"Hey, Kenny — this is Jernigan, your cabbie." I was speaking to my customer, Kenny Wong, from the off-ramp of the Waterbury exit. Things did not look good. Waterbury bills itself as the "crossroads of Vermont," and, on this day — Saturday, noon, sunny, foliage season — the crossroads were gridlocked.
"Listen, Kenny, I'm stuck in a pesky traffic jam, so I'm gonna be maybe 15 minutes late for your pickup. But not to worry — we have plenty of buffer time built in. I've never had a customer miss his plane, and you ain't gonna be the first."
Kenny chuckled — which I took as a good sign — and told me he'd be waiting at the front office.
I seriously considered some semi-legal traffic maneuvers (don't ask) but thought better of it. I confess that, with my taxi light and markings, I occasionally delude myself into believing I possess ambulance-like traffic privileges. Which I don't. Curses!
Traffic crawled until it opened up past the Ben & Jerry's factory. I pulled into the Stowe Inn exactly 15 minutes late. Kenny was ready to roll, and we accomplished the turnaround with the efficiency of a NASCAR pit crew — Kenny ensconced in the shotgun seat, his bag in the trunk.
He slid his seat back to stretch his legs. Kenny was lean, tall and apparently of Chinese ancestry. All his facial features — nose, eyes, mouth, cheeks — were prominent, in an unusual but not unattractive way. Visually, the guy was striking.
"Oh, my legs are aching!" he said with a laugh, massaging his thighs. "I'm a good biker, but this trip was challenging."
"Were you on one of those bicycle tours?" I asked.
"Yes, up through the Northeast Kingdom, I think you call it. I actually skipped the third day and went kayaking instead. The tour company is very flexible that way. That was the night we spent at the Highland Lodge in Greensboro. What awesome food!"
"Where are you visiting from?"
"I've been in Texas the last 10 years. I work for a tech company down there."
"To tell you the truth," I said, "I don't know if I could ever live in Texas. I think it might be too right-wing for my blood."
"Oh, I know what you mean, but I live in Austin. You know about red state, blue state? In Austin, we call ourselves a blueberry sitting in a bowl of tomato soup."
I had to think for a moment to process the metaphor, then laughed. "That's great. And it kind of makes me hungry."
"I'm hungry, too," he said, laughing along. "Yes, I love my life in Austin. I don't even own a car. I can just bike everywhere. If I need a car, I just rent one for the occasion."
Luckily, traffic on southbound Route 100 wasn't jammed up like the northbound lane, so I didn't need to speed once we reached the interstate. The highway was filled with out-of-state vehicles, and the foliage was giving the leaf peepers an eyeful. Thank you, trees.
"So, where are you from originally?" I asked, as I reached my cruise-controlled 70 mph.
"I moved to the Bay Area from Hong Kong with my mother and brother when I was 19. My mother still lives in Oakland. My brother lives near me in Austin. He was the one who convinced me to move there."
"Did you already have the tech skills when you came to America?"
Kenny chuckled, shaking his head. "I had no skills when I arrived here. I was happy-go-lucky kid. This is why I love this country. In Hong Kong, very few people get to go to college. If you fail the exams, you're screwed. Here, I was able to go to community college and then transfer to a four-year school. And now I have a good career with a good company."
"It sounds like you fit in good in the United States," I observed.
"I love it here!" Kenny said. "In Hong Kong, there is great pressure to conform. If you're a different sort of guy, like me, life is very difficult. In U.S., it's OK to be different, to be creative. Like, my brother has two kids, and I'm the crazy uncle! And that's OK with everyone. Because this is America!"
America, indeed, I thought.
With the elections one month away, in the heat of a demoralizing presidential campaign, Kenny's ebullience lifted my spirits. It was heartening to hear from an immigrant for whom the American dream is alive and well. Though much evidence argues to the contrary, I still see our country as a place where difference is celebrated. And I refuse to believe that one brutal and brutish candidate will permanently alter the intrinsic good nature of the American character. Not if Kenny and I have any say in the matter.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.