My Life as a Serf
The customer sitting beside me was middle aged, hefty but muscular, and tight skinned — like a Polish sausage squeezed into its intestinal casing. His reddish complexion went beyond ruddy — straight, I’d wager, into high-blood-pressure territory. In his case, however, this didn’t translate into a type A personality. The man was talkative, if not voluble, but he wasn’t overbearing in the least as we motored down to his home in Charlotte.
The decision to accept a Charlotte fare was a close call. It was a busy Friday night, and the rule of thumb when it’s hopping downtown is to stay local. There’s more money to be made in multiple quick runs than in a single out-of-towner who might eat up close to an hour.
But I was weary after a long week’s work, and I knew it would be less tiring to drive this one relatively mellow customer for an hour than to ferry the group on group of tipsy twentysomethings who were the likely alternative. In my earlier years of hacking, when I was possessed of stamina to spare, I might have chosen otherwise; at this stage of my career, the need to pace myself increasingly comes into play.
“Hey, look at that,” my seatmate said, pointing to the left. “Sirloin Saloon’s up and running again.”
“Yeah, I seen that,” I said. “They’re now calling it the Shelburne Steakhouse. I got a buddy who works there.”
“What’s he do — wait or cook?”
“I guess he’s cooking steaks. How about yourself? Do you work in town?”
“I was working up at Goodwill. I really liked it, too. But my boss got back some kind of background check, and I was fired. There were some minor criminal violations from back in the day when I was hitchhiking around the country.”
“That’s too bad. Things come back to haunt ya, don’t they?”
“Yes, they do, and it’s damn hard to get a job these days. And I’m willing to do just about anything.”
Now my curiosity was aroused. How does a guy with no job and few prospects end up in the tony hamlet of Charlotte? I would have to proceed delicately.
I asked, “So, what did ya say, again? You’re down the Thompson’s Point Road?”
“Yup, you got it. Quite a ways, almost to the lake.”
“Is it your place, or do you rent down there?”
“No, it belongs to an old friend of mine and his wife. I take care of it year round. Been doing it for years. You’ll see — it’s a beautiful property. A small compound, really.”
“That’s an interesting gig. So, there’s no rent, but are you responsible for the utilities?”
“No, not really. I just got to keep myself in food.”
“Sweet,” I said, thinking how much I’d like to snag a similar arrangement.
The previous weekend I had driven a strapping young man who was a groundskeeper at Shelburne Farms, where he also resided. In the course of the ride, he shared that he was the third generation of his family to serve the Webbs in this manner, his father and grandfather having preceded him. Call me medieval, but I would welcome a life under the care and protection of a benevolent feudal overlord.
I have a standing agreement with a steady customer who regularly plays the Megabucks: When he hits the jackpot, he’ll take me on as his full-time chauffeur. I’ll live in the servants’ quarters, wash and maintain the Cadillac, wear the cap — the whole bit. Driving Miss Daisy — that’s the life for me!
“So, how do ya know this guy? You said he was your friend?”
“Yeah, it goes back to my early years in Burlington, the early ’80s. Remember the old music club Border?”
“Yup, I sure do. I’ve been in town since ’79.”
“Well, the two of us were sound technicians for the bands that would come through. It was kind of well known that this guy came from a crazy rich family. His father was a shipping magnate or something, with interests all over the world. Anyway, we became friends. Now he’s married with a couple of kids and houses all over the world. I think he offered me this opportunity to caretake his Charlotte home because I was one of the rare people who never asked anything from him.”
We were now cruising down Greenbush Road. This stretch had an affluent feeling, with a full moon spotlighting the passing properties, most of them grand and well kept. I was fascinated by this man’s lifestyle, because there was more I desired to know.
“So, how often do your friend and his family come up to stay?”
“Gosh, not more than a couple of weeks a year. At least, that’s been his pattern the last few years.”
“And when he visits, you have to clear out?’’
“Nope, not at all. I live in the apartment above the garage, so there’s no problem. When he visits he’ll generally scour the entire property, checking to see if everything’s been taken care of. He’ll always find something and bitch to me about it, something out of order.”
My customer paused for a moment and began to chuckle. “Yeah,” he continued, “it’s always something small, some trivial fuckin’ thing. Then, of course, a few hours later he’ll come back to me and apologize. He’s really good people. I mean, we really do get along fine.”
We arrived at his place and pulled into the driveway, entering through a gap in a formidable row of thick evergreen bushes. Movement-activated lights popped on as soon as we approached the three-car garage, and I could see his living quarters on the second floor. I could also make out at least two other buildings, one of which was clearly the main house. This was indeed a “compound” — Vermont-style, anyway.
“See ya next time,” I said, as he counted out the fare.
“Well, I don’t usually take taxis,” he said. “My car’s down. I just got to get the money together to fix it. You know — as soon as I get a job.”