Raindrops tap dance on the car roof. The downpour is as heavy as my encounter with a long-ago storm while returning from the East End of Long Island. How long have I held a steering wheel, sensed the bumpy road under me and watched it fade away in my rear-view mirror? It’s been an adventurous fifty-year ride, give or take, past too many bars, McDonalds, neon lights and highway signs.
Back in the day, as a teenager, if I needed to get into town I’d hitch-hike a ride. It was not a big deal, really a common practice. I stopped picking up hitch-hikers, too dangerous, but still feel guilty driving past my fellow man. Here is what happened best as I can recall.
One long ago stormy afternoon I headed west on Sunrise Highway, returning from a construction site in Westhampton, New York, a trip I’d made many times, sometimes sober, sometimes not.
A lightning bolt lit the dark, angry sky and the road. I glimpsed a figure sloshing through the storm, limping some and wearing a rain-soaked hoodie, his hand and thumb clearly extended. What the hell is a hitchhiker doing out in this God-awful weather? The guilty feeling grabbed hold and I, with some reluctance, pulled over and let the stranger in.
He repeatedly thanked me until I handed him a large Cupsogue Beach imprinted beach towel. The stranger resembled a saturated human sponge. He ripped off his hoodie and appeared to be about fifty, bald, with muscular arms. Except for the lizard-like tattoo on his neck and a boxer’s shaped nose he reminded me of an older, wrinkled version of Mister Clean.
“Been walkin’ a good five miles and nobody stopped. Hell, nobody even slowed down, ‘cept you. Damn fancy cars, fancy Hampton people!”
“Your car break down?” I asked. He let out an unexpected howl.
“Don’t got a car. Where I come from, don’t need a car. Guess, Mister, guess where I been.” I glanced at this sopping character.
“Naw, forget it, how’d the hell you know?” The stranger beat hard and fast on the dashboard and bad vibes swept over me. “You got booze, any whiskey, Mister?”
I shook my head and considered how to separate myself from this character. There was a long silence and his questions kept flying my way. “You don’t say much, do you? You always hold a steering wheel like you chokin’ it? You wonderin’ what I’m up to.”
“No, your business is your business,” I said shakily. Between the rain lashing my windshield and this crazed passenger, I had trouble keeping the car on the road.
“Well, Mister, gonna tell ya where anyways. Suffolk County jail … all my belongins in this bag.” He jiggled the soaked paper bag close to my face. “Wished they’d give me an umbrella.”
“Please stop raining so I can let him out.”
“Wonderin’ what I did? I got ‘rested for aggravated assault. You look ill, Mister. Hey, ain’t gonna hurt you. There’s people at the jail I’d like to really hurt.”
He cracked his knuckles slowly, sounding like dry tree branches snapping. Wish he’d quit calling me Mister. I thought about starting a conversation, asking his name, but that might make him suspicious. I remembered the expression, “curiosity killed the cat.”
“Bet you wonder who I am, my name and all that stuff.” I shook my head. “It’s Francis, can you beat that. My folks gave me a damn girl’s name. You can call me Frank.”
He leaned over toward the back seat and fished through a wooden tool box. “Really need whiskey. How’s a man drive ‘round all day without somethin’ to wet his whistle.” He looked at me strange, one eye closed. “Where you keep the whiskey?”
“There’s a liquor store in Patchogue, only a few miles west. My mention of a liquor store had him smacking his lips.
“Why you go, give me a ride, Mister, nobody else did? You not a homo, had my fill of queers back at the jail.” I told him I’d hitchhiked as a boy and felt guilty leaving him in the heavy rain.
“That’s a ‘ceptable answer. I beat up two pretty bad before the rest stopped botherin’ me.” He made several low moaning sounds. “Got a sweet lady waitin’ in Queens with the prettiest ass and smells sooo good.”
I wondered where this sweetheart was if today was his release day. Maybe he tunneled out of jail. I guessed his next question as the Patchogue sign (2 miles) appeared.
“You got a lady friend, Mister?”
I didn’t at the time, being divorced and out of a relationship with a woman whose last words were how I liked my hand around a liquor bottle more than her waist or breast.
“I do and she is a great cook.” I patted my belly and aimed a forced smile his way.
“That’s good, real good, Mister.” The rain eased as I entered Patchogue.
“Have to let you out here, sorry.”
All these years I’d felt safe in my car, protected by a body, not flesh and blood like a mother’s womb, rather the hard exterior of steel and glass. This hiker erased that feeling, stirring eons old emotions of fight or flight. Was something telling me it was time to slow down?
“Hold on, Mister, you and me got unfinished business.” The lump in my throat grew larger. He reached into his drenched sweats pocket and pulled out what would certainly be a knife, a pistol, a razor-sharp box cutter? Was my predicament telling me to get out of, as the Eagles put it, “’life in the fast lane?” How a man’s life can change, anytime, anywhere, even here on the road.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” I whispered and exhaled sounding like a bad tire losing air pressure. It was only his wallet.
“Got some cash, Mister, buy you a drink for givin’ me a lift. Nice of you to hear me out. My talk gets me in trouble.”
“Sorry, wish I could, have to get back to Westhampton. I left an important package.” He squinted and his half-smile disappeared. There was a long, awkward silence I could almost taste, followed by a thunderous hand-clap.
“Hell, you gotta do what you gotta do. I’ll find a bar and someone to talk to over a whiskey. Thanks again, Mister, you restored my faith in hum … huma …”
“Humanity,” I chimed in and almost let slip with “anytime” but caught myself and mumbled a weak “see ya.” He gave my dashboard one last rat-a-tat-tat, hobbled across the street, and disappeared around the corner. My hitchhiker aroused several emotions; fear, relief, and substantial appreciation for being in my shoes and not his.
Back in the quiet of my home, a television broadcast an animated reporter showing photos of an escaped prisoner from a New York City jail. There was a number to call for anyone with information. It wasn’t my talkative hitch-hiker, but if it was, would I have phoned in a report. Hell, we all make mistakes but many don’t get a second chance. Maybe my hiker needed a break, a second chance.
Something inside me took hold. I grabbed an old eight-millimeter projector and several reels of film from a closet, threaded the film to the projector, flipped the switch, turned down the lights, and revisited a long-ago time. It was a happier time filled with Christmas decorations, Thanksgiving dinners, holiday cheer, warm summers at the ocean and warm embraces. A broad, grateful smile filled my face.
I picked up the phone and called a sister living in Boston. The conversation was short but meaningful.
“It’s me, your brother.”
“Tony, how are you? What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong is me, ever since I left home.”
“Don’t beat yourself up.”
“How’s my nephew and niece?”
“They’re getting bye okay.”
“Please listen while I have the good sense to say what I’m feeling. I’d like my family back. Can’t do a damn thing about the past … I can be a better brother and uncle going forward. Think about it and maybe I can drive up for a visit.” That was the beginning of the road back, a different road back to my flesh and blood.
I’ve never told anyone about the “hitchhiker incident.” Few would believe me and how would it help? He surely was one cool character. His name was Francis or Frank but I think of him as Whiskey. I doubt he understood the good deed he performed that stormy day but I certainly do.
I’ve never forgotten that day on the road. In the years since my encounter with Whiskey, each time I drive that stretch of pine barren highway from Westhampton to Patchogue I expect to see him hobbling along and leaning in with his thumb extended. As for me, I’m working on my issues and haven’t picked up a hitchhiker since.