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Burlington hackie : River Valley edition : Sunday, 25 August 2019 00:34 EDT : a service of The Public Press
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The human mind treats a
new idea the same way the
body treats a strange
protein; it rejects it.
– P. B. Medawar

Burlington hackie

By Stephen Morris

     by Stephen Morris

Vermont Today logo

There's a lingering romance to driving a taxicab. As captain of his own ship, the cabbie cruises through the sea of humanity, always the observer, and occasionally the dispenser of sage counsel. The "seen-it-all, streetwise cabbie" ranks right up there with the "whore with a heart of gold" as an icon of American culture.

There are a few disconnects to the hackie concept. First, for most Vermonters living in rural areas, taxicabs are far less relevant to life than, say, a good set of jumper cables. Many Vermonters experience taxis primarily when they travel to big cities. This, likely as not, involves an encounter with a recent immigrant from the Third World.

Jernigan Pontiac is the exception, the throwback. Born and raised in New York City (he likes egg creams, so Brooklyn is a good guess as to his borough of origin), he is familiar with the streets. He has plied the paved roads of Chittenden County for 25 years as an independent cabbie. Along the way he began observing and recording. The result is a bi-weekly column that appears in Seven Days, the alternative weekly. "Hackie 2: Perfect Autumn" is his second book-length collection.quiet zone
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Pontiac's world is small and local at a time when intensely local is where it's at – especially in Vermont where the entire state is small and local. People in Vermont take the "localvore challenge" and pursue the "small-mart revolution." His brief, straightforward vignettes concern the subtle adventures that occur within his cab. Luckily for us, his cab is a microcosm of the world.

"It's my job to drive people safely. It's not organ replacement surgery, but it's what I do and I take it seriously," says Pontiac.
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The author is not into any form of aggrandizement, so hold-ups, violent crimes, and chase scenes rarely, if ever, take place. There are, however, a litany of characters that come from central casting. There are the co-eds who really should know better when they go to a party in the sleazy part of town. The ne'er-do-well, alcoholic son of a father who ne'er does wrong. The little lady from South America who works two menial jobs, sends home money to Brazil, and still thinks America is great. The vulnerable runaway teen. There are also lots of drunk college students. An unfortunate fact of a hackie's life is that the most active time for fares is when the bars disgorge their patrons at 2 a.m., creating an instant cab shortage.

Pontiac loves Vermont, and Burlington is his place. Like so many of us, he is a weather junkie and most of his pieces contain a brief report: "Despite the bright sun, my window was tightly shut. It was one of those bitter Burlington January days – close to zero with a relentless wind shrieking off the lake. The first thing that struck me was the insufficiency of the taller girl's jacket."

Pontiac's observations are augmented by frequent, but spare, doses of humor and wisdom. "I've never met a cliché I didn't like," he confesses. And he uses them well.

He also is not averse to waxing philosophical, such as when he describes the alcoholic son mentioned previously: "Extended substance abuse does a number on the human core. I've heard the phrase 'soul murder' used in this regard, but I don't buy it. I don't believe the soul can be killed. But it sure as hell can be hijacked and held hostage."

His cab becomes a window to a larger world. A fare to the Ethan Allen firing range leads to a discussion with his rider, a gung-ho soldier, and vintage hackie conclusion: "Though I didn't see things his way, I was actually glad, for his sake, to experience the man's certainty. Everyone in the country has a stake in this issue, but for a person to be called upon to serve in Iraq, it's literally a matter of life or death."

Pontiac pontificates frequently on the eternal battle of the sexes. He says "The relationship bonding of a man and a woman in a positive way for longer than 72 hours is, to me, one of life's genuine miracles."

He is not, however, immune to the allure of the fair sex, and his powers of observation dominate his libido. Thelma, short and "utterly curvaceous," wears a mini-skirt and a "skimpy, scarlet camisole" that "does everything it was designed to do." Pontiac puts the situation into perspective, saying "like Jerry Lewis on his Labor Day Telethon, a woman can oversell the appeal. Thelma was trying way too hard. When the bid for male attention goes to these extremes, it's probably a safe bet that it's not about sexual desire."

Jernigan Pontiac does have one flaw as a writer; he often takes the reader one thought too far. In one haunting episode he brings a young street person named Janice to a rendezvous with a "man in a van" they are to meet in the parking lot of Shaw's on Shelburne Road. On the short ride between downtown and Shaw's, Pontiac captures the girl's desperate plight through simple observations. Her worldly possessions are contained in a frayed back pack.

The situation in the parking lot suggests trouble. They find the van. It is driven by a tattooed man 15 years the girl's senior. As she grabs her backpack, the girl asks: "Do you think he's a good person?"

Suddenly, Hackie is in a moral and ethical dilemma. Should he become part of the drama, or should he remain the observer? He is neither counselor, parent, judge or even friend. He is the cab driver. Here's how Pontiac the writer handles the scene:

"No Janice, I don't think so was the answer that popped into my head. But I suppressed that and said, 'How can I say? I've just met him for two minutes. Just take care of yourself, whatever happens.'"

He then notes: "The saddest look washed over her face. For travelers on the wings of fate, unfortunately, mercy can be hard to come by." As she reaches for the tattered backpack the girl says: "I hope he doesn't hurt me."

It's a searing moment. These are the mean streets of Burlington. Perhaps they are not as mean as Detroit, Calcutta or Bogota, but it's new territory for people whose Vermont-view is dominated by black and white Holsteins and red and gold maples. After bringing this gritty scene to its natural conclusion, Pontiac dissipates the drama by editorializing on the personal impact of the girl's statement.

But, this is a small, technical criticism that does not diminish what is remarkable, and enjoyable about "Hackie" in general, and "Hackie 2: Perfect Autumn" in particular. Every other week Jernigan Pontiac finds a way to bring us behind the wheel to see a new sliver of life that can't be experienced anywhere else but in his domain. For that he deserves entry to the pantheon of the Vermont Hall of Letters. We can only hope that Hackie keeps truckin'.

Stephen Morris is founder of The Public Press (www.thepublicpress.com). He is also editor and publisher of Green Living: A Practical Journal for Friends of the Environment.

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