Since I posted Hitchhiker-Part 1 a week or so ago, it was probably as obvious to you as it was to me that there is at least a Part 2 rattling around in my brain. As it turns out there is also a Part 3. Part 2, is and always was, a prelude to Part 3, the big hitchhiking adventure, about 3,000 miles from Brooklyn to San Pedro, L.A.'s port. I was 15 and clueless.
The big adventure was carefully planned out and part of that plan was to test out the feasibility of long distance hitchhiking. My grandparents were spending Passover-- their version of Spring Break-- in Miami Beach. That's less than half the distance to L.A. and I knew I would have a couldn't-be-better welcome when I arrived. In fact, I felt more appreciated and more loved by my grandparents than by my own parents so Part 2 has more to do with going to someplace and Part 3 says more about my alienation and leaving someplace.
I was around 15 at the time. I didn't discuss my plans with anyone although I may have informed my mother I was going to Miami without gong into any details. I asked both my sisters today and neither remembers the trip I took that Spring. And as soon as the Easter vacation started, I woke up at sunrise and got out on the road. Unfortunately, it was just a boring series of short rides until I finally found myself at an entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike either at New Brunswick or South Brunswick. No cars were stopping. I waited over an hour. Every car just whizzed right by me.
So I did the thing you're never supposed to do when you're looking for a ride. I left the turnpike feeder road and got down onto the turnpike. And sure enough, in less than 10 minutes a car stopped and picked me up. Except it was a police car and they weren't on the way to Miami. They drove me into whichever Brunswick was closer and made me give them my parent's phone number.
Oh, man, was my father pissed off when he came and picked me up. We weren't exactly buddies to begin with and this was exactly the kind of stunt for which he harbored so much negativity towards me. He didn't hit me. In fact, he shocked me by giving me the money for a Greyhound bus ticket. Today, a ticket would have cost between $176 and $232. I don't recall what it cost back then but I'll bet it was around $20, tops.
The whole idea was to hitchhike but I did want to see my grandparents and Miami too. So I took the bus-- and, an unexpected surprise I wasn't angling for, lost my virginity en route. It was a fellow passenger, an older Black woman, maybe 22, 23, 24. I couldn't tell. She was huge and very, very dark-skinned. And really pleasant company on the bus. She chatted away non-stop through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. She didn't seem to mind that I didn't have much to say. She just talked and talked and when we stopped in Jacksonville for a rest stop, everybody else went one way and she took my hand and headed in the other direction. She did everything; I had no clue what was happening. I just remember that the gigantic tire we did it in was about the same color as she was.
I hope she didn't have a baby. I never thought about that before until just now. She said goodbye; Jacksonville was her last stop. I almost missed the bus. I don't remember her name. There were no precautions so maybe I have a kid in Jacksonville. He'd be nearly 60. Maybe I have grandchildren, maybe great-grandchildren. Maybe it wasn't a son; maybe it was a daughter. Around ten years later something like that happened-- albeit more intimate and I did have a kid... which I'll get into soon, something I've never adequately dealt with.
Meanwhile, Miami Beach was fantastic, even for a 15 year old with his grandparents. I had learned how to dance for my bar mitzvah-- everything from the waltz to the twist. And in between were the cha cha, merengue, mambo, salsa and even the tango. The hotel my grandparents were staying in had a dance contest. I won a mambo trophy, although it was because the girl I was dancing with knew what she was doing and I just followed her. I didn't bring it home. Instead I brought a baby alligator which cost me about a dollar. I smuggled it into the house but my mother must've found it because I never saw it again and no one ever mentioned it.
This wasn't much of a hitchhike story. I was supposed to learn how to do it from this little trip to Florida, which really didn't teach me anything, other than the thing in the tire in the Greyhound yard in Jacksonville, the thought of which I mostly repressed for 5 decades. What did I learn? Um... it's probably better to lose your virginity with someone you care about but that's something I'll never know. But nothing about hitchhiking other than to stay off the highway. Oh... and to make the small talk more interesting and entertaining for both myself and for each driver to make up a different origin story to make the whole experience less dull. It was usually dull anyway.
Part 3 starts here-- my successful trip from Brooklyn to San Pedro and then my stow-away moment for my meticulously planned-out trip to Tonga. Like I said, I was an alienated kid in the early 1960s. The Kingdom of Tonga seemed about as far away as I could get. And not easy to get to either. The plan was to get on a cargo ship bound for Japan and get off in Hawaii. I can't remember how I came up with that. Then I would stow away on another cargo ship bound for New Zealand, over a thousand miles past Tongatapu (the main island, where I had sent my stuff). Once in New Zealand, I would get on the mail ship to Tonga which, if I recall, went every six months. How's that for a life plan!
Meanwhile I spent much of the preceding year sending myself packages to poste restante (kind of general delivery) in Nukuʻalofa, the capital and biggest town in what was still an absolute monarchy and a British protectorate. Wonder what was in the packages? Everything I thought I might need to start a new life in Tonga-- almost all of it stolen, one item at a time, from the 5 and 10 cent store on Kings Highway (Woolworth's) which I would pass by on my way home from school. I took lots of packages of seeds, mostly for a vegetable garden. Also cans and jars of food-- like sardines and tuna and peanut butter-- and everything you could imagine for a kitchen that could fit in a book bag and every small tool I could get away with. I never got caught and I must have sent at least a dozen boxes of this kind of stuff-- as well as lots of books-- to Nukuʻalofa. I wonder what happened to it all, every Dostoevsky book ever written.
Anyway, I waited for the school year to end, said goodbye to everyone (forever). My mother told me to be careful, a warning that came in handy for me very quickly. I have a recollection that all I took with me was in a paper bag with some necessities in the mind of a 15 year old. There were no cell phones back then and credit cards were just starting that year-- but really just for rich people and I had never heard of them anyway. I had $48 in my pocket, my life's savings. Pathetic, right? But not as pathetic as you might think. The purchasing power was around $450 in today's money. And I think I spent less than $10 to get from New York to California.
My first day was easy so I don't remember much until Bedford, about halfway down the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Suddenly the rides dried up. No one was picking me up and it was sunny and hot. I must've wasted an hour being ignored by a relatively slow trickle of cars and trucks. Finally someone stopped-- a guy in his 20s on a motorcycle. I had never been on one and I was wary. I didn't like the whole setup but I was in a bad area for rides and I wanted to get out of there. I told him I had run away from home and was going to California. He said it was my lucky day because he was going to California too and I could come with him. He stopped southeast of Pittsburgh, like near Irwin I think, to take a piss and get something to eat. I said I had to call my mother. Which I did. She freaked out when I told her I was on a motorcycle and insisted I get off it immediately; just what i wanted. So I told him my mother said I couldn't go any further on the bike. He probably thought I was crazy.
The next ride was easy and it was someone going all the way to Youngstown, Ohio. He dropped me off at the YMCA. I had never been to one and was happy they didn't ask my religion, just checked me in with no fuss. But I had a hard time falling asleep because it was noisy and there was an all night party. It wasn't until many years later that I figured out what was going on.
The next morning I got back to the Ohio Turnpike and waited for just 10-15 minutes before a big shiny Cadillac stopped, Coupe deVille. Again, an older guy-- maybe 30-something. Turns out he was driving to L.A. and wanted company. He was a merchant seaman-- named Howard-- and was being paid to drive this brand new Caddy to the owner in L.A.-- also named Howard. And off he went... no sightseeing, just a quick-as-can-be ride to L.A. He didn't even ask me to chip in for gas (which was 30 cents a gallon) and he paid for my meals.
I remember one meal in particular. We were on Route 66 and he said he had eaten in all the best Chinese restaurants in Shanghai and Canton and Peking and there was no place that could compare to this place in Amarillo, right off the highway. He seemed very excited about how great the restaurant was. I was a fan of Chinese food too, the way anyone from a Jewish family in New York was back then. I realized as soon as we got into this strip mall restaurant that this guy was full of shit. Had he been lying about everything for the past two days? This was the most bogus Chinese restaurant I had ever been to. When we sat down there was a basket of rye bread on the table. And ketchup. The only thing remotely Chinese about this place was a kid with Down's Syndrome (which was referred to as a Mongoloid in those un-woke days). We drove on to Kingman, Arizona, the last stop before California. He got us a room at a famous motel called the Trovatore. I didn't realize just how lucky I was to not only have a ride all the way from eastern Ohio right to L.A. in a comfortable luxury car but that this guy was buying all my food and getting an extra bed for me every night. The whole trip took less than 5 days!
He drove me right to the port and told me where to go to find a ship, which I did immediately. I didn't see any of L.A. at all, just snuck right onto a ship and hid in a lifeboat, got caught almost immediately, had the shit kicked out of me and lost my paper bag with all my worldly possessions in the melee. They called the cops who brought me down to the station but I was so badly beaten up that they just cleaned me up a little, let me have a free phone call and then let me walk away. The phone call was to my mother, who immediately wired me bus fare home through a Western Union. That trip home is it's own story-- a portentous one that I'll share later.
This song "Hitch-hike," by the Swiss punk band LiLiput (originally Kleenex), recorded in 1980, is also available in Tongan ("Ke Kolemaahaheka")