I suppose it’s akin to the way a cowboy feels about his horse. I spend 40 to 50 hours a week in my taxi, sometimes more. My trusty cab puts a roof over my head, food on the table, shoes on my feet. You can understand how a cabbie could develop a certain attachment to, even affection for, his car.
Ardent though it may be, this bond comes with an expiration date. An independent cabbie such as myself goes through many vehicles over the course of a career. At 40,000 (hard) miles a year, my cabs wear out all too quickly. And when it’s time to put old Nellie out to pasture and acquire a new steed … well, I don’t relish the transition.
The time, however, was upon me, and I drove to Essex Junction to check out a 2005 Buick LeSabre with fewer than 25,000 miles. Most of my fellow independent cabbies have long since switched over to minivans. The thinking is, Now that they get decent mileage, why not opt for the extra seating and luggage capacity? Not me. Call me old school, but I’m an inveterate sedan man. My bread and butter is driving the mean streets of downtown Burlington, and I need to zip around. Sure, if need be, you can cram eight students into a minivan, and that’s nothing to sneeze at, but zipping is out of the question. I live to zip.
A LeSabre is not my ideal taxi vehicle; I prefer something slightly smaller, like a Malibu, Sable or Taurus. But the right Buick — aka “the poor man’s Cadillac” — could work just fine. I pulled onto a dead-end street in the neighborhood of the Amtrak station. Parked in the driveway of a tan, two-story ranch house, there she was. And it was love at first sight. This baby was cherry. Well, pale blue in color, but pristine in condition.
I parked in front of the house, got out and circled the Buick a couple times. The interior appeared as minty fresh as the exterior. I had been looking at vehicles for a few weeks and seen nothing remotely as nice in my price range. My immediate impulse was to take this Buick out to dinner, ply her with drinks and go back to my place. Maybe we’d eventually get married and raise a bunch of Mini Coopers. Stepping up to the front door, I reined in my fevered imagination and knocked.
“Glad you made it,” welcomed Jenny, an attractive middle-aged lady, her gray hair cut stylishly short. “What do you think?”
I’m a terrible liar, but I did my best. “Well, it’s an OK vehicle. Not exactly what I had in mind, but I do have some interest. Is it your car? The mileage is incredibly low for an ’05.”
Standing on the doorstep, Jenny crossed her arms in the brisk evening air, letting out a sigh. “Nope, it belonged to my dad. He passed away over a year ago, and this is the last part of the estate. It’s just been sitting in storage for most of the time. He bought it new and hardly drove it, as you can tell.”
She let me take it for a spin around the neighborhood. The ride was as cushy as a sofa on wheels, and the engine purred sweet nothings in my ear. I fiddled with the features, and they all worked like a charm. Of course, I would never buy a used car without a mechanic’s inspection (kids, remember that), so Jenny allowed me to take it home for the night, leaving my old cab at her place.
At the shop the following day, my mechanic test-drove it, put it on the lift, popped the wheels, and generally poked and prodded the thing. He pointed out a potential problem with the head gasket — which is no small problem — but, other than that, his verdict was as expected: This Buick was a cream puff. I called Jenny to negotiate the final sale price. I made an offer she couldn’t accept — “My dad would be spinning in his grave if I sold it for that” — but she did graciously come down a little on her asking price, and we had a deal.
Later that evening, I returned to Jenny’s home with my brother (he would be driving back the old cab), and she invited us both into the living room to do the paperwork. Along with the title and the owner’s manual, two framed photographs had been placed on the table. “Are those your dad?” I asked her, and she nodded. To get a closer look, I took off my glasses — a classic middle-age maneuver.
The first picture was a head-and-torso shot of an older man with tousled, snow-white hair, smiling with warmth and whimsy. The second was of a dark-haired young man in some kind of less-than-pristine military uniform, grinning rakishly at the camera, a large parrot perched on his right shoulder. I chuckled and said, “This is World War II, right? What was he — a sailor?”
“He was. He told me he loved that parrot, too, but there was no way he could bring it home after the war. The parrot had spent three years in the company of sailors and was constantly cursing up a blue streak. I guess the poor bird was simply unfit for civilian life.”
“What was your dad’s name?”
“His name was Harold, but everyone called him Chick.”
The next day I had a laundry list of things I needed to get or do to launch the Buick as a taxi: insurance, taxi light and signage, licensing, and, lastly, the transfer of stuff — maps, aspirin, Tums, business cards, back scratcher, umbrella, good-luck crystals (don’t ask) and God knows what else — from the old cab to the new.
My regular customers were quite impressed with my new wheels, as well they should be. After a couple of days in service, I happened on two gifts that Chick had bequeathed to me. (I told Jenny, who let me keep them with her blessing.) In the ashtray, I discovered a pair of yellow aviator sunglasses — very 1970s, very cool. Better yet was the surprise I found in the CD player: a burned CD marked “Eddy — Vol. 1.”
Which Eddy? I wondered. I slid the CD back in and hit “play.” A deep baritone began to sing: Along about 18 and 25, I left Tennessee very much alive…
It was Eddy Arnold, the late country star whose heyday had been the early ’60s to early ’70s. He was singing about his ride: He had the nerve and he had the blood, and there never was a horse like the Tennessee stud.
So, I’ve been playing the Eddy Arnold CD to all my fares, my personal homage to Chick. I would be wearing the aviator shades as well, but they’re not prescription.
?“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email firstname.lastname@example.org.