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Moonlighting at the Gut 

Hackie

It had been gray and raining all Saturday, which can be a little demoralizing. Not for us cabbies, because any kind of inclement weather boosts business. Still, I sympathized with the civilians; summertime weekends are precious, and the unrelenting sogginess was putting a damper on many a presumably sun-filled plan.

I was cruising downtown at dusk when, over the Adirondacks, the setting sun burst through like a laser show at a Pink Floyd concert. With the conditions still drizzly in Burlington, the stage was set for Judy Garland’s signature song. I was not to be disappointed.

Moments later, a vivid and fully arced rainbow manifested in the southeastern sky. There’s something about a first-class rainbow that stops even multitasking 21st-century people in their tracks. Pedestrians stopped and gazed skyward. If a rainbow fails to make you smile, may I suggest a heart-to-heart talk with your nearest neighborhood leprechaun? Because your outlook, my friend, is seriously deficient in wonder and delight.

The rainbow evaporated, the sun set, and the rains continued. From the Mr. Mike’s Pizza corner, a tall African man hailed me with his right hand; in his left, he held a pizza box balanced against his hip. Walking up to my cracked passenger window, he asked, “Do you mind if I eat this food in your car?” His English was clear and precise, with what sounded like a British accent.

I said, “Sure, just don’t drop anything. Where am I taking ya?”

Getting into the front seat, he replied, “Up to the Gutterson Fieldhouse, please.”

I swung the cab around, and we headed up the Main Street hill, the windshield wipers clicking at medium speed. My customer was making quick work of his remaining pizza slices, as if he wanted to finish up before we reached campus.

“Hey, didja see that rainbow about an hour ago?” I enthused. “Wasn’t it unbelievable?”

“No, I didn’t see a rainbow. I was napping. I’m going to my second job now. I already worked all morning and afternoon.”

“What do you do at UVM?”

The man swallowed a bite and said, “I am a custodian at Gutterson.”

“Where are you originally from, brother? Sudan, I’m guessing?”

He smiled and said, “Very good guess. It was Sudan when I came here 10 years ago. Now it is South Sudan. We have our own country since last July.”

“Yes, of course — I remember when that happened.”

Political and historical junkie that I am, I knew something, at least, about the troubled history of Sudan. The southern part of the country is tropical, junglelike, and inhabited by black Africans. The north is mostly desert and dominated by Muslims of mixed African and Arab descent. As a British colony during the brutal centuries of the slave trade, these two regions were on opposite sides of the equation, with the north raiding the south for human chattel. Leading up to Sudan’s independence in 1956, the Brits reportedly made promises that the beleaguered south would be granted some measure of self-rule under the terms of decolonization. That never happened, and the two sections have been more or less in a state of war since then. A UN-brokered settlement culminating in a plebiscite and the establishment of the separate country of South Sudan was supposed to end the strife, but the situation remains volatile and tenuous.

“Did you know English when you arrived here?” I asked. “Because you speak real well.”

“In my country, English is the official language. Many tribal languages are spoken, as well, but in school the lessons are all in English.”

We quickly reached the college green, so tranquil during the student-free summer. If routine holds, in about a month the school will hang a huge white banner from the roof of the Royall Tyler Theatre that will read, “Welcome, Class of 2016.” Despite knowing this is coming, I’m certain it will stagger me the day it’s unfurled. Twelve years in, I remain entirely unprepared for the new millennium. This yearly banner just rubs it in.

Turning onto Spear Street, I asked, “Have any of your family members moved to America, as well?”

“No, I am the only one.”

“Jeez, that’s got to be rough. Do you ever get back for a visit?”

“No, there’s no money for that. Sometimes I am able to speak on the phone with my family when the phone service is working.”

I have nothing — nothing — but respect for all of the immigrants who have arrived in the Queen City and surrounding towns over the last two decades. My ancestors came to America on a boat more than 100 years ago, and I passionately disagree with those who think now is the time to pull up the gangplank. Immigrants, I would argue, make our country great. The countries of origin change over time, but the hard work and sacrifice of new immigrants remains the constant story.

Pulling up to the side entrance of the venerable old Gutterson barn, I said, “Could I ask you, do you send money home to your people in South Sudan?”

Nodding slowly, he answered quietly, “Every month I do. Every month.”

The man then paid the fare, plus a two-buck tip. I can’t explain how much the tip moved me — coming from a guy who might have a dozen family members or more dependent on every single dollar he’s able to wire back.

“How was the pizza?” I asked before he left the cab.

“It was food,” he said with a smile. “I am sorry I missed the rainbow.”

“Hey, don’t sweat it,” I said with a chuckle. “There’ll be another one coming around soon enough. I guarantee it.”

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About The Author

Jernigan Pontiac

Jernigan Pontiac

Bio:
Jernigan Pontiac is a Burlington cab driver whose biweekly "Hackie" column has been appearing in Seven Days since 2000. He has published two book-length collections, Hackie: Cab Driving and Life, and Hackie 2: Perfect Autumn.

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