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Building Bridges 


Published June 16, 2010 at 5:11 a.m.

The weekend of the Burlington City Marathon lived up to its name for me. I bracketed the always-busy Saturday and Sunday with one of the longer round-trip fares of my cabbie career. On Friday, I transported a customer from Montpelier to Ithaca, N.Y., to attend her sister’s Cornell graduation, and on Monday I drove back down to pick her up. By the end of my personal four-day marathon — pushing midnight on Monday — I was a zombie. Seriously, I was ready to walk with the undead.

I want to say I’m getting old, but that would be like saying I’m getting bald. The truth is, regarding both of these states, the “getting” phase has become the “gotten” phase. I mean, I’ve not yet begun to fossilize, but the body ain’t quite what it used to be and, frankly, what it used to be wasn’t exactly marathon ready. Nonetheless, I used to have the capacity to drive endlessly and shake it off. Recovery time was measured in hours — or, at most, in a good night’s sleep. Alas, those days are over.

A word about customer safety is in order. When I’m rolling, I enter a zone, and this has been true for me since my first driver’s education lesson at age 16. At the moment I shift the transmission into drive, a parallel shift seems to occur in the synapses of my brain. Once I’ve entered this zone, though my body may tire, my attention never flags. So, on Monday, toward the tail end of the Ithaca run and approaching 14 straight hours behind the wheel, I experienced not even a hint of nodding off; mentally, I remained as sharp as a tack.

The problem kicked in once the drive was over, when I parked and got out of the taxi. As I said — zombie time. I was so buzzed, my ears were burning. That can’t be good, right?

On a superlong fare, you really hope for a personable customer. Donna, the young woman I drove to Ithaca, perfectly fit the bill. When I picked her up, I offered her the front or rear seat, “whatever’s more comfortable for you.” I was happy when she chose the back, because then I could keep my cooler and CD supply handy in the shotgun seat. Plus, it can be a little weird sitting two feet from a person you don’t know for seven straight hours, however nice he or she may be.

As it turned out, the small pillow I brought along fulfilled its intended purpose. Donna curled up and snoozed in the back-seat for at least half the ride. From my cooler, I kept reaching for the container of quartered oranges. I’ve discovered that these do the trick when endurance is the challenge. The last thing you want to do is stop for fat-and-salt-laden fast food. Other than the call of nature, nothing slows me down on these epic runs.

I’ve been at this for so long, it’s rare for me to traverse virgin territory, but this was my first foray into Ithaca. The town and the campus are something special, surrounded by massive cliffs, which in turn are bisected by gorges: rushing water galore. Donna told me the town has its own tagline: “Ithaca Is Gorges.”

This got me thinking about Burlington’s tagline: “The West Coast of New England.” That’s all right as far as it goes, but I propose a new slogan, one with a tad more zing: “Burlington — Yes, eating out is a form of recreation!”

Anyway, this exhausting Ithaca round-trip reduced the heart of the long weekend, the Saturday and Sunday, to one huge blur. I know I drove droves of marathoners, or their runner-related posses, and I kept repeating the same joke. When a customer asked if I was going to participate in the big race — and many of them did — I replied, “Are you kidding me? I get winded walking from my couch to the refrigerator.” I actually got quite adept at delivering this line; by late Saturday, my timing was perfect. I killed, baby.

Normally, I take off Sundays, but the town was still hopping with the race crowd, many of whom were staying through to Memorial Day Monday. I remember my last fare of the night, a happy couple staying at the Hampton Inn.

The man was broad shouldered and well muscled — not your typical runner’s build, but he was clearly an athletic type. His female companion I liked right away on account of her T-shirt that read, “Peace Love Sox.” She, too, was fit and trim.

Over my right shoulder, I asked, “Didja guys both run yesterday?”

The man replied, “No, as a matter of fact, we had no idea there was a marathon this weekend. We just came up to explore the town. We’re going to be moving up to Vermont for about a year. Hey, maybe you can help with some info — what would you say is the drive time from Burlington to, say, Middlebury? I’m going to be working on the new Champlain Bridge, and we’re trying to decide whether to rent a place down there or just commute from the Burlington area. We’re really liking Burlington, so if it’s not too long a daily commute, I think we’d be happier up here.”

“Oh, man — that’s great,” I said, temporarily ignoring the guy’s question. “What are you going to be doing? I mean, what’s your trade?”

The man chuckled and said, “That’s a good question. I don’t really have much of a trade.”

“Jack’s just being modest,” the woman said. “He’s an engineer, and he’ll be supervising the construction of the foundation.”

I said, “Well, I hope you do a good job because, you know, the foundation of a good bridge is its foundation.”

“Well put,” Jack said. “I’m going to remember that.”

“And I haven’t forgotten your question. Commuting down to the bridge site will probably take you about 40 minutes to an hour, depending where you rent in the Burlington area. Although, if you find a nice little place along the Route 7 corridor, maybe Shelburne or Charlotte, you could probably scoot down there in about a half hour.”

Jack said, “Thanks, man — that’s exactly what we were thinking, too. By the way, did you run in the marathon?”

“Are you kidding?” I replied, and paused for three seconds as if to think about it. “Man, I get winded walking from my couch to the refrigerator.”

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About The Author

Jernigan Pontiac

Jernigan Pontiac

Jernigan Pontiac was a Burlington cab driver whose biweekly "Hackie" column appeared in Seven Days 2000-20. He has published two book-length collections, Hackie: Cab Driving and Life, and Hackie 2: Perfect Autumn.


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