Was graduation weekend somewhat subdued this year, or has the ongoing financial recession begun to skew my impressions? I can check if I want to: In near-OCD fashion, I keep daily tallies going back at least two decades. If this year’s commencement celebration indeed generated less business than those of years past, the figures in my archives will corroborate. But I’m not checking; I fear the worst, and therefore choose to maintain the classic ostrich head-in-the-sand posture. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it works for me.
In the midst of the possibly-less-busy-than-normal festivities, I picked up a sandy-haired man wearing a black cap and blue dungarees. If John Denver had not fatally crashed his single-prop jet off the coast of Monterey 12 years ago, it occurred to me, this is how he might have looked in 2009.
“Do you know where Nash Place is?” my customer asked, settling into the shotgun seat.
I replied, “Brother, at this point I know where everything is,” and off we drove.
“Did you grow up here?” he asked right off, giving himself away as a townie.
“Nope, I didn’t,” I replied, repeating the answer I’ve given a few times a night for nearly 30 years. “I grew up in Brooklyn, but I’ve lived here pretty much my entire adult life.” Pausing for comedic effect, I added, “Although there are many who would dispute whether I’ve gotten there yet.”
“Well, I grew up in town — on South Winooski close to Howard. My folks still own the home.”
In my experience, born-and-bred Burlingtonians carry a distinct pride in their Queen City heritage. Yes, they’re also Vermonters — with all that implies — but they hail from B-Town, baby, and that’s something special. Maybe that’s why these true locals tend to work their birthplace into the conversation within the first few minutes of hitting the taxi seat.
“So, this is it,” I said as we scooted up Pearl Street. “The students will all be gone come Monday.”
“Yup,” he said. “It’s a shame more of ’em won’t be able to make a go of it staying in Vermont. I’m a real estate appraiser, and I see this time and time again. Local kids find good-paying jobs in Boston or New York, and then they move back here ’cause they miss it. But there’s the Catch-22 — they can’t find work up here that pays enough to support a mortgage.”
As someone obsessed with words and language, I laugh when I hear people misuse the phrase “Catch-22.” The same applies to “irony”; I know guys who use that word to mean just about anything. I would never correct them — I prefer to keep my friends — but mentally I’m like a British schoolmarm.
“I’ll tell you what’s a big part of the problem,” my passenger continued. “Now, don’t get me wrong, because I have nothing against lesbians.”
Here we go, I thought. Those who truly have nothing against fill-in-the-group never have to say, “I have nothing against fill-in-the-group.” They only say that because, on some level, they are embarrassed by their own prejudice. It’s a deft little mental maneuver, but it doesn’t fool anybody. It’s the verbal equivalent of a bald guy with a comb-over.
“For instance, take the Five Sisters neighborhood — you know where that is, right?”
“Like I said,” I replied listlessly, “I know where —”
“Right, OK,” he said. “Well, there’s a number of streets in that neighborhood where lesbians have, like, taken over. Every time a house comes up for sale, the word gets around among the lesbians, and one of ’em outbids other buyers by maybe 10, 20 thousand.”
“So, your point is…?” I asked tentatively, not sure if I really wanted to know.
“How can regular families afford a home when they’re being outbid by the lesbians?”
Nash Place approached — thank the Lord, because I was so looking forward to dropping this man off. I figured I’d better say something, because silence implies assent and the time has long past — if it ever existed — when we could afford to let blind prejudice pass unchallenged. Besides, I have a warm spot in my heart for Burlington’s lesbian community. In many ways they’re at the center of the vibrant city this town has become over the years.
“Look, brother,” I said as we eased to a stop in front of his apartment. “There are so many things wrong with what you’re saying that I don’t know where to begin. But how about the basic fallacy: If by ‘family’ you’re talking about a couple raising a kid or two, how does that not apply to lesbians? Some of the coolest, not to mention most stable, families in town are anchored by lesbian couples.”
“No, sure — I hear you there,” my customer said, trying to backtrack. “But you’re missing my point. Like I said, I have — ”
“Yeah, I know,” I interrupted with a sigh. I had to stop myself from banging my head on the dashboard. “You have nothing against lesbians.”