I'm a good cabdriver. Hey - like the great fastball pitcher, Bob Feller, explained, "It ain't braggin' if you do it."
But I'm not the best. Hands down, the best cabdriver I know is Janet. She and her husband operate a small fleet specializing in high-quality, out-of-town transport - Middlebury College, Basin Harbor Club and the like. Their company slogan is: "Transportation for the Punctually Particular" - a promise they make good on.
Janet's personal touch is astounding. She knows the names - heck, the life stories - of perhaps hundreds of customers, some she might drive only once or twice a year. (By contrast, I have trouble remembering the new nieces and nephews in my own family.) At the airport, I've watched Janet greet customers with hugs and family-reunion-style reminiscence. The woman is a natural.
When things get busy, Janet occasionally subcontracts the overflow out to me. Though I can't match her level of service, I do my best. It was on just such a mission that I found myself rounding up three Middlebury College language students a couple weeks ago.
I arrived at one of the older dormitories to find Dinah calling to me from a third-story window: "Could you come up to carry my luggage? They're too heavy for me."
"Sure," I said. "Wait right there. I'll be right up."
I entered the building and immediately got lost. Yes, in the building. These old dorms are mazelike with, it seems, intentionally hidden stairways. When I finally made it to what I thought was the right room, the luggage was there, but no Dinah. I looked out the window to see her frantically running around searching for me on the street. It felt like a Buster Keaton movie. I yelled out, "Dinah, stay put! I'll be right down."
As I loaded her baggage into the trunk, Dinah was acutely nervous about making her flight back to New York City. I tried to assure her that we build in plenty of leeway - part of Janet's scheduling expertise - but she was not to be assuaged. Luckily, the other two people were waiting outside, luggage in hand, when we pulled up to their dorm, and soon we were cruising north on Route 7 en route to Burlington Airport, Dinah fidgeting in the shotgun seat.
"So, what school were you enrolled in?" I asked - just something to get her mind off her airline flight, the one she was convinced she was going to miss.
"I was in the Spanish school," she replied. The woman was stocky, approaching middle age, with a fleshy though still pretty face. Her hair was short and resplendent with tight, unnaturally jet-black curls. There was nothing unpleasant about her save the jumpiness, which enveloped her like a cape, and was starting to get to me.
"Oh, that's terrific," I plowed ahead. "Isn't it a great language program? I hear it's considered the best in the country."
"Yeah, that's what I heard, too, but my experience was terrible. They assumed a computer knowledge on the part of the participants far beyond my ability. I swear I spent half my time figuring out the computer programs instead of on the Spanish. I teach the language at a private high school in Manhattan, and I thought this program would improve my skills, but no dice."
The younger woman and man in the back kept up a non-stop German conversation. My seatmate was one unhappy returning camper, and they were savvy to stay disengaged. Giving up my self-assigned mission to cheer up Dinah, I asked over my shoulder, "Are you guys associated with schools back home?"
"Yes, we sure are," replied the woman. "We're both in doctoral programs at Temple University in Philly."
"Are you ever going to drop the German?" I asked with a chuckle. "I know the strict rules of the program, but you're done now."
"Yeah, we know," the man said. "It's just fun speaking German. We've gotten used to it."
As we approached the airport, I distributed three credit card slips, pre-inscribed by Janet, one for each of them to sign. They all did so, and passed me back the receipts. Janet, I knew, was about 15 minutes behind me with a vanload of students. I needed to get her the receipts, but didn't want to wait around. Usually, I'd just mail them to her, but I had an idea. I knew that the young woman in the back would be waiting at the curb to meet a flying companion who was traveling in Janet's vehicle.
Easing to a stop next to the terminal, I turned and said, "Could you do me a favor? When the van pulls up with your friend, could you pass these three receipts to Janet, the driver?"
Dinah leapt into the conversation. "I'm sorry - I'm not comfortable with that."
"Excuse me?" I said.
"I'm sorry, but I just don't know this woman."
Lady, you've been living in New York too long, I thought, but managed to keep it to myself. I understood her concern; it made logical sense - the specter of identity theft and all that. But, c'mon. As if this Temple doctoral candidate is going to steal her credit-card number. Maybe I've been living in Vermont too long, but that smacks of paranoia. On the other hand, I reconsidered, it's probably not a good practice to pass these receipts through too many hands. Oh, well.
"OK, no problem," I said, and proceeded to unload everyone's luggage. Before taking off, I exercised my multilingual prowess, calling out, "Adios and auf wiedersehen!"
Dinah, I noticed, did not smile.