It was the Thursday before Christmas, and I was invited to a holiday party. I’m not, by nature, a party animal, but I was looking forward to this one. It was being held at Hotel Vermont, from 6 to 10 p.m., and would feature good folks and good food. I was scheduled that day for a 3:30 p.m. pickup at Montréal’s Trudeau Airport going to Stowe, but if the flight — an international arrival from Zurich — came in close to schedule, there would be no problem, right?
My customers were a family of eight, so I would be sharing duties with a cabbie colleague of mine — Afework from Ethiopia. I knew we’d work fine together; the man has been here since 2008 and is a first-rate cabbie. The family we were driving consisted of a couple with six daughters, all under the age of 11 — a half dozen blond angels, all of them adorable. Their main residence is in Switzerland, but the family maintains a gorgeous vacation home tucked into the mountains (the mom grew up in Stowe), not far from the ski slopes.
Fun fact: The minivan the family kept in Stowe used to have a license plate reading “YES FIVE,” but since the arrival of their last daughter, they’ve switched it to “NO SIX.” Obviously a couple with flair and a good sense of humor. I’d driven the family a couple times before and got along well with all of them, particularly Wolfgang, the dad. I tip my hat to any man who shares a home with six women, even — or especially — mini ones.
The plane arrived right on time, and the family cleared customs in a jiffy. This was a pleasant surprise, given that (a) there were so darn many of them; and (b) they were traveling with Tom, the family cat. Getting a critter through customs can be a headache. The car-loading process was no small feat, requiring multiple car seats for a von Trapp-family-size squadron of children. The girls, though, were well behaved, the older ones happily helping the younger.
We were rolling by 4:30. My cab had Wolfgang riding shotgun and the two oldest girls, Emily and Eve, sitting in the back with Tom sandwiched between them, groggily ensconced in his kitty traveling carrier.
Straight into Montréal rush hour, I thought, but I should still make it back to Burlington by eight or so, with plenty of time to party hearty.
Except I hadn’t taken into account one large, rusting-metal factor: Pont Champlain. In English, that would be the Champlain Bridge. It’s hard for me to utter the words, in French or English, without swearing.
When a municipality is strapped for revenue (and name one that isn’t), it often trims the budget by delaying infrastructure maintenance. This, of course, is the very definition of penny wise, pound foolish. Postponing routine maintenance of — I don’t know, let’s say a bridge — inevitably generates far higher repair costs in the future.
The decades-long neglect of Pont Champlain is a case study in this dynamic. The bridge is, not to put too fine a point on it, falling apart. A study concluded that bringing it back up to snuff would be more expensive than building a replacement bridge from scratch. And the cost of that would be — get ready for it — one billion dollars. In the meantime, bridge lanes, often more than one, are continually closed to traffic.
To gain some perspective: Absent delays, it should take about a half hour to clear Montréal and cross the Pont Champlain. One hour after leaving the airport, we were still on the gridlocked access road leading to the bridge.
Wolfgang is a great guy, as I’ve said, but with one quirk: He hates being stuck in traffic. He expressed his antsiness by obsessively scanning the road and “suggesting” lane changes, like, every six minutes. Under normal circumstances, I would have been more than happy to indulge him (though, wedged in a traffic jam, I have doubts it helps much). But Afework was following me, and it would have been extremely difficult for him to maintain our two-man convoy if I began changing lanes in this kind of traffic. So this left Wolfgang even more antsy.
That’s when the real fun started.
“Poppa!” Emily, the older girl, suddenly shouted. “Oh, my God! There’s something wrong with Tom. He just started pooping and there might be blood in it. Oh, poor Tommy. I think he’s sick.”
“Oh, lord,” Wolfgang said. “I can smell it. That is horrid.”
“Poppa, Poppa,” said Eve, the younger one, awakening from a restless sleep. “I can’t stand it! Can’t we pull over and clean it out?”
“Girls, I’m so sorry,” I explained. “There’s no safe place to pull over until we get past the bridge.”
“Open your windows!” Wolfgang commanded, lowering his window as the rest of us followed suit. “Jernigan, can we blast the heat?”
“Sure thing,” I replied, cranking the fan to high. I was the lucky one. I’ve always had a terrible sense of smell, and it was working in my favor.
“Oh, no,” Eve said, “I think Tommy is vomiting.”
“No, he’s not,” Emily disagreed. “He’s got diarrhea.”
“Does it really matter, girls?” Wolfgang said. “The point is, we have to bear with it until we can clean it out. The six-hour plane ride probably didn’t help the poor guy, either.”
We didn’t make it over Pont Champlain for another two hours. After checking in by cell with Afework and the rest of the family, I turned onto the first well-lit side street to clean Tom’s container, along with Tom himself. Grabbing the opportunity to urinate behind a well-placed tree, I noticed that the mom was actually doing, like, 90 percent of the cleanup. Quelle surprise, I mused.
When I finally made it back to B-town, it was close to 11. No party for Jernigan, I thought, allowing myself one big sigh, and then letting it go.
Hackie is a twice-monthly column that can also be read on sevendaysvt.com. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email firstname.lastname@example.org.