As I sat idling on a Friday night at the taxi stand on the corner of St. Paul and Main, I vaguely took notice in my rearview mirror of the person attempting to park her car behind me. Parallel parking is not an art every motorist has mastered, and this driver was having a difficult go of it.
This corner bordering City Hall Park has featured a taxi stand for at least 114 years. I know this because I have on my wall a postcard with a photo of that corner, postmarked 1900. It was sent by a woman to her child in Rutland and contains the pithy inscription, "Here all O.K. — Ma."
The photo captures the old Van Ness House, a four-story hotel that stood on the southwest corner of St. Paul and Main from 1870 until May 24, 1951, the day it burned to the ground. (Thank you, interwebs.) Two taxis, drivers at the ready, are lined up in the foreground on the city hall corner; both are horse-drawn carriages. My cabbie colleagues and I are but the 2014 version of those guys.
The spot directly behind the taxi stand was, until last year, reserved for the mayor. Apparently, his honor lost that perk; it's now set aside for CarShare Vermont vehicles — sorry, Miro.
And it was a bright orange CarShare vehicle that finally came to a stop behind me. A moment later, the driver appeared at my driver's window. She was a friendly-looking, if weary, middle-aged woman.
"Sir, how much would you charge me to go to Turf Road?"
I immediately read her for a local, and not one of means. "How about 10 bucks, tip included?" I replied, throwing out a figure I knew to be less than the meter-mandated rate.
"Oh, gosh, let me see. I think I only have eight on me. But I might have some money at my place."
"Well, let me see," I said. "How about eight bucks, tip included?"
"I appreciate it, but isn't that too little?"
"Sorry," I said, "but that's the fare. Take it or leave it."
"Thank you so much," she said, smiling as she walked around to step into the shotgun seat.
As we got under way, she explained that she had rented the car to go to a dance at the American Legion up in Colchester, her first time out in a year. "It cost me $32. About what would a taxi ride cost? I'd only need it one way."
"Where is it, again? Just north of the Spanked Puppy?"
"Yup, that's it."
"OK, to Turf Road, I'd charge you, like, 20 bucks."
"Next time I'll call you, then."
As we passed the old orphanage with its horrific history of child abuse, purchased last year by the financially unstable Burlington College, I thought, These grounds have some seriously bad mojo. My customer must have been on the same page, as she said, "Every day this week, I've had to walk along this road at about five in the morning, and it is seriously spooky. I try not to think about those weird caves along the Intervale. This whole stretch freaks me out, especially this time of year."
"Where are you walking?" I asked.
"I work at one of the UVM dining halls, and I need to get in by six. Normally I catch a ride with another worker, but her car is at the repair shop. Buses don't run that early, so I have to walk. It takes me nearly two hours."
"Gosh," I said, "have you talked with your manager? I gotta believe there's other workers living in the New North End. Maybe your manager can hook you up."
"I think there might be one or two, but they already know about my situation and haven't volunteered. It's all right, though. My regular ride should be back running within a couple of weeks. I hope, anyway."
"So, obviously, you don't own a car yourself. Hmm ... hey, have you heard about the Good News Garage? They provide cars to folks who can't afford them. I've gotten my car worked on in their repair shop for years now, and I can tell you they're all great folks."
"Yeah, I've actually been in to see them three times. When they turned me down for the last and final time, I broke down sobbing. I mean, they were nice, but they told me that, at this point, the program is only available to people with kids at home."
We cruised along North Avenue, the road glistening under the streetlights. The whole day had been soggy and gray. This woman truly has it rough, I thought. I'm not exactly rolling in the dough myself, but I don't have to walk two hours to work at a low-paying job. In my mind's eye, I pictured her alone in the predawn streets. I wondered what she thought about during her long commute when she wasn't stressing about the caves. No doubt she had plenty of other things to worry about.
We reached Turf Road and pulled up to her house. Reaching into her purse to retrieve the fare, she said, "I rent a room here. It's not real great, but it's all I can afford."
To my ear, it didn't sound like she was whining or complaining or trying to elicit sympathy. This was her life, and she was simply reporting the facts.
"I grew up in this neighborhood and was married for 28 years," she continued. "We got divorced a couple of years ago, and everything fell apart. Especially financially — it's been a disaster."
I took the money and wished her well. I really meant it. Without exception, every person I've ever met has had a cross to bear. I have mine and this woman has hers. And sometimes it just helps to talk about it.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.