Crashing my bike at the Sunoco gas station was the closest I’d ever come to hitchhiking. It was on one of those last days of summer, when cooler temps begin to creep in, getting a head start on fall. I was 15 and had set out on my bike with no destination in mind, just the desire to go far. Pedal to the wind, I was focused on the road ahead.
Faster, faster, I kept pushing myself. I was about to cut across the Sunoco, when smack! I hit the curb at its highest point. My bike skidded across the ground, coming to an abrupt halt by the gas pump, while I went barreling in a different direction, slamming my face into the pavement. I chipped a tooth and dented my nose, and my knees and legs were scraped into a bloody pulp. I was shaken, yet trying hard to remain stalwart despite the burning feeling all over my legs. And it didn’t help one iota knowing that I was a long ways from home.
As I sat on the ground, still in shock, a man approached. The sun in my eyes made him hard to distinguish, but he was clearly middle-aged. He reached out his arm to help me up.
“That was some fall,” he exclaimed. “You alright?”
I nodded, trying hard not to fall to pieces.
“How about I take you home? ”
In a trance, I nodded again, then watched as he picked up my damaged bicycle and leaned it against the gas station wall.
“Your bike’s not going to fit in my car,” he surmised, “So, you’ll have to collect it later. Hope that’s okay.”
“Will it be safe?” I finally spoke.
“I’ll let the attendant know. Maybe he can keep it locked up until you return.”
While the man went to speak to the attendant, I got into his car, moving slowly so as not to cause myself additional pain. It was then that it hit me: what if he wasn’t planning to take me home? I’d always been told to beware of strangers offering candy, but never anything about strangers willing to give you a ride home when you’re injured and bloodied. What if he did have something else in mind?
One summer later, and Daniel’s asking me to choose between taking the bus and hitchhiking to the beach. I’m fairly certain I know his preference. After all, Daniel has an adventurous spirit. It’s part of his charm and persona, and to not go along with it would be a sign of weakness. And, he being Daniel, I decide to put my own reservations aside.
We start walking towards the Northern State Parkway, when Daniel mentions he has four joints in his jeans’ pocket. Leading outta a secluded spot, out of view from my house, he lights the first one and hands it to me.
“You want to get high first?” I ask, incredulously.
“It’s an adventure. More fun this way.” He offers a devilish smile.
He takes the first toke and hands it to me. Reluctantly, I get high with him. After ten minutes pass, I say,
“Let’s get going, so we can get there while there’s still sunlight.”
As we walk along the entrance ramp, Daniel says, “You do it. They’ll stop for you.”
He shoots me one of his half smiles, and stands back a ways. I’m in new territory, having never actually thumbed for a ride before. But, I remember seeing a film, in which Claudette Colbert pulled up her skirt and stuck out her leg to hitch a ride, while Clark Gable stood back, bemused. For a second, I wonder if that’s what I should do, but I am wearing my scuffed-up bell-bottoms, and I don’t think rolling up my pant leg will look as sexy as it did on Claudette. I’d seen Bugs Bunny do it with his thumb, so I decide to go for that approach.
As I stick my thumb out, I think of the man at the gas station.
“So, whereabouts do you live?” He had inquired, as we pulled out of the gas station.
Hesitantly, I gave him my address, hoping he had no ulterior motives, but to drive me home. Still, I decided to try to memorize his face, in the event I’d be needing to identify him later in a police lineup. Too many episodes of Mod Squad and Dragnet, I suppose. As I examined him as best I could, I was struck by how bland in appearance he seemed, and concluded there was no way I’d be able to describe him to anyone. Which is why I decided to instead look out the window, for signs we were headed in the right direction, and that I would soon be home.
The Bugs Bunny method works, for soon some college-aged guy, driving a Buick, pulls up, just ahead of where I’m standing. He explains he’s on his way to his job at the Carvel’s, and can only take me halfway. He’s startled when Daniel darts into the backseat of the car, and seems annoyed until Daniel offers him a joint.
“Cool,” he says as he grabs it and lights up. The Grateful Dead are playing on the radio. He turns it up full blast and, feeling the high, I zone out.
We soon reach a crossroads. The driver drops us off on a median with no direct access to any exits. It feels more like the middle of nowhere, but I’m in the hitchhiking groove now. So, I stick out my thumb once again, while Daniel retreats.
The Sunoco man kept trying to lure me into making small talk, but I was too preoccupied with the searing pain I was feeling all over, and with worrying about his intentions, to take the bait. I wanted to explode from the tears and agony building up inside me like a dam. ‘Cry me a river,’ my brother would have said, if he’d been there with me.
Glancing at me sideways, the man said, “You know, Honey, you’re lucky it’s me giving you a ride home, and not some other guy.” He must have sensed my mood. “I’m telling you, there are a lot of crazies on the road, so you really should be careful.”
I remember staring at him, choking back the waterworks that wanted to burst out of me. I was convinced that his comment was exactly the sort of thing that a man about to strangle his victim, would say.
Placing his hand gingerly on my knee–on the only spot that was scrape-free–he added, “But don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.”
I tried to figure out his meaning, while adjusting my seat, edging myself closer to the window.
As I wait for a car to stop for us, feeling cocky about my hitchhiking capabilities, at first I don’t notice the police car. Too late, I see him come to a full stop in front of me. Crap!
I feel dread envelope me, as I look up to where Daniel is standing, some 15 yards up a slope. I can tell he’s freaking, too. My brain goes AWOL, not knowing what to do. In my semi, dope-induced stupor, I feel myself begin to sway as I imagine myself being hauled away in handcuffs. Maybe he’ll book us; or he’ll just call our parents and have them pick us up at the station. Either way, I wonder why I ever agreed to hitchhike to the beach.
The policeman gets out of his car, and slowly—like something out of High Noon—makes his way toward us. Cars buzz by, recklessly close. I wonder if Daniel still has the joints in his pockets or if he’s tossed them in the bushes. No time to find out. The cop’s face is staring down at me.
To be continued.