Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hitch a Ride

I picked up a hitchhiker the other night.

Maybe it wasn't the smartest thing to do, with my sleeping 7 month old in the backseat. But, when a zoftig post-menopausal woman approached my car window as I drove slowly through my condo's parking lot, I could not resist. Her dyed black hair was frizzing up in the humid night air and I saw beads of sweat forming on her upper lip. She tapped on my window with her long acrylic red nails, panting, "I'm lost! Where the hell is 5E? I'm shvitzing out here!"

I quickly surveyed the situation. Was this really a woman or perhaps a man dressed up as a woman? I remembered how Ted Bundy used to put a fake caste on his arm just to garner sympathy from unsuspecting women right before he overpowered them.

Was this person really going to "break the fast" or was she plotting to break my neck?

Was this woman (or man dressed up as a woman) really holding a wrapped noodle kugel? Or was that some sort of concealed weapon? I made a quick decision that it was really a kugel and she was really a woman, a woman going to break the fast for Yom Kippur; a woman tired of walking around a parking lot aimlessly, anxious about being late for her holiday dinner.

"Get in," I encouraged her, "I have no idea where 5E is, but we'll find it."

"Oh, thank you, you're such a doll!!" she gushed at a decibel just loud enough to disturb my sleeping boy. Although slightly irritated by her booming voice, I admired her audacity as she hopped into my car to ride shotgun.

You see, nobody hitchhikes any more.

My great-grandmother used to walk to the grocery store and then hitch a ride home with all of her packages. Seriously. Every single week. "Times were different back then, sweetheart," my grandmom explained recently. "Nanny didn't drive, so that's what she did when she needed to go to the market." Okay.

I, myself, once hitched a two hour ride from Denver to Breckenridge, Colorado, with three teenage boys whom I befriended on the airplane. "I'll meet you at the Loaf N Jug (the local Wawa)!" I told my friend, Mindy, over the pay phone at the Denver Airport. "I thought you were taking the shuttle?" she asked, confused. "Nope, I'm hitching a ride!" I responded proudly. "Wha?" she asked horrified. I don't know if the altitude had already gone to my head, clouding my better judgment, but I sat crammed amongst snowboards, skis, and boots in the back seat of a jeep, listening to the teen boys debut their best teen boy jokes, praying that I would live to see my friend.

Hitchhiking clearly runs in my family. In the early '70s, my dad used to hitchhike all over Europe; that is, once he ran out of gas in his orange VW bus, named Clementine, and was forced to sell her on the side of the road in Germany for 500 bucks. In those glorious days before cell phones and satellites, he and his army buddy, dressed like Tom Petty, in top hats and shawls, used to go their separate ways, hitchhiking, only to meet up days later at a monument in Madrid or a cafe in Amsterdam.

My dad never forgot the kindness of those perfect strangers in Europe and he reciprocated the favor when he was back in the states, a married father. One new year's eve, mid-80s, my parents were driving home from a black tie party with neighbors, and my dad noticed a man on the side of the road, dressed in a tuxedo, with sunglasses on, well past midnight. The man held a cane in his left hand. My dad, traveling his usual 83 mph, made an abrupt stop at the man's feet, as he often did at red lights.

I'm sure someone in the car, possibly my mom, screamed, "Thomas, what the hell are you doing?"

"I'm picking up this hitchhiker!" my dad probably responded emphatically.

"He's not even hitchhiking!" my mom retorted. "He's probably waiting for a cab or a bus!"

"He's coming with us!" my dad announced.

"Don't you dare," the neighbor in the back seat, encsonced in her white mink coat shrieked. "He'll steal my coat!"

"He's blind!" my dad protested, rolling down his window. "Hop in," my dad told the man. "Happy New Year! Where are you heading?" The man climbed in, incredibly gracious.

I, too, got caught up in the spirit of the new year. "Thank you, you saved me! My corns were killing me, walking around that focacta parking lot!" the bubbe in my car complained. My baby in the back seat let out a high-pitched half-cry. "Here we are!" I said, relieved to have finally found unit 5E. The hitchhiker in my car breathed heavily, tucked her kugel under her thick arm, and opened her car door. "Happy new year, doll!" she gushed. "I've never hitchhiked in my life!" she cried, wiping sweat from her hairline. "Thank you!"

"No need to thank me," I said, "just pay it forward and pick up a hitchhiker sometime!"

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