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Hackie: The Trickle 

Published April 8, 2020 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated April 14, 2020 at 11:13 p.m.

One by one, my existing airport bookings had canceled, transforming my once-reassuring wall calendar (yes, I'm that old-school) into a sad display of big red X's. Certainly, no new reservations were on the horizon. Not in this environment.

The next blow: My restaurant fares began to dry up as people got hip to the danger of public gatherings. Movie, performance and club outings quickly followed suit.

Fortunately, I still had my loyal stable of daily drinkers. Thank goodness for them, I remember thinking. The only way they'll quit going out is when the doors to the bars are nailed shut.

OK, that happened. By order of Gov. Scott, every bar in the state was shuttered as of 2 p.m. on March 17. (That the onset of this ban coincided with Saint Patrick's Day was a cruel irony not lost on my barroom habitués.)

And with that, I and every other cabbie, along with assorted Uberistas and Lyftites, were essentially ... well, I believe "screwed" is the technical term. In this we were not alone, having been joined by a long list of our fellow citizens, primarily — though not exclusively — blue-collar types for whom "working remotely" is a nonstarter.

So, my normally brisk flow of business has been reduced to a trickle. I still get the occasional supermarket or doctor trip for a carless customer. Also, through the years, I've developed relationships with various local social service agencies that call on me to transport their clients. So, thankfully, I'm still getting a few of those runs, as well.

By nature, I tend to embrace risk and roll the dice. But I'm not foolhardy. It took me a while, but once I grasped the dire threat posed by COVID-19, I took protective measures to lessen the danger for all concerned.

I removed the middle row of seating in my minivan, directing all passengers to the side sliding door and the bench seat in the way back. Which means no more folks riding shotgun until this is all over. For a gabby guy like me, this is no minor change. I'm, like, half deaf on a good day, so now all conversations with my customers are carried on at a near yell.

Also, by hook or by crook, I managed to acquire large-count boxes of both latex gloves and medical-grade wipes. I'm still figuring out the most effective way to deploy these two products, but I'm getting there.

When I picked up Donald Dickenson, an older gentleman living in a Franklin County schoolhouse converted into apartments, it took self-control not to offer him the seat next to me. He waved off my apology, saying, "Hey, I understand," as he made his way into the rear seat and settled in. My mission: drive him to a doctor's appointment in Burlington.

"What's with these seat belts?" he asked just as I was about to shift into drive. "I can't seem to get mine hooked up."

"Jeez, Don — I don't know. Until this whole thing, folks rarely sat in those rear seats." Unsnapping my own belt, I offered, "Lemme come back there and see what—"

"Nope, never mind," he interrupted, as the familiar click signaled his success. "I figured it out."

Within minutes we were cruising south on the highway. The deciduous trees marking the landscape were on the cusp of budding out, the prelude to their seasonal transformation into the boundless greenery from which Vermont takes its nickname: the Green Mountain State.

Normally, this is the time of year — the nascent spring — I find most thrilling, and it's been known to awaken the sleeping poet in me. Not this year, though. As the virus went viral, it put the damper on my sense of wonder and on most of life's carefree pleasures.

At that moment, driving with Don on Interstate 89, I first had this thought: Everyone, including me, is going to have to consciously fight to maintain some measure of joy during this grim new reality.

"So, Don," I bellowed over my right shoulder, "how's life in the schoolhouse?"

"Not bad," he replied. "It's mostly older women, so I'm quite popular."

"Could ya speak up a little? Sorry about that."

"Not a problem, brother," he said, speaking louder. "How's this?"

"Perfect," I replied.

"Hey, it's just nice to be out of my apartment talking to another human being, if you know what I mean."

"I do," I said, chuckling. "So, are you a Vermonter by birth, Don?"

"Look at me," he replied with a laugh. "What do you think?"

"Hey, I make no assumptions," I said, laughing along with him. "There are black folks who were born in Vermont."

"Sure, but a 74-year-old black man in Swanton? Really, what are the odds?"

"OK, I suppose you're right. So, when did you land in Vermont?"

"Well, I was born and raised up in St. Louis," he began. "My father was a World War II vet. He was a decorated sniper, one of the very few black men to get the opportunity to do that..."

What followed was the story of Don's life. It stretched from civil-rights-era St. Louis to an engineering job in the Pacific Northwest to meeting the love of his life — a fifth-generation Vermont girl — and settling down on her family's dairy farm to raise a daughter.

That daughter is now in a prestigious Boston medical school and about to be deployed to care for COVID-19 patients. She calls him every day. Don is worried about her but proud as can be.

He relayed the entire story to me at 150 percent normal volume, never faltering. I received every word as the gift that it was. Come hell or high water or pandemics, it seems we humans will keep telling our stories to one another. It could be that storytelling is a biological imperative, and I wouldn't be surprised if it also boosted our immune systems.

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

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Trickle"

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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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