“Jernigan, you got to hook me up, man. Whatever it takes. Hey, I’ll pay you, like, 40 bucks.”
A longtime customer was panicking as I drove him into town on New Year’s Eve. I had just informed him that I would be turning off my phone at around 11 and, for the remainder of the night, I’d stick to the hordes of revelers hailing taxis from the street, an endeavor we local cabbies refer to as “curbing.”
“I’m sorry, Chuck, but it’s the one night a year I do this. It’s unworkable otherwise. I would just be overwhelmed with calls. Heck, even the fleets sometimes turn off or just stop answering their phones on New Year’s Eve.”
“Jernigan, help a brother out. You know what I’m saying? Don’t put me out in the street for two hours tonight trying to hail a cab. I can’t handle it. I really can’t. You’ve spoiled me, man.”
Chuck is a short, soft-spoken man with truckloads of charm and persuasive powers. I couldn’t believe I was reconsidering, but he was one of my best customers, and I do respond to flattery.
“OK, I’ll tell you what, but this is the only way I can make it work. Let’s pick a corner — say, Sweetwaters — and set a time, maybe 1:30, if that works for you. Remember, my phone’ll be off, so I’m counting on you. It’s like Night of the Living Dead on New Year’s; once I come to a stop, folks’ll be swarming my cab like zombies, and I’ll be beating ’em off with a baseball bat. The point is, you got to be on time.”
Chuck broke out one of his patented smiles. “Jernigan — you are the man. Sweetwaters at 1:30. I will be there.”
For cabbies the world over, New Year’s Eve is the year’s busiest night, with no close second. I think this year’s unusually warm weather swelled the crowds even further. I was flat out all night until daybreak.
After dropping Chuck, and just before shutting down the cellphone, I accepted one last call from Renny, another regular customer. Renny’s been a cook at various local eateries and, for the last couple of years, he’s worked for a UVM fraternity preparing meals for the brothers. He gave me directions to a condo development off Old Stage Road in Essex.
When I pulled up, it was obvious the folks who lived there were hosting a party: Their driveway and the entire cul-de-sac were lined with cars. Renny stood on the porch cradling an electric keyboard in his arms. I popped the trunk and he carefully laid it down.
“Wow, I had no idea you were a musician,” I said as we motored back to Renny’s apartment on Flynn Avenue.
“I never told you about that?” he asked. “Yeah, I played in bands all through the ’80s and into the ’90s. You name it — techno, folk, hair bands, cover bands. But it’s been over 10 years now. A friend of mine booked me to play at his New Year’s party. I was so nervous, but I ended up having a blast.”
How little I really know about my customers, I thought. People lead amazing lives; when revealed, their back pages endlessly surprise.
I dropped Renny and killed the phone, and it was freestyling time à la hackie. Just before midnight, I picked up a group of four twentysomethings going to Riverside Avenue. The man who took the shotgun seat was smiling ecstatically as he turned to me with an incentive: “There’s an extra 10 in it for you if you get us home before 2011. Hit it, dude!”
“Brother, don’t encourage me,” I replied, chuckling. “And what are you so happy about, anyway? Has it really been that great a year, or are you just glad it’s ending?”
“I just got engaged to that beautiful woman in the back,” he said. “Did it right in the center of Church Street, outside of Halvorson’s. Show him the ring, honey.”
His newly christened fiancée leaned forward from the backseat and ceremoniously draped a diamond-ringed finger over his shoulder. “Not too shabby, right?” she said with a giggle.
“Beautiful,” I said. “Congratulations. You’ll be telling the story of this night to your children and grandchildren.”
With skill and some luck, I perfectly timed the 1:30 rendezvous with Chuck. Even with my taxi light off, people were banging on the doors, begging for rides. Keeping his end of the bargain, Chuck emerged from the crowd and came to my window. Handing me a tenner, he said, “Jernigan, I met this girl who’s taking me home. I really appreciate that you did this for me — I want you to know that.”
I laughed and said, “Chuck, it looks like you’re gonna have a better New Year’s Eve than me.” He grinned, and we shook hands.
The new year was hatched; the festivities wound down; it was time to pack it in. On the slow ride back home, one last straggler hailed me from the corner of Memorial Auditorium — a dark-haired, strapping young man. I immediately took him for a local: At 35 degrees, it had been a relatively warm night, but only a hearty Vermonter would brave it in just a cotton shirt and jeans.
As he jumped into the front seat, his cheeks were red and his brown eyes shone brightly. “Shore Road, OK?” he asked.
“Sure thing, buddy,” I replied. “You grow up in town?”
“I sure did. Burlington High School, the whole bit. The fighting Seahorses, man. I’m now going to UVM.”
“Nice. You’re a big dude — did you play high school ball?”
“Hockey. I played forward. I wasn’t too bad. In my junior year, I made the all-state team.”
“I guess you weren’t too bad. Hey, I always wondered about this — did you ever play on the lake in the winter?”
“Yeah, we did, but it was only possible, like, every few years, depending on how it freezes. I’ll never forget in sixth grade, there was hardly any wind for weeks and it froze up like glass. Man, it was awesome. Me and my friends would cut school and be out there, like, every day.”
“So, you stayed in B-town,” I said. “You know, in my experience, a lot of Vermont kids want to leave the state and explore life in a big city, like New York or Boston.”
The young man looked at me, nodding a couple of times. He said, “I know what you’re saying. A bunch of my friends went out of state for college. But I figure — why should I leave? I mean, Vermont is the best. And when I really thought about it, all the things I love are here.”
“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email firstname.lastname@example.org.