)The tourist and business traveler are essential to the local hospitality industry, the taxi trade included. But as much as I value the out-of-towners and their wallets, week in and week out it’s my regulars — my local customers — who keep me in business. Competition is stiff in the Burlington taxi fleet; each cab operator sinks or swims on his or her ability to attract and maintain a healthy stable of regular callers.
Because I’ve been at this for about a thousand years, I’ve developed just such a dependable group of customers. Two of them were sitting in the back seat as we cruised into town on a Saturday night. I’d been Debbie and Sean’s go-to cabbie for about six years. They were a fun couple — a cliché phrase, but apt in this case — at the center of what appeared to be a vast social network. When they weren’t living it up downtown, they were hosting parties at home or attending one at a friend’s place.
On this occasion, Debbie and Sean were out with a neighbor couple, Jeff and Nita — the proud, if somewhat bedraggled, parents of a 4-month-old baby — their first. Papa sat next to me in the shotgun seat; the new mom sat in the back, sandwiched between Sean and Deb. This was the new parents’ first night out since the blessed event, and Nita was antsy. The connection between a mother and her newborn is visceral, something that, as a man, I doubt I’ll ever truly understand.
“Oh, look — here’s another one,” Nita said, passing her cellphone over the seat to her husband. Apparently her mother — their babysitter for the night — had been sending her a continuous stream of baby photos.
Taking a cursory glance at the phone, Jeff said, “Yeah, honey, our baby is gorgeous, looking very similar to the way she looked eight minutes ago. This is it — let’s keep to the quota we agreed on, OK? Once an hour, and that’s plenty.”
Chuckling as she took back the phone, Nita cooed at the picture. “Look at little Clara, guys. She’s so cute, isn’t she?” Deb and Sean examined the photo and heartily seconded Nita’s assessment. As if they had a choice.
Meanwhile, I was tapping along to a radio tune on the steering wheel. Sean said, “You know, guys, Jernigan here is a drummer.”
“Well,” I said. “I used to be. Now I play the dashboard.”
Jeff said, “I’m sure you must know that Sean was the songwriter and lead singer of the band Yo Yo Nipples.”
“You are kidding!” I said. “I don’t think I ever saw the band, but weren’t they quite popular in — what? — maybe the turn of the millennium? Like the early 2000s? Jesus, Sean — you think you know a guy, and then this bombshell?”
I could sense Sean was a little embarrassed by the revelation, which only underscored his winning Vermont modesty. Sean grew up on a Swanton dairy farm with his five brothers. Underneath, the guy was as woodchuck as they come, though he’d been in the big town of Burlington for many years, running a successful business that had nothing to do with Holsteins.
“Ayup, that was me,” Sean affirmed. “We played all over town. We never really fit in with the jam-happy Vermont hippie thing, but we still managed to get plenty of gigs.”
“Well, holy shit is all I can say. I’d love to hear some tunes. I suppose somebody has put stuff on YouTube?”
“Jeez, I’m not sure,” Sean replied. “That was a little after our time. When you drive us back, I’ll grab one of our CDs for ya. There’s a great picture in it. The four of us are decked out in our cavemen gear at the take-out window in front of Nectar’s. Nectar — the man himself — is looking out the window, grinning away. Man, it wasn’t easy to get him to pose for that, but he agreed at the last minute.”
A few hours later, when Sean graciously presented me with a CD, I experienced the ambivalence often associated with such a gift. What if I really didn’t like it? What would I say the next time I drove him? I’m a terrible liar.
Perhaps owing to this apprehension, I didn’t listen to the CD for nearly a week, until I finally popped it in during a trip to Bristol. From the opening note, I was blown away. This was head-banger music — heavy and pounding. Though the genre is far from my musical sweet spot, I loved what I heard; it simply sounded great to me. And, regarding any music, as Duke Ellington once put it so eloquently: “If it sounds good, it is good.”
The lyrics — written entirely by Sean, according to the liner notes — were perfect as well. Penned when he was in his twenties, the tunes reflected the obsessions of many a young man: girls, partying, drinking — you get the idea. But while the subjects were banal in one sense, Sean’s simplicity, sincerity and good nature elevated the songs to a kind of poetry. I couldn’t get enough. I found myself listening to the CD constantly for the next few weeks, and playing it for my customers, the ones I thought could handle it.
Above all, I was dazzled that this music had come out of Sean — the funny, rather soft-spoken guy I had known for six years. It felt like he had a secret past in which he prowled the stages and clubs of Vermont as an unleashed wild man. It was hard to square the two.
A couple weeks later, Sean and Debbie called me again. I showed up at their home and left the cab as they stepped out the door. Prostrating myself on the front lawn, I gave a series of I’m-not-worthy bows, cracking Sean up.
“I friggin’ love Yo Yo Nipples,” I gushed, feeling like a groupie. “I swear to you, I’ve been playing the CD nonstop. You are a rock star, brother. I mean it.”
“Ayup, I guess we were pretty good,” Sean conceded, grinning. “Dude, I wish you could have been at one of our last shows, when we had go-go dancers.”
“Oh, man — tell me about it.”
“OK, we got these two dancing girls to appear on stage with us, topless with actual yo-yos covering their nipples. The show was awesome, man.”
“It sounds unbelievable,” I said, trying to visualize that memorable evening.
Sighing an old guy’s sigh, I added, “All I can say is, where is YouTube when you really need it?”
“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email email@example.com.