Hitchin' a Ride
Paul Willis

One Saturday afternoon during the spring of my freshman year at Wheaton, I sat in the college library while the sun shone and the day waned, trying to catch up on my homework. It had been a long winter in the dreary suburbs of Chicago and I was restless. In the next carrel over was a fellow freshman named Scott Louizeaux—equally restless, I could tell, from the sewing-machine bounce of his leg.

That’s when I had an idea.

“Hey, Scott,” I said. “I’ve got a really good friend from home who’s at Valparaiso University. Just over the state line. Couldn’t be more than sixty miles as the crow flies. I bet we could hitchhike there by dark. Whaddya say?”

“I say let’s do it,” Scott said.

I was surprised that he didn’t need more persuading, but now that Scott had agreed to the plan, I felt it would be impolite to abandon it.  So we dumped our books, found our jackets, and rustled up a highway map of the area. A direct route would take us through Chicago Heights on the South Side, but that meant nothing to us. I came from a small town in Oregon, and Scott was an eager missionary kid from Panama, a couple of young white boys who were basically not from here. Chicago Heights sounded like any other American suburb, maybe more upscale than most.

We walked past the edge of our red-brick college town, thumbs out, into a swath of farmland. The birds were singing, the trees were greening, the air was breezing, and we congratulated ourselves on leaving the library behind. Before long, a station wagon pulled over, and a middle-aged white fellow—very tidy in appearance—invited us along with him. He was doing some errands, happy to help us on our way, and spoke about getting home to his wife in time for dinner and then getting ready for Sunday school the following morning. By the time our roads diverged and he let us out, Scott and I were filled with pity for his unadventurous life.

Still in farmland, we walked along in the now latening afternoon and were soon rewarded with another ride, this one in a dark, two-door sedan. A pair of jolly Hispanic men in dirt-stained clothes occupied the front seat, and Scott and I crawled in the back. Note to future hitchhikers: think twice before you get in the back of a two-door sedan. For after we had tucked ourselves in and were underway, we began to realize our chaperones were a bit sloppy, talking louder than need be and gesturing emphatically. Alcohol was in the air. How much they’d had, we couldn’t tell.

The farmland gave way, and we seemed to be getting into the South Side of Chicago, driving now on city streets, but our driver was still going at highway speeds. Scott and I exchanged a very grim glance and hung on to the armrests. Since both doors were in the front, there was no chance of abandoning ship, even at a stoplight.

So at last I leaned forward and said, “You can let us out right here, actually.” I tried to sound cheerful about it.

The driver turned completely around, taking his eyes off the road. “Don’t worry, gringo!” he shouted, waving his arm magnanimously. “We get you there!”

Then he drove even faster, and started to weave in and out of city traffic. Suddenly we were missing our tidy man from the farmlands. Before long, however, there were red and blue flashing lights right behind us, sirens too. Our driver, bless his suddenly law-abiding heart, pulled the sedan to the curb, and a pair of policemen hauled us onto the sidewalk.  White policemen. Irish, maybe. They shoved the two Hispanic guys down onto the hood of the car. Then one of the officers cocked his beefy head our way, eyebrows raised.

“And you?” he said.

Um, we were just hitchhiking,” I replied. “Can we just leave?”

The cop looked us up and down, as if trying to decide whether to book us for that very offense. Then he said, “Get out of here.”

So we did. It was getting toward dusk by now, and we walked for a long time. According to a sign we passed, we were finally in Chicago Heights. For a place that sounded like a ritzy suburb, Chicago Heights looked pretty beat up. As in, completely decayed. Paint peeling. Rusted. Askew. Falling down. Graffiti-laden.

The streets became narrow, and as night came on, we noticed lots of African American men standing in the dark of the doorways on the sidewalk. Some had vacant, glassy eyes. Others gave us a hard stare as we passed by, as if we didn’t belong here, as if we were trespassing on their turf.  Then some of them started to flip us the bird and tell us white boys what we could go do to ourselves. Their muttering joined in a hectic chorus, doorway after doorway.  It may have been as harmless as the infield chatter on a Little-League baseball diamond, but to us it sounded like the buzz of rattlesnakes on a desert trail. Now, of course, we really missed our tidy man from the farmlands. Getting ready for Sunday school sounded like a great idea, a privilege, a luxury.

And then, thanks be, a black van pulled up to the curb and its door slid open, releasing an almost visceral blast of hard rock. A gaggle of faces urged us in. White faces, young faces, just like ours. No doubt about it; we were saved.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Scott and I dove inside onto a shag rug in the back. The door closed. No windows. The bass pumping through the speakers into our ears. A bit claustrophobic, but who cared? We sprawled on that shag rug in relief, and the van took off, coursing through the narrow streets.

After a little while, though, we noticed that our genial hosts were not paying us much attention.  All five or six of them were leaning together around the console at the front, discussing something pretty intently. One of them glanced back at us from time to time, as if trying to decide what we were worth.

Then he decided to clue us in.

“This guy from another gang,” he said, “he killed one of our guys last week. So we’re figuring out how to shoot one of their guys. Tonight.”

I saw Scott’s eyes grow wide. I’m sure mine did, too. But we both nodded back politely as if to say, Hey, well, if we have any good ideas, we’ll just pitch in with the planning, okay? Maybe put us on the refreshments committee?

They must have sensed right then that we wouldn’t be much help, so they dumped us at the next corner.

By now it was completely dark.

We were still in Chicago Heights.

And a youth pastor of our own now-tainted race, angel of mercy that he was, spotted us trembling on that corner and drove us all the way out of town to the Indiana cornfields. There we waited at a McDonald’s and very meekly called my friend to pick us up. Eventually—midnight, maybe—we made it to the celestial city of Valparaiso.

So, what is the moral to this story? That it’s better to stay in the library on a Saturday afternoon? That if you are going to hitchhike, you should, like the Music Man, at least know the territory? That drunk drivers are likely to be generous, and that generous people can kill you? That just when you think it’s people of another race who might hurt you, you find out it’s people of your own race who might be the most lethal of all? That God sent that youth pastor to save our skins so that we might be preserved until this very day to do his bidding?

It could be any of these things, or it could be none of them. In the midst of the murderous violence that greeted the Civil Rights movement, when asked to sum up the core of the gospel, Will Campbell famously said, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” But to sum up that afternoon and evening with Scott—that strange cocktail of innocence, prejudice, paranoia, and, perhaps, actual threat—I’m tempted simply to say, “We were both stupid, but we got lucky.” Divine luck.


Paul Willis is Professor of English at Westmont College and has recently served as poet laureate for the city of Santa Barbara.

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