"Could you take us to the Woolen Mill?" my seatmate politely inquired after he and his two friends in the back had settled into my taxi.
"Yup, I sure can," I replied. "That's pretty much what I do for a living." Whatever else they say about me, I mentally congratulated myself, they can't say I'm not droll.
The young man sitting behind me was, like the shotgun-seat speaker, tall and classically good-looking - WASP-y handsome à la Robert Redford, but 40 years younger and without the skin problems. The woman in the back was also attractive in a carefree way: She was well but casually dressed, and had long, wavy black hair in the kind of unfussed-with style that only the young can pull off without appearing unkempt.
After the two big local colleges, the Woolen Mill may be the single most common taxi destination for nighttime customers - though lately, the Olde Orchard Park apartments behind Cinema 9 in South Burlington have been giving the older Winooski complex some competition.
(Olde Orchard Park. The wordsmith in me cringes every time I see the sign. What's the point of adding an "e" to the word "old," if not craven pretension? And that goes double for tagging an extra "pe" to the word "shop." Note to store owners: The name of your "shoppe" is not the least bit cute or folksy. Sad to say, these are the things that keep me up at night. Global warming pales in comparison.)
"Oh, Jesus, I swear I got food poisoning," the guy in back groaned. "I feel like I wanna friggin' die."
"C'mon, Ryan," the woman admonished him. "Quit being a drama queen. You're not going to die, I promise you. Cowboy up, you wuss."
"Not so fast, Dana," my seatmate jumped in. "I got food poisoning once. I think it was, like, bad French fries at Jones Beach on Long Island when I was a kid. It's the worst thing in the world. You go right ahead and whine all you want, Ryan."
"Where are you from, Mr. Cabbie?" Dana asked, bringing me into the conversation.
"Well," I said, glancing at her smiling face in the rear-view mirror, "I've been living up here for nearly 30 years, but I grew up in Brooklyn, New York." I paused for a pregnant three beats, then added, "Fuhgedaboutit." When queried about my roots, I always throw in the "fuhgedaboutit." It's all part of that drollness.
"No kidding!" Dana said. "I grew up in New Jersey, the Garden State, baby!"
"Is that so?" I said. "I happen to know the New Jersey alphabet."
"The New Jersey alphabet?" she asked. "What the heck is that?"
"Fuckin' A, fuckin' B, fuckin' C, fuckin' D . . . "
All three of them cracked up, including Ryan, the whiny food poisoning victim, which, given his nausea, I took as an accomplishment. Yes, Pontiac was on a comedic roll.
"You don't have much of a Jersey accent," I remarked to Dana over my shoulder.
"I know," she replied, "and that's a funny story. From the time I was, like, very young, my kid brother and I were cared for by a Jamaican nanny. My parents were out working, like, day and night, so mostly we learned to talk from Laticia. Well, we were all 'mon' this and 'mon' that. We were little Rasta kids! This began to freak out our folks, so they actually sent us to speech therapy to learn how to speak 'correctly.' I guess it worked, 'cause I don't have much of any accent now."
"Get up, stand up - stand up for your rights" - I began to sing the classic Bob Marley song.
"Right on, brother!" Dana seconded the notion. "Don't think Laticia wasn't playing me and my brother those reggae tunes every afternoon before naptime."
We crossed the Winooski Bridge and circumnavigated the roundabout until we reached the right turn to the Woolen Mill. "Upstairs or down?" I asked, indicating the two potential drop-off locations at this complex.
"Upstairs'll be great, man," my seatmate replied. "Thanks for the ride," he added, paying the fare and adding a nice, fat tip.
"C'mon, sickie," needled Dana, tugging on Ryan's arm to urge him out of the cab.
"For cryin' out loud," Ryan protested. "Will ya give me a friggin' minute here, Dana? I'm moving as fast as I can."
I pivoted in my seat. "Listen, brother," I commiserated, "you take just as long as you need. Food poisoning is horrible, man. Dana is a meanie."
"You hear that, Dana?" he said as he laboriously hoisted himself out of his seat. "This guy here says you're a meanie."
Dana looked over at me, gave a laugh and said, "Peace out, cabbie."
"Peace out, mon," I replied and drove off.