"Where you at, Jernigan?” The voice on the other end of the cellphone belonged to a long-time regular customer, a man immediately identifiable by his distinctive New Orleans drawl. Around town he’s known as “Mississippi” or, more often, just “Sippi.” I guess he grew up on the Gulf Coast of that state, right on the border with Louisiana, and landed in Vermont about 25 years ago.
It’s said he banged around the Big Easy all through his teenage years, along the way becoming more than competent on blues harmonica. But who knows? It’s nearly impossible to pin down a biography of Sippi, the kind of guy with whom myth and fact blend like a jambalaya.
“I’m around, Sippi,” I replied as I zigzagged through Shelburne Road rush-hour traffic. “Whaddaya need, brother?”
“I’m goin’ home, man. Could ya pick me up at Finnigan’s?”
“Sure thing — I’ll be there in about 10.”
“I need to make a stop at Pearl Street Beverage, if that all right.”
“No problem, man. See ya then.”
Gee, Mississippi is slurring his words tonight, I thought, hustling over to Finnigan’s Pub. The guy enjoys his drink or two after work, but I’d never seen him three sheets to the wind. Well, two sheets maybe, but not three.
When I pulled up in front of the bar, Sippi was standing there engrossed in conversation with Short Al, one of his fellow habitués and another sometime customer of mine. These are the kind of men who wouldn’t be caught dead in one of the student bars but spend most of their downtime in one or another of the Burlington joints that still cater to the locals — rugged old waterholes like Esox, T. Ruggs, Franny O’s and Finnigan’s Pub.
Catching my eye, Sippi wound things up with his associate and began moving slowly toward my taxi. He’s short and stocky with a cylinder-shaped torso, like a small garbage can with two stubby arms. With those arms extended in full tightrope-walker position to serve as ballast, he gingerly negotiated the curbside ice and snow. When he reached the taxi door, he flicked away his Lucky Strike cigarette and plopped down in the front seat beside me. The wistful look on his face was entirely out of character for this perennially jolly fellow.
As I hit the gas, he announced, “Well, the cat’s dead.”
“Oh, you’re kidding, man. When did this happen?”
“Last night. Yup, Frenchy’s gone. Skipped work today, man — out of respect.”
“I’m so sorry to hear this. How’s the dog taking it?”
Contrary to popular belief, not to mention most cartoons, not all cats and dogs are enemies. Sippi owned a big old hound dog of some indeterminate pedigree that got along famously with his feline housemate.
“Ronald don’t know what’s goin’ on,” Sippi explained. “He jus’ moping around. I don’t think he fully grasps, like, the situation.”
“Well,” I offered, “he is a dog.”
I regretted saying that as soon as it came out. When someone’s grieving, it’s neither helpful nor compassionate to get logical with him.
“Oh, Ronald’s a dog, all right,” Sippi said. “But he no ordinary dog. That hound knows a thing or two, let me tell you. Soon enough, he’ll figure out that Frenchy ain’t around no more.”
We pulled into the parking lot at Pearl Street Beverage, and I waited while Sippi went in to buy his brandy. Five minutes later he returned to the taxi empty-handed and said, “They shut me out, man.” He looked genuinely hurt. The guy was having a bad day, no doubt. “Can you believe that? First time in my life.”
“Well, you know how that goes, Sippi. If somebody appears even a little drunk, they’re under strict instructions not to ring ’em up.”
In that moment, I seriously considered offering to go into the store and make the buy for him. That’s something I’ve never once done for a customer, and don’t think I haven’t been asked. It’s illegal, but, more than that, it’s simply where I feel I must draw the line. It’s one thing to safely drive intoxicated folks from place to place; it’s another to actively assist them in their habit by buying the booze. Contemplating the karmic implications, I came to my conclusion: No brandy for Mississippi tonight.
We continued on to Sippi’s apartment in the Old North End. “You don’t got that harp on you, do you, man?” I asked as we motored down North Union.
“Sure do,” he replied. “You wanna hear some?”
“What do you think, brother? I mean, the Pope — he’s still Catholic, right?”
Sippi shook his head and chuckled, and it was wonderful to see that big, crooked smile back on his face. “All right, then,” he said, extracting his harmonica from a hip pocket. He drew it up to his mouth and began blowing a slow blues riff. It was sweet, low and lugubrious: a funeral dirge for Frenchy the cat. I’d never even met the late feline, but still, I found myself a little choked up as we pulled into Sippi’s driveway.
“Well, brother,” Sippi said with a wink as he pocketed his harp, “that’s the way we do it in N’Orleans.”