The Boston Phoenix
November 16 - 23, 2000

[Out There]

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Urban hitchhiking: an idea ahead of its time

By Andrew Weiner

A week ago I found myself in the city's most underappreciated think tank: the reading room of the Cambridge Public Library. I go there to enjoy the company of the dozens of unrecognized geniuses who, like me, choose to spend their free time working out innovative solutions to pressing social problems.

My colleagues were debating foreign policy, the election results, and the quality of the coffee at the nearby market. Me, I was thinking about traffic. The day before, I'd lost a whole hour of my life to rush hour on the Expressway, and I was one steamed dumpling. How could it be that the nation's most educated city should have roads that suffer worse congestion than the toilets at an all-you-can-eat Vegas buffet? Something had to be done, but what?

Weiner1 After prolonged deliberation, I realized that the answer was right under my nose. Of course! Screw Zipcars! Forget the Silver Line, and to hell with the Big Dig! Traffic would disappear overnight if only more people would start hitchhiking.

Now, I don't claim to be anything but a novice hitcher. Blame it on a late start -- despite my attempts to ignore every warning my parents ever gave me, it somehow sunk in that thumbing rides was riskier than getting in a van with a clown to eat unwrapped candy, or drinking Pop Rocks and Coke and then swimming less than a full half-hour afterwards.

So when, a few years back, I finally tried to thumb my first ride, I was edgier than a new set of Ginsu knives. As I stood by a narrow road in backwoods Oregon, my mind kept subjecting me to Deliverance flashbacks. My thumb was tentative -- flaccid, even. It barely got past 45 degrees; it looked pathetic.

It took nearly an hour to get a ride. Once I did, though, everything turned out fine. The driver didn't talk much, but he had a puppy named Zeke. Say what you will about van-driving, clown-suited would-be murderers -- they don't have puppies named Zeke.

Since then I've hitched in three other countries, and enjoyed an unbroken string of friendly, maim-free rides from perfectly likable characters. Although I've made it a rule never to hitch from anyone wearing camouflage or a ski mask, my experience suggests that hitchhiking is more benign than commonly feared.

So the more I thought about local urban hitchhiking, the more I believed that its time had come. Tell me it doesn't make perfect sense: how many times have you seen a line of deadlocked cars, some of them the size of congressional districts, each with only one occupant? Now imagine the same scene with half or a third as many cars. Picture a city without rush hour, with less smog and fewer accidents, with well-marked hitch stations near every bus stop.

I grew so confident in this scheme that I decided to experiment on myself. Like Ben Franklin with his kite, I'd put my own safety at risk in the service of Progress. Wherever I had to go, I'd hitchhike.

That was a week ago. A long, cold, wet week ago. Suffice it to say that things didn't work out exactly as planned. Take the first day: I started out on Cambridge Street, a few blocks up from Mass General. I picked a spot with plenty of room, then proceeded to step off the curb, stick out my thumb, and wait for a ride back to Somerville.

And wait. And wait and wait and wait. It didn't matter what kind of car passed, where it was going, or how full it was. Most drivers didn't even notice me; they just stared blankly ahead like goldfish. A few looked at me as if they couldn't figure out what product I was pitching. One guy gave me a thumbs-up and smiled, as if I were playing a joke for his benefit.

I lost count of the cars at around 200. By that time I was feeling about as popular as a porn star at a society luncheon. So when a bum approached me for a light, I was only too happy to talk to him. He smelled like dried spit and wet wool. When I asked him his name, he paused and then, through a cloud of peach-schnapps fumes, uttered the following word: "Yentl."

That picked up my spirits, but didn't get me any closer to home.

That night I retooled my strategy. I'd shave, dress sharp, and carry a satchel and a sign reading Harvard Square. If asked, I could pass as a student who had missed the bus to class.

Or so I thought. Once again, I was spurned by car after car. Even with my new look, some drivers still shot me terrified glances; I could practically hear them thinking, "Escaped mental patient." When a father pointed me out to his son, I'm pretty sure I saw him mouthing the words "whack job."

I was asking myself what Ben Franklin would've done when another drifter decided to make my acquaintance. His name was Ricky. "You should get a bike," he told me. "It's much faster that way." In addition to this bit of wisdom, he also explained the science of the Flavor Crystals in his gum.

When I tried to explain my transportation-reform plan to him, Ricky told me about the time he'd been robbed at gunpoint trying to hitchhike back from Cambridge, only to recover his money by tackling the crook and pistol-whipping him with his own gun. This gave me pause. I've always maintained that there's a fine line between dumb and stupid; maybe, just maybe, I was on the wrong side of the divide. I tried hitching a couple more times, but I can't say I tried too hard.

And so it is with mixed feelings that I admit the defeat of Operation Urban Hitch. Perhaps I've got a brown thumb. I prefer to think that this city just isn't ready for the future. But even though I didn't get a single ride -- not one single, lousy goddamned ride! -- I won't say it was a total failure. I got to meet some zany characters, which is the best part of hitchhiking anyway. And, for a few days at least, I took myself out of the car and walked everywhere. Now that I think about it, that gives me an idea . . .

Andrew Weiner still doesn't understand Flavor Crystals. Explain them to him at

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