Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Road Trip

For now, I’m going to pass up the opportunity to tell you about a van full of nebbishy college kids from Boston getting pulled over in Oakland one August night in 1971 by a squad of shotgun-toting plainclothes cops (“we thought you mighta been some Black Panthers or somethin’”). Surely this was one of the highlights of a two-week, pedal-to-the-metal trip from Cambridge to San Francisco and back, but it’s too obvious. Besides, it has a predictable development-climax-resolution structure, and today I’m looking for something different.

The trip I’m going to tell you about was a short one, also at night, also in the early seventies, over the stretch of Interstate 95 from Providence to Route 128 in suburban Boston.

The trippers were myself and my younger brother Ned. At the time, Ned was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, and I was a recent Harvard graduate, living at home, driving a cab part-time, and looking for work in radio wherever I could — Albany, Portland, Philadelphia, Washington. It was autumn. Ned liked to work evening shifts at WBRU, the Brown student station atop College Hill, and I liked to drop down to Providence occasionally and sit in while he did his show.

It was past dusk when we walked out of the station, having decided to go up to Boston that night. Planning ahead wasn’t one of our strengths. Thinking back now, I probably had borrowed our mom’s car earlier in the day (“I’ll have it back by tonight!”) and parked it at the Riverside terminal off Route 128, taken the T into South Station, and the New Haven down to Providence. (Any excuse for a real train ride.) So Riverside was where we had to get back to. But we figured the next northbound train might not be until morning, and anyway, we didn’t have enough cash between us for the fare. So, we decided to hitch.

You’re not supposed to hitchhike. Everybody knows that. It’s illegal and it’s dangerous. And, two men hitching together, at night — who’s going to be dumb enough to pick them up?

But we were young and invincible. (Weren’t we, though. We were also acutely self-conscious, two privileged children from a posh suburb trying our best to be city-cool.) And so we made our way down the hill and over to the nearest ramp to 95 North. We positioned ourselves in the breakdown lane where oncoming traffic could get a look at us, and stuck our thumbs out.

Our first ride, a low-slung Chevy sedan, came along in minutes. Success! And so soon! We ran up and opened the passenger doors. At the wheel was a man of uncertain age with drooping eyelids and an impassive face. He didn’t speak to us, not at any point, or look at us, or shift his gaze away from the windshield.

We hesitated then, just for a moment. What really got me was the noise coming from his radio. Roaring out of the dashboard was a blitz of decibels with a heavy, merciless beat, a grating (to my ears) music of the urban night, and Mr. X was tapped into it at top volume and maximum distortion. It howled and scraped out of the open doors and into the night. Still we held back. Traffic flew by us, hissing cars and snorting trucks, headlights and taillights flashing stroboscopically.

Then we got in, Ned in back and me in front. We didn’t exchange looks. Mr. X pulled out into traffic. I noticed that he had arranged himself behind the wheel in a slouch so extreme that he was almost lying down. He didn’t seem to be paying much attention to his speed, or the lane markings. He fingered the steering wheel lightly, carelessly, with two fingers of one hand, as the car weaved unpredictably from lane to lane. Why had this man given us a ride? If he was headed anywhere at all, Boston probably wasn’t it. I began to wonder if he was one of those fatally embittered people who was thinking about doing himself in, perhaps this very night, and had picked us up so as to have some company on his final ride.

After watching a few miles of Providence slide by in this way, and fearing that it might not end well, one of us piped up in his best well-mannered, college-boy voice, “Hey, this is good right here, mister — could you just drop us off, right over here?” And he did. We called out “Thank you!” as he slid away into the northbound flow, somewhere between Providence and Pawtucket.

There we waited in the dark wind of rushing vehicles with our pale thumbs out, for much longer this time, a half hour or more. Route 95 is a speedway at this point, and no one was stopping. We were starting to think about marching the five miles back to Ned’s dorm when another dark sedan pulled over, this one with three men inside. I opened the right rear door, and an empty beer can rolled out and hit the pavement with a sharp KLANG. If this was a sign, we ignored it. We were cold now, it was getting late, and we couldn’t afford to be choosy.

We both got in the back. The trio looked like members of a down-on-their-luck Grateful Dead tribute band. The driver had Pigpen’s beard, scowl, and Tex-Mex cowboy hat. The tall guy riding shotgun was mute and aloof behind thick glasses, like Phil Lesh. The skinny, wide-eyed guy in back looked so much like Bob Weir, I wondered who these men really were. But his eyes were fearful and his coat was worn and stained, and he shrank away from us into his corner. The car smelled like old beer inside, very cheap old beer. These weren’t celebrities of any sort.

Before long, Pigpen took a Pawtucket exit, and suddenly we were cruising the side streets of that broken city, looking for…what? This sure wasn’t getting us to Riverside! Soon, he slowed down near a house on the left, where we could see a number of women either standing around in the yard or lounging on the front porch, as if it were a warm summer evening. “Mm-mmm!” Pigpen said in a low but emphatic voice as he pulled to the curb. “Goin’ get me some o’ that!

Ned and I weren’t invited to join in. Before he got out, Pigpen flung one denim arm over the seat back and turned towards us. “See these train tracks over here? Just follow them along and they’ll take you back t’ the highway.” (He might have said, “Y’all jist follow them along...”)

Somewhere in Pawtucket, 95 climbs out of a deep, curving trough and ascends towards the state border on an incline, long and straight. It was there that we stood for some length of time, hoping for a ride that would maybe, at least, get us out of Rhode Island. It was now too far, and not at all safe, to walk back to RISD. The streams of headlights rose up and flew past, not stopping, never ever stopping, until, towards midnight, another old sedan pulled in just beyond us.

It was this carload of bespectacled students, all high on something but otherwise fully functioning, that got us the rest of the way to a turnout on 128 near Riverside. There’s no story attached to this third ride, other than to say that the drowsy driver drove too fast and had a hard time staying in his lane (the one on the far left). He kept encroaching on the median strip. His lefthand tires would kick up clouds of dust and sand from the roadside, and the car would wobble, like a motorboat plowing its way through choppy water.

But that’s 95 for you. To me, it has always lacked an appealing character of its own. There’s little to make you fond of it; maybe it was built that way on purpose. Unlike Route 66 or Highway 61, it has inspired no memorable songs. It’s just a thirty-mile ride that you have to get through and get over, and then your life can begin again.

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