It was the tail end of a hectic Saturday night, and a longtime customer was on the line. There are regulars and there are regulars. I have driven Bonnie no less than once a week since cellphones were the size of home phones. The woman leads an unconventional life: Not to put too fine a point on it, she’s a drinker and a party girl. It’s a lifestyle that entails a lot of cab rides, day and night, from locations far and wide. But judge not lest ye be judged, right? More to the point, however she chooses to live her life, Bonnie is good people, and I dig her.
“So, where exactly are you, Bonnie?” I asked.
“I’m standing on Pearl Street in front of the rehab or nursing home. You know — just up from the liquor store? It’s freezing out here, Jernigan!”
“OK, sure — that would be 300 Pearl. Stay warm, girl. Stamp your feet or something. I’ll be there in a couple minutes.”
I scooped up a very appreciative Bonnie, and we headed toward her apartment on Pine Street. As we passed Rite Aid, I thought I heard a whistle. (My teenage years as a rock drummer left me half-deaf, but, even with the windows closed, the radio playing and a chatty customer, I can hear a taxi whistle with the acuity of a Great White Owl.) Sure enough, as I tapped the brakes, the rear-view mirror revealed a tall young man waving at me from the curb.
“Hey, Bonnie,” I said, “is it cool with you if I grab this other fare? I’ll put him in the front with me.”
“Absolutely,” she replied. “Make your money while you can.”
I pulled over to the side and clicked on the four-ways. The guy jogged up to the passenger door as I lowered the window. He said, “Thanks, dude. You’re a lifesaver. I gotta get to Mansfield Ave.”
Mansfield was the opposite direction from Bonnie’s place, but before I could even ask, she said, “No problem, Jernigan. Take him first. I’m in no rush.”
He hit the shotgun seat, listening to his iPod on tiny headphones while he sat there — what else? — texting. The next moment, an actual call came through. “Duuude,” the young man berated his friend on the other end of the line, “I told ya I was booking back to the apartment . . . OK, OK — I’ll meetcha at Ally’s place on Greene Street.”
He turned to face me. “Dude, dude — leave me off here. Change of plans. I’m not goin’ta Mansfield. Thanks for the ride.”
“No problem,” I replied. “It’ll be five bucks.”
“Five bucks?” he shot back. “Don’t try to hustle me — I’m from New York. We only went a few blocks. That can’t be five bucks.”
“I’m not hustling you,” I explained calmly. “That’s what the fare is.”
“This is bullshit. I’m not paying ya.”
As fate would have it, we had pulled over in front of the Pearl Street Mobil station, and idling at the pumps was one of Burlington’s finest. “Look man,” I said. “There’s a cop right there, so could you just pay the five dollars? I mean — c’mon.”
“He’s only trying to make a buck out here, for Pete’s sake.” Good old Bonnie had entered the fray, squarely on my side. “I know this cabbie, and he’d never, like, rip anybody off.”
“No, let’s take this to the cop. Let’s do that. I’m calling your bluff, dude.”
Over to the cruiser we walked, not exactly hand in hand. The officer’s window was open, and, before my disgruntled customer could get a word out, he said, “Pay the cabbie the fare.”
“Wait, wait — but he wants, like, five dollars and we only . . .”
“There’s no ‘buts,’” my new friend in blue cut him off. “And did you say ‘five dollars’? That’s what you’re fighting about? How much did you drop in the bars tonight, son?”
“That’s not the point,” the young man whined.
“I’m afraid that is the point,” said the officer. “Pay the man.” With that he raised his window, judgment rendered.
That was dazzling, I thought. Talk about instant justice. Our new president should appoint this guy envoy to the Middle East.
“Well, screw this,” the young man said. “Take me to Mansfield, then. I’m going home. How much more would that be?”
“Eight bucks total,” I told him.
He returned to the shotgun seat and we continued down the road. You could cut the tension in the cab with a knife, though I hoped knives wouldn’t enter the picture. When we reached his apartment, he dropped a $5 bill on the armrest and said, “That’s all I’m paying you. I’m outta here, chump.”
Fifteen years ago, I would have been out of the taxi and after him like a shot; 10 years ago, I would have called the police; five years ago I would have just driven away, but cursed and steamed the rest of the night. Now I let it go. I have come to understand that it has nothing to do with me. It’s just an angry young man and a few bucks.
“I don’t know how you take it,” Bonnie spoke up from the back. “I was ready to go. If you said the word, I would have jumped out with you and kicked his ass.”
“I’m sure you would have, Bonnie,” I said with a chuckle, “and I love you for that.”