March is all slush and potholes. This one came in like a lion, hung around like a lion, and went out like a lion. The one saving grace is spring's inevitability. Hang in there, I exhort myself, as I idle at a downtown taxi stand. Winter will die. This tag-on season of frost heaves is just the death throes.
"Hi there, buddy. Gosh darn -- here I am again. I always get your cab, every Friday night."
The man peering in my window and interrupting my reverie has black, almost grayish eyes, and woolly hair of a similar color. It's hard to tell if it's the approach of middle age; perhaps his hair has always been that hue. He's on the small side, with short arms and rounded shoulders; on first impression, his silhouette evokes the semblance of an oversized gnome.
"You sure do, Carl," I respond. "That's how I know the weekend has begun in earnest, when I drive you home."
"Yup, yup, it's Friday," he says, climbing into the front seat. "Here I am!"
Carl is a guy who will carry on this kind of conversation forever.
"Yes, here you are, and, yes, it's Friday, and I do seem to drive you every Friday."
He's wild about nodding, and agreeing, and reiterating the obvious. When he really gets hold of some riff, it's like a call-and-response prayer, like we're chanting or something. It's up to me to change the channel, or we'd never move on to another subject.
"The usual, Carl?" I ask. "Headin' home? Stoppin' for a sandwich?"
"That's right! You got it, buddy!" His delight at my recall of his routine knows no bounds. "Yup, I'll be needing a stop at Handy's. Got to pick up a sub for my mom."
Carl lives with his mom on Elmwood Avenue. He works in construction, and goes out -- apparently by himself, as I've never picked him up or even seen him with a companion -- every Friday night. He doesn't exactly close down the town; a few hours at a couple of bars, and he's looking for his cab ride home at 9 or 10.
I gather his mother resents this weekly abandonment, and the sub and beer he brings home is the price of appeasement. This is just a guess, though, pure speculation on my part. For all I know, he simply loves his mom, and she loves subs, and there's no subtext.
I pass the Nickelodeon Theater and take a left into the parking lot of Handy's Downtown Quick Stop. "Do ya need anything, buddy?" he asks, as he steps out. "A soda or something?"
"No, I'm good. Thanks for asking, though."
Glancing through the window of Handy's, I see I'm going to be waiting a while. There's the typical, pre-party Friday-night rush of beer, cigarettes and junk-food patrons. I don't care how long Carl takes; I'll only charge him one extra dollar for the stop. That's because -- gosh darn! -- he's a local, I like him, and it's my taxi company.
About 10 minutes later, he's back in the cab, toting a paper bag. As we pull back onto Winooski Avenue, I notice his right hand is wrapped in a fairly serious-looking bandage.
"My goodness, Carl," I say. "What'd you do to your paw? That looks like more than a paper cut."
"Well, it was pretty dumb. The last time I was at Sh-Na-Na's, I danced with this girl I liked, and then I saw her outside the club kissing this guy. So I got real wound up, and I went back in the bar and had some more drinks. When I got home, I went in the basement, and I guess I punched a hole in the wall. Yup, I'm pretty stupid, huh?"
"Hey, I don't know about that, man," I reply. "Women can make you crazy, that's for sure, But you don't wanna get self-destructive about it. You know what I'm sayin'?"
"Oh, yeah. Yup, you're right about that." Carl presses his lips tight together, and he's nodding with extra oomph. "My mom was pretty darn angry about the whole thing. She heard the noise and came running down the stairs. She said, ?See how I told ya? This is exactly why you shouldn't be goin' downtown.' Maybe she's right, I don't know."
"Jeez, Carl. There's nothing wrong with going out once in a while. You just don't wanna get so worked up that you're punching out the walls, that's all."
"Yup, yup," replies Carl, his head nodding vigorously again. "Shouldn't get so worked up; I got to remember that."
Slaloming around the potholes, we pass the post office and federal building, and come up on Carl's home. It's a compact, two-story Cape, tattered around the edges, modest even by the standards of this aging neighborhood. I come to a stop and click on the four-ways. Carl pays the fare, and gathers up his bundle.
"I got mom her favorite," he says, before closing the door, "ham and cheese with the hot peppers. This'll make her happy." Carl is smiling and nodding. "You know," he adds, "she really looks after me."
"I'll bet she does," I reply. "See ya next week, Carl, and take care of yourself."
"Thanks a lot, buddy," he says. "You're always there for me, every Friday night."