On my list of Burlington summer delights is Nectar's open garage-door-style window. The venerable nightclub books the coolest bands, and on summer weekend nights I get to hear the live music while idling at the curb between taxi fares.
It was the night of July 3 — the date of the Queen City's Independence Day celebration — and the post-fireworks traffic gridlock had finally ebbed at around 11:30. Two o'clock last call was fast approaching, to be quickly followed by "taxi rush hour," the mad scramble home. I bopped in my seat enjoying the closing number from the New Orleans funk band Naughty Professor as I mentally girded myself for the end-of-night push.
A man maybe 30 years old approached my driver's window cradling his right hand in his left. I could see the cuts, swelling and discoloration. "How far do you go, man?" he asked.
I replied, "Well, if it's connected by land, as far as you want. Whaddaya have in mind?"
"I need to get home to St. J. My buddy got into a fight, and I lost my ride."
I glanced at his hand. "What, did ya try to defend him?"
"Yeah, I jumped right in. I think I busted my hand. The police hauled him away — and the other guy. Luckily, they gave me a pass."
"Jesus, your hand does look bad. You sure you don't want me to take you up to the emergency room?"
"No, I'll be all right. I just need to get home."
"What's St. Johnsbury? Like, 80 miles, right? I'll take you for 200 flat, but I do need to get the money in advance."
He told me no problem and handed me a credit card. It came up "approved" on my cellphone app. And we were off — an exhausting final fare topping off an already draining day. When did I get this old? I wondered. I used to handle days and rides like this in my sleep. Nowadays it's all a combination of fumes and willpower.
In the rearview mirror, I watched my customer spread himself out in the backseat. "You mind some radio?" I asked.
"Sure thing," he replied. "You like country?"
"Yeah, I could listen to some country."
I adjusted the dial and Toby Keith came through the speakers, singing a song in appreciation of red plastic Solo cups. It was working-class music, and I can certainly go there.
"What do you think about the flag burning?" my passenger asked, out of the blue.
"You mean the Confederate flag?" The Confederate flag controversy had been all over the news for weeks.
"No, today somebody burned the American flag at some demonstration. I'm ex-military, and I don't think that's right."
"I don't think it's right, either, but I'll tell ya this. I'm glad I live in a country where it's legal to burn the flag."
"It's just wrong," he said, my subtle argument evidently making no impression on his perspective. "And they're coming to take away our guns."
"Who's coming to take away our guns?" This was news to me.
"Obama is, man. And he's not even American."
"He's not? Where is he from, then?"
I would have bet dollars to doughnuts on his answer, but that wasn't really the point. I just felt the need to engage him man-to-man — on his own terms — and to hear and accept him where he lived.
"Everybody knows he's from Kenya." Bingo.
"You know what?" I said. "I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree on that one."
We motored along the highway at a cruise-controlled 68 miles per hour. I used to go faster, but my Buick LeSabre is up in miles at this point, so I'm prudent. Toby Keith finished his song about the cups.
"Did you serve overseas?" I asked.
"Yeah, in Iraq. But then my asthma got bad and they discharged me."
"You working now?"
"Yeah, I'm a lineman. It's steady and it pays good."
"That's excellent. Sounds like you scored a good job."
Before we hit Waterbury, my customer was sound asleep. I kept the country music playing for the rest of the ride. It struck me how many powerful female singer-songwriters were in the rotation. They had their stories to tell, and they were worth telling.
Pulling into St. Johnsbury, I woke up my customer for directions. First I whispered, then I yelled, but ultimately it took a poke to the ribs. He steered us through the downtown, where I saw nary another vehicle on the road — until suddenly blue lights appeared behind us, and I pulled over.
The police officer came to my window, flashlight in hand.
"I'm a Burlington cabbie," I volunteered. "My customer here had a rough night at the bars and I'm driving him home. He just lives a couple of streets from here."
"Could you give me your license and registration, please?" the officer asked. His tone was friendly, not aggressive or threatening in the least. "Do you have any idea why I pulled you over?"
"Honestly, I don't have a clue." I took a stab. "Is one of my lights out?"
"You blew through the stop sign by the bridge without even slowing down."
"Jeez, I completely didn't see it! I was paying attention to the turns my customer was giving me. If you can cut me a break, I'd really appreciate it."
"Don't worry about it," he said, taking my paperwork. "It's not a real obvious stop sign."
As the officer checked on my license and reg back in his cruiser, my customer said, "I know this cop. He's a good one. Most of the others are real dicks." I had the sense he spoke from personal experience.
The officer returned, warning notice in hand. "Drive careful back to Burlington," he advised.
A few minutes later, we arrived at my customer's apartment house. He made a point of reaching over the rear seat to shake my hand — lefty-to-lefty, as his right was out of commission.
"Take care of that paw of yours," I recommended.
"Oh, shit — I'll be fine. I've seen way worse than this."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.