I did. At a gas station just above Harrisburg. I was 20 or newly 21. I was on my way from Carlisle, PA, visiting my folks, to New Haven, CT, where I lived.
I stopped at one of those rundown places with a massive parking lot in the distance where rows of semi trailers parked, and if you looked hard, you could see the shimmer of silver sequined halter tops sliding from one tractor bed to the next.
There was a defunct diner in an adjacent parking lot. I did not feel safe.
The store itself, where I stopped probably for cigarettes or to pee, was highlighted in a circle of yellow light–like something out of an indie horror movie, or if the moon was a big, yellow spotlight.
It was on the cracked sidewalk outside where Dan the hitchhiker (that’s his real name) stopped me. Dan was a short, skinny man with short, black hair and 36-hour shadow. To my inexperienced eye, he could’ve been anywhere from 30 to 50 years old. He said, “Can I get a ride?”
“Um, where?” I said. “I’m headed north.” So I was stupid, but not THAT stupid. I was also wide open to the world, having recently discovered that it was mine for the taking. I was interested in new people, new ideas, in the beyond-reasonable benefit of a doubt. I wanted to have faith in my fellow humans. I still do.
“I’m trying to get to Boston.” He said. He must’ve seen the doubt in my eyes, because he said, “I’m a healer, not a killer.” He shoved this plastic handled bag at me, wide open, said, “Look.”
I looked, mostly for the darkness of a gun. My naivete told me that I could only get hurt by the man if he had a gun. The stuff inside his bag was normal. A bar of soap, a hand towel, a little bottle of shampoo, a notepad. He wore an unwashed, woven poncho, like the kind tourists bring back from New Mexico. It was a gray that I assumed had been white and black striped.
“I don’t think so.” I said.
“Please?” he said.
I was a small woman when I was 20. Toned and slender from youth and waiting tables, and I had a very short hair cut. I did not have the self confidence or widsom to say “No!” and run. So I said, “Sure. Why not?”
Dan never smiled. The whole time he was in my car. He had at best a neutral expression, but more often a frown.
Whenever I reflect on this endeavor, which fills me with embarrassment and gratefulness that I escaped the situation utterly unharmed, it seems to me that I would now find Dan to be a completely harmless, but pompous, doofus. I would not invite him into my car or my home.
Dan stank. I kept my window open. I remember wishing I could open his, but I drove a 1996 Saturn with manual windows, and I didn’t want to lean across him. Apparently it’d been a while since he used his hand towel and soap.
He slept intermittently. He told me vaguely about having split with his wife, and having been on the road for 7 or 8 months.
“What do you think of the death penalty?” He asked me.
“I hate it.” I said.
“Who are we to kill people for killing people? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Your ideas on this mean you are evolved.”
I remember that I worked through my reasoning as we continued the conversation. I did that a lot back then. I had less well-rehearsed logic, I hadn’t made up my mind about much. I was eager to wear another’s shoes, to experience empathy and excuse poor behavior.
I stopped in Bridgeport because Dan asked me to find a phone. We found one. I was annoyed because I was eager to get home. My intention was to drop Dan at one of the giant, well-lit, rest stops along route 95 just above Bridgeport.
He’d become more aggressive and demanding in the way disadvantaged strangers do upon being shown a kindness.
“Won’t you please just take me to your place? I’d love a shower.”
“No. I can’t. I have a roommate, and I don’t have his permission.” The truth was that I knew that S, who was–in many ways–more mature and responsible than I was, would’ve been livid if I took Dan to our little apartment and offered him a shower. It was before widespread cell phone use, so I couldn’t call to ask.
When Dan got out of my car to make his phone call, he left his door hanging wide open, which struck me as reasonable and clever, given his strange state of living. It occurred to me to drive off anyway, but his more aggressive behavior made me concerned that he was volatile, and we were nearly to the well-lit rest stop.
Between Bridgeport and the rest stop, Dan babbled on about his shower. I’d stopped talking, and was feeling extremely nervous.
Before exiting my car, Dan made one last plug for continuing to my residence for a shower, and, he said, “who knows.”
When I was steadfast in my refusal, he insisted on an address and phone number–I gave him fakes–for the purpose of he said, “repaying kindnesses. I will drop you a note in the future.” There were tons of other addresses and phone numbers there, most of them were–I imagine–false.
Even at the time, I was acutely aware of my luck, which was about 330% better than my management.
And now, friends, you have a secret I kept from most everyone until about 6 years later when I was a mom and I admitted doing this to my mom who said, “Oh, April!” In the way she does when my behavior confounds and distresses her.
I’m practicing facing hard feelings from the past, admitting stupidity/wrongdoing. This is one of the hardest-to-reckon, most embarrassing events of my life thus far. I still can’t fathom what I was thinking, doubly so as a parent, and probably won’t let Child go anywhere by herself until she’s 30.