The dashboard clock had just clicked to 3 a.m., and downtown Burlington was quickly becoming a ghost town. A scant hour earlier, the streets had thronged with people. But now, one hour after last call at the bars, most everyone had completed the weekend routine: They had bought and ingested their pizzas, kebobs and sausage sandwiches; hooked up or given up trying; and driven, cabbed or hoofed it back to their homes or apartments.
I spotted a straggler in front of Ruben James and scooped him up — my last fare of the night, I expected. He was a tall, African American man, and he needed a ride to City Bluffs, the condo development across from Burlington High School.
He jumped in the back, and I swung a right onto lower Church Street, then another onto King. My customer was talking quietly on his cell to a woman; perhaps he was en route to her place, or maybe they lived together at City Bluffs. In any event, it seemed like an amiable conversation, so things were going well for the guy.
I settled in for the ride. Every night that I'm out cabbing, I hustle to make time and maximize the number of calls I can complete. But on last call, I kick back and ease up on the accelerator. I exhale and let my mind drift — another night in the books.
I had just begun this mental wind-down when a young man hailed me from the corner of South Champlain. I pulled over, lowered the passenger window and asked him where he was going, explaining that the guy in the back was bound for North Avenue.
"I'm heading to Spear Street," he replied, "across from the Gut. But I don't mind if you drop this other guy first. I just want to get out of the cold."
The kid appeared college age and had a wild look in his eyes as he hit the shotgun seat talking.
"You're in luck, man. I always have a great ride when I take cabs. I love talking to cabbies. All right, then. So what's your story? Tell me what you know about life. I want to hear it."
What do I know about life? I know this: Do not cast pearls before swine. By this, I'm not implying that I am in possession of pearls, or that this hopped-up youngster was a swine. This is my one and only life; I'm willing to share my experience with people, even strangers, but only when the person on the receiving end is actually willing and able to receive. Despite his avid, not to say manic, encouragement of me, this kid seemed high on some substance and mentally distracted, as if a pinball were bouncing around his brain.
"Well," I said quietly, "that's a big question. I don't know much, I'll tell you that. What about you? You going to UVM?"
"Yeah, but I don't know what I'm doing. I'm a junior and majoring in engineering."
"That's a great career if you can stick with it. How you doing?"
"I have, like, a three-seven-five GPA."
"Shit, man — that's great. So you must be buckling down, at least during the week."
"I don't know. I'm having trouble with the ladies. What the fuck is it with women? Are they, like, all bitches? Tell me, man. You've been around a while."
I took a breath to slow things down a bit. The conversation was careening. That isn't necessarily the worst thing, but I didn't want to get swept up in the current. I thought again about the pearls and swine aphorism. That's from the Bible, isn't it? I couldn't recall.
The thing is, there is another aphorism I live by: There are no accidents, particularly when it comes to the flow of people in and out of our lives. This young man, blitzed though he might have been, was wrestling with life — no longer a kid and desperately trying to figure out how to be a man. I was him once.
"So here's the thing about women," I replied. "They're just people. They want to be listened to, respected, taken seriously. Just like you, man. So once you start talking about 'bitches,' you've stopped seeing them as people. And then there's zero hope of having a real relationship."
I pulled up to my initial customer's drop-off point. "Man, that's a heavy conversation you been having," he said, chuckling, as he paid his fare.
My seatmate laughed, said, "Right on," and exchanged some elaborate handshake with the guy in the back before the latter got out. I've made attempts to learn these handshakes, but I apparently missed the age cutoff.
The ride over to UVM was filled with rapid-fire questions and abrupt subject changes. I tried to meet this person where he was in his life: 20 and kind of clueless. He actually had a good heart; he was just having a hard time getting in touch with and following it.
As we approached Spear Street, he said, "Do you smoke weed, man? You got time? You can come in and we could, like, smoke a bowl."
"Gee, thanks for the offer. But I haven't smoked pot in over 30 years."
"Why not? It's great."
"Yeah, it can be fun to get high, particularly with good friends. But at a certain point, I realized that life is tough. It can be beautiful, but it's a daily challenge, and personally speaking, I need to be as awake as I can be to experience it. When I used to do drugs, I would lose track, and I decided I didn't want to risk that anymore. I couldn't afford it."
I could tell this person was really listening to me. He was a searcher and looking for the path forward. I had no idea if my thoughts about women, drugs or anything else we'd tossed around were worthwhile, let alone accurate or valid. But I had taken our exchange seriously — I had taken him seriously — and honestly shared my experience. So, in that sense, I felt like I had risen to the occasion.
Before getting out, the guy asked for a business card, so he could call and "ask me more stuff." I chuckled and said I didn't know about that, but I'd be happy to drive him again. He took the card, nodded and left.
I took a deep, in-and-out breath and relaxed — back in wind-down mode, heading home.