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Till Kingdom Come 

"So, do you get into Burlington much?"

"Rarely lately, but all the time in the '60s when I was in nursing school and commuting to UVM. And Jacob and I would go to Burlington clubs in the early years of our marriage, to listen to bands."

I was conversing with Gail Shipley, who sat beside me in my taxi. We were en route to UVM Medical Center for an important medical test. Later in the day, I'd be driving her back to her home in Glover.

Sitting behind us was Gail's daughter, Freddie, who had recently moved in with her ailing mother. Not every parent has a grown child able to step into such a caretaker role; for those so fortunate, the assistance can be immensely helpful, an immeasurable boost for both body and spirit.

"What kind of music did you and your husband enjoy?" I asked.

"Oh, jeez — that would be blues, blues and blues. Jacob was crazy for Stevie Ray Vaughan and Buddy Guy."

"Mom, I think Buddy Guy is coming to Vermont again," Freddie said. "Maybe the Paramount Theatre in Rutland? We should go."

Gail smiled. "Yup, I'll get out my dancing shoes."

From her wistful tone, I gathered that her condition precluded such an outing. Not any time soon.

Fading foliage surrounded us as we drove, past its peak but still shimmering gold and yellow in the morning sunshine and wind. I was enjoying the company of these two gregarious women. Gail shared stories of life with her late husband and of his time in the Barre granite quarries before they opened a family bakery in their home. Freddie told me of her musically gifted teenage son who could play "just about any instrument you put in his hands." One of my favorite aspects of the job is the contact I have with rural Vermonters, and Gail and Freddie were salt-of-the-earth examples of "Kingdom folk."

I dropped them off at half past 10, and they called me back at noon. As we pulled out of the hospital lot, I said, "Gail, check out this radio station." Fiddling with the knob, I explained that I replaced my cab a couple of months ago, and — incurious technophobe that I am — discovered only last week that it came with free satellite radio.

B.B. King came on, singing about the thrill that was gone. "This whole channel is blues 24-7," I pointed out. "Pretty cool, huh?"

"I love it," Gail agreed, and began singing along and gently bopping in her seat.

We listened to the blues and chatted along the highway and up Route 100 through Waterbury, Stowe and Morrisville, while Freddie in the back texted with her two kids. As we approached Wolcott, I asked Gail about her family's heritage and when they arrived in the Green Mountains, a question I would immediately regret.

"My people have been here since the 1600s, Norwegian and English stock. We've done the genealogical research. Nowadays, of course, they've stopped letting white people into the country, just the Asians, the Africans and the Hispanics. Under Obama."

This came out of nowhere. It didn't quite register in my brain.

I asked, lamely, "Are you talking about the country's immigration policy?"

"Yes, what kind of country can't secure its own borders? The Mexicans are just pouring across. And those women who sneak in for a day to give birth."

In the rearview mirror, I saw Freddie shake her head. She might have also rolled her eyes.

"Do you know," I said, "that illegal immigration is down since President Obama took office, and that he has deported far more illegal aliens than Bush ever did?"

"That's just plain wrong," Gail countered. "I don't know where you're getting your facts."

"I think you've been watching too much Fox News."

"No, I watch MSNBC, too. I consider it opposition research. The liberals are destroying this country. They have no morals. They go against God. Do you know that Obama supports partial-birth abortion? That's just evil."

"Look, I'm not pro-abortion, either. I just don't think a woman who makes the tough decision to have an abortion should be locked up in jail. Or the doctor who provides it, for that matter."

"What do you mean?" Gail asked. "Nobody wants to put anyone in jail. The problem is that the Supreme Court legalized abortion."

Gail's reasoning had me dumbfounded. "What? That's the whole point. Either abortion is legal or it's not."

"You just haven't talked to pro-life people, I think. The same with homosexuals. You think they'll stop with marriage? The homosexual agenda goes far beyond that."

And on and on. I was in the thick of it. Words spewed from my mouth, seemingly of their own accord. Back and forth we went. I truly wanted to shut up, but I couldn't find the off switch.

As we turned north on Route 16, Gail brought up the Bible. She believed our country is doomed — doomed — because we've stopped following the word of God. This kicked me over the limit.

"You know what I think?" I snarled. "Anyone can talk about Jesus. How about trying to live like Jesus. You know, with love and compassion toward our fellow man?"

This was now officially the worst conversation I'd had in years. We reached Glover, and I pulled into Gail's rutted driveway. I remembered the house from earlier that morning: a rambling old farmhouse that had been expanded through the years. I looked over at Gail, but she wouldn't meet my eyes. She looked totally dispirited, and I felt the same way. She quickly stepped out without even a good-bye. This fare, perfectly amiable for the rest of the round trip, had gone utterly south in the last 15 miles.

"This is why I don't talk politics with my mom," Freddie said. I had forgotten she was still in the cab. Getting out, she added, "Thanks for the ride, and it was nice to meet you."

As I backed out of the driveway, the spell broke. In a flash, I recognized the error of my ways. Gail's belief system was intrinsic to her personal identity, far more than was true for me. I knew that attacking her ideas would hurt her feelings, but still I kept at her. And worst was the culmination of the entire argument: my hypocritical invocation of Jesus, in which my actions precisely belied my words. I had spoken unkindly to Gail, with a stark lack of love and compassion.

I exhaled and steered the taxi back to Burlington. Next time, I vowed, I'll do better.

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.
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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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