Public turns thumbs down on its hapless hitchhikers Drivers give hitchhikers thumbs down

November 19, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This kid standing on York Road, just north of the Towson beltway entrance, must be the last hitchhiker in America. Who does this anymore? Once, in the movies alone, there was Henry Fonda hitching home from prison in "The Grapes of Wrath." A fella does another fella a favor. Once there was Claudette Colbert showing Clark Gable how to hitch in "It Happened One Night." Gable just needed better legs.

Now, I almost never see anybody hitching. Except this kid, out there on York Road, who turns out to be a female kid about 20 and she's standing there, by my watch, five minutes, 10 minutes, and nobody in the immediate world is stopping to be a pal.

Who stops anymore? Once, we proceeded like the courts: Somebody was innocent until proven guilty. Somebody needed a lift, you helped a neighbor and felt good about it. Such thinking no longer works on the street, where everyone's presumed to be packing heat, presumed to be a potential kidnapper, if standing with thumb extended.

In my time in high school, which was dusk of the golden age of hitchhiking, I thumbed rides everywhere. I had it down to a science. Going home from City College, going down 33rd Street and up University Parkway, I knew which traffic lights were long, which ones were a waste. You didn't merely hold out a thumb, you went up to the drivers while the light was red, looking needy, holding your school books, asking, "You going up University? You going out Liberty Heights?"

You could do it back then. The drivers would talk to you. In the warm months, they had their windows down to get the breeze. Who had air conditioning? In the winter, they'd see you bundled against the knifing winds and take pity on you.

Drivers and their cars are different now. This kid on York Road's finding this out, getting the cold shoulder from strangers on this miserable gray day. She's got her collar up against the wind, and she can't be more than 5-foot-3, definitely no physical threat, but it doesn't matter. They're zipping past her.

Once, people drove cars to get from one place to another. Now they provide extras. The cars are our protective capsules as we get from one dangerous place to another. We're locked in, strapped in, tape decks blaring music to block out the world outside, telephone there in a pinch, radio talk shows kvetching away to remind us the government's falling apart, windows up tight to soundproof us from who knows what and alarm systems ready when we park and have to defend against whatever's lurking out there.

What's lurking at the moment is this poor girl on York Road. A college student maybe. In the spring, she'll go barefoot and read her textbooks on the grass outside the school library and look vulnerable and sweet. Now she's bundled like a Russian waiting for the borscht line to move up. Or she's someone really dangerous. Like a squeegee kid, who wants to clean your windows against your will. Or a homeless person, who wants 30 cents to make a down payment on a condominium.

The women drivers pass this kid by as if issuing motherly rebukes: Young lady, you should know better. The men may be a little more torn: A girl, who could she hurt? But then, what if a guy makes a little innocent small talk and she takes it the wrong way? We live in litigious times, the newspapers are full of weird lawsuits

We become, more and more, strangers to each other. (This doesn't mean every driver stopped for every hitchhiker back in the old days. I used to stand at a corner in northwest Baltimore, back in my senior year at City, as one of the school's math teachers pulled up to a stop sign every morning. I had my thumb out. I had my City College jacket on. He knew my face. And he never stopped for me, the bum, and if I ever see him hitchhiking now in his 80s, why ...)

But I won't, because I almost never see anybody hitching any more, except this girl on York Road who's been out there for 15 minutes now, probably late for class, wondering why everybody's so heartless, thinking up excuses to give her instructor.

I saw this coming exactly 32 years ago this weekend, the Friday afternoon John Kennedy was murdered. I had to hitch home to Baltimore from College Park. Stood out there on Route One, suitcase by my side, thumb out, innocent as a college freshman could be.

Nobody stopped. John Kennedy was killed by some stranger in Dallas. I was a stranger on a highway in College Park. All strangers were to be distrusted now. I stood there, in the gathering gloom, for more than an hour before an old man finally picked me up. The lights were dimming for America, and also for a sense of security.

Now, on a frigid November day 32 years later, I pull my car toward the kid on York Road. Somebody ought to tell her. It ain't like the old movies anymore. The golden age of hitchhiking is gone, and the streets are full of people seeking isolation.

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