St. Patrick's Day was over a month ago, so how did I end up with a leprechaun riding shotgun in my taxi? Well, maybe not an authentic Irish elf, but a short, good-looking man with a perfect red goatee and, yes, twinkling eyes direct from Central Casting.
We were en route to Hinesburg, historically a dicey proposition for me. For some unearthly reason, it seems like, through the years, every one of my fares to H-town has gone haywire in some way or another. No-shows, runners, drunks who've forgotten where they live - all manner of hackie vexation awaited me down Route 116. But Live by superstition, die by superstition, I admonished myself. Despite a nagging trepidation, I motored along Hinesburg Road - damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!
"So, how do you like living in Hinesburg?" I initiated the conversation.
"I love it down here," he replied. "I actually grew up in town, so I got, you know, deep roots."
"You get up to Burlington much?"
My customer scratched his nifty little beard and chuckled. He said, "Not so much as I used to, that's for sure. I graduated from Johnson State a few years ago, and now I'm a legitimate citizen with a real job, the whole nine yards. I think my late-night partying days are numbered, to tell you the truth."
His reply didn't surprise me. The man did not have the demeanor of an inveterate bar-hopper. For one obvious thing, he was sober. But, more subtly, he appeared to be genuinely at peace with himself. Folks who are driven to prowl the downtown clubs - weekend after weekend, year after year - are not so self-contained. Rather, they're searching. Unfortunately, and at times tragically, what they're searching for is rarely, if ever, found in a nightclub.
"A legitimate citizen, huh?" I kept it going. "What did you study at school?"
"Well, I got my teaching certification at Johnson, but before then I was at another college studying for a career in forestry. Around about my sophomore year, I started doing some research and discovered just how hard it is to land a job in that field. That's when I transferred to Johnson. I'm now in my second year teaching at CVU."
"Well," I said, "that does sound entirely legitimate. How do you like it?"
"I love it! Every day I wake up just looking forward to getting in front of the class. It's awesome teaching these kids at CVU. And the community fully supports the school, and you know how much that means."
"You don't regret giving up a potential career in forestry?"
"Nope, not at all. I do love getting out in nature and all that. But it turns out that it's more fulfilling being with teenagers all day than trees. So it was, like, the best decision I ever made."
We came to the Hinesburg traffic light, and my customer had me take the left toward CVU. What a boon for his students, I thought, to have a teacher so enthusiastic about the job. I can't remember a single teacher of that ilk during my four years in high school - although, it must be said, I wasn't exactly an enthusiastic student. Just then it occurred to me: Maybe it was this customer's positive energy, but I hadn't given a moment's thought to the Hinesburg Hex since we'd started talking.
"What about the money?" I asked, tact never my strong point. "Teachers don't make a heck of a lot, I gather."
"Yeah, you're right about that," he replied. "I'm making, like, 35 grand a year, which is not bad for a single guy. During the summer I paint houses. You know, I actually make more, like, per hour, with the house painting than the teaching, so that says something."
We scooted past the high school and eventually onto the Pond Road. He had me stop at a modest ranch home with a couple of cars in the driveway. It looked like a roommate situation.
"Well, this must work nice," I said. "You're just a short drive to work."
"Yup, it's great." He counted out the fare and passed it to me. "I get up, shower, chow down my muffin and coffee, and 10 minutes later I'm strolling through the school doors."
"OK, then - thanks for the good tip," I said, "and thanks for being a teacher. It seems to me you're doing just what you're supposed to be doing, and not everybody can say that."
"Take care, man." My customer shot me a smile and maybe just a little twinkle before turning and walking into his house.
As I made my leisurely way back to Burlington, I was still undecided about the magical status of the man I'd just dropped off. My overactive imagination often gets the best of me. I've been known to conjure sprites out of perfectly normal-looking customers. A sharp little red goatee will do that to me.
That said, I couldn't deny that the teacher had, in a fashion, delivered a pot of gold: My string of bum fares to Hinesburg had definitely been broken, and maybe for good. Knock on wood.
Read more taxi tales at Jernigan's new blog, Yo, Hackie!
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