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Soul Man 


Published October 19, 2011 at 10:19 a.m.

Among other elements of the state’s infrastructure, the railroad lines felt the impact of Tropical Storm Irene. So Amtrak pickups have been a challenge of late.

Delia and Darnell Washington, coming up on the train from Baltimore, needed a ride to Smugglers’ Notch. I didn’t want to be late, lest I lose the fare to another cabbie. (Smugglers’ Notch, did you say? Oh, yes — I’m Jernigan Pontiac. Jump right in.) So I asked the Washingtons to call me from their cellphone as soon as they cleared Waterbury, the last stop before Essex Junction. This would give me a 20-minute heads-up, just perfect. They did, and it worked.

The night air was crisp as Darnell helped me load their bags into the taxi trunk before settling into the backseat beside his wife. He was quite a large man, not corpulent but tall, barrel chested and muscular. His brown hair was close cropped, with gray beginning to dust his temples. In contrast to his imposing physique, his manner seemed approachable and friendly, though in a quiet way.

Delia was similarly affable, but more gregarious than her husband. “So tell me,” Delia asked as we got under way, “what kind of place is Smugglers’ Notch?”

Glancing up at the rearview mirror to make eye contact, I noticed Delia’s striking hair: seven or eight tightly woven braids pulled back and tied together at the nape of her neck. Her style was clearly natural; no weaves for this woman.

“It’s a great place,” I replied. “I used to handle all their transportation needs in the ’80s, so I’ve spent a lot of time up there. I believe it was started by Tom Watson, the founder of IBM. Apparently he had a fondness for the European ski villages he used to frequent and wanted to create something similar in the United States. And that’s just what it is: an all-inclusive little ski village. Once you’re up there, a car is really not required; the resort has everything you need.”

“Sounds great,” Delia said. “We’re staying for three days. It’s all free, because they’re going to try to sell us a condo time-share. That’s how we take most of our vacations. You just have to sit in a room at some point and listen to a one- or two-hour pitch. We’ve gone on cruises this way, and even to foreign countries.”

“Holy mackerel,” I said. “That’s fantastic! I’d sit in a room for a few hours and watch paint dry if it got me a free vacation.” I paused to think about what I’d just said. “Not that I ever take vacations, to be honest,” I clarified.

Even with the low nighttime visibility, my customers were cooing over the classic wooden homes that line Route 15 as we cruised through Essex town and then Jericho and Underhill.

“You know what, sweet thing?” Darnell said to his wife. “I think I could really live up here. This is really nice.”

“Do you folks have the kind of work that would allow you to relocate?” I asked.

“Well, I’m a nurse,” Delia replied. “And my husband is a dentist. So I guess it’s possible.”

This made me smile, the thought of Darnell the dentist. Dude had fingers the size of sausages. Open wide, indeed.

“Is there any chance you might actually buy one of the time-shares at Smuggs?” I asked.

“I’d say none whatsoever,” Delia replied, “but we did end up buying a Las Vegas time-share a few years ago totally on the spur of the moment. We were there with my son and a couple of his teammates. He played college football for Michigan, and they had recently competed in the Rose Bowl. Anyway, the price was $40,000, which gave you the place for two weeks every year. We were like, sorry, but no way. The salesman went to talk to his manager and came back and said, ‘OK, how about $20,000?’ We still declined, but when we were checking out the next day, the manager cornered us, dropping the price to $5000! My son said that was crazy to turn down, so we took it, and we use it every year.”

The radio was playing softly in the background. For some reason, I had on WOKO, the country station. “Oh, man — I love this song,” Darnell said. “It’s by my favorite group, Montgomery Gentry.”

Chuckling, I said, “I’ve got to say, that’s unusual. I mean, how many black guys are into country music?”

Delia laughed and said, “You got that right. We’re all used to it by now, but his friends do rib him mercilessly.”

I said, “I was watching YouTube this afternoon, and I found this great 1967 concert by one of my favorite groups, Sam & Dave.”

“I have no idea,” Darnell said.

Sam & Dave,” I repeated. “C’mon — ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’,’ ‘You Don’t Know Like I Know.’ I mean, ‘Soul Man,’ for Pete’s sake.”

I didn’t know many African Americans growing up in the de facto segregated New York City of my youth, but I can’t tell you how much the black music of the ’60s and ’70s meant to me as a teenager. A troubled kid, I was having a devil of a time staying connected to my own spirit; without the music produced by the incomparable black artists of the era, I doubt I would have stood a chance. I guess that’s why it’s called “soul music,” and why I harbor a lifelong affection and respect for African American culture.

“Coming to you, on a dusty road,” Delia began to sing.

“Good lovin’, I got a truckload,” I joined in.

“Oh, yeah — ‘Soul Man,’” Darnell interjected with a low chuckle. “My parents used to play that song when I was a teenager.”

After Darnell and Delia checked in, and I dropped them in their condo, I left the building and looked around in the moonlight before returning to the cab. I saw a tree bedecked with red and orange leaves and walked over to pick a few choice ones off the ground. Bringing home some autumn leaves is a yearly ritual for me. It keeps me in touch with my soul, and the soul of Vermont. That, and Sam & Dave.

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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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