Glancing up at the rear-view mirror, I recognized the attractive young woman sitting and laughing with her boyfriend in the back of my taxi. When you run into someone outside the usual context, it can throw you, but not with this woman. The giveaway was those killer brown eyes, a sight worth beholding.
“Well, then” I began speaking before either of them could give me the destination “I’ll take the tofu scramble, light on the pesto.”
Renata’s head snapped forward to look at her cabdriver as her brain instantaneously performed the recalibration. “OK, OK,” she said with a girlish giggle. “It’s Jernigan, right? From the restaurant.”
For years now, I’ve gotten together at Penny Cluse for semi-regular lunch dates with my pal Erik. This Burlington eatery a hip, moderately priced breakfast and lunch spot has been a hit since its doors opened 10 years ago. Erik and I dig everything about the place, especially the tasty food. In the spirit of full disclosure, let’s also place high on our favorites list some of the prettiest waitresses in town, half of whom, like Renata, seem to be actresses, dancers or in some other fashion connected with the arts.
“Yup,” I said with a grin, “the one and only.”
“The light pesto tofu scramble who else could it be?” she said, vigorously nodding in comic acknowledgment of her superior abilities of deduction. “Tom, this is Jernigan. He’s a regular at the Cluse with Erik, who I think I’ve told you about. You know the writing teacher?”
One of my favorite things about life in Burlington is the one or two degrees of separation. Everybody knows everybody or knows somebody who does. To some, this feels claustrophobic; to me, it’s one, big, most-of-the-time happy family.
“Great to meet you,” Tom said, reaching over the seat for a handshake. “We’re going to Howard Street, by the way.”
“Jeez, thanks,” I said, hitting the accelerator. “We woulda sat here all night.”
As we rolled south, Renata said, “It’s so funny that you’re buds with Erik. How long have you actually known him?”
“My goodness,” I reminisced, “it goes back to the mid-’80s when I was running a number of cabs. Erik drove for me just out of college, I guess it would have been. You know who else worked for me back then? Page McConnell.”
“You’re kidding!” Renata said. “I got, like, a great story about Page, if you’d like to hear it.”
“I’d like nothing better.”
A big smile came over Renata’s face as she straightened up in her seat. “Well,” she began dramatically, “a few years ago I was waitressing at Handy’s Lunch. You know the place on Maple Street?”
“Sure do,” I replied. “That old greasy spoon harkens back to the very beginnings of what became the Handy family commercial empire, I guess you’d have to call it at this point.”
“So, this pleasant guy, maybe around 40, is showing up for lunch every couple of days. There was something about him that I liked, and we would chat a little bit as the weeks went on. Then one day, I notice he’s looking down in the dumps, so I say, ‘You seem a little blue. Having a rough day?’
“He smiles, like, wistfully and he says, ‘Yeah, I am a little out of sorts. My band broke up.’ I say, ‘Really? That’s too bad. I didn’t know you were a musician. How long was your band together?’
‘About 20 years,’ he says.
‘Gee, that’s a long time,’ I say.
‘Yep,’ he says, ‘that it is.’
“So the days go by, and the man continues to stop by for lunch. Finally, one day I’m, like, ‘Hey, I keep forgetting to ask you what was the name of your band?’
“Totally nonchalant, the guy looks up at me from the counter and says, ‘Phish.’”
“Hah!” I called out, slapping the steering wheel. “That sounds exactly like the Page I knew: humble, unaffected it’s as if he actually shuns fame.”
We waited for the light to change at the Howard Street five-way intersection. One of these corner homes was rumored to be or have been a brothel staffed by Eastern European hookers. But what do I know? When it comes to such stuff, I take my cue from that lyric on the old “Hee Haw” TV show: I don’t go around repeating gossip, so you better get it right the first time.
In front of Renata’s apartment, we eased to a stop. Before I could tell them the fare, she said, “Rye bread.”
“Rye bread?” I asked, momentarily baffled by the random carb reference.
“Yup, rye bread. That’s the type of bread you order with your tofu scramble.”
“Renata, you are exactly correct,” I said and thought, These Penny Cluse waitresses aren’t merely the best looking; they are just flat-out the best.