Thumbs down on hitchhikers


Recently I spotted a hitchhiker off the exit ramp of the Beltway, a man who gave the appearance of not having yet been notified that the Manson Family had officially disbanded.

You don't see too many hitchhikers these days, so I slowed down to take a look.

The man had long, dirty blond hair and wore the regulation faded Army jacket preferred by dangerous drifters and serial murderers everywhere.

His eyes were glowing and a three-day growth of beard didn't conceal the two long scars running down the right side of his face.

If you wanted to play What's Wrong With This Picture? the only thing missing was a badly mutilated corpse at the man's feet. Then again, the grass on the side of the road was rather high, so there might well have been a body somewhere in the vicinity.

My first thought, of course, was: Who in their right mind would pick this guy up?

In fact, how do any of these hitchhikers ever get a ride? There might not be too many of them around, but every one looks like he spent the final days with Sid Vicious, shooting smack in a squalid Greenwich Village apartment.

Hard as it is to believe, about 10 seconds later a pickup truck pulled off the highway and the hitchhiker had his ride.

I scanned the newspapers for the next several days, waiting for a report about a motorist found slumped over the wheel of his Ford Ranger, the victim of an apparent machete attack.

But no such reports were forthcoming, so I'm assuming the driver somehow escaped with his life. Maybe the hitchhiker was so zonked out on Seconols that he couldn't get the machete out of his bedroll.

The reason I found the incident so fascinating is that hitchhiking is a ritual with which I am intimately familiar.

I used to hitchhike all the time in the late '60s and early '70s. I was a struggling college student then, working at a succession of dreary jobs that, collectively, generated about the same income as a child's sidewalk lemonade stand.

A car, therefore, was out of the question. Any extra money I managed to save went for the essentials: beer, 20-cent hamburgers and the occasional textbook.

Back then, hitchhikers had no trouble getting rides. Motorists didn't worry about hitchhikers carving them up for a lousy five bucks, and vice-versa.

About the worst thing that could happen to a hitchhiker was this: Six hippies in a Volkswagen van would pick you up, stick a joint in your hand and launch into a long, rambling discourse likening the politics of Lyndon Johnson to the Spanish Inquisition.

Even by the mid-'70s, the most frightening thing you had to worry about was being picked up by some dorky guy in a lime-green leisure suit, with Tony Orlando and Dawn blaring from his tape deck.

Sure, there were plenty of weirdos and kooks out there. But I never had a ride where I thought the driver was measuring me for a shallow grave in a scraggly stand of pines off the highway.

Once while hitchhiking home from college during spring break, I was picked up by a woman in a brand new Porsche.

As I jumped into the passenger seat, she looked at me vacantly and said: "You look just like God . . ."

Well. At the time, I was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and work boots, so apparently she was under the impression that God dressed like an unemployed carpenter.

I can assure you, it does not put your mind at ease to be hurtling down the highway at 65 mph in a car driven by some nut who thinks you might be God.

So I bailed out a few miles up the road, telling her that, yes, I was God, and that I had to get out of the car right then and there in order to start doing good in the world.

"Keep in touch," she said as I got out.

"Absolutely," I said, adding that she might be interested to know that, while He didn't want to seem pushy or anything, God felt her car needed a new clutch.

"I'll bring it to my mechanic today," she said.

The key to successful hitchhiking involves presenting an appearance that does not lead motorists to think you recently escaped from a chain gang.

At least, that used to be the key. These days, I'm not so sure.

When I was hitching rides, hitchhikers cultivated a look of bland earnestness, in the manner of an old-time Fuller Brush salesman.

Of course, these days any salesman that comes to your door is likely to have a $100-a-day crack habit and is probably casing the joint for a 2 a.m. burglary.

Look, I'm surprised people even leave their homes anymore, never mind pick up hitchhikers.

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