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Seven Days: Vermont Car Blog

October 29, 2008

How Does A Cabbie Fare?

Taxisign Jernigan Pontiac is a full-time cab driver and the author of Seven Days’ long-running “Hackie” column and two book compilations. You’ve probably read his stories about the interesting people he drives around Vermont. This week I turned the tables and interviewed him about his life on the road as a cabbie.

BOB KILPATRICK: What do you think of Vermont drivers? Does anything frustrate you about their driving habits?
JERNIGAN PONTIAC: To be a cab driver, you can’t get too upset about other people’s driving habits. Why? Because you’d go nuts. I drive four or five thousand miles a month, and if I let that bother me I would have ulcers on top of ulcers. To really get my attention, you’d probably have to pull out an Uzi and aim it at my gas tank. Short of that, I give people a lot of slack. I anticipate people are going to do really boneheaded things, and then if they don’t, great.

BK: Do you think roads are getting worse, or is it cyclical?
JP: I think it’s cyclical. In and around Chittenden County, they keep them up pretty well. Given the conditions of what you’re dealing with in Vermont — the salt, the freezing and the frost heaves — I think they do as good a job as can be expected. I’ve been in other parts of the country and the roads are way, way worse.

BK: Burlington traffic seems to get worse every year. Would you agree?
JP: It’s just amazing. You think one year it can’t get worse and then the next year it’s even worse. But there are still shortcuts — which I really can’t reveal.

BK: But that was one of my questions! What’s the best shortcut?
JP: I’d have to kill you. Off the record, between me and you I might, but I can’t publicly. By and large, there are ways to zip around town, but these are the tricks of the trade.

BK: Your vehicle is crucial to your livelihood. How do you take care of it?
JP: Probably if I would drive my taxis nice and easy they would last a lot longer, but that boat sailed for me a long time ago. I brake hard, I accelerate hard, I turn hard. All the things you’re not supposed to do. I go over speed bumps like Smokey and the Bandit. But there’s a practical reason. You’ve got to zip around as a cab driver to get the maximum number of fares per hour.

BK: Who does your repairs?
JP: I have a really good mechanic, I trust him. I go to Dave at Ethan Allen Citgo on North Avenue. The best craftspeople have a real humility, and every auto repair is like a little mystery to figure out. In the numbers of years that I’ve run a taxi I should be a master mechanic, but I’m a complete ignoramus. So I really depend on my mechanic, and this guy is really, really good. I never have any worry that he is going to do an unnecessary repair.

BK: How many vehicles have gone through over the years? How often do you have to replace them?
JP: I generally go through a car every two years. There might be a better way to do it, but what has worked for me is that I get a car with about 60 or 70 thousand miles. I’m completely disinterested in what year the car was built. It’s totally about the condition of the car. And then, with any luck, I run it to about 150 to 200 thousand miles. At that point, you’ve got to know when to cut bait and fish — or swim, or get off the pot, or whatever that expression is. And I usually get rid of it before it starts entirely falling to pieces. It has to be dependable at all times, because the last thing I want is to break down in Montréal, or Bennington.

BK: What was your best cab ever?
JP: My best cab ever was the wet dream of cab drivers everywhere, considered the perfect taxi: the Chrysler New Yorker. It’s classy but tank-like. It was the greatest taxi I ever had, but I only had it for four months. One day at the fair out in Essex I picked up a fare. I was waiting at a light and I looked up in my rear-view mirror and there was a small truck bearing down on me. I remember my thought was, "That guy is not going to stop." And he didn’t. He plowed into the back of the New Yorker. They never caught the kids who ran out of the truck. They had stolen it. I remember the sound of the tinkling glass and the dripping liquid and I almost felt like crying. I wasn’t hurt at all. I had two guys in the back who were completely hammered drunk, which totally helped them in that instance. They walked out of the vehicle and I never saw them again. You would have thought they would be dead if you took a look at the back of the vehicle. I actually wrote a “Hackie” story about that event. It was tragic.


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Cathy Resmer

Great interview, Bob! I'm bummed he wouldn't tell you his shortcuts, though. Nice mechanic recommendation...

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