Amidst an economic downturn that we now hope remains merely a recession, this year’s Mardi Gras in Burlington was a godsend for us cabbies. The brainchild of Alan Newman and his Magic Hat Brewery, the annual lollapalooza is a magnet for frozen and depressed northerners in serious need of some wintertime jollies. Thousands of locals and out-of-towners flood the Queen City. And this is my kind of flood: party people with money in their pockets and a penchant for alcoholic beverages. On Saturday, the day of the parade, revelers were wobbling around the downtown streets by late afternoon. Taxi, anyone?
Calls started coming in just past noon, and I stayed out on the streets, ferrying folks in and out of town for the next 15 hours. Even for a young man — which hasn’t described me since the original, non-ironic incarnation of disco — that’s a lot of hours behind the wheel. But that’s hacking. Like Janis Joplin sang, “Get it while you can.”
Just after midnight, I was en route to La Quinta hotel with three boisterous women in the back seat. They were maybe in their mid-thirties. “Do you see this one, girls?” The woman speaking from the center position was holding up one of the many Mardi Gras necklaces nestled on her ample chest. (Hey, I’m just saying.) All of this jewelry had been scored from bead-flingers on floats during the parade.
Glancing up at the rearview mirror, I could see a harlequin-masked image the size of a child’s palm. The face was brightly colored, with carved-out eyes and thin, ruby-red lips. It looked like a small, lovingly crafted piece of folk art, though it was likely mass-produced in China. The visage gave off a spooky, juju feeling that fit, as I thought about it, the spirit of Mardi Gras. The old pageantry celebrates, or at least includes, the dark along with the light.
“That’s real nice, Darlene,” deadpanned her seatmate sitting to her left. “Who’d ya have to flash to get it?”
That was a good one, and all three of them cracked up. Darlene said, “Well, there’s no flashing in Burlington, which is only fair, ’cause, if there was, I’d end up with just about all the goodies!”
Yessiree, Bob, I thought. I liked these women — they were fun loving and they were from somewhere else in Vermont. I could tell from the accents, the clothes — country girls don’t dress like their city counterparts — and, most of all, from their attitudes.
Rural Vermonters have a down-to-earth way about them, never losing track of the sweet irony of human existence. As much as I luxuriate in the natural beauty of the Green Mountains, it was the Vermont people who drew me to this place and have kept me planted here for 30 years.
“So, girls,” I said as we passed the UVM freshmen dorms, “where’d you all come up from?”
Darlene snapped back, “We didn’t come up from anywheres. We came down to Burlington.”
“Yup,” one of her girlfriends chimed in. “We’re Schwant’n girls.”
I got it, but played along. “You mean Swanton, right?”
“Nope, it’s not Swan-ton,” Darlene corrected me, pronouncing it as if speaking the Queen’s English. “It’s Schwant’n.”
Over their laughter, I said, “OK, then, that’s settled. So, anyway, where are the men? I mean, three good-looking women like you — what’s up with that?” I can flirt with the best of them.
“We left our husbands at home,” Darlene explained. “They cramp our style.”
“I can only imagine,” I said. “So you live way up in Swanton — excuse me, Schwant’n. Any farming still going on up there?”
“You bet,” Darlene replied. “My family’s had a dairy operation for generations.”
“Wow, that’s great. How many cows do you milk? What’s the size of the herd?”
“Well, we have about 70 head of Jersey cows. We just can’t figure out what the hell happened to the bodies.”
There ensued a fresh bout of laughter. The friend sitting to her right said, “Darlene, I swear to God you’re killing me. I’m gonna pee in my pants, I mean it.”
“Ayup,” Darlene said with a satisfied smile, “that joke never gets old.”
Wanting to get in on the action, I made up a joke in my head. Turning at Al’s French Frys, we pulled up to the entrance of La Quinta. “Hey, girls,” I said, pivoting in my seat to face the three of them. “Do you know what one Jersey cow said to another?”
Darlene bit and said she didn’t know, and I said, “Yo, remember that awesome hay the farmer put out yesterday? I mean, fuhgetaboutit. Ya know what I’m sayin’? Hey, am I right or what?”
Darlene rolled her eyes and indulged me with “Yup, those are the Jersey cows, all right. That’s just how they talk. At least behind our backs.”
“Ayup, fuhgetaboutit,” I kept up, mixing dialects. “And, Darlene — I really do hope you find the bodies.”