by Bruce Anderson, November 26, 2008
The hitchhiker was at the Boonville exit on 101. It was about noon. As I passed her she clasped her hands in mock prayer and shot me desperate eyeballs that pleaded with me to please, please give her a ride.
I stopped picking up hitchhikers a couple of years ago because I got tired of listening to them. Two hours with non-verbal leather and nose rings is more charity than I have to give anymore. I still haven't fully recovered from the hitchhiker at Albion, a mystic, who didn't shut up all the way to Fort Bragg. If I'd had to share space with him all the way to the city one of us would have been dead by Santa Rosa.
Another day, at this same spot where this girl was now miming desperation, I'd pulled up to offer a kid a ride. I told him he'd have to sit in the back of my pick-up. I was listening to a book-on-tape and I didn't want to interrupt it.
"It's cold back there," he said.
It was July and at least 80. It wouldn't be cold until we got to the Golden Gate, and it would only be cold then for a few minutes through the fog bank until he was off-loaded in the big city to pile on the other leather and nose rings, whole platoons of them, them and their pitbulls and their styrofoam begging cups.
"I'll wait here," he'd said.
So you've got this entitlement attitude, too.
But today's hitchhiker was much more animated, and she was grateful. And polite.
Of course she was a foreigner.
But gratitude and manners notwithstanding, I'd still have to suffer her company. There wasn't time for a pre-ride interview.
She had multi-colored hair, the requisite nose rings, leopard pants, a purplish blouse, hiking boots. I guessed she was about 30, but she could have been 13 for all I knew. If she was 30, as she appeared to be, the skateboard fastened to her backpack? Age plus costume plus skateboard meant the conversational possibilities were likely nil.
But she'd been animated enough to silently beg for a ride, and I didn't want to hear the next day that the body of a young woman had been found in Hopland with her throat cut, that I'd left this woman-child out there for the wolves.
I know a Boonville woman who, back in the flower child years, was nearly raped by a man clawing at her clothes with one hand, holding a gun on her with the other and somehow simultaneously driving slowly up Highway One until the Boonville woman knew it was either jump from a moving vehicle or die. She jumped, and disappeared into a heavy summer fog near Elk and never hitchhiked again.
No, I wouldn't want to be the guy who didn't stop for a young woman found dead in Hopland.
"Oh, tank you, tank you, tank you," she said as she climbed in. "I am from Sweden," she announced.
"I won't hold it against you," I replied.
Her English was pretty good, but not good enough to pick up dumb jokes from some southbound old crank driving to San Francisco from South Ukiah on a beautiful drought day in the middle of November, trying to get to the city in time for an early afternoon beatnik reunion at Spec's in North Beach.
"I vatch Mickey Mouse television growing up," she said, explaining her relative facility with American speech. She said that Sweden was the only European country with English-language television, that she'd learned American from Mickey himself. I thought she said her name was Ingrid, and I knew for sure I'd heard her right when she'd said she'd spent the night "on a mountain top in Laytonville. But the mountain lions didn't eat me. You can see I am here."
Ingrid said her two Swede traveling companions had gone ahead to San Francisco "because I am still sleeping on the mountain in Laytonville." Ordinarily, she assured me, she didn't hitchhike alone, because "America is very dangerous, no?"
Yes, I said, America is very dangerous. All those Swedes we let in a hundred years ago wrecked us. It's been mayhem ever since.
"Yah?" she wondered. "Swedes are criminals in this country?"
The worst, I said.
Ingrid didn't argue with my sociology, but implicitly rejected my conversation by asking, "Do you mind if I sleep?"
Please sleep, I said.
We'd be sharing a confined space for two hours, and we'd already exhausted, I thought, the conversational possibilities. No way was I going to ask her about the skateboard. She was at least 30 and that topic could arrest both our developments.
That's the problem with hitchhikers. You seldom run into one who's wacky in interesting ways, and we were already closing in on Cloverdale before the traveler could nod off. There was the Bilbro place, then TJ Bird's house near where TJ's Pomo tribe planned a casino, and the long sound wall behind which lurks central Cloverdale.
Yumpin yimminie, Ingrid! I exclaimed, I have to stop for fuel.
"Vat you say to me?" Ingrid asked.
I explained that when I was a kid the Scandinavians in cowboy movies always said yumpin yimminy.
"Swedes do not say that," Ingrid corrected me.
How about Ingemar Johannson, the Swede who knocked out Floyd Patterson with his toonderbolt back in 1955 or whenever it was? I asked her.
"Are you happy Obama your president?"
My Swedish entertainments had flown right past her. Ingrid was wisely sticking to the basics conversational chit-chat.
Obama? I asked as if I barely recognized the name. Do you mean Barack Obama, the American president?
"Yah," Ingrid said, "off course."
I explained that my political expectations had flat-lined years ago, but I said I was "cautiously optimistic about Obama," adding that I thought that however Obama turned out humankind was probably doomed.
"I tink so too," Ingrid said.
We stopped at the Cloverdale Chevron. Ingrid asked me if I wanted anything, which is another way you can tell a foreigner. They're inevitably well brought up. An American hitchhiker would say, "Dude, I'm a little short. You wouldn't have an extra five, would you? I could use a Coke and something to eat."
Ingrid decided not to sleep, unfortunately, but the ensuing 90 minutes between Cloverdale and San Francisco passed quickly in a blur of harmoniously mutual unintelligibility.
I dropped her off at the library on Page Street where Ingrid said she was going on the internet to hook up with her two countrymen. I warned Ingrid to stay away from Haight Street. Bad people a block away, I said.
"I loff Haight Street," Ingrid said. "It is goot."