Memories of a Retired Hitchhiker

Susie and I are at Kafé Kerouac, a coffee house/bar named for the patron saint of hitchhiking, Jack Kerouac, at the moment.  (Kerouac’s 90th birthday would have been on the 12th of this month, but, unfortunately, he drank himself to death in 1969, aged 47.)  She and I are in the front room, and pages from the first several chapters of Kerouac’s opus, On the Road, adorn the north wall.

The north wall at Kafé Kerouac, decorated with pages from On the Road.

Something that brought the long-moribund subject of hitchhiking to my mind was seeing that one of my Facebook friends was listening to Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ a Ride” on Spotify.  I’ve been in an advanced and rapidly progressing state of ennui lately, which is one of the reasons for the paucity of blog entries.  (I deleted two previous entries after only writing a sentence or two, so I’m hoping to get myself back on track by writing in here tonight.)

I should preface what follows by saying that my hitchhiking days are far behind me.  I haven’t done it since the summer of 1989, and I am sure that it’s more dangerous now than when I was a teenager and a young adult.  (It’s never been 100% safe.  When my thumb was my primary mode of transportation, it horrified some of my high school friends.  I still remember one of my classmates looking at me, slack-jawed, and saying, “Paul!  You’re going to get your head blown off!” when I casually mentioned I would be thumbing to Athens–a distance of about 48 miles.)

The first time I hitchhiked, it was not my idea, and I was far from enthusiastic about doing it.  It was in August 1979, and it was a relatively short trip.  I was 16 years ago, and I was traveling to OPIK ’79, a regional Liberal Religious Youth conference.  (OPIK–rhymes with topic–was an acronym for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky.  In 1979, it took place in Michigan, for reasons too complex to explain here.)  I had been on the bus from Columbus since noon on Saturday, August 18 (the conference began the next day) with a young woman from Columbus named Suzanne, who was also headed to OPIK.  We arrived in Kalamazoo around midnight, and no one at the conference site was answering.  (OPIK ’79 took place at Circle Pines Center in Delton, which was about 25 miles away in Barry County.)  So, since we were marooned at the closed Greyhound station for the night, we sat on our suitcases most of the night, talked, ate date bars, and I read, wrote in my diary, and tried in vain to sleep, using my windbreaker as a blanket and my typewriter case as a pillow.

Morning came, and we splurged on a big breakfast in the Time Table Inn, the bus station’s restaurant, tried Circle Pines Center again, and finally Suzanne heaved a sigh and said, “Well, let’s hitch.”  This was long before the days of Google Earth and GPS systems, so we roamed around a bit before we found M-89 West, the road that led from Kalamazoo to Delton.  Once we found that, a friendly guy in his 20s named Stephen gave us a ride straight to Circle Pines’ parking lot.  I was happy to add a new experience to my résumé–hitchhiking–but my first order of business was to find a cot.  When I found one, I immediately collapsed fully clothed, shoes and all.

This experience emboldened me, and when I got back to Marietta, I talked the ears off anyone who asked me how I spent my summer.  I managed to resist the temptation to embellish the trip beyond the 25 miles from Kalamazoo to Delton, yet the account caused many to further question my sanity.

For the remaining three years I lived in Marietta, I overcompensated for my earlier reluctance to hitchhike. It was analogous to someone overcoming a lifelong fear of water and the next day deciding to swim the English Channel.  (The concept of the golden mean remains totally foreign to me to this day.)  The following summer, I stuck my thumb out on State Route 550, destination Athens.  I had not thought to let my dad know where I was going when I left the house that Saturday morning.

I did not make it to Athens, but the reason for aborting the mission were truly in character.  On the way up 550, I encountered Carpenter’s Books, one of the most unusual bookstores I have encountered.  It was in a man’s garage, and the place was wall to wall, floor to ceiling loaded with books.  Carpenter also raised chickens and sold eggs–quite a juxtaposition.  I spent maybe $2 to $3, and came home with a large box full of paperbacks and hardcovers.  As usual, my choices ran the gamut from Gold Medal originals by writers like Peter Rabe and Richard S. Prather to odd volumes of Harvard Classics and Black’s Readers Service classics (The Works of Tolstoi and The Works of Doyle).

After some test runs to Athens, I made my first “big” trip in May of 1981, a month before I graduated from high school.  I was en route to Washington, D.C. for the biggest protest since the Vietnam era, protesting the military presence in El Salvador and the military buildup overall.  I took the bus as far as Cambridge, Ohio, and then set out on I-70.  I was dressed in jeans, a work shirt, and hiking boots, and I carried a small backpack–only enough room for a change of clothes, my diary, and a book or two.

I was buoyed by my success.  I made it to D.C. in three rides.  The longest was a driver who picked me up around Quaker City and took me as far as Hagerstown.  A second ride (by a contractor who was at Catholic U. the same time my dad was) got me to Gaithersburg, and a third ride dropped me off on M St. in Georgetown.  I had turned 18 earlier that week, which meant I was finally legal to drink beer.  And I marked the event in style.  I had my first legal beer at Clyde’s of Georgetown, which was the prototype for the gathering place in St. Elmo’s Fire.  Its lunchtime menu inspired Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight.”  (Since I had just read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, I had searched in vain to find The Tombs, the bar where whiskey priest Damien Karras cries into his suds to a fellow priest about his lack of faith.)  I remember the polyglot conversations at the tables around me, and the pay phones in the rest room.  I spent the remainder of the night wandering around Washington, and buying The Washington Post as soon as it rolled off the presses.

Getting home was no fun.  I had a ride to the infamous Breezewood, Pa. from Silver Spring.  Breezewood is the “Town of Motels” just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, eloquently described by Business Week in 1991 as “a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.”  I was stuck there for hours, so much so that if Breezewood is the first thing I see when I die, I will know beyond a doubt where I’ve gone.

I won’t list every journey I made by thumb, but the memorable one came in the spring of 1982, when my LRY friend John (whom I met at the aforementioned OPIK ’79) came to visit me in Marietta.  Going to all of Marietta’s points of interest does not take long, even with a trip across the river to the Fenton Art Glass plant in Williamstown.  Bored, John and I were doing the “What do you wanna do?”  “I dunno–what do you wanna do?” thing, when I said, in jest, “Let’s hitch to D.C.”  The next several hours consisted my burning up the phone lines to find friends of friends (multiplied ad infinitum in the D.C. area where we could sleep.  The calls started at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Washington office, and became quite hydra-headed.)  Both of us owned Paul Dimaggio’s The Hitchhiker’s Field Manual, and we had both read our copies to tatters, since it had become a weird kind of Bible for both of us.  During the journey, whenever we argued over where to stand on the road, Dimaggio’s word was law.

Our name for the trip was the “Nobody Said It Was Easy” tour.  Nobody said hitchhiking was easy, this is true, but the song “Nobody Said It Was Easy (Lookin’ for the Lights)”, by the Louisiana band Le Roux, seemed to be on the radio or tape deck of every car picking us up.  In Bethesda, we hopped a Metro bus that put us in Dupont Circle.  John and I were both tired and cross from the long journey and inadequate nutrition, and John was skeptical of my claims that we had made it.  I was vindicated when the escalator in the Dupont Circle Metro station brought us to street level.  I nudged John.  “What?” he said testily.  Without a word, I pointed at the lighted dome of the Capitol.

My final hitchhike was from Cincinnati to Columbus in 1989, illegally, since I used Interstate 71 the entire way.  Not a memorable trip.  In my journal, I wrote about it in two sentences, and devoted pages more to the subsequent visit with Adam Bradley.
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Tragedy Brings Me Back to Athens

Art Gish devoted his life to peacemaking, economic justice, civil rights, reconciliation, and love.  These are ideas that have never sold well.  If you start shooting off your mouth about them around the wrong people, you’re likely to find yourself nailed up on two pieces of wood at the top of a hill.

This afternoon, friends came from all over to honor his life and mourn his death.  The First United Methodist Church on College St. in Athens was standing-room-only.  Art, who had faced down Israeli tanks in Hebron armed with nothing more than the cry of “Baruch Ha’Shem Adonai!”, and who protested in front of Army recruiting stations, died on his own land, crushed by a tractor, aged 70.
I rode down from Columbus this morning with Phil and Julie, a couple who attend Columbus Mennonite Church.  I had never met them before; we connected through Central Ohioans for Peace’s message board.  I was happy to learn that, after Art’s memorial service, they were headed to a wedding and reception in The Plains, so I would have time to explore the city where I had spent much of the 1980s, both as a high school student hitchhiking up on weekends from Marietta, to a student, and later as a townie.
I first heard the name Art Gish in the fall of 1981.  A Quaker farmer in New Marshfield asked me if I wanted to help select a peace candidate to run against the incumbent Congressman, Rep. Clarence Miller (R-Lancaster).  I was realistic enough to know that Miller, who had represented the 10th Congressional District of Ohio since 1967, would be handily re-elected, so the sacrificial lamb candidate we chose had almost no chance of winning.

One chilly November night, I hitchhiked to Athens and went to a long meeting at the home of a chemistry professor.  Two names seemed to carry the day: Chuck Overby, professor of industrial and systems engineering at O.U., and Art Gish.  Chuck Overby I knew slightly through the Unitarian Fellowship, but Art Gish was a totally foreign name to me.

At the next meeting, both men spoke to us about their vision for peace and the prospect of employment for the 10th District (At that time, Ohio was 49th in employment, trailed only by Michigan).  After both men spoke, we sent them into another room and closed the door while we debated.  After much debate, we decided that Chuck Overby would be the more viable candidate.  The two men emerged from the room each convinced the other would be a stellar candidate.  (It was a moot point; Chuck was defeated in the Democratic primary the following June, and John Buchanan went on to lose to Clarence Miller by almost 2:1.  Miller kept his seat until retiring in 1993.)

Many stories and anecdotes came from the pulpit of the church in Athens.  We heard from his family (one of his sons is part of a Bruderhof community (literally “place of brothers”), a sect of Anabaptists who live communally based on the model of the early Christian church).  I heard stories about Art that took place in seminary, Israel, Gaza, and the Athens Farmers’ Market.  People read from some of his books, including Beyond the Rat Race, Hebron Journal: Stories of Non-Violent Peacemaking, and At-Tuwani Journal: Hope and Non-Violent Action in a Palestinian Village.  Prayers in English, Arabic, and Hebrew went up in his name.  He habituated both the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life and the Islamic Center of Athens, and always tried to converse with foreign students in their native languages.

After the service (the Calliope Feminist Choir sung us on our way), I explored Athens thoroughly for the first time in many years.  I tried not to dwell on what had stood at a particular location, although I eagerly sought the familiar.  Baker Center, the student center, is in bigger and more majestic quarters at the end of Court St.  Many businesses I remember from my days there no longer remain, although many of the bars are the same, albeit with different motifs.  Little Professor Book Store is still chugging along–I bought a pocket diary on sale there for $.25.  The Saturday streets were quite busy for a summer afternoon, as this was the weekend for Bobcat Student Orientation.

I took several pictures of Court Street from various angles, the street where I spent much of my time–way too much.

Near the corner of N. Court and W. State Sts.,
where Pawpurr’s, The Pub, and The Junction
still stand.

College Green.  I actually choked up a little
when the bells atop Manasseh Cutler Hall struck
at 7 p.m.

Looking north on Court St.  The First Presbyterian
Church is on the northeast corner.

Phil and Julie left the wedding and reception in The Plains around 8:30, and we headed north.  I was able to stop by Oak St. and have an animated and informative, but all too brief, visit with Bob Whealey, who turned 80 this spring.  He is a retired history professor at Ohio University, who also made a quixotic run against Clarence Miller (this time in 1972, and he fared as well as George McGovern did that year!).  I earned extra cash typing his manuscripts, notes, and projects during my years in Athens, and he even mentioned my name as one of his “patient typists through the years” in the Foreword of his book Hitler and Spain: The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939.  It was like old times, sitting in the living room of his house, surrounded by books, high stacks of papers and files, the familiar archive and musty paper smell I knew so well when I visited there quite often.
I was too saddened by the downfall of The Oasis to photograph it.  This was a student hangout and grill located on University Terrace, next to the Church of the Good Shepherd.  Many Middle Eastern students habituated the place, because of its proximity to the math and science buildings, so it had the derisive nickname “the Arab embassy.”  I worked there in 1988 and 1989, my last months in Athens, as a typist and assistant manager at the small copy shop in the back.  The pay was livable for a childless bachelor, and I enjoyed the long conversations with my manager and with the owner of The Oasis, John Farley.
John died in 2002, aged 77, and the University bought The Oasis from his estate and ran it as a grill and snack shop, but in November 2006, The Oasis closed its doors for good, and it appears to have sat vacant ever since.  The only sign of life is the Chase Bank ATM machine.  An O.U. grad writing in this 2006 Athens News column, wrote about the post-Farley life of The Oasis.
I was too wound up from the events of the day to head home, so I went to the Awarehouse (the warehouse/party site behind Third Hand Bicycle Co-op and Sporeprint Infoshop on E. 5th Ave.) and saw the  New York-based group Menya perform at the Hootenanny for Hellraisers.  I was happy to reconnect with friends I had met at the housewarming the previous week, and also a friend I had met at a Sporeprint screening of Fowl Play last Wednesday evening.
I would have covered more terrain in Athens had it not been for this damn orthopedic boot on my foot.  My approaching footsteps resembled Frankenstein’s, I’m sure.  I probably walked more than I should have, but I had taken two Darvocet (I usually take one), which kept the pain at bay.  Without a good walk, I’m like a heroin addict his second day off the needle.  After the party at the Awarehouse ended, I probably would have risked a walk home, but I had my laptop in an over-the-shoulder bag, and it would be tempting fate to walk through the neighborhood around Weinland Park at that hour anyway, laptop or no laptop.
I will leave you with the image of Art Gish that is probably the most famous.  I am surprised it didn’t win the photographer a Pulitzer Prize.  Art stands in front of an Israeli tank en route to bulldozing a Palestinian market in Hebron.

Your Diarist Gets the Boot & Thoughts on Art Gish

I had a two-hour respite from my insane workday today, but I wish it was under better circumstances.  I spent two hours at Feet First, a podiatrist’s office downtown.  On Thursday, I awoke with incredible pain along the right side of my right foot.  I’ve had pain in my feet before, so I decided to ride it out.  (My first thought was that I had worn out the tennis shoes I’d been wearing, so after work I went to the Volunteers of America and plunked down $2 on a new pair of walking shoes.)

That didn’t help, because I woke up this morning (in my eyes, it’s still Friday night) in even worse pain.  The pain was so bad I was noticeably limping when I arrived at work at 8 a.m.  A co-worker of mine had missed work earlier this week because of gout, so one person asked me if that was what I had.  I have not had gout, which is miraculous when you consider how much Diet Pepsi I drink.  However, I have had cellulitis on the top of my foot.  That happened when a cat scratched me, and I think I had my last tetanus shot in Athens sometime in the late 1980s.  Cellulitis’ pain is so bad you can’t put on socks or shoes.  The doctor gave me antibiotics and a Limbaughesque cornucopia of painkillers.  (The doctor initially diagnosed gout, but revised the diagnosis later that day.)  Stay off the foot, and don’t eat anything in the nightshade family until it heals (which meant no potatoes, no onions, no tomatoes, or anything made from them).

By 8:30, I had pulled up Aetna Member Services’ Website and went to DocFind.  I called Feet First, the only podiatrist truly close to my office.  The office manager said that if I came right now, I could get an appointment.  I spoke with my supervisor and took two buses to get there–a distance that earlier in the week I would have happily traversed on foot.  They took two X rays of my right foot, and Dr. Zoog, the young podiatrist, looked at them, examined the foot, and diagnosed a stress fracture at the base of the little toe.  He wrote me prescriptions for Lamisil (for athlete’s foot) and Darvocet-N for the pain, and–on the house–provided me with a black orthopedic boot.  It looks like a moon boot, and I now have a gait that resembles that of Frankenstein’s monster.  Between the painkiller and the boot, walking is not pleasant, but it is bearable.

I’m to wear the boot until I see Dr. Zoog again in three weeks.  I can’t be as sedentary as I ideally should.  The not-walking time after my gallbladder came out just about drove me crazy.  The only reason I was able to stay inside and not walking was because of the heavy snowfall a day or two after the surgery; I was too scared of slipping and falling on the ice to go outside and walk.

Here’s my boot-encased right foot:

I’ve had zero interest in footwear style–just buy what’s most comfortable, and to hell with how it looks.  That being said, it’s safe to say I doubt Imelda Marcos has anything like this in the infamous shoe collection she left behind when she and Ferdinand fled the Philippines.  (I remember a political cartoon depicting her as a millipede.)

I took Susie to Olympic Swim and Racquet tonight to see Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian.  The pool is only a mile from our house, yet I had Susie walk up there while I rode the bus.  I felt like such an invalid.

Athens beckons in the morning.  I am riding down with a Mennonite couple–friends of friends²–for a memorial service.  The service honors the memory of Art Gish, an Athens farmer and Christian pacifist, who died in a farming accident.  Here is his obituary.  This will be my first trip to Athens since my mother died in October 2008.

Will post some thoughts about Art Gish and the memorial service upon my return.  In the meantime, I highly recommend this video, Old Radicals, in which Art described his efforts at making peace in the Middle East.  (He tells the story of the photograph of his staring down an Israeli tank in Hebron, holding up his arms and shouting over and over, “Baruch Ha’Shem Adonai!”–Blessed be the name of the Lord.)

The service is at 2 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church of Athens, 2 S. College St.