Have you ever met someone who touched you so deeply even though your interactions were the equivalent to the blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things?
I picked up a hitchhiker in 1998. He was thumbing it on an exit ramp in Washington, PA, and I just happened to be driving around aimlessly that night in my white Eagle Talon named Cassie Lane. I did that a lot back then – gas was cheap and driving around til the wee hours of the morning listening to painstakingly-made mix tapes was my therapy.
Yes, it was late at night.
Yes, I was alone.
But something in my gut told me to pull over for this guy.
Idling on the shoulder of the road, I asked where he was going.
“Pittsburgh, but I’ll go with you as far as you can take me,” he yelled through the open passenger window over top of passing big rigs.
“You’re not going to kill me, are you?” I asked sincerely. He seemed amused at my bluntness and promised that he had no such intentions. Probably Ted Bundy found himself in these same amusing situations too.
He got in the car and we made formal introductions. His name was Justin and he had hitched all the way here from Baltimore, having just gone through a bad breakup with his boyfriend. I told him to put his seatbelt on because I’m kind of an aggressive driver.
“YOU’RE not going to kill ME, are you?” he laughed.
It’s a short drive from Washington to Pittsburgh at that time of night on the highway, and the conversation never wavered. He told me all about his travels (this wasn’t his first time hitch hiking), the truck drivers he’d encountered, and his struggles living with AIDS. The level of comfort I felt with this complete stranger next to me was something I had never quite experienced before. There was a connection and in a short 30 minutes I found myself really caring about this guy.
When I had left my apartment earlier that night, I had no intention of driving downtown Pittsburgh, but I went with it. Clearly that was what fate had in the books for me that night. I could have dropped him off anywhere, but I took him all the way into the city. It was almost like I didn’t have a choice.
We were driving through the Fort Pitt tunnels when he was telling me that he had a friend in Pittsburgh who was going to be picking him up. Just then, my car burst through the other side of the tunnel and Justin stopped mid-sentence, just totally choked on his words.
He was staring out the window at the city skyline, all lit up and reflecting off the river.
Finally, he managed to whisper, “Wow…” For the first time in my life that night, I saw the beauty in the city in which I was born and raised.
Justin said his plan was to find a pay phone to call his friend, and even though he kept insisting that I just drop him off anywhere, I was determined to keep circling around the empty city streets until I found him a pay phone.
Finally he said, “Ok, I have to tell you the truth.”
This could have been the point in the story where he pulled a knife on me and I admit to my blog readers that I was once a boy until my penis was sliced off that night like a hunk of bratwurst from the deli. But really, he just wanted to tell me that there was no friend he was meeting, and that his only plan was to find a shelter and a job.
I couldn’t bear the thought of him sleeping in a shelter, or worse—the streets, and begged him to just come back home with me until he had a better plan, but he refused to impose. I gave him my number and, since my 35mm camera was always in my purse, asked if I could take his picture. Not like I’d ever forget him.
I went home and cried so hard.
He never did call me, and I still wonder every time I’m in that tunnel what ever became of him. In our brief encounter, that chance passing, he managed to get a 19-year-old girl to feel more compassion and humanity than she had yet to experience in her sheltered rich girl suburban life.
There a lot of things about this city I don’t like, but because of a hitch hiker, I still smile at the way the Pittsburgh skyline lights up the river and the sky. How could I ever forget him?