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Hitchhiking: A Very Short Career

So, was it for convenience, necessity, or fun? As I think back on it, there is no clear answer to that question. It was a combination of all three. And you can throw in frugality for extra measure.

In those lean college years, pocketing the money your parents had sent you for the Greyhound Bus and just sticking your thumb out was cheap, convenient, and exciting.

Growing up, I was that kid who never took a risk. I always colored within the lines. I never walked on Don’t Walk. I had cool friends, but there was always something about me that wasn’t cool. I did get drunk on stolen liquor and took a guy’s outboard motor apart in the middle of the Magothy River once (dropping some critical parts overboard). But that was my teenage one-off moment. So, for me, hitchhiking was that breakout, the risk that I had avoided growing up.

My college roommate, son of a distinguished career Army officer and the oldest child in the family, was also a perpetual boy scout. His college motorcycle and his penchant for riding on his thumb were his diversions from sainthood. And, he was perceptive. He designed the perfect hitchhiking uniform: jacket, and tie. This doubled your chances of a ride because in 1969 both men and women were unafraid when it came to picking up a fresh-faced blazer-clad preppie. If for no other reason than to get a poor little schmuck safely off the highway, they’d illuminate those beautiful brake lights, and we’d make the victory run.

There was a subterfuge element of our strategy. Two guys traveling together was safer than one, but one little college boy had a better chance of getting a ride than two. So, while not actually hiding in the bushes, let’s just say that one of us was out of the direct line of sight. As the car drifted to a stop, the driver would look in the rear-view mirror and think he was seeing double. But hey, both of us were in uniform and toting our little gym bags (we’re talking pre-backpack era), so the threat did not double in the mind of the driver.

When my roomie and I would hitchhike together we maintained our real identities. But when I went solo, two things changed. First of all, there was a slight alteration in the uniform of the day. I ditched the tie and went with the more casual tan corduroy sports coat. In the winter, the sports jacket was traded for my old fake suede barn coat.

Secondly, I unloaded my suitcase of fake accents and became the person most likely to get a longer ride from the driver. Example: if picked up by a truck driver, I went full Southern with a story to match. Women were more likely to get an English accent and teenagers got the uneducated boy just trying to get back home to Baltimore. While deceptive and maybe morally repugnant to some, to me it was harmless fun and as close to an acting career as I would ever come. If the goal was to get from point A to point B with the fewest rides, it proved to be a good strategy.

Here are my three most memorable stories. The first two occurred on purely recreational trips from Williamsburg, Virginia to Virginia Beach to see the ocean and recharge my batteries.

I had gotten a ride right out of Williamsburg that dropped me off on Interstate 64 not far from the Newport News Park exit. I walked under the overpass and positioned myself on the onramp for east bound 64. (Note: then and now hitchhiking is legal in Virginia. Many think that it is illegal on interstate highways everywhere, but that is not true. Standing on a roadway and soliciting a ride is illegal, but the key is the definition of roadway. If you are on an exit or entrance ramp and on the grass, you are not in the roadway and so are legal. But, legal and smart are two different things and today hitchhiking and/or picking up a hitchhiker is unsmart.)

After not too long a wait, a dirty black 1958 Cadillac Sedan Deville drifted to a stop. The hand cranked right window came down and as cigarette smoke wafted out, the long-haired passenger asked, “where you headed?” to which I answered, “The beach”. The passenger door swung open, and the driver yelled, “Get in”.

I followed his directions and squeezed in with my bag on my lap creating a cramped front seat trio. As soon as the tires hit the highway a voice from behind me asked a question that I had never heard in my hitchhiking career. “You got any money?”

As menacing as that sounds today, I did not at that moment assume that I was about to be robbed. It was the fall of 1969, and I was probably thinking more about the Orioles losing to the Miserable Mets in the World Series than I was about my personal safety. However, when one of the three long haired dudes in the back seat leaned forward and repeated the question in a more aggressive tone, my pulse quickened. My words had gotten me out of trouble before and this was no exception. “If I had any money, I’d be on a bus right now...I’m flat broke guys”.

This was met by grumbling and additional aggressive words that I don’t recall, but the gist was they too were out of cash and in need of gasoline. They had started their journey in New Orleans and were headed to see a friend in Norfolk. New York was their stated final destination. The next words, I will never forget. Again, from the back seat.

"Well, if somebody has to suck on the hose again, it sure ain’t gonna be me. I’ve got a headache and my mouth still tastes like gas.”

Wow, I thought. This ride is by far the most interesting of my life on the road. And, my mind added, if I’m not careful, life is going to be either shorter or way more complicated.

Not long after that exchange, the driver took the Hampton exit and pulled into the parking lot of a rather rundown looking strip mall. After one circle around the parking lot, he pulled his Caddie up close beside a white Chevy Impala. As the ignition was switched off, one of the boys in the back got out and the trunk opened. At this point I quietly grabbed the door lever and thought through my exit plan. When the rubber garden hose section had been inserted in the Chevy gas tank, I said, “Let me help” and opened the car door.

When my feet hit the pavement, I left the door open and ran like the sheriff was right behind me. I heard one “hey” but didn’t look back. I stayed in full sprint listening for any sign of pursuit. I rounded the corner of a Kmart and kept right on-going past dumpsters and loading docks until my breath ran out. I jumped into a line of trees at the rear of the shopping center and sat down behind some undergrowth to recover.

After five minutes or so, my pulse dropped back to a normal range and the heavy breathing stopped. I assumed at that point that the Caddie boys had completed their refueling operations and were on their way. Their only interest in me was as a possible source of gas money and having failed that test, I considered myself safe.

I picked up my gym bag and walked back toward the interstate.

My second memorable ride was on a different trip to the beach. My only hesitation in telling this tale is the fear that I will write something stupid. The story is true, but the telling might be clumsy.

I was again dropped off by my first ride on Interstate 64, but this time at the exit for Patrick Henry Airport. I was pleased with the location because this interchange got a lot of action. I stuck out my thumb and almost immediately saw the brake lights of an old blue Plymouth Fury that had just passed me on the entrance ramp. I quickly walked up to the front passenger door, bent down, waved through the window, and waited for the “jump in” signal from the driver (part of hitchhiking etiquette and an excellent way to avoid a misunderstanding). The driver motioned for me to hop in, and I followed her instructions.

Well, this turned out to be my, “It’s a girl my lord in a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me” moment. She was probably in her 20’s, long blonde hair, nice build, but not what I would personally refer to as attractive. It’s not polite to stare, so that was all gleaned in a first glance.

As soon as I jumped in, the normal questions like, “where are you headed” were immediately followed by the weird questions, like, “why are you going there?” and “are you meeting someone?” There is a certain captivity about being a passenger in a car going 60 miles an hour that forms an unusual context around a conversation. It seemed appropriate to answer even the awkward questions, and I inexplicably went with honesty. No, I wasn’t meeting anyone at the beach. She asked me my name and I thought, even honesty has its limitations in this circumstance, so I made one up. She told me hers (maybe) and started into her life story (which took some time).

I don’t remember all of the details, but a move from Arkansas to Virginia, a series of bad choices and bad luck had led to her being “all by myself and very lonely”. She might have used the term lonely more than once and it didn’t take Dr. Ruth to figure out what she was talking about. This whole scenario, while flattering to the male ego, did not fit into my introvert plans to recharge (alone) at the beach. I also wasn’t at all certain whether we were talking potential romance or just a brief services contract. All I knew was that I wanted to get out of the car.

I went through my inventory of ride-ending excuses. I’m not feeling well, I need to use the bathroom, I’ve lied to you and I’m going to see my girlfriend, and the bluntest approach, could you pull over and let me out at the next exit. Well, that’s the one I went with and when she flipped into anger, I backtracked to good old number one. I’m really feeling sick to my stomach, and I don’t want to mess up your car. Works every time. No matter how lonely you are you can picture a really bad ending. She hit that exit at close to full speed and stopped halfway down the ramp. I thanked her, jumped out, and sprinted across the grass towards a 7-Eleven. When I looked back, she had continued onto Mercury Boulevard and was headed back to the interstate.

As I walked out of the store and started to sip my Coca Cola, the reprocessing began. Was I mean? Unsympathetic? Presumptuous? If I had suggested interest, would she have ended the ride? Well, I’ll never know. If I was going to make the beach by dark, I had to turn my attention to the next ride.

My third and final hitchhiking tale is the one that still gives me the willy’s and is the one I’ve retold most often. I’ll just tag it a very cold night in Brentwood.

Well, Christmas was coming, and I decided to save some money. I had endured an endless Greyhound Bus ride to get home at Thanksgiving and I wasn’t going to go through that again. When classes ended for our winter break, I packed my gym bag, walked out onto Richmond Road, and stuck out my thumb.

My first ride got me all the way to Richmond. A good start. Just on the north side of Mechanicsville, Virginia I scored my next ride in a late model convertible (can’t remember the make) with a driver who said he was headed to his office in Washington DC. That was good news, because it would be dark by the time we hit DC and I might be able to get one last ride all the way to Baltimore.

I played it straight on this trip. No accents. Honest answers. This guy didn’t fit any obvious demographic that would lend itself to an impersonation and he’d already told me the endpoint of our journey together. He was in his 30’s, nicely dressed, and would only say he was “in business” in Washington. We chatted about nothing in particular and I must have fallen asleep just past Fredericksburg.

When I awakened, we were already in the city, but I didn’t recognize the area at all. Somewhat disoriented, I asked, “Where are we?”

He answered, “We’re in Northeast Washington and I need to turn up here at Rhode Island Avenue”. It was a bit late to express my intentions, but I had hoped to get out long before we were actually in the city. If I had been let out earlier on Route 1 or even made it as far as East Capitol Street, I would have had an easier time getting a one-ride lift home. But the city? Northeast?

Just as I gathered my thoughts, my driver pulled over to the curb, wished me good luck, and sped off into the night. Well, as my breath hit the cold air and turned into a frosty mist, I thought “Toto, this doesn’t look like Kansas anymore”. I was standing in the heart of Brentwood, named for an historic mansion which, like the neighborhood, had long since fallen into disrepair. Then (and today some 50 years later) Brentwood was considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city and after the MLK riots of 1968, there were still vacant and boarded up store fronts greeting my arrival on Rhode Island Avenue. They were, and still are number one in violent crime in the city. Oh, and did I mention that it was dark?

Immediately realizing that I was in trouble, I simultaneously became angry at the guy who dropped me off. Surely, he knew that dumping a little white boy off in this neighborhood was either a cruel joke or criminally irresponsible. But having fallen asleep and not asking for an exit south of the city, I was partially to blame. One thing I was sure of. From this neighborhood getting a ride to the hospital or the morgue was way more likely than getting a ride home.

As I walked toward the only business that I could see had lights on, I quickly concluded that telephoning Dad with a confession of stupidity and a plea for rescue was my only hope. I still had that precious bus money in my wallet, but I wasn’t sure for how long.

Moving carefully down the empty sidewalk, I became pretty self-conscious about the way I was dressed. I was way out of hitchhiking uniform. I had on one of those 60’s-era buckskin jackets complete with fringe, Levi jeans, and tennis shoes. While my long hair and drooping mustache channeled Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider I didn’t have a badass bone in my body, and I knew it.

The beaming lights were from a White Castle greasy spoon diner and having walked past two vandalized pay phones on the street, it was my last hope of a way to make an emergency call home. I knew that walking into any commercial establishment in the neighborhood was not a great idea, but I had no choice.

As I opened the door, every head in the place turned in my direction. There was a long lunch counter on my right, booths on my left, and a little sign for restrooms and pay phone at the opposite end of the room. Given the dinner hour and the lack of choices in the riot-torn neighborhood, most of the seats were filled. Silence fell.

Of course, I had no change for the payphone. If this event in my life was a motion picture, of course I would have had no change for the payphone.

My feet shuffling to the cash register was the only sound in the room. I pulled out my wallet, extracted a one-dollar bill and asked the waitress for change. She handed me the silver and I turned and walked to the phone. When I was halfway through the diner, the quiet conversation resumed. However, when I got to the phone, silence fell again. The answer to the burning question, “What the hell is this hippy doing in Brentwood? might now be answered.

I dropped the coin into the phone, dialed my home number, and when the operator came on the line gave my name and asked to reverse the charges.

Now one of the tactics you use when you are going to hitchhike home is to tell your parents you’ll be home on Thursday, but actually travel on Wednesday. It avoids an awkward conversation about life choices and the surprise of an early arrival mends all fences.

So, when the phone rings in Catonsville Maryland, Dad and Mom think Junior is still in Williamsburg.

“Will you accept a collect call from John Constance in Washington DC?”, the operator asks. My mom sounds thrilled that her baby boy is just 50 minutes away, and says that of course she’ll accept the charges. What a small price to pay. I know that she is picturing me standing in the bus station on New York Avenue. After saying a happy hello, with trepidation I asked to speak to Dad. His voice comes onto the line and he starts with a painful question.

“Hey there, what a nice surprise. When are you due in Baltimore?”

With the entire room listening, I craft a brief response that goes something like this. “Well, I’m not at the bus station. I’m on Rhode Island Avenue in Brentwood and I need a ride home.”

After a moment of shocked silence, my dad yells “Brentwood???” into the phone which is loud enough for a few close-by patrons to overhear. They laugh and slap each other on the back in glee. I know what they’re thinking. This little white boy has his ass in a crack and done called Daddy for help. Guilty as charged.

Having wisely gotten my hand more tightly around the phone receiver, I just told my dad that it was a long story and offered a more detailed description of my location. He asked whether I had a lot of “company” in the diner and I said yes. Then he said this, which I remember almost verbatim over 50 years later.

“I want you to walk out on the street, find the brightest streetlight that you can, stand under it and wait. I’ll be there as soon as I can. If you are lucky enough to see a police car, flag it down and see if they’ll let you sit inside until I arrive. Bye”

Well, I did just that. The streetlight was about a half block from the diner and the night was damned cold. Luckily it was cold enough that very few people were out and about. I saw no police cars, one rat, and not much else as I rehearsed my explanation for my father.

Close to an hour into rehearsal, I recognized his car and his headlight flash. As he pulled to the curb, I was a maelstrom of emotions. I was happy, relieved, fearful, and exhausted. Dad had only two obvious emotions. Relief and searing, paint curling anger.

When I got in the car all was silent for a while. It was clearly my move. I knew that quiet meant he was too mad to speak and had had 60 minutes to ask himself all of the unanswerable questions. How the hell did he wind up in Brentwood? Why didn’t he take the bus? Where is the money I sent him? Who is this idiot I am going to pick up?

I knew that the word that would set off the fireworks display was “hitchhike” so I avoided it as long as I could. Misunderstanding, drop off in the wrong place, confusion as to which end of Rhode Island Avenue this unnamed person lived, etc. But eventually I fessed up that it was 1960’s ride sharing gone wrong. Dad was the first one in the car to use the term hitchhike and by use, I mean shout. Dad didn’t curse, but what he lacked in vocabulary he made up for with volume.

After the storm and the usual “how disappointed (my) mother was going to be”, I had the chance to offer my apologies and to end with, “Dad, I really thought I was going to get killed tonight. I won’t hitchhike again. I promise.”

Retirement. No gifts. No gold watch. Just, retirement.

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