As her mom strapped her into the backseat, the little girl asked a question that carried the charming seriousness specific to a person with about four years of living under her belt. And this girl was a charmer, with cocoa-colored skin and adorably chubby cheeks.
"Mom, why are we taking a taxi?" She sounded incredulous, like, What gives?
"Well, Maxine — it's raining like heck, we need to get home and we don't have a car."
Maxine scrunched up her face and considered the completely reasonable explanation before nodding in acceptance. OK, I'll buy that.
I was parked in a no-parking zone on the narrower continuation of North Avenue, just past the diagonal turn-off at Plattsburg Ave. With the heavy rain and obfuscating dusk coming on, I didn't feel altogether comfortable semi-blocking the right lane. Though I did have my four-ways blinking, I was relieved when the mom finished securing her daughter and we were able to take off. Our destination was the Champlain School Apartments on Pine Street.
"I have Gummi worms," Maxine proceeded to inform me.
"Really?" I said. "Are they made out of real worms?"
She scoffed at my stupidity. "No! These are candy."
"Honey, what do you think they'd taste like if they were made of worms?" her mother asked. "Probably very gummy, I'd imagine."
In the rearview mirror, I smiled at the woman. She appeared to be in her late twenties, and she had the coolest stylized short Afro.
"So, were you guys at a party?" I asked. "I saw the driveway was crammed with cars."
"Yes, it was a surprise party for a friend," the mom replied. "And it really seemed that it was a genuine surprise."
"I don't ever want a surprise party," the girl announced. "I'd be too scared."
I said, "Well, you might be scared for a second or two, but then you'd see all your friends and family, all these people who love you, and then it'd be fun."
"I've never had a surprise party," said the mom, sounding just a tad glum about it.
"Oh, that's too bad," I said. "Everyone should have one once. In college, my housemates threw me one. This girl I liked, Helene, was the lure to get me there. She was like, We should go back to your place, all flirty-like. But I kept turning her down, actually just playing around, fully intending to hang with her. Just as I was about to fold, she said, 'Look, there's a surprise party happening, and you just have to come back there with me.' And I was like, 'Helene — you blew it! I was just about to say yes.' So then, of course, I had to put on my best surprise face when we walked through the door."
Maxine said, "I'm never having a surprise party," effectively putting an end to the conversational thread.
At the apartments, as the mom unbuckled Maxine, I said, "Guess what? Tomorrow is my birthday."
The mom said, "Well, happy birthday to you, and let me give you a present."
From her bag she pulled a small pouch, which she emptied onto the wide armrest to my right. A couple dozen small pins fashioned from the flattened bottle caps of various beers emerged. "I make these," the woman said with a big smile. "Pick out one."
"Well, these are totally creative. Thank you so much," I said, as I examined my choices. I settled on Pabst Blue Ribbon. PBR, baby.
A few hours later into the night, I got a call from my regulars on Mary Street off Williston Road, a fun group mostly composed of old college friends. Stuffed in my cab, one of the girls said, "Yup, Jernigan, we ordered from Leona's Pizza tonight."
"Don't you mean Leonardo's?" I asked.
"Nope, it's Leona's now," she said, chuckling. "Look."
Sure enough, at Leonardo's, across from the Doubletree hotel, three letters of the neon sign had burnt out, leaving "Leona's."
"Maybe the owner had a sex-change operation," I speculated.
One of the young passengers asked me what was new in my life, and I told him that tomorrow was my birthday. After I'd dropped them off, at five minutes after midnight, they shot me a text: "Happy birthday man! From your aging 20-somethings."
So that was sweet, I thought. This birthday thing was shaping up nicely. Toward last call, I picked up two über-stylish men in front of Nectar's. From the backseat, one of them said, "The Sheraton, if you would, please, kindly and all that."
"It would be my distinct pleasure, my good gentlemen," I replied, getting into the spirit of his repartee.
"I love you," the same man informed me. He was wearing a shiny, gray tailored suit and a violet tie, and had an amazing pompadour, perched up over a fade.
"Well, I do appreciate that," I said, "but how can you already love me? I mean, you've just known me for 30 seconds."
"Good point," he said, laughing. "Like, you don't know us yet. You don't even know if we're gay."
"That's true," I said, enjoying this back and forth. "I don't know if you're gay, but you're certainly jolly."
He asked me my name, and I told him. "Is that for reals?" he asked.
I replied, "What am I — a hooker? Why would I give you a fake name?"
When we pulled up to the Sheraton, his question was still bothering me for some reason. I said, "Look — do you want to check my driver's license?"
He replied, laughing, "I do. As a matter of fact, I do."
I passed it to him, and he said, "Well, that is your name. And — what's this? — it's your birthday!"
The man handed me back my license, and then reached over the seat and gave me a big hug from behind, whispering into my ear, "Happy birthday, Jernigan."
I don't know whether his brand of intense cologne was a gay thing or not, but I'll tell you this: The dude smelled great, and I finished up my night feeling fabulous, which is exactly how we should feel on our birthdays.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.