A soft-spoken man with a French accent had reserved me for an airport pickup. His destination was Hinesburg, where he was picking up a used Toyota he’d bought on the Internet. I had almost turned down the call due to my policy on airport pickups: If the fare isn’t going out of town, I decline.
Meeting a customer arriving on a plane entails a significant amount of time. If the fare doesn’t pay well — let’s say, at least $40 — it’s just not worth it, and I politely advise the person to grab the first cab on the airport taxi queue. Hinesburg was borderline, according to this standard, but it was a slow afternoon, and, well, I liked the guy’s voice. This illustrates how strict my policies are — not exactly etched in stone.
At the arrival gate, I held up a sign reading “Sekou.” I was unsure whether this was the man’s first or last name — or maybe it was like Cher, or Madonna. As the passengers wandered in, a man in a tailored, dove-gray suit over a shirt of brilliant azure came toward me, a warm smile under his perfectly trimmed moustache. His skin color was quite dark, and the name immediately made more sense: The man was most likely from West Africa, where the French established colonies.
“Mr. Sekou?” I asked, extending a hand. “I’m Jernigan and I’ll be driving you to Hinesburg.”
“Just Sekou, please,” he said, completing the handshake. “Thank you for meeting me.”
Sekou carried only a small bag for what I gathered would be a day trip. I love that, because it means no standing around at the luggage belt. We walked together to my waiting taxi, embarked, and zoomed off. We glided onto Kennedy Drive, which is now a dream come true for drivers — four wide lanes, everything exquisitely marked. Granted, it took the Egyptians less time to build the pyramids, but in my book the splendid final result justifies the long wait.
I glanced over at my seatmate and said, “So, Sekou, you came up from Jersey, do I got that right?” As an ex-New Yorker, I still tend to excise the “New” — one of the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways denizens of the Big Apple tweak their less cool brethren across the Hudson River.
“Yes, I came from New Jersey,” Sekou replied. “I’ve been living in Hoboken since I moved here from Guinea in the early ’90s.”
“Guinea,” I repeated. “Is that a shortened name for Equatorial Guinea?”
“Good question,” he said with a laugh. “No, everybody is confused about that. They are two separate countries. Guinea is on the coast of West Africa. Equatorial Guinea is further south, more on the equator. And, if that’s not enough, there is also Guinea Bissau, just north of my country, and Papua New Guinea, which occupies the eastern half of one of the Indonesian islands.
“That’s a boatload of Guineas,” I said with a chuckle. “I don’t know how long I’ll retain this information, but thanks.”
We passed the Butler Farm development, and I asked, “So, whaddaya doin’ for work down in Hoboken?” I get with a guy from Jersey, and my New York syntax and accent begin to reassert themselves.
“I own two Internet cafés, one in Jersey City, the other just outside of Newark. They both do a very good business — how do you say? — hit on wood.”
“That’s fantastic, man. Another immigrant makes good. It’s the American way. Do you still have family back in Africa?”
“Most everyone. I support my mother and father back in the village. You know, this is drilled into us from when we are little children, to take care of your parents.” He paused for a moment and began to chuckle softly. “To tell you the truth, I’m supporting the whole village! I can never move back now!”
The view along Route 116 is amazing, but of course that could be said of nearly every Vermont road. I watched my customer gazing out at the soft hills, the green fields and the occasional sorority of meandering Holsteins. As we neared the village of Hinesburg, he said, “I really like this place. Do you know what it reminds me of? The jungles of my homeland.”
“Really? I’ve never thought of the Green Mountains as a jungle.”
“I’m not speaking literally of the flora and fauna, beautiful as that is. I’m thinking about the feeling.”
“I see. And what’s that feeling?”
Sekou paused and seemed carefully to consider the question. Then he smiled as the answer came to him. He said, “It’s the feeling of peace. Vermont has that, and so does my African village.”