung onto the Circ Highway. The “Circ” is short for circumferential, but if you visualize a clock, the current Circ runs from perhaps three to five o’clock — in other words, not exactly circumferential. The plan, such as it was, was for a bypass connecting the interstate from Taft Corners to Chimney Corners. All manner of appeals have held up the groundbreaking on the other sections, though I’m certain the residents of Chittenden County, circa 2095, will gloriously celebrate the Circ’s eventual completion. Then, perhaps, work will begin on the Champlain Parkway.

I thought about this couple and how much I appreciate working-class folks. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with professional or wealthy people; good people are good people, and jerks are jerks regardless of their economic or social demographic. It’s just that, in my experience, your average working-class people are more relaxing to be around. It’s like there’s less to uphold, which means less to hide.

“What do you say, Gloria? I’m thinking we can stop at McDonald’s for a coupla burgers?”

“I don’t know, Giles.”

“Aren’t you hungry?”

“Yeah, I am. I think I’m gonna make a nice, fresh salad when we get home.”

I couldn’t resist. “Doesn’t that sound great, Giles? When you get home you can have a nice salad with your wife.”

Giles shrugged and chuckled. When you have the right partner in life, a salad for two at the end of a fun night is not the worst thing.

“Hey, I was wondering,” I said, changing the subject since Gloria had put the kibosh on the burger concept, “do folks tell you all the time that you look like the brother-in-law, the detective on that TV show ‘Breaking Bad’?”

Giles chuckled. “I heard that once or twice. I’ve never seen the show, though. What I get all the time is the ‘Sopranos’ guy.”

“Oh, of course — James Gandolfini. You do look like him. Yeah, it was so sad, the guy recently died. Apparently, he was an incredibly humble and generous dude in real life.”

From the back, Gloria posed the inevitable question, “So where are you from, anyway?”

“Originally from Brooklyn, New York. But I’ve been up here for over 30 years.”

“I thought I heard it in your voice,” she said. “I grew up in New Jersey, until I met this woodchuck from St. Albans and he shanghaied me up to Vermont.”

“New Jersey, huh? Well, I happen to know the New Jersey alphabet,” I said, setting up the joke I pull out for every Jersey customer like stale breadsticks.

“Really?” she asked dryly, playing along. “OK, then — lay it on me.”

“Fuckin’ A, fuckin’ B, fuckin’ C, fuckin’ D…”

“OK, I gotta admit that’s pretty good,” Gloria allowed.

We pulled into their driveway, and Giles paid the fare and got out. Before Gloria left the cab, she asked, “Did he tip you well, doll?”

“Yup, he sure did,” I replied.

“Hang on a sec — let me grab this,” she said, bending down to retrieve a crushed paper cup a previous customer must have dropped on the floor mat.

“Gloria,” I said, “that there is the cleaner in you coming out, and let me tell you, I appreciate it.”

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