The middle-aged couple lingering on the corner of Church and Main needed a cab. They just didn't know it yet.
On weekend nights, I get a lot of calls from regular customers. When I'm not on a call, I troll Burlington's downtown for random people hailing cabs in the street. (Yup, bona fide cab hailing, just like in the big cities.) And sometimes — on nights when my hackie juju is really percolating — I convince people that they need a cab.
I pulled to the curb, lowered my passenger window and got the couple's attention. "Hiya, folks," I called out. "You need a ride up the hill?"
"We're actually looking for the hotel shuttle," the man replied, "but now that you mention it, we're sick of waiting. It's been, like, 20 minutes." Turning to his partner, he asked, "What do you say, honey?"
"I say, 'Hell, yeah,'" the woman replied with a chuckle, and the two of them climbed into my cab's backseat.
"So, what brings you folks to the Queen City?" I asked, carefully checking the traffic before taking a U-turn. Years of cab driving have taught me what the police countenance and where they put their foot down. When the maneuver is executed safely, I've never seen a cabbie pulled over for a U-ey.
"We're here for the Dragon Boat races," the woman replied. She was short and cheery, with what looked like a blond perm. I think it was a perm; it looked permy. Do women even get perms anymore? What exactly is a perm, anyway? I'm too old not to know this, I thought, and made a mental note to google it when my shift was over.
"That is awesome," I said, recalling the annual Dragon Boat festival that brings together breast cancer survivors and the people who love and support them. "One summer I watched the boats from Waterfront Park, and I was truly moved, like emotionally."
"You know what I think?" the man asked rhetorically, changing the subject. He was a big guy with a handsome, broad face. "They should level that Midtown Motel — you know, the abandoned one next to Memorial Auditorium? — and create a new parking lot. Burlington needs more parking spaces. We had a hell of a time finding a spot earlier today."
I said, "Well, I believe that whole corner is slated for a new hotel. At least they've been talking about it for years. Hey, the town's growing, and I think Burlington has done a pretty good job managing its growth, even the parking problem. I mean, these are great problems for a city to have. I'd wager Rutland would love to have these problems. Or Barre, too."
"Hey, Barre's not doing too bad," the man asserted. "I'm good friends with the mayor, and he's got a bunch of projects cooking. The problem in Barre, if you want to know, is all these people on welfare. Nobody wants to work! The system incentivizes laziness. Hey, don't get me wrong — there are some people who physically just can't work and deserve help, but not most of 'em."
"Is that where you guys live? In Barre?" I asked.
"Yup, we're from the area. I own four car dealerships. I can't tell you all the checks I write for local events and charities. And that's how the economy works. You got to let the businessmen create opportunities, and then it trickles down to everyone else, the whole community."
So that's how the economy works, I mentally joked to myself. I was wondering about that.
"Hey, Burt," his wife said, entering the conversation. "Maybe this cabdriver has a different opinion. What does he think?"
"Good point," Burt said, leaning forward in his seat. "What's your opinion on all this?"
"Well, I guess I look at it a little differently," I replied, "but I understand where you're coming from. You've had your life experiences, and these are the lessons you've drawn. I respect that."
"Yeah, and let's take Obamacare," Burt suggested — inevitably, I thought. "It'll be bankrupt in four years. They could have just written a check to everybody who gets it and that would have worked better."
"Burt, give the guy a chance," his wife reiterated. I could tell that this was one of her relationship roles: cajoling her mate to listen to others, if only in brief segments. Perhaps it was a thankless job, and I could sense some exasperation. Still, a fondness for her man came through, as well. "Maybe you could learn something," she added.
"Jeez, you're right, honey. So tell me — what do you think?"
I chuckled and said, "Well, I can tell you've thought about these things much more than I have, so I don't know if I can really add much."
In truth, this was a benign lie. I think about this stuff — the political landscape, the culture, the society — all the time, undoubtedly more than is salutary for my mental health. I'm constantly checking various online media, all in a thus-far- futile quest to understand and make sense of the turbulence and tumult. And, in the right circumstances, I'm quite willing to discuss the whole mess with others. But this wasn't the right time, and I didn't think this was the right guy. When egged on, I'm susceptible to ranting, and two ranters going at it ... where's the payoff?
"Now you're just being patronizing," Burt said, calling me on my game.
"No, man — it's the truth," I said, pulling up in front of their hotel. I shifted the vehicle into park and pivoted in my seat to face Burt. "The older I get, the less sure I am about the world. I mean, I could talk your ear off about just about anything, but what do I know, really?"
Burt's wife burst out laughing. "There you have it, babe," she instructed. "I hope you heard what the man said."