Hitchhiking Back in the Day

Hitchhiking Back in the Day

I hitchhiked the other day [Editor's note: this was in 1984 when I was 33] for the first time in years. After dropping my ailing car off at the repair shop I rode my thumb toward the town library to await the bad news.

It was a morning for walking--bright, with just a hint of summer--so the procession of indifferent vehicles whizzing by was of little concern. The road was not the same on foot; there were swings and gardens in backyards, a few tree forts and houses I'd neber noticed before, distinct and still.

As a boy, a favorite trick was to pack the bushes next to our street with a dozen accomplices while one of us stood innocently in the open, thumbing for a ride. When a car stopped ''the gang'' came roaring and whooping out of the underbrush like a pack of rabid dogs. Some drivers smiled or laughed, but most behaved like adults and went off in a huff. We may well have contributed to the decline of hitchhiking.

I don't pick up hitchhikers that often anymore for a number of reasons, some quite flimsy. The further removed I become from the roadside fraternity the less obligation I feel to its current members.

Giving people a lift when ''wheels'' were available was not simply an act of brotherhood but a superstitious hedge against the time when one would be slogging along in the infantry again. And on cold winter nights, around two in the morning, along lonely country roads, a ride became more than a convenience. Today when that thumb comes into view, a decision must be made and quickly. If it is cold or raining, I usually stop unless the solicitor bears a strong resemblance to Charles Manson. Otherwise, there are some handy pretexts for continuing by: I'm in a hurry (aren't we all) or there's a package smack dab in the middle of the front passenger seat (a roll of film will do nicely). Shame is my co-pilot.

There are some thumb jockeys, however, who deserve to walk. They can be found 20 yards in front of a five-way intersection, apparently waiting for a friendly motorist who is heading their way and who can also read minds.

Then there are the ones who are too blase or proud to walk backwards facing the traffic, but who simply hold an arm out indifferently as they amble along. Sitting and even lounging while hitching have become popular. These cool characters may get rides, but not from me; no effort, no ride, amigos.

My favorites, though, are the hitchhikers who can't let a vehicle pass them by without displaying some sign of hostility, as if they were being snubbed by empty, on-duty cabs in front of a grand hotel.

Their behavior only serves to erase any guilt I may have felt for speeding on. Besides lacking patience, these cranky folks are obviously devoid of imagination, for there are many legitimate reasons for not picking them up.

For example, the driver may be singing a medley of his or her greatest hits. Or the happy motorist could be in the midst of a terribly witty interview on the Johnny Carson Show. These activities become a bit awkward in the presence of another human being.

On those occasions when I do give people a ride, the experience is generally less than exhilarating. After ''Hey, howyadoin', whereyaheadin','' a heavy silence usually prevails. Questions like ''are ya headin' for work'' don't lead to sustained conversation but rather to suspicions that the inquisitor is working for the F.B.I. Most riders have no sense that they have a certain obligation to be sociable with someone who is doing them a service.

Some may feel that car owners have a duty to the carless and therefore no gestures are necessary. Indeed, one rider complained loudly about my choice of radio stations and began aggressively twisting the dial to suit his tastes. I turned the knob back and told him if he didn't like my music he could walk. He looked at me as if I were a madman.

On rare occasions stopping for a hitcher is no imposition whatsoever. She looked good enough to be an anchor person and even though the sun was shining warmly and she was thumbing 50 yards from a major intersection there was no need for Bill and me to confer; I jammed on the brakes. Wherever she wanted to go would be fine with us.

She got in the back seat and asked in a British accent if we'd mind awfully giving her friend, Nigel, a lift, too. Nigel promptly emerged from the bushes.

Now that's what I call hitchhiking.