Uncool: A Hitchhiking Tale

I don’t hitch-hike for recreation or travel and never will.

Perhaps this is a strange position for me, a child of the radical university town of Berkeley, growing up across the bay from hippie-yippie San Francisco in the ‘70s.

But my big city New York and Chicago parents were more paranoid than many of our patchouli-scented neighbors.

“Who knows what they’re on?” my father would ask, when we passed a row of hitch-hiker desperadoes. Men in Army surplus jackets, bell-bottoms, scraggly beards and aviator glasses. Bra-less long-haired girls with guitars. People with bandana-wearing dogs and kids.

“What a dummy, that woman standing out here at night,” my mother would agree.

These were unpopular views in a time and place when it seemed like everyone was hitch-hiking.

Freeway on-ramps were lined with young and old, thumbs out, brandishing cardboard signs inked in capital letters with their destination.

“EL-A.”

“Vacaville.”

“SOUTH”.

It was a competitive scene. Some people tried to be funny with their cardboards, using popular song lyrics like the Dionne Warwick hit, “Do you know the way to ♪SAN JOSE♪?”

As a car game, my middle-school sisters and I read the signs people held up on the University Avenue ramp to the Bayshore Freeway, a stretch of road said to be the busiest in the entire state of California.

Sitting in traffic along that stretch, we relished spotting the new driftwood sculptures that popped up overnight along the Emeryville mudflats. Illegal art made from refuse, by who knows who.

Hitch-hikers were just another strange thing to watch from the back of the bus.

Cars would slow to pick up spontaneous passengers.

“Right on, man,” the hitch-hiker would seem to say, ducking to grab a rucksack.

I could see the driver rewarded with the hitcher’s burst of gratitude in the front seat, the toss of the bag into the back. Two voyagers united, conserving resources and saving the planet, like-minded kin identifying each other. Jocularity.

We got the finger.

Sometimes curses. Especially when we passed hitch-hikers on hot dusty roads heading to the Sierras, or a rainy winter day at the intersection of Shattuck and University when hopefuls looked -- and probably smelled -- like wet dogs.

Our car made things worse.The family’s white 1969 Volkswagen bus sent the wrong message about who we were and how we lived.

It was always being broken into and ransacked for non-existent drugs. Like that parent-teacher night in 1974, parked outside my fourth grade classroom.

When hitch-hikers spied our VW they must have calculated we were good for the ride -- unlike late model American cars, probably driven by uptight Republicans. Our noisy, white elephant of a car telegraphed we weren’t squares. We were communal folk -- even the German name “Volks-wagen” declared it. My bearded father in a black turtleneck at the big, horizontal wheel would not have dispelled this impression.

Then when we putt-putted past like we didn’t even see them with their “Get me back to BESERKELEY!” sign, suddenly we were responsible for all that wasn’t right in the universe.

We weren’t cool because our family didn’t believe in the hitch-hiking compact. Not in this screwed up world.

The disastrous potential for a hitch-hiker seemed clear to me from a young age. How many stories did we hear about children being lured by a stranger with candy and then abducted in a car? Voluntarily getting into an unknown vehicle didn’t compute. How could these hitchers ignore the reports of bodies found in the hills? The Bay Area’s Zodiac Killer. The Hillside Strangler down in Los Angeles. Hitch-hiking was the stuff of serial killer lore, a campfire staple.

As I hit puberty, classmates without hitch-hiking hang-ups quickly drifted out of my life and toward wherever those risky rides took them.

One afternoon in eighth grade I was sitting in an over-warm social studies classroom at West Campus. Bored. Sure something more exciting was going on outside.

At that same moment, around the corner and half a mile down University, a 15-year old Las Vegas runaway stuck out her thumb.

I read about Mary Vincent in the San Francisco Chronicle later, and saw her on talk shows, fitted with prosthetic arms, warning kids not to hitch-hike.

Lawrence Singleton, the middle-aged driver of a blue American van was described by his neighbors as completely benign.

He was convicted of Vincent’s 1978 kidnap, rape and mutilation. After he amputated her forearms with a hatchet he left the girl for dead. She wandered naked all night holding up her bleeding stumps.

Talk about a campfire horror story. Thirty years later, the image is still burned into my brain. The thought too: if I were cooler that could have been me.