"Will you go to Charlotte?" the young man at the curb asked me through my passenger window.
It was Saturday night, and I was first in line at the long taxi queue on lower Church Street. In this new era of the Uber taxi, I increasingly find myself making use of the taxi stands. Trolling around downtown for fares, my career-long forte, has become frustrating at best and infuriating at worst, with so many former taxi hailers now standing curbside, cellphones in hand, awaiting the arrival of their Uber cabs. Argh!
"I will take you anywhere you'd like," I replied, "provided it's connected by land." I've been cracking this joke for so many years now that I've lost track of whether it even qualifies as a joke.
"Great!" the young man said, throwing me a mercy chuckle and climbing into the shotgun seat.
"What a weekend," he said, exhaling deeply as we zigzagged over to Route 7. "The restaurant I work at was jamming. I couldn't tell you, like, how many covers, but it was nonstop."
Driving so many restaurant workers over the years, I've picked up quite a bit of the business lingo. "Cover" is restaurant slang for one individual customer.
"You cooking or waiting tables?"
"I'm a line cook. During the day, I'm taking classes at CCV. If all goes according to plan, I'm transferring to St. Mike's for the spring semester. I want to teach high school English."
"Good for you, man," I said. "I have such respect for people who gotta work their way through college. And teaching is a noble profession."
When we reached his folks' place in Charlotte, he said he needed to get the money inside. I told him that was fine, not bothering to request he leave his wallet or something to serve as a lien. He popped back out before I even got nervous, handing me a credit card.
"Mom insisted on paying," he said sheepishly.
"Hey, nothing wrong with that," I impressed on the youth. "You got a good mom. Never forget that, and always treat her right."
He laughed as I ran the credit card, saying, "You're right about my moms, and I do try to treat her right."
When I arrived back downtown, my very next customers asked to go to ... Charlotte. After the requisite "if-it's-connected-by-land" rejoinder (it's really more of a tic), we took off. Glancing in my rearview mirror, I saw a tall, pretty woman and an equally attractive man, both probably in their early thirties. The man — I quickly deduced from his compromised posture and slurry, goofy comments — was hammered. I'm talking full Black & Decker.
"Where exactly in Charlotte? Should I turn onto the Ferry Road?" I asked.
"Yes, we're staying at a big house off the Ferry Road," the woman replied. "A bunch of us rented the place for a wedding tomorrow."
Fifteen minutes later on the Ferry Road, doing about 40, I suddenly heard whistling wind. For some reason, the man had opened his door.
"Close that, Ken!" the woman yelled. "If you have to heave, the taxi man will pull over. For crying out loud!"
Ken nodded, I pulled over, and he did his thing.
"Sorry," he offered.
"No problem," I said, passing him some napkins from the glove compartment. "You done good, soldier," I commended him. "You didn't throw up in the taxi, and I can't begin to express how happy that makes me."
Cruising back into B-town, I was hailed by four hale-and-hearty young men standing in the street in front of Nectar's. Uber be damned!
"Could you take us to Charlotte?" asked the leader of the pack. I'm beginning to detect a pattern, I thought.
"I sure will," I replied and left it at that, proud of myself for skipping you-know-what. "Where in Charlotte?" I asked.
"We're in town for a wedding and staying in a house—"
"Jeez, don't tell me," I interrupted. "Just off the Ferry Road?"
"How'd ya guess?"
"I'm pretty sure I just dropped off a couple of your friends at the same place. A tall, attractive girl, and the guy was, like, Ken? Ken vomited on the side of the road, by the way, before we got there."
"That doofus! Boys, we have got to give him shit about that."
They all piled in, rambunctious and tipsy. "You mind, bud?" asked my seatmate, the lead dog, as he cranked up the radio volume without waiting for my answer. "What the hell are you listening to?" he demanded, as Christopher Cross serenaded us — something about the moon and New York City. I said, "I'm embarrassed to say I'm all about the soft-rock station these days. But go ahead — it's XM Satellite. Change it to whatever you like."
"How about Shade 45?" one of the guys yelled from the back.
"You got it," the lead dog affirmed, switching the station to 45. Assaultive, obscene rap music filled the taxi, as far from soft rock as Charlotte, Vt., is from Charlotte, N.C.
"Oh, Christ," I pleaded. "I honestly can't take this right now." Gauging their ages as 30 to 35, I figured them for '90s guys. "How about the '90s on 9 channel?" I suggested. "Would that work?"
"Suuure," my seatmate replied, taking pity on the old guy. He turned the channel to 9, and "MMMBop" blasted through the speakers. I actually know and like this happy, bouncy tune — a huge hit, written and performed by a band of young (actual) brothers called Hanson.
In an instant, all four of the guys were singing along at full volume, and they knew every single word, including the entire nonsense-word chorus. I had nailed their sweet spot, the music that was popular when they were young teenagers.
They didn't have to guide me to the house, obviously, because I had just been there. I pulled into the wide driveway, which was dotted with about 10 cars, most with out-of-state plates. As the guys exited from the rear and my seatmate paid the fare, he said, "Hey, sorry for all the shit we gave you" and laid a generous tip on me.
"It's all good. You're a bunch of good guys. I could tell."
I meant it, too. Though, I must admit, a fat tip cures most ills.