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The Sabbatical 

Published July 8, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

"Oh, excuse me just a minute," my customer said, interrupting our chat as we sped along the highway toward Stowe. He glanced down to check a text he had just received and chuckled.

"My friend in Brooklyn sent me a picture of my puppy happily sleeping. I just acquired this dog, and he knows how nervous I was about leaving him for the weekend. He's doggy sitting for me. You want to see?"

I said sure, and the customer passed me his cell. Steering with one hand, I checked out his pooch, a tiny fluffy thing snoozing atop a hubcap-size, cherry-red cushion. I said, "That dog is adorable, man. What is he — a schnauzer?"

"You got it — a chocolate-brown schnauzer. I named him Charley."

Terrence was headed to the Green Mountain Inn to meet two friends whom I had driven there the previous day. One of the two was a white South African; the other man, from Bangladesh, was chocolate-brown like Charley. I couldn't place Terrence by race or nationality; he could pass for just about any ethnicity. His English was accented — though just slightly — and that, too, I couldn't pin down.

"So you're from New York City, I take it?" I asked.

"I've been living there for over a decade now, yes. Right in mid-Manhattan, near the UN."

"What do you do for work?"

"I'm in corporate law, general counsel to a huge multinational company. I oversee their Asia division. But I'm currently on a six-month sabbatical."

"Sabbatical, you say? Hmm. Well, you look about 40. Would I be far off if I speculated you were reconsidering whether you want to remain general counsel to a huge multinational company?"

"Am I that obvious?" Terrence said with a laugh. "I'm taking this time to recalibrate and reassess things. Just please don't call it a midlife crisis. I'd hate to be a living cliché."

"I wouldn't dream of it," I assured him, and we laughed together. "So, if you ever left the law, or this part of the law, is there something else in life you're passionate about?"

"There is. I'm devoted to classical piano. I'm taking lessons again, and I love it. Unfortunately, I've not the skill or talent level to make a career of it. But that's OK."

"You moved to the Big Apple a decade ago. Where did you grow up?"

"I'm from South Africa. I went to both college and law school in Washington."

"Do you have Indian heritage in the family? I know there's a substantial Indian population in South Africa."

"No, but I do get that all the time. I also get Latino and Asian. This actually works to my advantage when I travel. Wherever I am, the natives think I'm one of them." He shook his head and chuckled, I imagined, over the human tendency to classify. "My parents are, in fact, a black and white couple. They're both retired now but were teachers."

I let that sink in while I did the math in my head. "So you would have been coming of age during the antiapartheid struggle. That must have been amazing, if not scary. And your parents — God, I could only imagine. Weren't they, like, breaking the law?"

"The antimiscegenation laws, yes. But there was a whole community of mixed-race couples, and they all found a way to carry on. There was a lot of mutual support."

We reached the Green Mountain Inn to find Terrence's friends waiting for him in front. After a brief discussion, we agreed that I would pick them up in two days for transport back to the Burlington airport.

Two days later, I did just that. But an hour after dropping the three at BTV, I received a call from Terrence.

"It turned out our flight was canceled, so we're staying overnight at the Hilton on the Burlington waterfront. Our quickest flight back is tomorrow morning, flying out of Manchester, New Hampshire. Could you take that long a trip? Is that something you would consider?"

"I do, I can and I will," I replied with genuine enthusiasm. My schedule was clear, and I would make some good money. Plus, I enjoyed these three guys. I was pretty sure they were all gay, but I wasn't certain. My clues were (a) they all dressed impeccably, (b) at no point was there talk of wives or girlfriends, and (c) the chocolate-brown schnauzer.

The next day I picked them up at 8 a.m., an early hour for this mostly nighttime cabbie. For the first two hours of the three-hour ride, they all slept — Terrence in the front and his two pals in the back. I admit to being a little disappointed; I had anticipated some first-class schmoozing. Apparently they had enjoyed the pleasures of Burlington 'til the wee hours, including a bravado Italian meal at L'Amante.

My customers began to stir after we crossed the Connecticut River into New Hampshire. Having brought along some CDs, I asked Terrence if they'd like music.

"Absolutely," he replied. "Whatever you choose."

I slipped in a CD of a series of concerts Jackson Browne had recorded live in Spain accompanied by some of that country's finest and best-known musicians. Somehow Jackson's music mixed perfectly with the Spanish lilt and tilt of his bandmates, many playing traditional Iberian instruments.

As we listened, the feeling in the cab grew palpably soulful. I glanced over at my seatmate, who appeared deep in contemplation, his hand on his chin, his eyes glistening. He met my eyes and said, "This is good."

"I know it is," I agreed with a smile. "It's good sabbatical music."

Terrence smiled and nodded.

"It's good for your spirit," I added.

"Now you're pushing it, Jernigan," he said, and we both laughed.

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 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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