Note from Jernigan: After this story was written, but before it went to press, a fire destroyed some of the rental units at the Dutch Mill. No one was seriously injured, but a bunch of folks are looking at one lousy Christmas, unless the community pitches in. The Red Cross is coordinating assistance.
I had a good feeling about the customer who had just taken a seat in the back of my taxi. It's hard to say why, but I tend to trust first impressions, even before a word is exchanged. Glancing up at the rearview, I saw a black man, tall and lanky and wearing professional painter's overalls, which were gray and flecked with white paint. He was mid-thirties and beginning to go bald.
Welcome to the club, buddy, I thought. I still think of myself as "balding," desperately holding on to the "-ing." In truth, the hairy process, so to speak, reached its sorry denouement around the time Bill turned over the White House keys to George.
"Take me out to the Dutch Mill Motel, brother?" he requested.
"Sure thing, man," I replied. "Have ya been staying at the Dutch Mill for a while?"
"Yeah, for a month or two now," he replied. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was up for some jawing with his cabbie. "This crew I'm with is finishing up a condo development out in Shelburne. Just in time, with the looks of the weather lately. Maybe we'll stay in town through the winter. My old lady and I haven't decided yet."
Old lady - how Woodstock/1969 is that? When future historians look back, my generation may be celebrated for just two inventions: the hippie and the Frisbee, although "peace and love" still has a fighting chance.
"Have you always been a trades guy?" I asked.
"I've been painting professionally for about seven years. Before that, I spent a bunch of time in San Diego working as a limo driver. This was perfect for my lifestyle back then, which was basically touring with the Dead."
"No kidding? How long did that last?"
"Well, put it this way - I must have done about 100 Dead shows and 40 or so Jerry shows. Later, after Jerry died, I would go out on the 'Further Tour.'"
"Well, that's committed," I said with a laugh. "And I can sure relate to the limousine-driving part. What was that like for you?"
"I guess it fit my personality. I did pretty well. The clients showed me a lot of love. There's a ton of money out on the West Coast, so there was plenty of work."
"Didja ever drive any celebrities?"
"Sure. Let's see . . . well, I drove Steve Forbes a couple of times and also David Carradine. There's one cool dude - you know, 'Grasshopper' and all that. For the last year or two, I mostly was taking care of one client, this ultra-rich Greek tycoon and his mother. Talk about strange. The guy and his mom were, like, joined at the hip, together 24/7. The two of them had these, like, mad phobias. Eventually, they had me playing security guard, keeping anyone from touching them when they were out in public."
"You see," I interjected, "this is exactly why I've never done the limo thing. I couldn't deal with the wealthy whack jobs and their freaky demands. The tip is always - what? - maybe 75 percent of the pay, so you have to kowtow to survive. It would drive me friggin' nuts."
My customer laughed heartily at my rant and said, "Well, it did drive me nuts, and that's when I got into painting."
Shelburne Road was moving nicely, and we quickly came up on the Dutch Mill, with its signature windmill affixed to the roadside front office. I couldn't say why, but I just love that kind of kitsch. In the era of the motel franchise, the Dutch Mill is a throwback. It features a string of single-story rooms arranged in a horseshoe, and around the back is a collection of small cottages that people seem to rent for extended stays. During the summer months, I think the same management also operates a campground, which is located farther back on the property.
We drove around to the back, pulling up to one of the little cabins. In front was a much-traveled Subaru wagon with a bumper sticker that read, "Thanks, Jerry." As my passenger dug out the fare, I asked, "Do you think you'll ever go out touring again?"
The man smiled and said, "Maybe one day. Who knows? My old lady's pregnant and, well, you know how that goes."
"Hey, that's sweet, man," I said. "Congratulations. And, yeah, I do know how that goes. Some things are way more important than the road."
"Peace out, man," he said and reached over the seat to shake my hand wrist-up, old-school style.
"You got that right," I replied, breaking out the goofy grin that appears whenever I'm reminded why I'm glad to be here, alive and still kicking.