When the blue-eyed man jumped into my cab, I thought, “Well, it’s about time.”
This was a guy I had noticed on the downtown streets for years — usually at night, hanging in front of the music clubs while engrossed in animated sidewalk conversation. His graying hair was helter-skelter — balding but shoulder length, and often fastened carelessly in a ponytail with plenty of unruly escapees. He had to be in his forties — older, anyway, than the twenty-to-thirtysomethings who compose the bulk of the post-dinner crowd. So I’d always been curious: What was his story? I am, you see, the self-appointed Cataloguer of All Things Burlington, with a particular emphasis on the fauna, human division.
“I am Mischa,” he told me from the shotgun seat, extending a hand. If the name didn’t do it, the accent did: This was a Russian expat.
“I am Jernigan,” I reciprocated, matching his formality, and we shook on it.
Détente accomplished, he said, “Can you take me to Northgate, brother?”
I said, “That I can,” and off we drove. “Do you work downtown, man?” I asked right off the bat, anxious to fill this glaring gap in my city survey. “’Cause I see you around all the time.”
Mischa smiled and chuckled quietly. I sensed that he, too, had noticed me cruising the streets behind the wheel of my taxicab. After 25-plus years at this, I suppose I now qualify as a Queen City fixture. “I am working sometimes,” he replied. “I am sound man.”
It took me a few seconds to process the phrase. Was Mischa asserting his mental or physical stability? Figuring it out, I said, “Oh, OK — so you’re doing technical work for bands?”
“Yes, I’m sound man.”
“How’d you get into that line of work?”
“Well, it started when I lived in Russia in the 1980s — the U.S.S.R., it was then. I was musician, but someone recruited me to help organize a big music fest. This was even a few years before glasnost, so this was very radical idea at the time. So, I put together the sound system. I had to build everything from scratch, I remember.”
“But you say you started as a musician? What kinda stuff were you playing back in the U.S.S.R.? I guess this would have been the ’70s?”
“Oh, brother — we were playing the classic rock. Maybe the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater.”
“That’s just fantastic,” I said. “You know what, man? I was doing the same thing, at the same time — well, maybe a little earlier — but in New York City. But, like, did you sing the songs in English? How did that work?”
Mischa shook his head and laughed. “Well, put it this way: sort of.”
We sped along North Avenue, passing the graveyard and the old orphanage. I’m a late convert to the North Avenue route. Until recently, I persisted with the Northern Connector on these Northgate runs until, finally, the North Champlain Street access proved too frustrating for a cabbie who hates to hit the brakes. A few years back, the city installed a series of speed bumps on that road that can only be described as a tribute to Dolly Parton.
“Have you worked on any big shows lately?”
“Let’s see … I helped out at the Belizbeha reunion at the Flynn a couple of months ago. I am just, let us say, reestablishing my professional credentials.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I had some trouble with the booze. It got worse and worse, and it started to affect my work. This is job, you know, where the pressure is high — everyone is depending on you to get things right. Anyway, it took me a while — quite a while — but I am now what they call ‘on the wagon.’ I am starting to get work again. People have faith in me and I appreciate this.”
A recurring thought popped into my head: If there is a person who has escaped this world unscathed, I have yet to meet him or her. This man’s story hit me where I live. The nature of the demon is beside the point, because the end result is the same: You never forget landing on your knees. And then, maybe, grace shines its light on you and leads you back.
We pulled into the vast housing complex that is Northgate and found our way to the home of the sound man. As he counted out the taxi fare, I said, “I imagine it feels great to be plying your trade again. And I bet the bands are happy to have you back on board.”
Mischa looked up from his counting, and I could tell he was thinking about my comment. He said, “Yes, that is well and that is good. But all I want now is to live and be a good father to my children.” He smiled, his blue eyes locked on my brown ones. “This is what I have learned,” he added. “Everything else does not really matter.”