Sometimes a journalist just has to go with the story, even if it’s going all wrong.
I had set out to stand up for the rights of hitchhikers everywhere, and against abusive policing, when I left the house yesterday afternoon and walked up the road to an intersection where I could stand on the grass and stick out my thumb and try to snag a ride to the supermarket four miles off.
The location and the time — 6 pm — were both important. Three days before, I had tried the same thing at the same spot, same time. Every so often I like to do a local hitchhike, just to test the national zeitgeist and the level of empathy of my fellow Americans. Last winter I tried it, and after over a hundred cars had left me standing in a brutal cold wind, finally got a ride from an immigrant Indian couple and their teenage son. (My fellow Americans didn’t come off so well in that story.)
But three days ago, after nearly 60 cars had passed me — most often one or two men in a car who would look away from me in what appeared to be a kind of embarrassment — a black police SUV from the town of Horsham started pulling towards me through the parking lot of the local bank, on whose lawn I was standing. The cop in the vehicle was shaking his head at me with a stern, disapproving expression. He pulled to a stop, rolled down his window, and as I walked up to his car, said, “You can’t hitchhike. It’s illegal.”
“Illegal?” I said, “Where? I’m not standing on the road.”
The officer said, “It’s illegal in town, in the county, and all over Pennsylvania, on the road or not. If you hitchhike, I’ll have to lock you up.”
“Lock me up? For hitchhiking?” Now I was shocked. I have hitchhiked since I was 15, all over the US, up to Alaska when I was 16, several times across the country and back, and down to Florida, and while I had been ordered off of highway onramps, yelled at, and even taken for rides and dumped far away from the highway by cops who didn’t like long-haired hippie types back in the ‘60s, I had never been arrested. Hitchhiking is not a criminal offense as far as I know.
“Yeah,” said the Horsham officer, looking like he would be happy to do it.
“Okay, I guess I’m not hitching today,” I said, and walked home.
When I got back to the house, I looked up the state law. It said it was illegal to “stand on a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride.” But the only other restriction was that it was illegal to “stand on or in the proximity of a highway for the purpose of soliciting the watching or guarding of any vehicle which isparked or about to be parked on a street or highway.” I have no idea what activity that language is aimed at prohibiting, but it sure has nothing to do with hitching a ride! So I called the Horsham Police Department and asked to speak to a supervisor. I was passed by the dispatcher to a sergeant, who was kind enough to look up the law himself. After reading it, he assured me that it would be legal for me to hitchhike, as long as I stood off the pavement. I then told him about his officer threatening to “lock me up.”
“That was just cop talk,” he laughed. “He can’t lock you up for hitchhiking even if you are standing on the side of the road. It’s a summary offense, like a speeding ticket. It carries a $35 fine.”
I said, “Well, what you’re calling ‘cop talk,’ I would call abuse of power. He’s abusing his badge to make threats.”
The sergeant laughed and agreed it was not right to threaten me with arrest.
Just to make sure, I called Terry Thompson, the chief of police of my own town, Upper Dublin, which is adjacent to Horsham. I told him I was about to do some hitching locally and wanted to check on its legality in Pennsylvania, just so I knew where I stood.
“A fellow hippie!” the chief said, to my surprise. “I’m 65, and I used to hitchhike all over back in the ‘60s,” he said. “Also when I was in the service.”
He asked why I wanted to hitch now, at 63 years of age, and I explained that I liked to periodically check on the mood of the country, at least when it came to a willingness to help people out on the road. I told him I was a journalist and would be writing an article about my experience.
I then recounted my experience with the Horsham patrolman, and he laughed, saying hitching in Pennsylvania was not illegal unless you stood in the roadway. “If I were on patrol and saw you hitchhiking, I’d just pull over and warn you to be careful about who you get into a car with,” he laughed.
Chief Thompson and I discussed why hitchhiking, after decades of being a part of American culture, had gone into decline, with few people attempting it, and even fewer drivers being willing to stop for those who do. “I think it’s how the media hypes up all the violence that happens around the country,” he said. “Every time something bad happens to somebody, anywhere in the country, it gets played up on the national media.” He added that all the crime shows on television just further stoke the general level of fear. In fact, he confirmed my suspicion that the crime statistics had actually improved since period of the 1960s and 1970s. “People haven’t gotten crazier out there,” he said, “but people think they have.”
So I made a plan to go back and hitch at the same spot at the same time, with a printout of the state law on hitchhiking in my shirt pocket, hoping to get busted by the same cop. My plan, when he drove up this time, was to hand him the copy of the law, and basically to dare him at that point to give me a ticket (or to “lock me up”), promising that if he did, knowing that I had not violated the law, I would file a complaint against him with his department.
I never got the chance, though. To my astonishment, the third car to drive past me pulled over and stopped. It was a ride!
I hopped in the back of the white SUV waiting for me. The driver, Stuart Weinstein, said he was a yoga instructor in the nearby town of Ambler. He told me he didn’t normally pick up hitchhikers, but said he was “a good judge of character” and had decided to stop for me, even though his girlfriend had been saying “No, No! Don’t stop!” (She laughed).
They drove me four miles to the intersection where my supermarket was located, and let me out. I thanked them and urged them to keep offering people rides. They laughed and drove off, hopefully feeling better about themselves for their gesture.
I figured it wasn’t much to write about, getting a ride so easily, but then, I still would have to get back home, with two bags of groceries, and at an intersection that had a lot of police patrolling around because of the frequency of accidents there. Besides it was getting towards dusk, which would make it that much harder to get a ride. There was still a chance to get the story I was looking for.
So after finishing my shop, I went back out to the road and took my position on the grass, thumb out, heading back for home.
The tenth car to pass was a beat-up looking modern-style VW Beetle, full of stuff, the ceiling fabric falling down. It pulled over! I walked up with my bags and was doubly surprised to find a young woman at the wheel. I stuffed myself into the seat next to her, with my two bags on my lap.
The young driver, Janine, told me she often offered rides to hitchhikers, “as long as they don’t look creepy.” I passed the test, I guess, so she gave me a ride back to within a few blocks of my driveway, where she turned to head to her destination.
So what can I say? I had just had the easiest time hitchhiking that I’ve had in 15 years! One wait of just two minutes, and another of less than five minutes.
Now I know that one hitchhiking road test is not a big enough sample to conclude that this nation’s miasma of fear and mutual distrust is lifting, but hey, this is journalism, not science, and I want to think this was a good sign. Maybe all these hard times we are going through in the US are starting to have an impact, making at least some people more sympathetic towards those who look like they need help — or in this case who need a lift.
I should get a chance to find out: My son Jed says I have to keep heading over to the same spot on the lawn outside the bank at 6 pm to hitchhike until the same Horsham cop comes by on patrol and tries to bust me.