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Reassessing the Barter System 


“Let’s call Domino’s,” the college girl said to her friend sitting beside her in the backseat of my taxi. It was way past midnight — the perfect time for a pizza when you’re of a certain age.

“Courtney, you’re totally reading my mind,” said her seatmate. “A large veggie, OK? Where are we gonna chill? Ya think Evan’s still up?”

“Sure, it’s still, like, early. We’ll hang with Evan.”

I glanced at the dashboard clock. Two-thirty in the morning, I thought. Nice and early. Man, it’s great to be young.

Threading our way through Burlington’s Hill Section, I said, “Don’t you find it funny that they named your dorm after O.J. Simpson?”

“They did?” Courtney asked. “Who’s O.J. Simpson?”

“Never mind,” I said, feeling about 100 years old. “I was just fooling around.”

We pulled up to the back doors of the Simpson dorm, and Courtney said, “Do you take Cat Scratch? Emmy, do you have any cash?”

Without checking, Emmy said, “I don’t have, like, any money on me,” the tone of her voice suggesting the absurdity of the request. In 2010, UVM students apparently lead a cash-free existence, as if physical money was a quaint artifact from a bygone era.

I said, “Well, I don’t take Cat Scratch — or any plastic, for that matter.”

Courtney said, “OK, not a problem. I’ll run up to my room and get some money. Emmy, you stay with the cabbie.”

Courtney ran into the dorm, while Emmy also got out and stood by the side of the cab, texting. She appeared utterly relaxed and slightly unkempt. Not that I’m all that kempt myself, but I can’t get away with it the way a pretty 20-year-old can. As I watched her happily tapping away on her cellphone with a goofy grin, her big brown eyes dreamy and droopy, it dawned on me that this girl was stoned. I myself haven’t sparked one up since the Reagan administration, but I can still read the signs.

After a good five minutes, Courtney came back out and approached my open window. She nervously glanced in both directions and furtively slid me a single dollar bill, underneath which was a small baggie containing, well…

Sensing my less-than-enthusiastic reaction, she pleaded, “Could you please just take it? It’s all I got.”

I said, “I appreciate the offer, but, honey, I haven’t smoked weed in, like, 25 years,” and I passed her back the contraband. “How about you, Emmy?” I said, addressing the texter. “You got some actual dough in your room?”

Emmy said, “Sir, we’re, like, so sorry. I’ll get some money from a friend. I promise.”

They both ran back into Simpson. I knew they wouldn’t stiff me. Stoned or not, they were two good kids. Emmy returned quickly and, with a sheepish smile, handed me a twenty and told me to keep it. So, in the end, it was all good.

I shot back downtown, hoping to snag one last straggler before calling it a night. On the sidewalk in front of Memorial Auditorium, a young man signaled for a ride. I pulled over, and he did the circling thing with his forefinger. I dutifully lowered the passenger window, and he said, “I have seven dollars and I need to get to the top of Maple. Will that work?”

I said, “Sure will, buddy. Jump in.”

The man settled into the shotgun seat, and I immediately banged a Main Street U-ey. (At this late hour, the police are lenient about such maneuvers.) Ascending the hill, I said, “Well, I guess you closed down the town tonight.”

“I guess,” he said, sounding dreary and distracted.

In a jiffy, we arrived at the man’s apartment. He pulled out his wallet and extracted all the currency, which wasn’t much. “Well,” he said, “it looks like I got four bucks. That’ll work, right? I mean, you didn’t call it in.”

I knew what he was getting at. There are fleet drivers who will — when they think they can get away with it — intentionally neglect to call in a pick-up to their dispatchers, thereby enabling themselves to pocket the entire fare instead of the third or so they would normally receive later as commission in their paycheck. Hip to this mobile version of employee embezzlement, customers will occasionally set the process in motion by offering an amount of money below the normal rate, along with “and you don’t have to call it in,” wink-wink, nod-nod.

Of course, this whole unsavory business is inapplicable to me, as an independent cabdriver; since I work for myself, there’s no commission or calling in the fare. But I wasn’t about to start explaining this at 3 in the morning.

“Look,” I said, “you asked me if I’d go for seven bucks and I agreed, so four ain’t gonna cut it.”

Hey,” he shouted, “I’m giving ya four dollars. You didn’t call it in, so what’s the problem?”

I took a quick breather before responding. This I was able to do because I am actually evolving as a human being. And, in this brief, salutary pause, I realized that it was not worth getting into it with this guy over three dollars.

“No problem, buddy,” I replied. “Just give me the four bucks and we’ll call it even.”

“What’s with the attitude?” he challenged me, clearly unplacated. “Ya didn’t call it in. The four bucks is going right in your pocket.”

“What can I tell you? Let’s just call it a night, OK?”

“Well, screw you then,” he said, tossing the four dollars onto the dashboard. With a final glare, he left — but not before slamming the door on the way out. The window jiggled, which means it nearly shattered.

And such was the crummy wrap of my Saturday night. On the ride home, I found myself thinking about the evening’s penultimate fare with the lovely and stoned Emmy and Courtney. Why again didn’t I take the marijuana? ’Cause right now it just might hit the spot.

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About The Author

Jernigan Pontiac

Jernigan Pontiac

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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