You can love 'em; you can hate 'em. You can have mixed emotions. But, whatever your feelings, they're back - all 10,000 of them. As Bette Davis said, "Fasten your seat-belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride."
Like locusts from the Bible; like wildebeest on the Serengetti Plain; like the best simile you can devise, the students have blanketed the town. The freshmen arrived on Friday, followed by the upperclassmen over the weekend. Friday night's the most fun, watching the UVM freshmen make their way down the hill for the very first time. They travel in packs of no less than 15, safety in numbers being the operative mindset.
Overnight, the tenor of the town changes. Everything is amped up. It's palpable. You can feel it. College-age kids are intense, wired in every possible way and ready to take on the world.
For the Burlington retail and service community, the student population is like a triple-shot of Vitamin B-12. By and large, the students come from middle and upper-middle class families and arrive in town with money to spend. And we local cabbies say, "Giddy-ap!"
Here's a classic "Hackie" story, circa 1997, evoking the intense spiritual relationship, as it were, between cabbie and student. (My, I used to have such a wonderful imagination.) Re-reading this in 2007, it's poignant to note the passing of various Burlingtonia, like The Last Chance, the Blarney Stone and the band Belizbaha . . .
For the Great Plains Indian Nations, the fabric of their economy, their culture - their very lives - was interwoven with the buffalo herd. Who could forget the awesome scene in Dances With Wolves when, after weeks of searching, the Sioux hunters crest a hill and come upon a veritable ocean of buffalo. In that single ineffable moment, the tribesmen are flooded with a life-giving knowledge: The cycle of life has been renewed. This one magnificent beast provided sustenance to an entire people.
At the height of the summer, I think it was the second week of July, a few of us veteran cabdrivers gathered in an alleyway adjoining the Blarney Stone bar in downtown Burlington. It was just before dawn, no one was about, and that includes, most importantly, the police. We were there to perform a sacred ceremony, and as such, it was not for public consumption. In fact, as far as I know, it has never been limned in written form, only passed down from generation to generation via an oral tradition. I only now commit it to writing having been so instructed by my inner Taxi Spirit Guide.
We use this location next to the Blarney Stone because it is a dive. Not merely a dive, but the Greg Louganis of dives; the one most venerated by the Students - which is the whole point of this secret ritual. By their dedicated presence, they, the Students, have consecrated this site. So, in a very real sense, it is they who have chosen it, not us. All this may seem esoteric to the uninitiated, but to the true Taxi Warrior, it is simply the Revealed Way.
Although most of us have reached middle age, we were dressed that night in the manner of young adults, 20 year-olds to be precise. These were ritual garments we had collected throughout the previous year in anticipation of this yearly gathering. Though these rites date back to antiquity, this is a living, evolving tradition: Each year the clothing changes with the current fashion of the young. Further, in order to achieve maximum spiritual resonance, we mimicked the various sub-genres of the Student population: The frat crowd, the neo-hippies, the St. Michaels Boston townies, the Trinity College goddess worshippers, etc.
We were grateful once again this year for the participation of Mary, one of the few older female cabbies, who that night wore a black, slitted mini-skirt, and a tank top with the bra straps showing - this in evocation of some daring preppie co-ed. Like the rest of us, Mary was too old for the outfit - though I personally thought she looked kind of cool - but she understood the requirements and she's nothing if not a trouper. Prior to her joining the ceremony, the spectacle of one of us grizzled guys dressed up like a sorority girl was not, I assure you, a pretty sight.
We stood in a circle, at the center of which was placed a bottle of Magic Hat beer - a local favorite - and a textbook, this year, Introduction to Microbiology. The subject is irrelevant, so long as it is an actual assigned text at one of the local colleges. One of us brought along a small boom-box and cassettes by three local bands: Belizbeha, Strangefolk, and of course, the mighty Phish.
We stood in silence, gathered our concentration, and I popped in one of the cassettes. We then began moving slowly and rhythmically in the circle. After a few minutes of silent movement, the chant began. It arose spontaneously, first barely a whisper, and then grew to a low bass rumble, "Like whatever, whatever, whatever. . . It's all good, it's all good. . . . Like whatever, whatever, whatever. . . It's all good, it's all good."
This circling and intonation continued for approximately a half-hour, although experientially it seemed as if time had frozen. Most critical was the focus of our collective attention: We were calling upon the Great Taxi Spirit to deliver unto us a bountiful Student herd come September. We asked humbly, with feelings of prayerful gratitude, because just as the buffalo was to the Plains Indian, so too is the Student to the Burlington cabbie. And just like these Native Americans also subsisted on fish, berries and various small game, we local cabbies transport the Quebecois tourist, the little old lady, the office and factory worker, etc. But the Students - they are our buffalo, the heart of our economic well-being.
You might ask what's the point of performing the Student Dance? Of course the Students come back every year at this time; it's the beginning of the semester, for crying out loud! To this I can only reply: That's what the Sioux said about the Buffalo, and look what happened to those guys. We veteran cabbies are not taking any chances.
Now it's the first week of September, about 11 in the evening, and I'm idling at a Main Street taxi stand. I notice a lone young man in baggy pants wandering towards Rasputin's. My heart beats faster - could it be? Then a group of young women are pausing in front of The Last Chance, and then all at once, they're everywhere! Dozens of college kids are streaming down the hill, getting out of cars, and filling up the downtown streets.
Tears begin streaming down my face, and I silently say a prayer of thanks. The Students are back, and all is well in the universe.