The hitchhiker sat in my backseat and, staring back at him, I couldn’t make sense of how he got there.
I was sixteen, new to SAT prep, reported income, and the driver’s seat of a car. What I wasn’t new to was Fairfield, Connecticut—my hometown. And yet I found myself lost, roaming the windy, startlingly unfamiliar streets, no more than five miles from my house.
My friend and I were on our way to the Dogwood Festival, an annual fair at which area vendors gathered on a church green to sell homemade soaps, potted chrysanthemums, and organic dog treats. It doesn’t sound like the most stimulating weekend activity for a couple of teenagers, but this was a town whose young people frequently convened in empty fields to stare at one another and drink cheap beer, so at least that day’s field would have crafts to admire, and less puddles of vomit to sidestep.
The trick, it turned out, was getting there. I’d left the house assuming I knew the way. How could I not? What human of moderate intelligence couldn’t retrace a route taken at least a dozen times before? Even rats managed to navigate a maze if it yielded a cheese reward, and that’s regular store-bought Kraft cheddar. The Dogwood Festival hosted cheese artisans—I’m talking fresh chevre! But there I was, driving in circles.
This was an age before GPS’s, and when cell phones could only be used to call, text, or bludgeon home invaders. So when I saw a man on the side of the road—a kind soul who could potentially point me in the right direction!—I was so relieved, I pulled over without minding his worn duffel bag or the fact that we were in the woods and there was no good reason to trust a man walking along the side of the road. And yet there I was, pulled up beside him, rolling down my window.
“Excuse me, sir. Do you know how to get to the Dogwood Festival?”
Now, this fair was a nice enough event, but Fairfield is a town of 60,000, and the Dogwood Festival wasn’t exactly its equivalent to New York City’s Puerto Rican Day Parade or Whoville’s Christmas. Sure, some people knew about it, and maybe a few even looked forward to it, but it’s not like a stranger taken at random would respond to my question with, “The Dogwood Festival? Golly, I surely do know the way! Let me draw you a map.” The more likely response would be, “The Dogwood Festival? Um, sounds familiar. I think my cousin’s neighbor bought his mom a plant for Mother’s Day there once.”
But this man—who in my exaggerated memory looked like a young Jerry Garcia, but in reality was likely cleaner, say an older John Lennon—looked at me and said, “Yes, that’s where I’m going.”
And then he was in my backseat, door shut behind him, and I can’t remember how he got from point A to point B.
I turned and stared back at the stranger in my car for an uncomfortable amount of time, long enough to consider many thoughts, the first being, Is this a big deal? I try to avoid being dramatic and, when you’re inside the moment, it’s often hard to measure significance. It’s only later, when you’re chained up in an unfinished basement, that you realize, Yup, that was a big deal.
I then contemplated that the man could be good: a weary traveler, journeying from a far distance—Woodstock, New York would be a safe guesstimate—to haggle with the artists of New England over one of a kind stuff to keep in his duffel bag, like say a hand painted spoon rest. Or perhaps he was a craftsman himself, eager to peddle the coasters he’d constructed from littered bottle caps. But then there were other possibilities to ponder, the least gruesome being auto theft, and after a month of driving our Chrysler Town and Country to school, I just couldn’t go back to taking the bus!
So at this point in my baffled stare, I arrived at the conclusion that I needed to remove this vagabond from my minivan. The question was, how?
An eject switch, a little red button beneath my dashboard illustrated with a stick figure flung from a vehicle, would have been the ideal solution. However, this was the year 2004, not an episode of Get Smart. Back to the drawing board. My next idea was a simple one: ask him to leave. But that felt rude, and I didn’t want to seem like some privileged white girl from the suburbs who thought she was too good to give a hobo a lift—we were going to the same place, for crying out loud! So, like I was taught to do when I didn’t want to go to a classmate’s birthday party, I told a little white lie to spare the vagrant’s feelings.
“Actually we have to stop and pick up a friend first, so you probably want to head there on your own,” I said, and sighed relief in the wake of my own socially conscious brilliance.
“Oh, I’ll come along. I don’t mind the stop,” he said.
“Oh you don’t mind the stop? That’s good, that’s good,” I said, my head bobbing as if trying to physically shake an excuse loose in my brain. “Well, here’s the thing though. We may not even go to the festival. I was just asking directions out of curiosity. But what we’re doing is stopping at a friend’s house, and then, only at that point, are we going to decide. We may go, but we may not. And the second part, the part about not going, is a strong possibility. Getting stronger by the minute, actually. So just get out of my car because out of my car you can go to the festival and be out of my car.”
God bless the drifter, he did, and he took his dingy duffel bag with him. As I peeled away, I looked into my rearview mirror; the dust from my quick exodus settled and revealed a harmless nomad, shoulders rounded with fatigue, worn by his pilgrimage, just a guy hoping for a ride.
But at least he knew where he was going.