Friday, February 09, 2007

(4) The Hitchhiking Years: Chicago and the First Big Moment

These hitchhiking memories are really flooding back now. If I ever get to the 13-day trip I took from Massachusetts to college out West later in 1972, I want to describe the ceremony on the 1-year anniversary of the Attica uprising. I happened to be hitching through New York state on September 9th and some activists invited me to take a detour to a gathering right outside the prison walls. I touched the walls of Attica, one year after the riots.

The event was typical of the interaction you'd have with the people who gave you a ride. Incidentally, one reason the script about all this didn't get optioned was there was no character development. I mean, there was me, and I was going through changes, but everyone else just came through and then left. I still think it'd make a cool movie, but I understand the problem.

Out on the road, of course, it was a great feature. Instead of going through on a bus you'd have an endless string of local guides telling you things. A good example from later on, was the time we were driving down a street and the guy said, "That was the intersection where Timothy Leary got busted." Can you imagine the driver on your Greyhound bus turning on the intercom and saying, "Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but that was the intersection where Timothy Leary got busted"?

So it was a stream of people, and as I mentioned before, there was a lot of talk about their personal lives. Plus, a lot of talk about the country: Those times were packed with politics, and we were agonizing over Vietnam. It hung over this nation like a horrible cloud. Gee, thank God nothing like that could happen now.

Yes, Vietnam was horrible, but despite everything there was still a lot of hope and excitement in the young generation. The civil rights movement, the rock and roll. It was quite a time, and I was way into the counter-culture. It's easy to scoff at the idealistic aspects, but if enough people believed them, it was real and back then, they believed. I think that made it the great era of hitchhiking in America.

In those days, there was a feeling of the brotherhood of mankind and all that hippie stuff, and for a longhair out hitching around, it was a tremendous thing to behold. I want to emphasize that I didn't really feel like a genuine part of it, because I was from Arabia, but I really wanted to check it out. I was a guest here, but I was hoping for a moment where I could say, "Yeah, I was there. I experienced it." One such moment would happen during the day where I left off the story.

So where were we? I had broken camp in Toldeo, Ohio, and I was heading towards Chicago. Now, here I made another mistake in a purely hitchhiking sense. There was no reason really to go into the city - in fact, it could be a real hitching nightmare. I could have stuck on 80 and missed the drama by veering a little to the south, but I ended up riding with this old black man and he was going right into the city so that's where I went, too.

Incidentally, in the script, we have a long talk about music - I was already set on being a musician, but the truth is, I don't remember much of the conversation. I know we were in a big car and I do remember being impressed when we drove through Gary, Indiana, because it was the home of the Jackson 5. See, for a kid from Arabia, the idea that these legends like Chuck Berry or Smokey Robinson were actually from places you could go through...well, it was just too much. To this day I'm not used to that completely. America from thousands of miles away seemed like a mythical wonderland. It really did.

I do remember that the old black man wasn't impressed with the Jackson 5, and didn't care for Gary, Indiana either. It was a great conversation though - I recall that. I go back to the situation: I was in his car, and we were only going to chat that one time, so there was absolutely no reason not to be genuine. That was the magic of hitchhiking - true communication. Now, I admit, I was always working the security situation with any new driver, but being nice and upfront was the best way to handle that, too, so overall it was great. I had a lot of laughs talking with the many Americans on the road. Overall, they were great representatives of this country.

So we rolled into the city, and the old man dropped me off in the middle of the Southside of Chicago. I had made a pledge that I wasn't going to cut corners and take buses or even a commuter train. I just knew if you started cutting corners, there'd be no end to it. So this was going to be either walking or hitching all over America - done, end of story. So I began hitchhiking on a city street in the Southside of Chicago. I had a long way to go to get to 55 South, the link between the city back down to 80 West that was running a little south of us. I didn't want to walk to it.

I must have looked ridiculous - like seeing someone hitch on Broadway here in Portland, and I was the only white person around. It might have been one of those times where I was so naive that it was like a blanket of protection. There were some angry looks but mainly the African American community seemed surprised to see me there, a long-haired white person hitching in their neighborhood. I was persistent but it was not happening, and I was going nowhere. I got the feeling the locals wouldn't even want to be seen talking to me. It was that obvious.

And that's when a bread van going the other way pulled over and an Italian dude stuck his head out and asked me what the hell I was doing. He motioned me over, and after I explained, he said he had to make a few deliveries but he'd take me to where the freeway entrance was. He did say that there was considerable racial tension in the area, and that sometimes his van would get hit by a rock. He was amused no end at my predicament, and we got along great. At one stop - an Italian restaurant - he bought me a meatball sub and we sat down and had lunch.

I should explain. I would always pretend to be running low on funds in case they wanted to rob me, so sometimes it was tough not to go along with a freebie. But even if I had said, "I was kidding. I've actually got a few hundred bucks, and an Amex card", this guy would have insisted on buying. He was remarkable, and after we dropped bread off at a few more places, he drove me right to the ramp out of town. I had met my first true guardian angel in America, and it really impressed me to think he'd stop when he wasn't even going my way. Just to look out for a stranger.

That was good enough for one day, but I was now heading for my first transcendent moment of the trip. It came on 55 South heading down to join the freeway. By this time, I would just stand my pack upright on the frame, and sit on the edge, rocking while I waited for something to happen. This way they could see me and everything I had with me all at once. Sitting down on the ground while hitchhiking is a losing move and standing was slightly aggressive and tiring. I had hit on the perfect compromise. Sit, but on the full height of the pack. Of course, there were times when a semi-truck would go by too close and the wind would pull me over backwards, but you just got back up.

Yes, a semi-truck could be a problem, but what I began hearing approaching me on that day was no truck. The sound was too loud - it was a thunderous roar of many engines. I strained my eyes to catch a glimpse. There, I could see them. Coming down the road were around 40 or 50 motorcycles taking up both lanes. These weren't your modern day yuppie-motorcycle-club-types either. These were rebel, chopper-riding, bad asses, with girlfriends on the back who looked like Janis Joplin. These were authentic 60s-style bikers, and not the Hollywood Easy Rider version, either. They were the magnificent, scary, real thing.

As they approached, I had an impulse. Sitting there propped up on my pack, I raised my right hand and gave them the clenched fist - the power salute. Nearly every last one of them raised their right arm and gave me the power salute right back. Watching them roar past with their fists in the air remains one of the coolest things I've ever seen. You talk about the feeling of the 60s? That was it. Sure, it had spilled ahead into 1972, but the 60s didn't really end till around 1975. So it was all there: The freedom, the excitement, the power, and the intense rush. It was Day 3 of the journey, but the trip had just begun.


At 9:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lots of personal relating on this one, Bill. Me, that Chi-town, and those years. I hitched it too, and picked up hitchers.

There is a lot of America you can see go by and understand, without moving, standing by the highway, suitcase in my hand, and many people come my way, and many pass me by, ( I've always loved 'Magic Mirror,' a fun look at how we tend to perceive others and are unable to see how they see us),
To the thieves I a’m a bandit, the mothers think I'm their son
To the preachers I'’m a sinner. Lord, I'm not the only one.
To the sad ones I'm unhappy, to the losers I'’m a fool.
With the students I'’m a teacher, to the teachers I'’m in school.

To the hobos I'’m imprisoned by everything I own.
To the solder I'’m just someone else who's dying to go home.
A general sees a number, the politicians too.
To my friends I'’m just an equal in this world.

Magic mirror, won't you tell me please. Do I find myself in anyone I see?
Magic mirror, if we only could, try to see ourselves as other people would...

At 4:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this story. As a twenty-something hitching in 2013 with the full weight of disillusionment in my backpack, its good to hear the previous generation has no regrets.


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