“Would you like to hear a taxi story?” my customer asked from the shotgun seat.
Bob was a husky, older gentleman with a wide, rugged face distinguished by a righteous, bushy moustache. I use the word “gentleman” in its deeper, nontrivial sense.
From the moment he walked up to my cab, took his seat and spoke to me, I recognized a man who carried himself with a quality of grace undiminished by the years. It wasn’t merely self-respect, though that was palpable; I could also sense he respected me, and Aretha’s not the only one who appreciates that.
Bob resided on a beautiful property off the beaten path in Westford. I was driving him into Burlington for a doctor’s appointment; apparently, some eye problems had slowed him down of late.
“Well, that’s a switch,” I replied, chuckling. “Customers usually want to hear my taxi stories. Anyway, lay it on me, Bob. I’d love to hear one.”
“Well, this goes back some time. After the war, my father went into the taxi business in Montpelier. He drove one cab, and I drove the other. Our bread and butter were the evening hours when, just about every night, somebody in town was throwing a party. And here was the key — the liquor store closed at five or six. There were some enterprising Italian women on Barre Street who used to stock up during the day. So, the parties would get going, and inevitably, at some point, they’d run out of booze. We’d get the call and go purchase the stuff from the ladies at their bumped-up price and then deliver to the party, also at a markup. It was win-win-win.”
“That’s great, Bob. After hours have always been the life blood of the taxi industry, haven’t they? In my mind, I can really picture those Barre Street ladies and the parties — the whole thing.”
“Oh, those ladies were something else. We relied on them for information. Forget about the internet. They knew just where the parties were; who was falling down drunk; who was cheating on who — everything we needed to know to do our job best.”
We drove leisurely down Route 128, closing in on Essex Center. The foliage season — which had been splendid this year — was on the wane, the reds and oranges morphing into browns and golds. It was still gorgeous, though. As I explain to the tourists, it’s like sex: all good, including the winding down.
“So Bob,” I said, picking up the conversation, “when did you end up in Burlington?”
“In the ’50s I went to UVM. And then, somehow — don’t ask me how — I got into Yale Law School and came back to Burlington to practice.”
“That’s great,” I said. “What kind of law did you practice?”
“Well, back then there wasn’t too much specialization. All of us kind of did everything. Early on, I ran for state senator from Chittenden County. As a Republican, I lost, of course. You know Burlington — in those days it was really dominated by the Democrats.
“But, out of that, I was approached by some of the Republican Party elders to run for mayor. At first, I put them off. For one thing, who wants to be a sacrificial chicken? The Democrats, like I said, ran the city politics. And, second, I wasn’t sure I even wanted the job. It didn’t pay much, and it’s full-time. They said, ‘Bob, we need ya. And, anyway, don’t worry about it, because you ain’t going to win, anyhow.’ So, I threw my hat in the ring, and — wouldn’t you know it — I won.”
“You won?” I repeated, somewhat dazzled by this turn of the story. “You were mayor of Burlington?”
“Yup, just one term — from ’61 to ’63.”
“Well, I’ll be darned! So what was that like? Any major accomplishments?”
“I guess I’m most proud of two things: We passed the bond that financed the building of the new Burlington High School, and we secured the funding for downtown urban renewal. Of course, the biggest story during my administration was the police scandal.”
“There was a police scandal in Burlington in the early ’60s? I’ve never heard about that.”
“Oh, it was big news at the time. A number of Church Street merchants had given their keys to some police officers to check on their shops at night. Over a period of time, about five of these cops began methodically looting the stores.”
“Holy crap!” I said. “In Burlington? I mean, this just doesn’t sound like a Vermont thing. Stuff like that goes on in big cities, but Burlington? Man. So how’d it play out?”
“Beyond the criminal prosecutions — the cops all got jail time, as you would imagine — we put together a commission to investigate the whole department. Ultimately, I tapped one of the commission members to be the new chief of police, and he cleaned house — pretty successfully, I’d say.”
“How did you come out of this? I mean, politically?”
“I suppose the administration got high marks for how we handled it. I chose not to run for reelection, however, though I believe I would have had a good chance. I needed to earn more money is mostly what it came down to.”
Arriving at the doctor’s office, I asked Bob, “So looking back, what was more fun? Driving a cab in Montpelier or being mayor of Burlington?”
Bob laughed and replied, “I’ll have to get back to you on that one. It’s a close call, I can tell you that.”