The trouble with air conditioning is, it works too well. This was my thought as I sat in my taxi in front of a condo on Patchen Road waiting for a customer going to the airport. He wasn't emerging from the house and hadn't responded to my "I'm out here" text. The indicator on my dash informed me of the outside temperature: 94 degrees.
The next step would be to exit my delightfully frigid metal cocoon into the pizza-oven afternoon and knock on the guy's door. I so didn't want to do that, but that's the job.
The door was up a walkway on the side of the unit; a garage stood in front. Just as I knocked, I heard the clicking of a rising garage door, and a voice called out, "I'm around here!" The man's accent sounded Russian — or perhaps Eastern European?
He was exiting the garage with a wheeled suitcase and a backpack, which he helped me load into the trunk. A tall, slender man, he had shoulder-length, shaggy brown hair and a gold tooth — an upper-left incisor, if I know my teeth. His shirt was open nearly to his waist, secured by a single button and exposing his bare chest. A rakish look, indeed, but somehow it seemed natural and unaffected on this man.
"Just let me grab my guitar, and we're good to go," he said. Closing the trunk, I took the opportunity to jump back into my mobile fridge, figuring he'd want the instrument in the vehicle with him as opposed to jangling around with the luggage. He came back out quickly with a small, well-worn guitar, uncased, which he held by the neck with one hand as he climbed into the backseat.
"They let you on the plane with your axe?" I asked as we pulled away from the curb.
"I've been flying with it for years."
"Where you headed to?"
"New York City."
"My condolences," I said.
I have no idea where this shot of un-Jernigan-like snark came from. I could blame it on the heat if I'm grasping for an excuse.
"Why do you say that?"
"Jeez, I didn't really mean it," I backtracked. "New York's great. All that compressed creative energy. I grew up there."
"Well, I've lived in the East Village for 20 years, and I love the place."
That's when it dawned on me. "You're a musician, right?"
"I am," he said.
"And your band?"
"I knew it. You're Eugene."
He confirmed my goofy ID with a gracious smile, and I got that giddy, slightly out-of-body feeling associated with meeting a famous person that you admire, particularly a performer.
Eugene Hütz is one of the founders of Gogol Bordello and the band's exuberant front man. His music has been described as "gypsy-punk," which I guess is as good a label as any. He's a buoyant, joyous performer, and his songs evoke his Ukrainian/Romany heritage. On top of his musical career, Hütz has had a few acclaimed dramatic roles in movies. The guy is just a flat-out creative powerhouse.
And his Vermont connection? I believe Eugene and his folks landed here as refugees in the early '90s when he was a teen.
I said, "I'm friends with an old pal of yours, Justin Jankovic."
"Oh, sure, Justin. How do you know him?"
"Actually, I'm friends with his mom, Zala."
"Yeah, Zala is great. She's from Slovakia, if I recall."
"Close," I said with a chuckle. "Slovenia."
"Anyway, Justin's a beautiful guy and an awesome musician. He's a bassist with his own unique style. You can't learn this, the way he plays. It doesn't come from studying."
"I know what you mean. It comes from the soul, I think."
"That's it, brother."
"You know," I said, "Justin is a beautiful guy, but he struggles with drugs."
Eugene nodded thoughtfully and said, "Everyone I know in New York struggles with drugs."
With that sobering reflection floating in the air, we pulled onto the airport grounds and came to a stop in front of the terminal. As I unloaded his bags, Eugene waited at the curb, guitar in hand. I got the feeling it was more than an instrument to him; it was a talisman. No wonder he kept it close.
After paying the fare, he asked me my name. When I gave it, he warmly shook my hand. In that moment, face-to-face, I fully experienced his presence — he was that open and available. Looking in his eyes, I felt his peacefulness and kindness, but I also sensed the wild gypsy spirit that flowed through him.
Driving back to town, I wondered: Is it too late in life to get a gold front tooth? And, while I'm at it, maybe a couple of tattoos?
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.
The original print version of this article was headlined "The Gypsy"