Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Guide to the Hitchhiker's Galaxy

There are some people who are so interesting that I wish they could be my friend, but they are also so interesting that I’m afraid I would go nuts if they were my roommate. John Waters is one of these.

Most people know John Waters from the movies he’s directed like Hairspray and Polyester. For those who don’t know him, the IMDB plot summary of Polyester (1981) will suffice as an introduction:

“A suburban housewife's world falls apart when her pornographer husband admits he's serially unfaithful to her, her daughter gets pregnant, and her son is suspected of being the foot-fetishist who's been breaking local women's feet.”


John Waters has just written Carsick, a book based on his hitchhiking trip cross-country from Baltimore to San Francisco. Carsick includes three parts, the first two are fictional accounts of the best and the worst possible experiences he imagines he could have on his intended trip, and the third is an account of the trip itself. I know this from reviews of the book and from his appearance on “The Colbert Report,” not from having actually read Carsick.

Norman Power’s review in the New York Journal of Books includes this description:

“In ‘The Best That Could Happen’ Waters imagines a cross-country trip full of his favorite kinds of eccentrics, freaks, and amiable perverts, many of whom joyfully recognize him as their hero. There’s an escaped convict named Ready Whip and his girlfriend Polk-A-Dotty;…”

And so on.

I guess I’m kind of cheating by writing about book reviews instead of the book itself, but, truth to tell, I don’t expect to read Carsick. It interests me because it calls to mind my own hitchhiking past. My highway habit was born when I was a high school student in Lakeland, Florida, and I had a crush on a girl in Eustis, but no vehicle to take me there. Not much to tell about that except to observe that so much of what we do in life is driven by just this kind of passion. I recall Daniel Ellsberg saying, only half-jokingly, that he got involved in the anti-war movement because “there was this girl.”

My heavy-duty hitchhiking career really got underway in 1966 when I was in college in New Orleans. As soon as I got a break between classes, I took off on a hitchhiking trip to Mexico. I had never been outside the U.S., and going to Mexico seemed like the most exciting thing I could do with my break, so off I went. It was all very cool since, when I finally made it, I got to try out my Spanish and discovered that the Mexicans I spoke to could actually understand what I was saying sometimes. (Gracias to Mrs. Workizer, my high school Spanish teacher.) I also met two nice Mexican students from wealthy families who spent half the night driving me around to Monterey’s various brothels where we downed drink after drink. And, in anticipation of any questions you may have about further experiences in said brothels, the answers are all “no.”

On my way home, stopping off at the border town of Nuevo Laredo, I sat for a while in a bus station with some Mexican farmers. They were super-friendly (as almost everyone I’ve ever met in Mexico is) and, they were at pains to assure me that the U.S. didn’t have to be so afraid of Castro because, “Don’t worry, we Mexicans can protect you.”

I also met a thirtyish American dude who was, I think, hung over, but he may have actually been not yet hung over, but still drunk from the night before. He looked intently at me with watery eyes and said, “Don’t let ‘em get you, man. Whatever you do, don’t let ‘em get you.”

Who the hell he was talking about, I don’t know, but I just made my way to the American border as quickly as possible, not nervous about “them,” but not wanting to spend any more time being lectured to by a disheveled drunkard whose nose blew bubbles of mucous every time he breathed.

Back on the U.S. side, I picked up my hitchhiking sign, which I had stowed behind a gas station in preparation for the return trip. It turns out that more useful than a sign saying “Mexico” or “New Orleans” was my Tulane University laundry bag. Yes, I didn’t have a backpack, so, for my trip I had just thrown some changes of clothing and a couple of books into my laundry bag. When I placed it on the roadside where the university emblem was visible, I seemed to get picked up quickly, often by students from other schools.

Speaking of hitchhiking signs, John Waters had some innovative ones, including “Writing Hitchhiking Book,” Midlife Crisis, and “I’m Not Psycho.” I have to wonder how reassuring this last one was to potential rides.

On my various hitchhiking journeys in the U.S., I often held up signs proclaiming my hoped-for destination, but once I recall using a sign that said “Scintillating Conversation,” and that seemed to work pretty well too.

The hitchhiker’s worst enemies are boredom and despair. My most disheartening experience occurred just south of Atlanta, near the airport, where I once held my thumb out for two or three hours to no avail. Still bitter about that.

I suppose that nowadays people would say that being picked up by a psychotic killer is the worst that can happen, never mind the boredom and despair. Somehow I didn’t worry about those things back in my student days and I never did have to face the heartbreak of being murdered on a lonely highway.

I did garner some informal education in my travels. Once I got a ride from Mobile to Pensacola with a couple of Florida country boys. When they fiddled with the radio dial looking for good, down-home music, they passed over some of my favorite stations. I recommended that they might try listening to them, but they were adamant. “We don’t listen to that switchblade music,” one of them said. This surprised me. They saw my favorite music as dangerously urban, while for a city boy like me, country music had the potential to conjure up images of belligerent rednecks with shotguns and clubs.

Near Tallahassee, heading west, I was once picked up by an African-American college student. Everything was cool and relaxed until, at one point, he noticed a police car and said something nervously about what the cops might think about a white kid and a black kid riding together in the same car. That was a news flash for me. I had never imagined that just seeing a cop car when you were doing nothing wrong could be a source of anxiety.

An awful lot of my rides were with gay guys. Again cool, except for one very hefty dude who gave me a ride on highway 90 on the Florida panhandle. I had been politely propositioned a number of times, and it had never bothered me. In fact, one very likable guy in New Orleans actually engaged me in an interesting philosophical conversation based on the wisdom of Plato, etc.

But Mr. Meatball on Highway 90 was different - uncomfortably forward about his interests. Hmm. So that's what women must feel like when clumsy guys press them with crude advances.

It has been many years since I have hitchhiked, but for a while I made it a habit to pick up harmless looking hitchers during my cross-country travels. Most of these resulted in pleasant or uneventful encounters, though there was one particularly interesting hippie chick I picked up just outside Boulder, Colorado, who led me to what seemed like a permanent campsite in one of the local canyons. Living there was a small colony of some of the grooviest people you might want to know. One guy made decorative hashish pipes out of some kind of grayish material that he said was soft enough that he could carve it with his thumbnail.

I don’t quite know what has happened that hitchhiking seems so much more risky today than it did in the 1960s and 70s. We have changed, and the result of the change is either that we are more dangerous to each other than we used to be, or we simply have lost our ability to trust each other. Anyway, good on you, John Waters, for showing us that it is still possible to bum rides across America without being hacked to bits by some roving psycho killer.

(The reviews I read were in The New York Journal of Books by NormanPowers and in the New York Times Sunday Book Review by Dwight Garner.)

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