I am 38 years old and in most ways fairly respectable. I live in a respectable home. I vote in every election. I don't drink or smoke. I hold a respectable job as a consumer affairs professional for a major housing trade association in downtown Washington. Through my job, I'm frequently quoted in newspapers throughout the country.
But I commute to work in a manner that many people consider either eccentric or shocking. I hitchhike. I'm not one of those pseudo-hitchhikers who stands at a bus stop near an HOV lane and occasionally hops into a car if one stops before a bus comes. Most weekday mornings, I go to an on-ramp of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, stick out my thumb, and catch a ride downtown.
I don't hitchhike because I have no other way to get to work. I own a car. I live a few hundred yards from the Rosslyn subway, so I have cheap and convenient access to public transportation. I just like to hitchhike. I get picked up by a broad cross section of people. During the past few weeks, I've been picked up by a former secretary of defense and a newsman whose reports I have heard many times on NPR. I also get a lot of rides from people who have picked me up previously.
One lovely spring morning in 1986, I decided that rather than ride the Metro, I would leave 30 minutes early and walk to work. I managed to dodge the heavy traffic while crossing from the south side to the north side of the Roosevelt Bridge, and the effort was worth it. I am a fairly serious birdwatcher, and when I looked down into the marsh on Roosevelt Island, I saw a belted kingfisher and a great blue heron. I never saw such things in the Metro. So the next morning, I awoke early and walked again. I arrived at work invigorated. I started walking every morning.
A few weeks later, I was walking past some stopped traffic on the on-ramp to the bridge when a man rolled down his window and asked if I needed a lift. He was wearing a business suit and looked pretty safe, so I hopped into his car. He turned out to be very pleasant, and he dropped me a few blocks from my office. He also planted the seed in my head about actively seeking rides to avoid having to fight my way across the six lanes of traffic on the bridge.
The next day I went to the spot where the man had picked me up and I stuck out my thumb. Within three minutes, someone picked me up. The next day took five minutes and the one after that four. I discovered that at about 7:35, the traffic slowed to a stop, waiting to merge onto the bridge. When traffic was stopped, people were more likely to pick me up than if they had to pull over onto the shoulder.
In four years of hitching, I have never failed to get a ride, and I rarely have to wait more than 10 minutes before someone stops. I never ask people to go out of their way. And I never ask where the driver is going before I get into the car; anywhere I am dropped across the bridge will cut about 20 minutes from my walk. I never have been late for work, and I usually arrive about 30 minutes early. The weather is rarely so inclement that I can't hitch.
Over the years, I've detected some patterns. I have more trouble getting rides on Mondays; traffic is lighter because more people are either late or absent from work, and even when the traffic is stopped, drivers seem grouchier and less inclined to help me. For some reason, foreign cars (except for Mercedeses) are more likely to pick me up than American cars.
Also, a lot of foreign people give me rides. Apparently, hitchhikers are not held in as low esteem in other countries. During the summer of 1986, a man who worked at the Argentine embassy picked me up about a dozen times. His daughter, who appeared to be about my age, sat in the front seat and rarely said a word. Occasionally, he and I would talk about the weather or Argentina's play in the World Cup. He didn't speak much English, but when he would let me out of the car, he would always smile and say, "Thank you, my friend."
About one out of every 15 or 20 rides I get are from women. I have no interest in trying to "pick up" anyone who picks me up. My only concern is getting to work. I was once picked up by a young Brazilian woman from the World Bank. She seemed apprehensive about having picked me up, but at the same time enjoying the thrill of doing something dangerous. An Englishwoman who drives a wheelchair van has given me many rides. I have gotten a few rides from a Japanese woman whose son went to the same university as I.
Many of the men that pick me up are former hitchhikers. Often, the driver will get a dreamy look on his face and start telling me about how he used to hitchhike when he was younger. Occasionally, someone will give me a business card and ask me to send information related to my job.
I have never had a bad experience hitching to work, but two summers ago I had one that somewhat unnerved me. A young man in a Jaguar convertible pulled over. When I got in, he smiled and said, "I know you." He didn't look familiar. He told me his name, and I asked him where he was from; it turned out that he and I had played Little League baseball together, and we had not seen each other in 24 years. What unnerved me was that he said he pulled over because he recognized me, not because he wanted to give me a ride.
One morning, I was picked up by an architect. I told him where I was headed, and it turned out that he was making a video with one of my best friends at work. Later that day when I told my friend about the ride, he said about the driver, "I can't believe he would be the type who would pick up hitchhikers!" In America, people who pick up hitchers are thought to be looking for trouble. Men who hitch are suspected to be criminals. Women who either hitch or pick up hitchers are thought to be asking to be raped or murdered. The typical mentality is reflected in the following movie description I recently read:
" 'The Hitcher,' Starring Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Every motorist's nightmare come true: Howell picks up hitchhiker Hauer, and the guy turns out to be a homicidal maniac. Hauer has never been more coldly menacing than he is in this one. Rated R."
I don't go hitching on dark country roads. The only people I ride with are on their way to work. I usually am wearing a tie, and I do not look especially menacing. Yet, I now realize how it feels to need someone's help and to see people who see I need help but still pass by. Not many people want to offer aid; they seem to regard me the same as the increasing number of beggars on the streets of Washington who stick their hands out for a different reason. Many drivers scrupulously avoid eye contact with me. Some even reach over to lock their doors.
Some people who pick me up ask if my car broke down and act either disappointed or betrayed when they find out that it hasn't. It's as if their good deed is not as good since I am not in as much need as they assumed. They don't view my activity as taking one more car off the road to reduce the amount of traffic with which they must contend. They don't view it as burning less fossil fuel or spewing fewer pollutants into the air. I view it merely as unpremeditated car-pooling.