Everything slows down in January, so my hopes were not high for the evening Amtrak arrival. Perhaps a stray student, or some local who extended his or her Christmas vacation — such were my wishful thoughts. Like a deer scratching the frozen tundra in quest of a few withered shrubs, I’m forced to grind it out through these sparse periods to maintain at least a meager cash flow.
When the train chugged to a stop, just a handful of travelers disembarked. Luckily, one of them needed a cab, and I was Johnny-on-the-spot, helping him load his two suitcases and one duffel bag into my vehicle. After I offered, the man took a seat in the front with me.
He looked about 30 and wore tan pants and a bulky green sweater under a dungaree jacket. On his head sat a white N.Y. Giants baseball cap. It irks me that they’re called the New York Giants — they play their home games in New Jersey, for crying out loud. But that’s just residual angst from my New York roots; now, like all good New Englanders, I’m a Pats fan.
“I need to get to — hang on a sec, let me get the exact address.” The man extracted a piece of white paper from a jacket pocket. “OK — it’s 11 East Allen Street in Winooski.”
“Eleven East Allen,” I repeated as we got underway. “Yeah, all right — that would be the Winooski Block. That’s a cool old apartment house.”
“Block” has a different meaning up here from in New York City, where the word describes a square or rectangle of homes formed by the intersection of streets and avenues. In Vermont, a “block” refers to an oversized apartment building. I have the sense that the construction of a substantial edifice of this type was a source of great pride to the original owner. Large block letters toward the top of the Winooski building’s façade read, WINOOSKI BLOCK, 1867. A carved white eagle perches above the words, its semi-spread wings a monarch’s robe as it majestically gazes down on us. I think that says it all.
“If you say so,” the man replied. “I rented the place sight unseen. I had to get out of a bad situation in Rutland.”
“Is that where you’re from?”
“No, I actually left a Wall Street job — nothing major, just a pencil pusher. Anyway, that was about a month ago. I came up to move in with a woman I met on the Internet. I guess I knew how risky that was, but I needed to get out of New York before I totally cracked up. The living situation in Rutland was nothing like this woman had described it. Things went from bad to worse real quick. Suffice it to say there were random people hanging around and drugs I’d never heard of before. That’s when I decided to give it a go in the Burlington area.”
Slicing through the cold night air, we sped along Route 15, passing the fairgrounds and the glass-walled Harley-Davidson dealership. A row of the big choppers — known affectionately as “hogs” by generations of bikers — glowed in the illuminated showroom, glowering at the passing traffic like so many caged tigers. With my over-active imagination, I swear I could hear the inimitable chunka-chunka of their gleaming V-Twin engines in idle — staying warm, awaiting the spring.
Back to reality, I asked, “Do you have any people in town? You know — I mean, friends or relatives.”
“No, not really. I’m a little familiar with Burlington, though. I was a Deaniac in 2003 and lived up here for a couple of months. The campaign rented a big old house for the volunteers located on — what was it? — Intervale Avenue, maybe?”
“That’s cool. Man, Howard Dean really gave it a run for the money for a while. You got to give the guy credit. Hey, maybe you can connect with some of the old campaign folks from back then.”
“Maybe,” he agreed, though it seemed more out of conversational politeness than any real conviction.
“You got any work lined up?”
“No, I just want to get settled in Vermont. I’ll probably just take a Mickey D’s job to start out. The main thing is, I’m outta New York, and for that I’m grateful.”
For the remainder of the ride, I pointed out landmarks, like the Fort and St. Michael’s College. As we came down the hill, I told him about the revitalization of downtown Winooski and all the grand new buildings along the town’s waterfront.
The Winooski Block rose ahead. “Let me take you around the back,” I said. “I believe that’s where the entrances to the apartments are located.”
We got the bags out of the taxi, and the guy thanked me and paid the fare. Handing me a nice tip, he added, “Thanks for doing the tour-guide thing on the trip over.”
“Oh, no problem.” I smiled at him. “I appreciate you saying that, though. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m being a typical overbearing cabbie.”
“Well, I want to learn everything about this town. You see, I want to be here for the rest of my life. There really is no Plan B.”