July 17 1998, Friday
kay, today is the day I head back to Virginia. Jen Fariello has been sending me email urging me to hurry back for a photo shoot she needs to do (all will be revealed, have no fear!). I still need to see if my backpack found its way to the University of Michigan lost & found. But no matter how that turns out, I'll ride the stolen bike out to US 23, hide it in "the bushes" (thank god for bushes) and stick out my thumb. I've done this sort of thing countless times before, but I haven't done it much lately.
he bike ride to the University of Michigan's Department of Public Safety (their cruel jack-booted instrument of oppression) was a long excursion from the part of Ann Arbor where I'd been spending my time. Riding out there on the crappy stolen bike carrying a heavy bag of yet-unstolen portable computer equipment was anything but a joy. For one thing, the bike doesn't really have any functional gear shifting mechanism, and there are landforms approximating real hills out there.
And then it all proved a big waste of time. No one had yet turned in my backpack. It was gone, and I was going to have to get used to the idea of hitchhiking home to Virginia without a sleeping bag or change of clothes.
Everything I needed to do in Ann Arbor was out of the way, so it was time to hit the road.
didn't know Ann Arbor geography all that well. I had a little Ann Arbor Art Fair guide which contained a map, but it wasn't especially helpful. I knew I needed to go to US 23 and head south from there. US 23 across the Huron to the east. Getting there was severely hampered by the impregnable barricade of buildings that make up the University Hospital, but somehow I found a weak chink in the concrete armor and broke through. I found myself on Plymouth Road, a broad busy avenue. Despite the work of pedaling the crappy bike, I didn't find myself growing overheated. It seems the air was rather cool. Without a sleeping bag, I hoped to make good progress southward today so I would be sleeping tonight in a climate warmer than this one.
As it passes Ann Arbor, US 23 is a limited-access highway just like an interstate. I stashed the bike in the bushes beside the on-ramp, walked out along traffic, and stuck out my thumb.
Traffic demographics are a very important contributing factor to the chances of getting a ride quickly. There are other things to consider, surely, but bad demographics contribute more to my anxiety than anything else. People most likely to give rides are blue collar white males driving older vehicles. Yuppies with big families driving minivans do me no good. They clog the on-ramps in their vast numbers and make it difficult for the few ride-giving drivers to find a place or opportunity to pull over. The demographics here in Ann Arbor looked pretty bad, but before too long a single white guy with yellowed teeth pulled over, but since he was only going as far as I-94, I thought it best to wait for bigger & better fish. I don't turn down rides very often, and when I do, it's always because the ride isn't going far enough in my direction. Creepy people do not frighten me.
The wait from there was long and dull. Many of the well-heeled yuppie drivers looked upon me with a mixture of horror and disgust, as if they'd gladly support any referendum to abolish that which I was doing. It wasn't that I looked disheveled or untidy, it was, I think, that I was blatantly challenging conventions they held dear. Hhitchhiking may seem quintessentially American in its free-spirit take-my-chances-with-the-wind rock & roll ethic, but at heart it's subversive on so many levels.
But my ride did come eventually, they always do. Surprisingly, it came in the form of a new sport utility vehicle driven by a smallish soft-spoken middle-aged man wearing cut-off blue jeans and a strangely-tailored almost euro-trash long-sleeve shirt. He introduced himself as "John." I thought him a queer at first, but he later proved my suspicions wrong. The first thing of any substance he said to me was, "I found out today I don't need a liver transplant this year." He went on to tell me about the cirrhosis caused by a 20+ year infection with Hepatitis-C. You hear lots of bad medical stories from people who pick up hitchhikers. The terminally ill don't have long to go in this world and are willing to take greater-than-normal risks in seeking people upon whom they can unload their problems. But thankfully John didn't dwell long on the subject of his health. We got to talking about girls and drinking and the band he once played bass in. He didn't have many regrets in his life, but he wished he'd stayed with the rich girl he met in Texas.
John dropped me off on I-75 at the southern fringe of Wayne County, far enough south of Detroit that motorists wouldn't immediately think I was just another in the legions of Detroit carjackers. Traffic on the ramp was rather slow, but often this makes getting a ride much easier than places where the ramp is busy. When motorists see lots of traffic going by a hitchhiker, they feel absolved of any responsibility to pick him up, rationalizing that surely someone else is better suited to the task. It's the same mentality that permits rapists and muggers to attack women on New York subway platforms during rush hour unhindered.
The next ride I got was right out of my core ride-providing constituency: an old van driven by a single blue collar white man. He was sort of plump and had the head of a leprechaun, though his body was average in size. His Detroit accent was so thick that I could barely understand anything he told me, especially given the loudness of his air conditioning and engine noises. He'd seen me when he was getting off I-75 and had thoughtfully bought me a Pepsi before picking me up. Such touching acts of kindness are the norm among the few people who pick up hitchhikers.
But so is oddball thinking. You hear the craziest stories from these people. Through the impenetrable accent, the driver told me that a friend of his had just come into millions of dollars of inheritance money from Uruguay and that this same friend owed him $200,000, a sum he expected to be getting some time today. He went on to tell me of all the things he was going to be buying with the money. I nodded my head and said "uh huh" as if I believed him unreservedly. It was the least I could do for free transportation and a bottle of Pepsi.
Somewhere just north of the Ohio line, we encountered some slow traffic, and the old van started overheating. Acrid white smoke poured out of the air conditioning system. My leprechaun-headed driver turned off the air conditioning and relocated his driving to the shoulder of the interstate, whipping past the congestion in a daring but frightening effort to keep his engine cool. He clipped a sign somewhere in there. I suggested he could further cool his engine by turning on the heat, and when he did so, it got hot in there fast.
My next ride was in the form of an old car driven by a middle-aged couple. I had to sit in the back, and the remarkably unattractive woman doing the driving asked if I had any weapons. (This is a common question asked of hitchhikers, though I don't really understand. Do they expect murderers to be sincere?) She seemed uncomfortable with the idea of picking up hitchhikers, claiming she wouldn't have done it if her boyfriend hadn't made her. When I detect nervousness among drivers, I usually do what I can to make myself seem non-threatening. I avoid sudden movements and try to keep my hands where they can be seen. I also do lots of talking, usually about subjects as intellectual as I think the drivers can grasp, since evidence of education makes me seem less desperate. When I talked about computers, the boyfriend piped up that he was into electronic design. We talked briefly about TTL and CMOS (kinds of digital integrated circuits). The ride lasted until somewhere south of Toledo.
From there a youngish guy in a van drove me down to US-6 on I-75.
I-75 veers to the west and heads down across the incredibly flat countryside toward Lima and Dayton (home of Guided by Voices and the Breeders). Since I was trying to get to Columbus, I wanted to stick with US-23. So I started walking east down US-6, hhitchhiking as I went. I-75 was beyond view by the time I had a ride.
It was a beat-up old station wagon driven by plump, hairy middle-aged construction worker with a shaved head and no shirt, a hell of a nice guy.
Where US-23 crosses US-6, there's a traffic light. Such places are great opportunities for hitchhikers. People waiting at lights have a long time to make up their minds about whether or not to pick up someone. And if the hitchhiker is acting in a conventional, non-threatening manner, not waving a gun or sprouting an extra head, he stands a good chance. The ride I soon had was an 80s American car driven by another shirtless construction worker, this one lobster-red with sunburn. He offered me one of the Bud Lites from a six pack that lay in the front seat between us and I gladly accepted. We stopped somewhere along the way at the residence of a friend of his, and I waited in the car. I was intrigued to see that a old garage had been fashioned into a little one-room union meeting hall, complete with a crude hand-painted sign saying what local it was. It looked like some sort of joke, but in the context of this flat countryside of vast farms and dreary factory towns, it was probably for real.
The driver headed west out to Lima and I stayed behind in Fostoria, a town that proudly boasts as its claim to fame being the birthplace of Fostoria Glass. I walked all the way through the town to its southern end. It was a long walk, but it was a relief from hhitchhiking. When I'm walking, I can think about any subject I want. When I'm hhitchhiking, the only thoughts that I can muster are about cars, demographics, and the progress my hhitchhiking is making. It doesn't seem like an especially taxing mental exercise, but it somehow fully occupies my thoughts when I'm doing it. Part of the reason for this is the sheer mental will I put into staring down drivers as they pass me by. I guess it's in the back of my mind that I can make people stop if I think about it hard enough.
US 23 in this part of Ohio is a narrow two lane road, the kind that looks more suited to local excursions than interstate travel. But it's the most direct way to get from Ann Arbor to Virginia. I found a good place on US-23 to hitchhike, and I stuck with it, walking no further. I was in for a rather long wait, though. Traffic was meagre at best, and many of those passing me seemed unusually hostile to my cause. You always get the occasional middle fingers, unintelligible shouts, beeped horns, sudden accelerations, and even the occasional swerve and miss, but it seemed that in this place there was a concentration of such evil.
I have a half-baked theory about why some people despise hitchhikers enough to torture us. It seems that the people giving me the finger or shouting at me all look pretty much the same. They have baseball caps, a certain familiar kind of haircut, they wear white tee shirts, and they drive shiny new accessorized vehicles. In Charlottesville, I usually assume such people are "frat boys" until I learn different. But I've come to believe, true frat boy or not, these people really are all members of the same group: the people of conformity. These are the folks who cling most dearly to American ideals, the same ideals that hhitchhiking threatens (as itemized earlier). To them, the hitchhiker is the other, and (as with most insular types), the other is feared. Acting in a fleeting, aggressive manner towards that which is feared is common in the animal kingdom.
But there's also the possibility that such aggression is simple dehumanization used to justify passing by a fellow human in need. This theory is supported by the fact that almost all anti-hitchhiker acts are carried out by individuals in cars that are occupied by at least two people. Among groups of friends there seems to be a social obligation to somehow legitimize the antisocial act of letting down a man in need.
After one too many of these frat boy types had shouted or honked his horn, I felt like launching a crusade to steal fraternity beer kegs. These boys needed to pay, and any possible act against them suddenly took on a patina of nearly-altruistic nobility.
When cars weren't blowing me by, I'd find myself staring out over the endless fields or down into the drainage ditch beneath me, where little inch-long fish flitted in schools and frogs leapt about, always just out of my field of vision. The setting sun and monotonous scolding of a killdeer contributed to my ever-growing desperate desire to somehow get away. From where I stood, I scanned a distant factory parking lot, casually wondering if any of the cars might have keys in their ignitions.
Then a car that had passed me some minutes before came back, made a U-turn in a parking lot and stopped in front of me. It was driven by a youngish girl, an even younger girl sat in the passenger seat, and, in the back seat sat a youngish man and a little boy in a baby seat. I climbed in beside the youngish man. The driver asked, "You're not gonna kill us, are you?" She introduced herself as Crystal. The young man was Roger, I don't remember the others. The little boy was evidently her child. They all looked like members of the non-college-bound white lower-middle class.
Crystal explained that it's awfully hard to get a ride out of Fostoria, since there's lots of gangland activity there these days, complete with shootings, stabbings and other unpleasantness. Fostoria is a small city on the map, and I would never have guessed it would be such a rough place. Crystal said she and her friends were all from Tiffin (nine miles to the east; I once went there on a day trip from Oberlin with Leslie Montalto to check out pirate-software opportunities at Heidelberg College).
Not long into the drive, Crystal asked if I "party." "Sure," I said, even though I hate it when people use that word as verb, especially a verb meaning "smoke pot." Out came the bowl, and round and round it went. I smoked it politely, but did my best not to get too fucked up.
Crystal asked around to see if any of her friends had gas money, but no one did. Roger only had a couple dollars. It seems that Crystal had no particular plans on where she was going on this Friday night and would go all the way to Columbus if only she had enough gas. So I volunteered to buy her a tank of gasoline on my credit card. While I was in the store, what the hell, I got a six pack of Budweiser. I figured these kids would like a little beer on this hot summer day. They were delighted. "We're just a bunch of drunken drug addicts," said Crystal. "I figured as much," I replied.
We flew southward down US-23 at good speed, Green Day blasting on the stereo, cigarette smoke occasionally replacing that of the marijuana. Periodically Crystal would turn around and coochie-coo her little son dressed in Darth Vader sneakers. I felt sorry for a kid to be raised by such young, dissolute, ignorant parents. But he seemed content, even when the music was loud. He was probably the youngest person I've ever seen banging his head.
The Green Day was replaced by a local metal band from Tiffin. They sounded like a hybrid of old school Metallica and Sonic Youth, but I had the sad feeling that perhaps they were stuck in a musical rut. It's hard being a band in a small Ohio town.
After that, the music was uniformly hip-hop, most of it irritatingly overburdened with misogynistic use of the word bitch. But they all loved it.
As Crystal became increasingly intoxicated on both pot and beer, her driving became truly frightening. She often looked away from the road to converse with others in the car, and since she also had the habit of tailgating, she almost slammed into other cars on several occasions. Beyond that, she had trouble staying within the lines. And I thought Wacky Jen had a problem with over and under-correcting! I noticed that a lucky rabbit's foot hung from the rearview mirror, along with a graduation tassel and a string of beads. I got to thinking about how Americans regard luck. There's a difference between the kind of luck you need when you're moving and the kind you need when you're standing still. Moving luck is mostly about the ability to keep moving, to avoid breakdowns, accidents and trouble with police. Standing-still luck is more about happy windfalls of money.
We became sort of lost in the northeast fringe of Columbus. Crystal got sick of driving and wanted to just head back north, so she let me off at a gas station. I was happy simply to have survived.
fter some walking, I came upon a strip mall that featured, among other businesses, a cyber café called Java's Cyber Espresso Bar. Wow! I could check my email on the road! If I'd had a disk full of musings, I could have uploaded them! I got myself a big cup of coffee and fifteen minutes on the computer and made the best I could of my time.
When I was through, I sat at a table and took careful notes about all the rides I'd had today, writing in fake Greek so none of the dorks around me could see what I was doing. I guess all the white kids hanging out at the cyberbar weren't, technically speaking, turbo dorks, since they were doing something on a Friday night. Actually, I have to give them their due; the four workstations were largely being ignored and it was me who felt the need to check my email. But some of them did indeed look kind of dorky. For example, one of the employees was one of those teenage boys with long hair who was obviously neither a headbanger nor a hippie. Such boys are dorks. They can be nice, gentle, even sweet, but chances are you'll see them some day hunkered over a 20-sided die or at a renaissance festival. Then you'll know.
The cyberbar was trying just a little too hard to be, well, cyber. Food items available included such things as the Veggie Byte and the Mega Byte. I suppose dorktronics has its time and place like everything else, but geez, you'd think they'd want to make this place cool. It's a mostly a coffee shop, after all.
The kids outside were a slightly more fashionable group. There were a couple raver girls with big pants and at least one quasi-goth girl, and some of the boys had wallet chains. I have no idea what was going on in their heads. One of the girls nearby said something kind of interesting though: "Eat shit and live!" She was talking to her friend about someone she apparently didn't especially like.
By now it was nice and dark and too late for hhitchhiking. I had been drunk, but now I was also a little wired by the caffeine. I started walking down the road towards what must have been the southeast, judging from the position of the glowing sky over the core of Columbus. I gathered up a piece of foam plastic stuff I found, thinking I could use it as a blanket.
In a school parking lot I found the door on a bus was unlocked, so I spread out the foam plastic stuff down the middle aisle and stretched out and went to sleep.
I awoke some time later to the noises of footsteps. When I looked out I saw a nearby vehicle being started up and then driven off. It made me nervous. Perhaps someone was going to show up and want to drive this bus as well. So I started walking again.
I came upon a sealed-up fruit stand in a big shopping center parking lot. It was an easy matter to slide under the enshrouding tarp, whereupon I found myself surrounded by zillions of watermelons and "vine fresh" tomatoes. I found enough space under an astro-turf-covered table to stretch out and fall asleep. I didn't sleep long though. Soon I was just lying there fearing that early risers would soon show up to reopen the stand. I wriggled out from my cave, grabbed a vine-fresh tomato, and continued on my way.
When I came to I-270, I decided to just walk along its shoulder southeastward until the next exit. The traffic was light and no one, most importantly the cops, could see me. I was still in need of sleep, though, and when I came upon a fresh new condominium development abutting the interstate, I jumped the fence and found my way inside a partially-constructed condo. On the second floor, I stretched out on the floor and slept. This was the best place I'd found so far, and my sleep lasted until dawn.
one year ago
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