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Newbie in Town 


Published September 23, 2009 at 5:32 a.m.

A squadron of freshly minted University of Vermont freshmen flagged me down as I coasted through the Greek section of Burlington’s Main Street. College fraternities and sororities, so familiar to any American, are virtually unknown outside of the USA. On occasions when I’m asked to explain the phenomena to foreign tourists, they’re often incredulous, sometimes even thinking I’m putting them on. I guess “Greek” student houses, like “Indian” summer camps for kids, are pure Americana, in all its glory and weirdness.

As the students piled into the cab, one of them, a grinning girl in the back seat, said, “Wow, like you can just hail cabs in Burlington?”

“Well, you just did,” I replied, stating the obvious and throwing her a wink in the rearview mirror. “Where am I taking you folks?”

The guy jammed in next to me said, “We heard there’s a party at 135 Mansfield Avenue. Do you know where that is?”

This young man looked so young, with curly, tousled black hair and baby fat still hanging on, like a happy, chubby chipmunk. During a short window of time, many of these new students still look like children; by spring semester, I’ve observed, their adult selves have visibly emerged — alas, the Rubicon crossed. Well, at least physically.

“I most certainly do know where 135 Mansfield is,” I replied, “and I am going to take you there.”

“Awesome!” the kid replied.

“Awesome!” I heartily agreed.

The “freshmanness” of this group was written on their faces: the wide-eyed excitement of being at long last freed from prying parental eyes, finally on their own. High school, I wagered, seemed a million years, and a million miles, away.

The party house was obvious from a block’s distance. First sign was the music, and then the throng of students milling about the porch and driveway. The buzz rose in my taxi. This was it: their first off-campus college party, the stuff of teenage fantasy fueled by countless Hollywood movies.

While they all pulled together the fare, I reached up and extracted a bunch of business cards from the pair of thick rubber bands gripping the sun visor. “Put this number in your cells,” I instructed, passing each student a card. “For the next four years, I will be your personal cabdriver. I don’t want to ever hear about you calling a fleet taxicab. You call me — you got that?”

The laughter, it seemed to me, carried an appreciative tone. I think the students can relate to my cheeky and creaky hackie humor. I hope so, anyway — it’s all I got.

Two hours later, a call came in from the party house, and I recognized the voice of my spirited seatmate, he of the chubby cheeks. “Could you come get me right away?” he requested, and I could detect the suppressed panic. “The cops are sitting right outside the house. The other kids I came with have already taken off.”

When I arrived back at the address 10 minutes later, it appeared the party had largely broken up. Parked at the curb was a black-and-white containing two of Burlington’s finest. The officers didn’t appear to be doing anything — just idling with the dim lights on. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. As I pulled into the driveway, I noticed a trio of students on the front porch conversing nervously in whispers. Two police officers 25 feet away will do that to you. Talk about a buzz kill.

“Oh, my God!” my customer exclaimed, resuming the shotgun seat. “I thought, like, for sure we were all about to get busted. My folks would have loved that — my first week at college.”

I chuckled and said, “Relax, dude. In the beginning of every school year, the cops like to make their presence felt — laying down the law, so to speak. I honestly don’t think they’re interested in arresting anybody unless the noise and behavior gets really outrageous.”

“Oh, thanks, sir. That’s good to know. I was, like, really nervous. I guess you could tell.”

“Ayup,” I said, holding back a laugh, “I could tell. Now, what dorm am I taking you to?”

“Harris Millis, please.”

“You got it. My name’s Jernigan, by the way. What’s yours?”

“Good to meet you. My name is Zach.”

Zach, the UVM freshman — I made a mental note — and, if all goes well for both him and me, a new customer until graduation day, May 2013.

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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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