Strangers in the Car by
(31 Stories)

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Introduction:  Forty years ago, picking up hitchhikers was an added adventure to one’s lonely trip.  Here is some nostalgia which is relevant to Retrospect.  But it is best not to be inspired to do it again.

Hitch hiking has transformed from adventure to a warning about self preservation.

During my six-hour drive back from my speech at the University of Minnesota to my home in St. Paul, it was difficult to tune into a decent radio station. No news, no classical music.  Only country music, saccharine pop. I looked forward to having a conversation with a hitchhiker.  Often a student returning home from the University, or a person without a car who was on an errant or visit to a relative or friend.

By the side of the road, during a spectacular sunset, I spied a rather disheveled male draped in a blanket over jeans and a sports shirt.  I was intrigued by his isolation.  I thought he would have some good stories.  He sullenly sat down on the front seat, pulling the blanket over his lap. Conversation was difficult.  He rarely looked at me or paid any attention to conversation.

When we arrived in St. Paul, he suddenly became animated. Stopped by a streetlight on a major avenue in the city, he quickly gathered up his blanket and ordered me to let him out in the middle of the street.  As he left, I thought or feared that he had a rifle or some weapon under the blanket.  It did not hang down from his arm but seemed to be wrapped around some object.

The trip left me with an eerie feeling that I had just given a ride to a young criminal.

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Into a dark rain.

During one evening downpour, I squinted my eyes to find the down ramp to Highway I-94. As I slowly turned into the decline, I noticed a figure in a black raincoat with a plaintive finger in the air. I stopped and opened the side door, inviting the figure into the car.

As I began to enter the traffic on the highway, she took off her hood declaring that she was a female. Then she reached into her handbag grabbing an aerosol can, pointing to me, and yelling that if I attacked her, she would spray me in the face.

I told her to put the can away. If she sprayed me, we would both die in the storm. We did not have a conversation. Later she left the car without a thank you.

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At last a trip to remember with satisfaction.

After one of my many trips to the hospital, I was turning out of the parking lot onto the road when I saw an elderly African American woman who had just began walking on the sidewalk.  It was drizzling.  She was without a raincoat.  I pulled next to her asking if she needed a ride.  She looked both puzzled and fearful.  I was aware that she felt uneasy being picked up by a white guy.  She hesitated and then got carefully in the car.

I asked her where she was going.  “Home.”  I told her I would drive her there.  During our ten-minute ride I found out about her life, her family, and her widowhood. As she got out of the car, she asked me if I were married. Despite the rain, she watched me as I drove away.

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In Oakland Calif, I was trying to hail a taxi. A yellow sedan passed by me, then quickly backed up.  A very well dressed African American male yelled at me to get in.  I told him I wanted to go to San Francisco across the Bay Bridge.  He angrily yelled at me: “Don’t you know about the Zebra murders in Oakland?” (Whites being attacked by black gangs.).  He attacked my ignorance and lack of self-preservation. He let me off in the Golden City to keep off the streets in Oakland. I had never heard of stories of blacks picking up whites, or drivers warning the hitchhiker to take care of himself.

Today, the fear of of picking up hitch hikers has metastasized  to fear of any stranger.  Beware of the foreigner, immigrant, gender, taxi driver, bar customers, people at any public institution or in a vehicle (bus, subway, train), social celebrations,  or even an unfamiliar companion. Feeling threatened becomes a justification for violence. Being armed is touted as the best defense against the Freddy Kreugers.


Profile photo of Richard C. Kagan Richard C. Kagan

Characterizations: well written


  1. Thanx Richard for your several vignettes about strangers in the car.

    Hitchhiking was once a way to help strangers in need, now alas most of us are too fearful to consider it.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    You are (or were) certainly a risk taker. Your giving a ride to to the woman was a true act of kindness.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    Once again, you show your taste for living on the dangerous side. Some of those hitchhikers sound pretty scary. Your stories resonated however.
    I have picked up quite a few hitchhikers over the years in various countries, but usually try to avoid what I think are the really sketchy ones. And back in the day when I was hitchhiking with a friend, and was on a street corner in a part of Chicago that was evidently dangerous, a cop stopped and gave us a ride (!?!), saying that we were standing on a corner where someone was shot the night before. So I also had unexpected help from a stranger concerned for my safety. Seems we have both lucked out.

  4. These were all interesting reminiscences. I have always believed it is the hitch-hiker, not the motorist, who puts himself or herself at greatest risk. (I have been on both ends, many dozens of times, and never had a bad situation or one as confrontational as your young woman with the aerosol.). I did observe that the Bay Area in 1971 was the one region where I got numerous rides from African-American drivers, all friendly and none of whom delivered any lectures. It’s a small sample but I had hitched all across the country and up and down the West Coast and only in the Bay Area did I have that experience.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for these vignettes, Richard. They were different, but certainly most not pleasant or rewarding. We certainly do live in fear of strangers, and, as you say, fear of hitch-hikers has metastasized now to the point where most of us wouldn’t consider picking one up, or doing so ourselves. But when we were students (lo- those 50+ years ago), it was an acceptable mode of transportation. You were looking for some interesting conversation and offering a bit of kindness and got very little thanks for your generosity. Sad but true. At least a few of your experiences were friendly and helpful.

  6. Beautiful arrangement of vignettes, Richard. I’ve been on both sides of the thumb but now, so few people even think to stick out a thumb as I whoosh silently by in my Prius. As you so eloquently put it, the trust is gone out of the culture, the celebration of community has shrunken to the light of a single candle, easily blown out by the passing traffic.

    A speculation: the young man in the blanket seemed off his meds. Or maybe it was your recitation on the art of building pottery kilns in Japan…

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