A few months ago, I dropped off some unused feminine hygiene products to a women's shelter in my city. I had originally planned on making little tampon goodie bags to pass out to homeless women on the street, but it's harder to find homeless people on the street in the winter than in the summer and I figured they weren't helping anyone sitting there in the back of the bathroom cupboard, so I might as well give them away to someone who could use them now. (Also, selfishly, horribly, I didn't want to walk around in the cold.)
As an aside, one year I drove around with a fruitcake in the car after Christmas because I had received two, and, while I do enjoy a piece of fruitcake, I certainly didn't need more than one. I thought that the nutritional value in fruitcake must be pretty substantial, what with all those bits of fruit and nuts packed into that dense cake, and I thought this bit of Christmas tradition would be appreciated by a hungry homeless person. When I finally found a guy and asked him if he wanted it, he scoffed at my offer. I was astonished. Reject an entire fruitcake? Not everyone likes fruitcake, I guess. And it turns out that beggars can be choosers. (I don't remember what I did with it after the rejection. I probably just broke down and ate the damn thing.)
Anyway, for some reason, I assumed that it would be mostly young women with small children at the shelter, which would have been tragic enough, but when I got there on that cold grey day, I was surprised to find a bunch of ragged older women sitting around outside on the battered benches under the bare trees, smoking, the ground littered with cigarette butts. There was an indescribable aura of suffering about the place, and it wasn't just the bitter February chill in the air. I felt like a jerk in my nice coat with my pathetic offering of a bunch of tampons and a half empty box of pads.
We didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up, but we were never homeless. My parents made sure I got a good education and brushed my teeth. I have never been battered or abused. Not everyone is so lucky. This fact is something I know intellectually but was reminded of emotionally on that day. I was reminded of it more recently as well.
Last weekend I was driving down the highway on a rock and roll road trip to see John Waters and L7 with a friend, discussing the women's shelter and the general shittiness of life for so many people, when we passed a lone hitchhiker on the side of the road.
It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in late April. Old Man Winter seemed finally to have gasped his last gasp. There was not a lot of traffic on the highway. I was driving in a new (to me) car with a CAA membership. I was with a good friend on our way to see a brilliant old weirdo and a great band in Detroit Rock City. We were about 40 minutes away from our destination. Life was pretty great. I pulled over.
The young man who ran up to the car thanked us profusely and introduced himself as Lee. I told him we were going to Windsor and he said that was perfect. I requested that he kindly not murder us and he requested that we kindly return the favour. He got in.
My parents used to pick up hitchhikers all the time when I was a kid (it was the 70s, after all), but this was the first time I had done it on my own. And if I hadn't been with a trusted friend, and if it hadn't been a beautiful sunny April afternoon with little traffic, and if I hadn't been driving a reliable car with four doors instead of that old piece of shit two-door Civic, I probably wouldn't have stopped. But I'm glad I did.
For young Lee, bedraggled and bearded and tattooed and missing some teeth, probably in his early twenties, who had hitchhiked to Sarnia for a friend's funeral and then stayed unexpectedly longer because the friend's father had killed himself two days before his daughter's funeral, was a delight.
He thanked us over and over, complimented our attractiveness and my friend's handwriting. I have never met a person more sincere. He was either a brilliant liar or exactly as he appeared: someone for whom life has not been kind but who has somehow maintained a positive outlook in spite of it all. I prefer to believe the latter.
He explained that he had been on the road since 11:30 the previous evening. "I really should've waited until this morning, because I didn't get a ride until then anyway. Nobody picks people up at night." He laughed. "It gets harder the older I get, and the more tattoos I get and teeth I lose. People have told me that might have something to do with it."
We couldn't in all honesty disagree. Still, there was something about him, some innate goodness, that was evident even while I zoomed past him at 110 (ish, I hate cruise control, and my speed is somewhat erratic as a result) kilometers an hour.
He observed that it helped to be in a good mood to get a ride, that somehow people did not stop when he was cranky, so he tried to be always positive and cheerful, and check it out, it worked. He told us that he had to hitchhike because he didn't have his driver's licence. (My friend and I both thought, but did not say, that one does not hitchhike because one does not have one's driver's licence; one hitchhikes because one does not have the money for a bus ticket.)
He asked us what we did for a living, and I told him I was an English tutor. "Really?" he asked, obviously interested. And then when my friend told him she worked for the university, he became even more animated. "I almost stopped in at the university library but didn't because I knew I'd stay for another two days," he told us. "I love it there."
He was a poet, you see. The first time I stop to pick up a hitchhiker, I meet a real, honest-to-goodness wandering bard.
I told him I was reading A Tale of Two Cities for the first time, and he told me that he had spent high school with Dickens under his arm. He asked us our favourite authors and told us his (Kerouac, obviously, and Bukowski). He raved about Bukowski's ability to enchant readers with stories of clipping his toenails, and, although he had grown out of his Beat period, Lee professed to dreaming of hitchhiking across Canada with a copy of On The Road and a journal to write in. (He hadn't been able to cross the border into the States since he was 14, he told us. Thoughts of murder despite our verbal agreement flickering through my head, I did not ask why.)
We told him he'd probably really like John Waters, and he promised to look him up. We agreed that brilliant old weirdos were pretty much the best. Incidentally, the only John Waters book I have read is Carsick, his book about hitchhiking across America. Perhaps subconsciously Uncle John was in my head when I pulled the car over, assuring me that I had nothing to worry about.
I recommended Journey to the End of the Night by Celine, and The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. We discussed existentialism and the value of human struggle and The Old Man and the Sea. Lee recited a long passage from By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and urged me to read it. I assured him that I would.
He talked about how one of the worst parts of hitchhiking was forgetting things in strangers' cars. He did not miss the clothes he lost, but he did regret losing his journals full of poems. I told him about how my car got broken into in Detroit once and the person stole the mixed CDs I had made, and he said that art gets shared that way, that maybe I had introduced someone to a song that they really loved. I told him that more likely the thief had tossed them into the nearest trash can once he realized they were worthless, and Lee said that then maybe the next person to go through that trash can found them and the music got passed on that way. This made me sad because Lee was obviously no stranger to going through trash cans (or probably to breaking into cars). I told him that I appreciated his positive outlook.
We dropped him off when we got into Windsor. "Thanks again for the ride," he said.
"It was really nice meeting you," I told him. I almost never mean that when I say it; it's just something to say. But I meant it that day.
In exchange for a few kilometers, this young kid, this beat up soul with sparkling eyes, with a backpack and a head full of books and a past I can only imagine, added something to my life and to my understanding of the world and the people in it. I don't want to forget him, and my memory is shit, so here he is.
It was really nice meeting you, Lee. I hope your future is better than your past. I hope you write a book some day and I come across it in a bookstore. I hope you get the opportunity to tell other people your stories (whether they are true or not). I hope you don't have to walk too far or wait too long for your next ride. Riot on.