I went to college at Drexel in Philadelphia, some 280 mostly turnpike miles across the state from my home south of Pittsburgh. Early on, I used the train or bus if I couldn’t find a ride home from someone at school. The bus cost around $11 and the train $15, a fortune to a starving college student, and they both took too long with all the stops across the state. My solution was to try hitchhiking. I knew my parents wouldn’t approve so I didn’t tell them at first. I established two rules for myself. First, never take a part-way ride that dropped me off at a low traffic turnpike exit and second, never accept the ride if there was a bloody hatchet on the front seat. Otherwise, I was in. After all, I was young and invincible.
I established two rules for myself. First, never take a part-way ride that dropped me off at a low traffic turnpike exit and second, never accept the ride if there was a bloody hatchet on the front seat. Otherwise, I was in. After all, I was young and invincible.
My first ride was with a well-dressed middle-aged guy who said he worked in the men’s clothing department at Sears. He went on and on about clothing selection and how his pension plan was going to let him retire young and rich. Then the talk turned more personal and I got a bit uneasy. I didn’t want to be his new friend; I just wanted a ride. Was this guy gay or just lonely? I never found out and, looking back, it didn’t matter.
The one time I broke my rule-the exit rule, not the hatchet rule- I paid the price. I was headed east, back to school and decided to accept a ride that would end at a sleepy exit east of Harrisburg, the state capitol. Maybe it was because it was past Harrisburg, my half-way point, that I talked myself into taking it. I’d never gotten off at that exit so I wasn’t sure how busy it would be but when I got dropped there at 2 PM I had a bad feeling I’d made a mistake. No restaurants, no gas station, no traffic, just cows, quietude and me. The weather was cool and after sunset it was cooler yet. The later it got, the fewer cars got on the turnpike. Well, at least it wasn’t raining, I thought. Then, of course, it started to rain, a cold rain, a penetrating rain. At this point I really had no Plan B; I was at the mercy of the road. A little after 10 PM a station wagon stopped and I sprinted to it. The driver was a woman and there were two small children in the back seat. She stared at me for a moment and said, “I’m probably crazy for doing this but you look pretty bad. Get in.” It was around midnight when she dropped me off at my doorstep in West Philly. Angels come in many forms, it seems.
Once, I agreed to hitchhike with a stranger. I was in front of him and he asked me if we could hitch together. I figured it would be simpler than playing the game where you each kept walking fifty yards in front of the other guy and so agreed. A guy in a big car picked us up and I took the back seat. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and the driver, Phil Savarino [not his real name], said he was headed to downtown Pittsburgh on business. I told him I was a college student heading home for the weekend and my new traveling companion, Eddie, gave a vague answer about heading west. Around mid-state Eddie began fiddling with the glove compartment. Phil told him to stop it; it was locked because there was a gun in it. “ If you don’t stop that, I’m going to take my gun out of there and I’ll have to shoot you,” Phil said. Whoa, this trip just got a lot less boring.
Phil then opened up and told us he was a convicted counterfeiter out on bail and on the way to see his lawyer in Pittsburgh to discuss appeal options. He said his crime, counterfeiting of postage stamps, had taken place over five years ago and he thought he’d fallen through some legal crack because no trial date had ever been set or something like that. His [ex] lawyer advised him that the government was probably going to drop the case so he went on with his life, staying on the right side of the law, marrying and having a child. Then, out of nowhere, he’s arrested, tried, and found guilty. His future was prison unless he could file a successful appeal. He then reached under his seat and pulled out his trial transcript. There it was: The People v. Philip Savarino. He was definitely not bluffing us. At this news, Eddie perked up and excitedly told us he’d beat up his father the previous night, putting him in the hospital. The police were looking for him and he was putting miles between himself and Philadelphia. Great, I’m in a car with two guys fleeing from the law. A hatchet on the seat is starting to sound like a good alternative scenario. Phil, though, was truly repentant and repeatedly told us how stupid he was and how we should heed his advice. He asked Eddie how much money he had, which was none, and gave him $10, telling him never to spend it all so as to avoid being arrested for vagrancy. Then it was time for my exit so I wished Phil good luck and they were gone.
On another trip home I was hitching with a friend from school and two sailors in a VW Beetle stopped for us. “Cost you six bucks each, Joe College.” Reluctantly, we paid up and crammed ourselves in the back seat, where, to make matters worse, we had to hold our suitcases in our laps. I guess it beat the bus but not by much.