How About a Ride

I was grungy and just falling asleep after an all night trip from Connecticut when I was rudely awakened by a knock, knock, knock on the bench and I opened my eyes to see a New York City policeman rapping the bench with his nightstick and telling me there was no sleeping on benches in the Port Authority bus terminal.

I was on the last leg of my journey, having hitchhiked from New Britain, Conn. with a destination of Paramus in Bergen County. Straight driving by car, it’s about a two and a half hour drive, but it took me about 10 hours but I enjoyed the adventure.

There was a lot of rain along the way as I got picked up by a half dozen people, usually younger guys or girls who were sympathetic to my vehicle-less situation. We’d make small talk about where I was going and where they lived and they’d tell me where they’d be getting off Route 95 when I’d climb out, grab my bag and sign and assume the position on the shoulder as cars and big 18-wheelers roared past me.

Never had any real problems other than getting cold and wet while hoping for a car to stop and pick me up. You saved money because you didn’t have to buy gas and you usually had some kind of an adventure, pretty good deal.

I walked across the George Washington Bridge at sunrise and you ain’t seen nothing until you see the New York City skyline at sunrise. After walking across the bridge, I hung out my thumb and pretty quickly a car stopped on the shoulder of Route 4 and I tossed my suitcase in and climbed in, only the driver urged me to put my stuff in the back seat and I smelled something wrong so after a few minutes, his car stopped and I jumped out.

Hitching was the preferred mode of travel in those days because most of us couldn’t afford a car. If you were going on a long trip, like from Connecticut to Jersey, you made a sign with the word “New Jersey” scrawled on it with a magic marker. If it was just for a trip to Hartford, a half hour away, the thumb would do the trick.

I frequently hitched and usually traveled alone although one time I ventured to Woods Hole, Mass., with my college roommate, a big guy named Kevin who later quit school and became a cop in Boston. Being alone was a singular experience, waiting sometimes for hours for a lift, sometimes in the middle of the night and all I had for company was my thoughts. It was different being with another person because we could shoot the breeze which made the trip seem shorter and not as uncomfortable if the weather was lousy. It also made it safer, at least in our minds, to think that a crazy person would not likely pick up two guys and assault and rob them and leave them stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Guys hitchhiked, girls hitchhiked and I never heard of any trouble. It was usually college kids and I don’t recall ever seeing an older person hitching, say someone in their 40s or 50s. You just trusted that the person who would pick you up would not be a serial killer. The police only bothered you if you were hitching on the shoulder of a major highway, causing possible danger to drivers but if you pulled in your thumb when you saw a state police troop car approaching or just stood on the on-ramp of the highway, you were OK.

I had long hair and my appearance was not threatening. It was not a good idea to look particularly bedraggled or exceptionally down and out or otherwise look frightening because most people would be wary of stopping and the ones who would stop are probably just as bedraggled and down and out and frightening and I wouldn’t want a ride with them, sort of like Groucho Marx who said he wouldn’t join a club that would accept him as a member.

Hitchhiking was common in the 1930s and 1940s, fell a bit in the 1950s and became once again popular in the ’60s and ’70s, probably because of the falling economy and the freewheeling spirit of the hippies of the day.

Fewer and fewer people were hitchhiking in later years when people started getting scared of weirdos stopping and either beating, maiming and/or raping them even though I never heard of that really happening to anybody. It was like Halloween when parents feared their kids would get an apple with a razor blade in it, something that was an urban legend and never verified, to my knowledge. But the fear was enough to erode interest in hitchhiking and for parents to be extra vigilant on Halloween.

Same thing with letting kids go out and play. In the old days, kids played outside and knew to come home when it got dark. That was before people started going crazy over fears of a pervert in a black overcoat snatching little boys and girls, molesting them and leaving their little bodies in a shallow grave or a watery ditch. It happened in the movies but in real life, hardly ever and in fact, children are usually victimized in the false safety of their own home by a family member who doesn’t own a black overcoat.

I guess overreactions to fears, whether real or imagined, get in the way of a lot of things. You can’t know how good it feels to jump into a total stranger’s car, not knowing what lies ahead, and more often than not meeting someone quite interesting. That’s not happening today because people are afraid and look what they are losing in the process. It’s kind of like that Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” who never would have had the joy of shooting a Daisy BB gun if he had heeded his mother’s warning that he would shoot his eye out.

After the 1970s, people became much more interested in going it alone and the spirit of cooperation and adventure became somewhat passe. Also, with the economy improving, more young people could afford cars. Of course these days of COVID-19 I understand why people would be very reluctant to get in some stranger’s car.



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