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That Philly Sound 


Canceled airline flights are common in the winter, but happen occasionally in the summer, as well. Severe thunderstorms pounding the mid-Atlantic into New York had scotched a number of Burlington Airport departures, including my guy’s. Randall Bower had finished up a conference at the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes and thought he’d be sleeping at home with his wife later that night in Philadelphia. Nope, it was back to Basin Harbor; he wouldn’t be flying out until the following morning at the earliest.

I arrived at the airport to find Randall at the US Airways ticket counter, negotiating his alternative flight plans. “Well, this is a revoltin’ development,” I offered, by way of commiseration.

“Hey, it’s all right, man,” Randall said, finding the bright side. “There’s worse things than spending another night at that resort.”

I loaded his bag into the taxi trunk, my customer took the shotgun seat, and we headed south. Randall was a husky, African American guy with dark brown skin, and an unusually warm and open demeanor. “How you like driving cab, man?” he asked as we cleared the airport horseshoe.

“Well, I like it well enough. I been doing it most of my adult life.”

Randall nodded and said, “I drive, too. Down in Philly.” He paused to chuckle, then added, “I guess I’m also a lifer.”

I nodded back, and both of us were grinning. Cabdrivers for life — that’s no small bond. Now, of course, I was interested in his connection to the conference. I had driven a number of the attendees, so I had the basic idea.

It was a reunion of about 10 years’ worth of Ford fellows. The Ford Foundation, apparently one of the more progressive major philanthropic nonprofits, funded a program that paid a two-year livable stipend to community organizers involved with various aspects of social change — issues such as immigrant advocacy, tenants’ rights, fighting hunger and the like. Every year the program supported about a dozen of these folks; sadly, with the economic downturn, this was its final year.

“So, Randall,” I continued in what was becoming a most enjoyable shmooze, “how did you end up at this conference? Are you actually one of these Ford fellows? I got to say, I’ve always been a Chevy man.”

“Good one,” he said. “And, yeah, I did get one of their fellowship grants. I’m organizing cabdrivers in the Philly area. You know, better pay, better working conditions — those bread-and-butter issues.”

“Really? That is just awesome! How did you get into that?”

“Well, a number of years ago, me and a group of other drivers got together to try to get a fare raise out of the taxi commission. It had been, like, 14 years since the last raise. I know that sounds crazy, but it was true. We did get the raise, and it was like opening Pandora’s box. And this ultimately led to us forming the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania. I’ll tell you, that Ford money really helped. I’m president of the alliance, but I still drive once a week. Keeps my finger on the pulse.”

“Again, man — that is fantastic. If I didn’t have to hold on to the wheel, I’d be bowing down. You know, as in ‘I’m not worthy.’”

“Hey, we all do what we can do,” he said quietly. Attempting, I imagine, to move me off this hero worship, he asked, “So, tell me, what’s the cab business like up here?”

“Well, it’s the same basic job as in a big city like Philly, but with one crucial difference. It’s nearly unheard of for a cabbie to get robbed, let alone assaulted or killed. The worst thing we have to deal with is fare jumpers, but that’s no big deal.”

Randall let out a low whistle. “You are not kidding. Our guys get jacked all the time. I guess it’s just another fine thing about life in Vermont.” He looked out across a passing cow field in Charlotte. In the distance, the big lake shimmered in the afternoon sunlight, and beyond the water the Adirondacks rose in their sylvan grandeur. “It is so beautiful up here. I could really get used to this.”

I said, “Philly’s a great town, isn’t it, though? I mean, the sports teams, the music. When I was a young teenager, I couldn’t get enough of that Philly soul music. What a sweet sound. We’re talking about Harold Melvin, The Delfonics, The O’Jays. Jeez, ‘Love Train’ is still, like, one of my all-time favorite tunes.”

Oh, yeah,” Randall jumped in. “And how about Teddy Pendergrass? Ooh-wee — that brother was somethin’ else!”

For the rest of the ride, we talked about the Philadelphia Flyers’ championship run, social injustice and, of course, hacking. It was indeed a shmooze for the ages.

All too soon — from my perspective, anyway — we came up on the entrance sign of the Basin Harbor Club. Through the years, I’ve had the pleasure of transporting many of their guests, and I never tire of just being on the property. The physical beauty of the grounds combined with the graciousness of the staff — it’s natural elegance, Vermont style.

We pulled to a stop in front of the main lodge. I’d been waiting for the club to put out its gigantic red Adirondack chair — fit for a smallish giant, perhaps a 15-footer — but I guess it was too early in the season. Randall said, “Well, it’s time to call the wife.”

“Does she work down in Philly, as well?”

“Yes, she’s a social worker.”

“I bet you and her are quite the team.”

“Yeah,” Randall replied with a relaxed smile. “I guess you could say that. Hey, thanks for the ride, brother.”

He extended a big hand, and we shook — for real, eye to eye. And it was one of those meetings of the minds, or maybe the hearts, where you know it’s been a meaningful encounter, one that may well stay with you for the rest of your life.

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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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