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Hackie: Big Softies 

Published July 25, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.

"I'm a mason," my customer told me. "I started when I was a teenager working with my uncle. I've worked jobs all over the North Country, sometimes in Vermont, too."

I was driving Roland Couture back to his home in Au Sable, a small New York town across the lake at approximately the same latitude as Burlington. His truck had broken down on Shelburne Road, and the repair was going to take a few days, pending parts delivery.

As the crow flies, the direct route to Au Sable incorporates the Burlington ferry to Port Kent. However, the Port Kent crossing traverses the lake at its widest point and takes three times as long as either of the two ferries to the north and south, at more than twice the price. I had done the Google Maps thing before I picked up Roland and determined that, for the Au Sable destination, the southern crossing — Charlotte to Essex — was 15 miles shorter than the northern. So that's where we were bound.

"Oh, man," I enthused. "I'm fascinated by masonry. It's such an ancient profession. Do you ever work with granite? I understand some of the finest granite in the world is quarried in Vermont."

"All the time," he replied. "We use a lot of 'Adirondack green,' which has a greenish tint. The Vermont stuff is this beautiful white, which comes mostly out of Barre. In the trade, we call it 'Barre white.'"

"I love it! An homage to Barry White, the heavyset soul singer from the '70s."

We arrived at the Charlotte dock just as the seven o'clock ferry was pulling away. "Not to worry," I assured Roland. "They run on the half hour."

At the booth, I discovered my error. The ferry did run on the half hour, but only until 7 p.m. Then it was on the hour, which meant we were facing an hour's wait. I briefly considered shooting up north to catch the Plattsburgh ferry, which runs about every 20 minutes, but that would entail an hour's ride. The Champlain Bridge, farther south in Addison, provided another alternate route, but that, too, made no sense time-wise.

"My bad, Roland," I said. "I should have double-checked the schedule beforehand."

"Don't worry about it, man," he replied, graciously accepting my apology. "Lemme just call my wife to give her an updated ETA."

We parked in the queue (first position, a dubious distinction), and, leaving Roland on his own to speak with his wife, I exited the cab to stretch my legs and contemplate the incipient sunset.

A couple of minutes later, I watched a Sprint repair van pull to a stop behind my cab. The driver stepped out and, hands in pockets, meandered in my direction at dock's end. The dude was rocking some baggy, beat-up dungarees, a Grace Potter T-shirt and a backward baseball cap. Rounding out the look, he sported a funky, scraggly beard reminiscent of a moose.

Working guys like this man and Roland have essentially no dress code on the job, I thought. That's kind of the case for me, too, though I do strive to appear presentable for my customers.

I nodded at him in acknowledgment and smiled: Yes, we are both human beings whom God or the universe or random fate (take your pick) has brought together in the summer dusk at this ferry dock in Charlotte, Vt., 2018.

The guy smiled back and approached me. As soon as we began chatting, it was apparent we hit it off. An instant connection like that is inexplicable, the darndest thing. Not that I'd know from experience, but, minus the sex, isn't it the point of Tinder?

"So, what do they got ya doing at Sprint?" I asked.

"I maintain the fiber-optic system. There's always glitches and accidents, and I help keep the thing up and running. The job suits me. I'm on my own most of the time, and I range all over upstate New York and Vermont."

"Very cool," I said. "Like an updated version of the Wichita lineman."

"Exactly!" he said, chuckling.

As he spoke, the man held his right hand up to his forehead, shielding his eyes from the setting sun. I subtly shifted my standing position to mitigate the problem for him, and he followed course. As is typical of men when they converse, we didn't directly face each other but aligned our bodies at about a 120-degree angle.

"You got a wife and kids back home in — what did you say? — Syracuse?"

"I do, and here's the whole saga. I had two daughters with my first wife. They're now 24 and 27, and both doing great. Sarah was and is a lovely person and a great mother, but we were never really compatible. Jill, my second wife, who I was with for six years, died of brain cancer. That was brutal and just about broke my heart permanently. But a couple of years ago, I reconnected on Facebook with Nina, my high school sweetheart. It was the perfect time for both of us, and we've been together since then."

"That is just beyond wonderful," I said. "It's like, if you don't close yourself off, if you somehow manage to stay open, love will find you. I really believe that."

"If you had told me that in the wake of Jill's death, I would have laughed in your face. I was bitter, and for a long time. But since Nina came back in my life, I've become a big softie and, I guess, a believer in love."

Chuckling, I placed a hand on the man's shoulder. "Nothing wrong with being a big softie," I said. "I'm one myself."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Big Softies"

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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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