I hadn't thought about something I had done in my college days as being terribly significant until yesterday, when some storytelling prompted a Bronx resident sojourning in our little town while attending college, to say "you wouldn't survive if you did that now."
I had been telling how, in my sophomore year of college, three classmates and I had taken a train from Huntington Station, Long Island to Bridgeport, Connecticut and then hitchhiked from there to Hartford. We had left Long Island on Friday, all with plans for returning to campus after the weekend. I had gone to see my friend Jodie while the others went to the New England Fiddle Contest (and maybe a Grateful Dead concert that was also going on). They had all hitchhiked back on Sunday, but I had lingered another day and hitchhiked back alone.
What had prompted all of this was simply that I had inquired of a restaurant clerk, where he came from. When he had said "Connecticut" I had requested greater detail, to which he'd said "Hartford", prompting me to say "Oh, I once hitchhiked from there to Long Island. He raised his eyebrows at that, and made some comment of surprise. When I rejoined my fellow diners, I told the story in more detail, prompting the comment on dubious survival.
I remember my friend (who I had hoped would become more of a companion) dropping me off on a West Hartford entrance to the Merritt Parkway and being warned that I could be arrested for hitchhiking. After at least an hour, a black man in a powder blue VW Beetle picked me up and drove me all the way to Cross-Bronx Expressway, where he let me out on the ramp. For some reason I was not certain I was on the right ramp, so I climbed over the railing and headed for the nearest gas station, to ask for help in being sure.
As I recall, no-one there habla'ed de Englais, but I looked at a map on the wall, gestured to where I thought we were and where I wanted to go and pointed outside to the ramp I'd just left, got a nod, and went back out. Still not being quite satisfied, I walked out the ramp until I could read the signs over the roadway, and then walked back to where there was room for someone to stop and pick me up. I still have the sign I carried that day, tucked under our bed, I think: a rectangle of cardboard, with "Lloyd Harbor Long Island" written on one side, and "Hartford" on the other.
I think my next ride was in a VW microbus, in which I sat and ate sandwiches given to me by the owners, while petting their dog and talking about whatever came up. They dropped me off at an intersection leaving the Long Island Expressway and entering Cross Island Parkway, I think. The way I've always told the story, I got three more rides and made the trip in four and a half hours, but I remember nothing else until I was actually let out of that last car, right in front of our dormitory. My companions were embittered that they had taken twelve hours to get back to the same place, and had had to walk the last five miles. That was in 1976 or 1977 (I'm not sure if it was fall or spring semester of college).
Our companion at a meal yesterday lives in the Bronx, and seemed genuinely impressed that I had done such a thing, and I have to admit that I shudder at the thought of how alone and exposed I was. We talked about the fact that, the last time we went to Long Island, we were stuck in traffic near the very same place on Cross Bronx Expressway, and I had marveled that I had once stood and lobbied for a ride from that spot. On the more recent occasion, we had seen a car-load of Hasidim on one side, and on the other, a car-load of young men who seemed itchy for a fight and had tried to make eye-contact and heckled us and other drivers while we were all sitting still, waiting for traffic to move ahead. That had given me cause for concern, as had my previous journey through that same passage.
Looking back, I have a sense of pride in being able to say I did that, but I feel no cravings to repeat it.
I do wonder how much the world has changed. Would a young man with long hair and little money (and both innocence and fear) be able to hitchhike that same way today? The question does not burn enough in me to try that test, but I do pine a bit for the days when hitchhiking was fairly acceptable and there was a reasonable expectation of safety, and of getting a ride. Now it seems only the hardiest, boldest and most desperate take that method of transport. Yet my soft-spoken, un-intimidating mother had done so in her youth. Somehow those years when the world was younger, were times of greater trust, and perhaps of greater acceptance of differences. I do pine for those things, and hope they will be part of our future, in much greater measure.
- ▼ 2007 (7)
- I've been a number of things over the years: husband, father, environmental technical specialist, college instructor, carpenter, volunteer firefighter and ambulance driver, student of Lakota and Japanese languages, technical writer, process engineer, research technician, IT technician, emergency dispatcher, etc.