On an overcast spring afternoon in 1968, I stood on the shoulder of Route 6, outside Hyannis, with my thumb out. After about 20 minutes, the drizzle began, the sparse traffic sprayed by, and my spirits dampened, along with my sneakers. Just then, a 1953 Plymouth pulled over and John Lisbon called out, “Hop in!”
He brought me to Provincetown, found me a place to live and a job (at Ciro and Sal’s), and I have been here one way or another ever since.
Back in those days, I hitchhiked quite a bit, mainly because of the unreliability of all my cars. (I remember paying $50 for one, and $400 for another. I remember taking a VW Beetle to Punchy’s Garage in North Truro for inspection and, when I got out of the car, the door fell off. He passed it, but said, “Don’t ever bring this shitbox back here again.” I hitchhiked in Europe and a bit around this country, but mainly on the Cape.
There was a science to hitchhiking: you always had to consider the driver’s perspective. Remember to choose the right spot. Drivers don’t stop on a grade, neither up nor down, nor too soon after an on-ramp. Just after a rest stop is a good place. Pick a wide and level shoulder that can be seen from a distance — space enough and time for a thought to germinate and a kindly decision to blossom. Be positive but not brazen. Look directly in their eyes; sing, if possible; travel with a small dog that wears a red bandana.
Would I hitchhike today? I can’t imagine it. Would I pick up a hitchhiker? Unlikely. What has changed over these 50-odd years?
In the course of a single human life, the world changes, but so does the human. Small but certain transformations take place every day in our lives, in our surroundings, in the creatures that we are, and we adapt and adjust and rarely and vaguely realize that we and our world are somehow … different. It is difficult to untwine the incremental transformations in our very selves from those in the world around us.
Fifty-odd years ago, I would put myself out there. I felt safe in the world. Yes, the young have always felt invincible, and still do, I suppose, but there was also at that time a belief, a trust in the world, that was pervasive. It was the age of Peace and Love. The world was a safer place, or seemed to be. At least on the Cape. Did bad things ever happen? Undoubtedly. I can remember dozens and dozens of young men and women just showing up in Provincetown, from all over the country and the world, with “flowers in their hair,” wearing faded denim and fringed garments, the scent of marijuana about them, hanging around for a while and then disappearing. Did they just move on, “head for the Coast” or wherever? Surely, the great majority of them did. But there were also real disappearances. There was the “woman in the dunes” and other casualties: people who most likely placed their trust in strangers and paid the ultimate price.
Today, that danger is more apt to be online. We are more insulated from strangers — and from each other. We are, I suppose, safer. But something has also been lost. I remember, living in Cambridge, using the laundromat every Sunday. We would always see the same people from the neighborhood there; we did not know their names but felt comfortable sharing that humble space with them, perhaps commenting on the community bulletin board — who had lost a cat, who had a piano for sale — or how our little daughter was growing.
Now, we have our own washer and dryer. I have a brand-new, reliable car. Now, I am safe. But when I pass the solitary hitchhiker on the highway, I have to think: who is that person, what is his story, what brings him to stand by the side of the road?