Sidebar 1: The Hitchhiker

Locations: Texas; Oklahoma


Date: 10/16/96

This is a digression, about the hitchhiker I picked up in northeastern Texas and some philosophical musings on the subject of helping people. It's too long to include in the main stream of the travelogue, but having written it I figured I'd leave it on the Web.

Turned out the man's name was James and he was going wherever I would take him. He had no money and no possessions except a small plastic bag he said contained a sweater; he told me his suitcase, containing three suits and all his money, was stolen a few days back. (I have no idea whether this was true. I suspect that almost everything he told me was at least slightly exaggerated.) He hadn't eaten all day and hadn't slept the previous night. The Texas cops had been giving him a hard time. Texas churches didn't have any work for him to do or any charity to give him. He told me some pretty violent fantasies: for instance, he said if the law allowed him to have a gun, he'd have blown off the head of the cop that stopped him and asked for his ID. (And he said he'd told the cop as much.) But he also indicated that he was a basically law-abiding citizen ("If I were wanted for something, I wouldn't be out on the road; I'd be back in New York getting my face lifted") and not in terribly good physical shape; it wasn't so much that he was violent as that he wished he could be.

(Before I go any further, I should take a page from William Goldman and tell you, "Jed does not get mugged at this time." As with most true stories, there's no punchline or climax to this one; I'm just writing down what happened.)

I think what was really going on was an attempt to preserve dignity. I offered him a sandwich and an apple; he declined both. I got the impression that charity wouldn't have sat well with him. In situations where he couldn't preserve his dignity—as when stopped by two big cops who pointed guns at him—he did the best he could by talking about how he would have saved face had he been able to. As a pacifist, I don't approve of his approach—but then, as Steve K. once pointed out to me, police effectiveness is predicated on violence and the threat of violence. (Is that relevant? I think so, but I'm not quite sure how.) Anyhow, he seemed pretty clearly no threat, but I wasn't gonna antagonize him by getting into a discussion about whether violence is an effective solution to problems.

He never asked me anything about myself, and although he had several stories from his own life (about owning special bullets that could punch through a bulletproof vest, and about giving a bunch of money to folks in Vegas who had run out and couldn't get home, and so on) he didn't tell me much about his background, why he'd left NYC (where he was from), or where he was going in the long run. I eventually concluded he was a drifter, would've been a hobo in the days when that was feasible (a line from a song wandered into my head: "Here's to you rounders and here's to you railroad bums; hope you're coming home soon..."). And so I offered him a loan, to be paid back whenever he could afford it; got him a motel room in Texhoma (on the border you'd expect, given the name), handed him some cash, and dropped him at the grocery store on the corner. Of course I don't expect to ever see the money again, but it's not like I can't afford to help out someone in need now and then; and who knows, maybe some day some money will show up in the mail. I do believe he intends to pay me back someday; I don't think he was a con artist. And this way he got to keep at least a little of his dignity, for whatever good that'll do him.

It wasn't until I was halfway through Kansas that the nagging thought in the back of my head crystallized. He was, in some sense, "just" another homeless guy; no food, no spare clothes, no money. A down-and-outer, as Nanci Griffith would say. But because he was hitching instead of begging, he seemed to have some sort of purpose, an aim, a goal—even though he wasn't bound anyplace in particular. And it made me much more willing to get personally involved in his story—to pick him up, interact with him for an hour or so, give/loan him more money than I'd have given a homeless person on the street. I suppose the same principle is at work when scam artists tell people they've lost their bus tickets and need $90 to get home: once you've interacted with someone on a more than superficial level, you feel you have a stake in their well-being, and it's a lot harder to not help if you can. Though of course in the con artist's case it's an intentional ploy, and I don't think it was in this case.

Anyway. It could be argued that I was just salving my liberal conscience, that I (like characters in several movies I've seen lately) was trying to save a superficial acquaintance from what really amounts to society dragging the person down. And there's some truth in that. But at the same time, I have to believe that helping out on an individual scale, even if only temporarily, is a good thing. If for no other reason than that it helps to damp the paralysis of realizing the dreadful state the world is in and feeling there's nothing one can do to make it better. And I believe there can be a sort of chain reaction of such things; I've been helped, by friends and by strangers, in ways that've made my life immeasurably easier; this guy had (if his story was true) helped others; what goes around comes around. Or if you prefer to put it this way, karma works. Practice kindness, whether random or not, and maybe others will learn from your example. That's my hope, anyway.

Enough. Back to the travelogue.

(Last updated: 21 October 1996.)

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