FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Hitchhiker Finds Drivers Suddenly More Willing to Give a Lift

by DAVE LINDORFF

Sometimes a journalist just has to go with the story, even if it’s going all wrong.

I had set out to stand up for the rights of hitchhikers everywhere, and against abusive policing, when I left the house yesterday afternoon and walked up the road to an intersection where I could stand on the grass and stick out my thumb and try to snag a ride to the supermarket four miles off.

The location and the time — 6 pm — were both important. Three days before, I had tried the same thing at the same spot, same time. Every so often I like to do a local hitchhike, just to test the national zeitgeist and the level of empathy of my fellow Americans. Last winter I tried it, and after over a hundred cars had left me standing in a brutal cold wind, finally got a ride from an immigrant Indian couple and their teenage son. (My fellow Americans didn’t come off so well in that story.)

But three days ago, after nearly 60 cars had passed me — most often one or two men in a car who would look away from me in what appeared to be a kind of embarrassment — a black police SUV from the town of Horsham started pulling towards me through the parking lot of the local bank, on whose lawn I was standing. The cop in the vehicle was shaking his head at me with a stern, disapproving expression. He pulled to a stop, rolled down his window, and as I walked up to his car, said, “You can’t hitchhike. It’s illegal.”

“Illegal?” I said, “Where? I’m not standing on the road?

The officer said, “It’s illegal in town, in the county, and all over Pennsylvania, on the road or not. If you hitchhike, I’ll have to lock you up.”

“Lock me up? For hitchhiking?” Now I was shocked. I have hitchhiked since I was 15, all over the US, up to Alaska when I was 16, several times across the country and back, and down to Florida, and while I had been ordered off of highway onramps, yelled at, and even taken for rides and dumped far away from the highway by cops who didn’t like long-haired hippie types back in the ‘60s, I had never been arrested. Hitchhiking is not a criminal offense as far as I know.

“Yeah,” said the Horsham officer, looking like he would be happy to do it.

“Okay, I guess I’m not hitching today,” I said, and walked home.

When I got back to the house, I looked up the state law. It said it was illegal to “stand on a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride.” But the only other restriction was that it was illegal to “stand on or in the proximity of a highway for the purpose of soliciting the watching or guarding of any vehicle which isparked or about to be parked on a street or highway.” I have no idea what activity that language is aimed at prohibiting, but it sure has nothing to do with hitching a ride! So I called the Horsham Police Department and asked to speak to a supervisor. I was passed by the dispatcher to a sergeant, who was kind enough to look up the law himself. After reading it, he assured me that it would be legal for me to hitchhike, as long as I stood off the pavement. I then told him about his officer threatening to “lock me up.”

“That was just cop talk,” he laughed. “He can’t lock you up for hitchhiking even if you are standing on the side of the road. It’s a cititation, like a speeding ticket. It carries a $35 fine.”

I said, “Well, what you’re calling ‘cop talk,’ I would call abuse of power. He’s abusing his badge to make threats.”

The sergeant laughed and agreed it was not right to threaten me with arrest.

Just to make sure, I called Terry Thompson, the chief of police of my own town, Upper Dublin, which is adjacent to Horsham. I told him I was about to do some hitching locally and wanted to check on its legality in Pennsylvania, just so I knew where I stood.

“A fellow hippie!” the chief said, to my surprise. “I’m 65, and I used to hitchhike all over back in the ‘60s he said. “Also when I was in the service.”

He asked why I wanted to hitch now, at 63 years of age, and I explained that I liked to periodically check on the mood of the country, at least when it came to a willingness to help people out on the road. I told him I was a journalist and would be writing an article about my experience.

I then recounted my experience with the Horsham patrolman, and he laughed, saying hitching in Pennsylvania was not illegal unless you stood in the roadway. “If I were on patrol and saw you hitchhiking, I’d just pull over and warn you to be careful about who you get into a car with,” he laughed.

Chief Thompson and I discussed why hitchhiking, after decades of being a part of American culture, had gone into decline, with few people attempting it, and even fewer drivers being willing to stop for those who do. “I think it’s how the media hypes up all the violence that happens around the country,” he said. “Every time something bad happens to somebody, anywhere in the country, it gets played up on the national media.” He added that all the crime shows on television just further stoke the general level of fear. In fact, he confirmed my suspicion that the crime statistics had actually improved since period of the 1960s and 1970s. “People haven’t gotten crazier out there,” he said, “but people think they have.”

So I made a plan to go back and hitch at the same spot at the same time, with a printout of the state law on hitchhiking in my shirt pocket, hoping to get busted by the same cop. My plan, when he drove up this time, was to hand him the copy of the law, and basically to dare him at that point to give me a ticket (or to “lock me up”), promising that if he did, knowing that I had not violated the law, I would file a complaint against him with his department.

I never got the chance, though. To my astonishment, the third car to drive past me pulled over and stopped. It was a ride!

I hopped in the back of the white SUV waiting for me. The driver, Stuart Weinstein, said he was a yoga instructor in the nearby town of Ambler. He told me he didn’t normally pick up hitchhikers, but said he was “a good judge of character” and had decided to stop for me, even though his girlfriend had been saying “No, No! Don’t stop!” (She laughed).

They drove me four miles to the intersection where my supermarket was located, and let me out. I thanked them and urged them to keep offering people rides. They laughed and drove off, hopefully feeling better about themselves for their gesture.

I figured it wasn’t much to write about, getting a ride so easily, but then, I still would have to get back home, with two bags of groceries, and at an intersection that had a lot of police patrolling around because of the frequency of accidents there. Besides it was getting towards dusk, which would make it that much harder to get a ride.

So after finishing my shop, I went back out to the road and took my position on the grass, thumb out, heading back for home.

The tenth car to pass was a beat-up looking modern-style VW Beetle, full of stuff, the ceiling fabric falling down. It pulled over! I walked up with my bags and was doubly surprised to find a young woman at the wheel. I stuffed myself into the seat next to her, with my two bags on my lap.

The young driver, Janine, told me she often offered rides to hitchhikers “as long as they don’t look creepy.” I passed the test, I guess, so she gave me a ride back to within a few blocks of my driveway, where she turned to head to her destination.

So what can I say? I had just had the easiest time hitchhiking I’ve had in 15 years! One wait of just two minutes, and another of less than five minutes.

Now I know that one hitchhiking road test is not a big enough sample to conclude that this nation’s miasma of fear and mutual distrust is lifting, but hey, this is journalism, not science, and I want to think this was a good sign. Maybe all these hard times we are going through in the US are starting to have an impact, making at least some people more sympathetic towards those who look like they need help — or in this case who need a lift.

I should get a chance to find out: My son Jed says I have to keep heading over to the same spot on the lawn outside the bank at 6 pm to hitchhike until the same Horsham cop comes by on patrol and tries to bust me.

Dave Lindorff is a  founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He lives in Philadelphia.

COMING IN SEPTEMBER

A Special Memorial Issue of CounterPunch

Featuring recollections of Alexander Cockburn from Jeffrey St. Clair, Peter Linebaugh, Paul Craig Roberts, Noam Chomsky, Mike Whitney, Doug Peacock, Perry Anderson, Becky Grant, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Neumann, Susannah Hecht, P. Sainath, Ben Tripp, Alison Weir, James Ridgeway, JoAnn Wypijewski, John Strausbaugh, Pierre Sprey, Carolyn Cooke, Conn Hallinan, James Wolcott, Laura Flanders, Ken Silverstein, Tariq Ali and many others …

Subscribe to CounterPunch Today to Reserve Your Copy

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

More articles by:
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
Uri Avnery
Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here
John Stauber
Why Bernie was Busted From the Beginning
James Bovard
Obama’s Biggest Corruption Charade
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
Indian Point Nuclear Plant: It Doesn’t Take a Meltdown to Harm Local Residents
Desiree Hellegers
“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street
Lawrence Davidson
The Unraveling of Zionism?
Patrick Cockburn
Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks
Robert Koehler
Rethinking Criminal Justice
Lawrence Wittner
The Return of Democratic Socialism
Ha-Joon Chang
What Britain Forgot: Making Things Matters
John V. Walsh
Only Donald Trump Raises Five “Fundamental and Urgent” Foreign Policy Questions: Stephen F. Cohen Bemoans MSM’s Dismissal of Trump’s Queries
Andrew Stewart
The Occupation of the American Mind: a Film That Palestinians Deserve
Nyla Ali Khan
The Vulnerable Repositories of Honor in Kashmir
Weekend Edition
May 20, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Hillary Clinton and Political Violence
Andrew Levine
Why Not Hillary?
Paul Street
Hillary Clinton’s Neocon Resumé
Chris Floyd
Twilight of the Grifter: Bill Clinton’s Fading Powers
Eric Mann
How We Got the Tanks and M-16s Out of LA Schools
Jason Hirthler
The West’s Needless Aggression
Dan Arel
Why Hillary Clinton’s Camp Should Be Scared
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Flunks Decontamination
David Rosen
The Privatization of the Public Sphere
Margaret Kimberley
Obama’s Civil Rights Hypocrisy
Pete Dolack
We Can Dream, or We Can Organize
Chris Gilbert
Corruption in Latin American Governments
Dan Kovalik
Colombia: the Displaced & Invisible Nation
Jeffrey St. Clair
Fat Man Earrings: a Nuclear Parable
Medea Benjamin
Israel and Saudi Arabia: Strange Bedfellows in the New Middle East
Ted Rall
Trump Isn’t Bluffing, He’ll Deport 11 Million People
Kent Paterson
Death in a Shopping Aisle: Jonathan Sorensen’s Fatal Encounter with Kmart
Clancy Sigal
Trump’s Rasputin: What the Donald Learned From Roy Cohn
Lisa Sullivan
Venezuela’s Crisis From Up Close
Manuel E. Yepe
Think Tanks and the US Power Elite
Kathleen Wallace
$25 vs $30, Hats Off to the Two-Party System!
Terry Simons
Mob Politics: the Democrats Have a Problem and It’s Not the Sandernistas
Franklin Lamb
U.S. Financial Regulations Increase Starvation Among Syria’s Children
James Cronin
The Pope and Mercy: the Catholic Church has not Abandoned Its 400 Year War on Science
Linn Washington Jr.
Islamophobia on the Rise in England
Thomas Mountain
25 Years of Struggle Building Socialism in Eritrea; Fighting the Cancer of Corruption
David Wilson
Who Speaks for the Refugee Children of Calais?
Michael Welton
Terry Eagleton: the Cheeky Marxist
David Mattson
Disserving the Public Trust: the Despotic Future of Grizzly Bear Management
Rick Sterling
Bernie Comes to Vallejo
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail