My customer was right on the money: I didn’t need the house number; the paint job was sufficient. I pulled to a stop, and a woman quickly emerged from the teal-and-lavender two-story building. This color trend began a while back, initiated by a landlord in the Old North End with a number of properties and a playful sense of design. Now, bold and brightly hued houses dot the entire neighborhood.
As she made her way out to my cab, I noticed the woman holding up her arm at an awkward angle, as if in some discomfort. She was middle-aged and had faded strawberry-blonde hair and practical eyeglasses — the old-fashioned kind, devoid of a designer imprimatur. She was fit and trim, though; it appeared she’d taken care of herself through the years, this current setback notwithstanding.
Settling into the rear seat, the woman said, “The emergency room, please.”
“Yeah, you told me,” I replied.
Newer customers often don’t realize that their driver is the same dude who earlier took their call. In my company, along with driving and answering the phone, I’m also the CEO, CFO and assistant director of human resources. (I’ve been doing such a knock-up job in this last role, I’m seriously considering promoting myself to full director. That decision will, of course, have to await the yearly performance review, but I remain cautiously optimistic.)
“My goodness,” I said over my shoulder, “it looks like you injured your arm.”
“Yes, I sure did. Yesterday I took a crazy fall, and it’s still hurting me today. In fact, it’s worse. So I figured I better have somebody look at it.”
“You missing work or anything?”
“Nope, I’m actually a justice of the peace, so my work schedule is all over the place — well, mostly weekends, as you could imagine.”
“What a cool job! So, how many weddings do you officiate in a typical week? I suppose, like you say, it varies.”
“It does. In the busy season — June and September are huge months — I’ve had as many as six in a good week. I get a lot of out-of-state folks, and many of them are gay couples.”
“Of course, I forgot about that. What a great thing — I mean, for the couples, for you, for the state economy. It must be an amazing experience for those couples, especially the ones who have been together for years and never thought they’d see the day.”
“It is amazing. It’s humbling to bear witness. Often I’ll meet with the couple when they arrive in Vermont a day or so before the ceremony. The first thing they’ll ask me is about the ‘rules’ up here. You know, like can they hold hands publicly or kiss? When I tell them about Vermont’s live-and-let-live attitude, I’ve seen some grown men break into tears. Especially the ones who come from places where that would literally put their lives in danger.”
Live and let live. Her words echoed in my head as we drove slowly by a small house on Park Street. Out front, a makeshift pergola had been erected on the greenway, and everywhere were flowers, flags, candles and all manner of handwritten notes and cards. The previous week, social worker Kathleen Smith was murdered in this house, her home. This spontaneous outpouring from the many people whose lives she had touched felt transformative, as if their expressions of love directed toward Kathleen’s spirit had the power to cleanse and heal this locus of unspeakable violence. While we are a generally accepting bunch here in Vermont, we are not shielded from the darkness.
Lightening the mood in the cab, I asked, “Tell me about a gay-marriage ceremony. What’s it like?”
My customer chuckled softly. “It’s the same as any marriage ceremony. Well, maybe there is one difference. When I pronounce them married and say, ‘You may now kiss your spouse,’ the emotion can be overwhelming — not a dry eye in the house. For many gay and lesbian couples, this represents their first time expressing their love in a public setting. It’s quite moving.”
As the woman spoke, I could sense her warmth and compassion, and understood immediately why she was a much-in-demand justice of the peace. “Wow, what a great job you have,” I said. “It seems to really fit you. Have you been at it for long?”
“I have, but it’ll be over in a few weeks. At least for the next couple of years.”
“What do you mean? It seems like you really love it.”
“Oh, I do, but I didn’t get through the Democratic caucus this last cycle. Justice of the peace is an elected position, and the Democrat and Republican caucuses each nominate 15 candidates for the 15 positions. In the general elections, I’ve always received the third- or fourth-highest vote totals, but I guess that track record wasn’t enough to get me past the caucus this year.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” I said. “I think I’ve never even bothered to vote for the justices of the peace. I just skip it on the ballot. It always seemed nuts to me that we vote for this — the position doesn’t seem political at all.”
“Well, be that as it may,” she said, “this past caucus, a number of older women who had served as justices years ago came out of retirement and showed up with groups of friends to vote for them. I was blindsided and got shut out.”
“Could you run as an independent or, like, a write-in?”
“Nope, that’s the thing — there’s a catch-22. You have to file as an independent in June, a couple of months before the caucus. I had no idea I’d run into the challenge I had at the caucus.”
“Well, then,” I commiserated with my new favorite and soon-to-be-exjustice of the peace, “that just plain sucks.”
“Yup, that nicely sums it up.”
I dropped my customer at the emergency room, and three hours later, she called me to bring her home. This time she climbed into the shotgun seat, her arm bundled in a sling. My empathetic grimace was met by a broad smile.
“Good news!” she said. “It’s a bad sprain but not broken.”
“Sprained but not broken,” I echoed the diagnosis. “Has a ring to it, wouldn’t ya say?”
“Yup,” she said with a giggle. She was amazingly lighthearted, I thought, given the circumstances. “Sprained but not broken — that’s me!”