Despite myself and my better intentions, I just can’t help hating on the pedicabs. Yeah, I know — this is green transportation, blah, blah, blah.
It started innocently enough a few years ago with just one or two of these modern-day rickshaws tooling around the downtown center of Burlington, dinging their little handlebar bells. But here’s the thing: They are insidious. Evidently following the playbook of the zebra mussels, they seem to be all over the place this summer — an infestation of lean, muscular, pedaling young men, each of them bent on stealing my fares. That’s right, my fares.
Yes, I’m deluded — like George W. Bush, who was born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple. My misapprehension is that these customers somehow belong to me. How dare they allow themselves to be carted around Burlington, à la Little Lord Fauntleroy, on these glorified tricycles? Why do they think God created the internal-combustion engine?
And, while we’re at it, does not the very word “pedicab” besmirch the noble taxicab by bestowing the nomenclature of “cab” on this three-wheeled monstrosity? Actually, that’s a coinage I’d subscribe to: pedimonstrosity.
On the opening night of the Vermont Brewers Festival, I headed to the waterfront in search of attendees too drunk from “sampling” the beers — wink, wink — to slog back up the hill to the bars and clubs. Arriving down there, I felt like a wildebeest surrounded by nipping hyenas — pedicabs to the left of me, pedicabs to the right. And — arghh! — the tipsy microbrew enthusiasts were actually taking them!
Eventually, I did catch a fare, probably because it was a group of four, more than the P-cabs can handle. Plus, the folks were going to Five Corners in Essex — way farther than P-cabs can journey. My customer in the shotgun seat was a strapping young man with close-cropped blonde hair. As we headed out of town, he smiled at me, friendly as can be, and asked, “What do you taxi guys think of these pedicabs?”
“Oh, they’re just great, aren’t they?” I replied, deadpan as Buster Keaton.
“Is that what you really think?” he said, seeing right through me. “I just wondered, ’cause don’t they, like, take away some of your business?”
Lord, Lord, Lord, I directed my inner dialogue to the man above. Why are you tormenting me so? Can’t you simply arrange for someone to shoot me and be done with it?
I sighed and said, “The truth is, they are taking away some business from us cabbies. A lot of the folks they get, to be fair, are going just a few blocks and would probably hoof it otherwise. I suppose it’s kind of a kick being conveyed around town in the open air that way. You get to feel like a colonialist in the British Raj or something. I think, for a little extra, they offer you a small whip that you can use and really get into it.”
A look of confusion mixed with horror came over the guy’s face. “You’re … you’re kidding, right?”
“Yeah,” I ’fessed up. “I’m kidding. No, you don’t get to whip the guy pedaling. No matter how imperial you’re feeling.”
Jernigan, you dog, I said to myself, getting all third person-y. You are hilarious. You truly are.
“Look,” I continued, picking up the more serious thread, “it’s a free country, and if they’re supplying a service that people want, what can I say? It’s just that this is a relatively new thing in Burlington, and if these guys want to be welcomed at the water hole, they got to play nice with the other animals. I mean, we’re all thirsty and trying to get a drink.”
The guy looked at me quizzically. His friends in the back had stopped talking and were listening at this point, as well. The girl sitting directly behind me giggled and said, “Mr. Cabbie, could you elaborate on that? I don’t think we, like, understood the thing about the water hole.”
Why not? I thought. “Perhaps,” I said, “I could illustrate my point with a little story.”
“Ooh — yes, do,” the girl said, and I could feel the four of them metaphorically lean forward in their seats in anticipation. In my experience, everyone likes a good story.
“A couple weekends ago, I was driving past City Market — you know, on South Winooski — and I was hailed by a man and a woman on the other side of the street. I stopped, but, before they could cross over to get to my taxi, one of the pedicab guys came out of nowhere and pulled up to them, saying, ‘C’mon, why don’t you take me? I’m cheaper, and it’s more fun.’”
I paused for a moment, both for dramatic effect and to negotiate the highway exit onto Route 15. “As you can imagine,” I continued, “I took some interest in this communication. The woman of the twosome brushed him off, saying, ‘Sorry, we’re going to Shelburne,’ and they proceeded across the street.
“As they were getting into the cab, I fixed my attention on the grinning pedicab guy and said matter-of-factly, ‘If you ever try something like that again, I will flatten your fuckin’ pedicab. And that’s with or without you in it. You can count on that.’”
“Holy crap!” said my seatmate. “Do you think he took the warning seriously?”
“Oh, I know he did. You know why? Because I wasn’t kidding. I am slightly nuts when it comes to protecting my turf. Many years ago, I ran down a rogue cabdriver out by Amtrak over a similar incident. So, when I spoke to him, he could see it in my eyes.”
I don’t know if this story impressed or freaked out my customers, but talking about it made me feel better. I do believe my deranged hatred of pedicabs has run its course, and I’ve arrived at acceptance.
May a thousand pedicabs spring forth and prosper. Amen.
“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email firstname.lastname@example.org.