Maybe I shouldn’t have been hitchhiking that night, but I did, and there’s no going back now. I was a hippie, a sometimes stoner, a street punk; young and broke. At night I slept in an empty apartment that I climbed up a fire escape to get into. One thing I wasn’t doing that night in late 1970 or early ‘71 was getting high. I was straight as an arrow that night and I’m very clear on what happened.
I had just turned eighteen. I’d been warned by well meaning friends not to hitchhike in certain parts of the city, but I was broke, not to mention homeless, so I got around the best way I could. That night I’d been hanging out in the Square, then a major hippie haven. It was my social life, I guess. My survival skills weren’t much—yet. I had grown up in a sheltered Catholic home. But there was trouble behind the scenes, and after graduating high school at age seventeen, I split for parts unknown.
Life on the streets was bad, but not bad enough to send me back home. Two gay guys I’d met told me there was an empty apartment in the building next to theirs. They showed me how I could access the vacant apartment by walking through the alley and climbing up the fire escape. The apartment had sky blue walls and a mattress on the hard wood floor. The lights were on and the shower worked. What more could a homeless flower child want?
This became my home for awhile, and I guarded its location. It was my shelter from the too friendly predators who offered a place to stay in exchange for instant intimacy. It was a safe place to unwind and regroup for the daily battle of living on the streets of a major metropolitan area.
Secondary to a roof over my head was food. I lived on junk food, scrounged from the leavings of fast food customers. Sometimes groups of us spread out and panhandled in the square: roving, ragged, child beggars.
Sometimes the money went for food, sometimes for a high. The steady diet of junk food took its toll. At age eighteen, I developed acne, something I’d never had during my middle class younger teens. To those moms who nag their teenagers about eating too much fast food: keep nagging, your concerns are valid.
By day, I carried my clothes around in an army back pack, just in case the empty apartment got rented while I was out. By night, I hung out in the square, connected with other lost souls, took trips to other places, and other states of mind. Buses were unknown to me, and I only occasionally rode the trains. When I needed to get away or get home, I hitchhiked. It was a common way to get around back then, and the world was very different. It was dangerous enough then; I wouldn’t recommend it at all today.
It was a mild night. I don’t remember if it was spring or summer. Nobody was around, and not much was happening on the street. It was peculiarly quiet, in fact. I decided to go home early, to my blue sky apartment.
I got a ride right away. The car was an older white sedan. The driver was a middle aged man, forty to fiftyish. Or maybe he just looked older because of his hair. His hair was the first thing I noticed about him, not that I really paid him that much mind. I had hitched dozens of rides before. This was routine stuff, I thought.
He was no hippie, but his hair was wild: all over the place. It was dark, maybe black, and streaked with a lot of white: Bride of Frankenstein hair. He was a white man with Don King hair. It was electric, charged—like the air that night. I was not paying attention. I thought he was a middle aged man who would give me a ride home, and I turned my attention to the street ahead to give him directions. He knew where my street was—he was driving that way—and he passed it.
“Hey, you passed my street,” I said.
That’s when he speeded up, and I noticed his eyes for the first time.
In the moment I looked into them, his eyes told me everything. They were black and bright, and--this is no judgment call, just an observation—they were truly crazy.
Then I saw the knife shining in the darkness. It was probably a hunting knife. The blade must have been six inches long. The fear settled into me like a long winter cold. Time raced, and it stood still. Absurdly, I reasoned he would stop for a red light. I scanned the street for a red light, but ahead of us in the nearly empty street, like a string of carnival lights against the black sky, stretched a long line of green lights. I put my hand on the door handle, and he spoke with desperation in his voice:
“You can’t jump out. You can’t.” His arm reached across the front seat, holding the knife in front of my neck. “Get down!” he ordered.
Stalling for time, I tried to show cooperation. I slouched a little in my seat, keeping my hand on the door handle, while searching the blackness ahead for red lights. There were none. He drove faster, heading out of the city.
“Get down,” he said again. I knew if I went to the end of this ride I would not get out alive. I lifted the door handle. The door flew open, and I hurled myself through it. I rolled in the street a few times, before I landed in a roadside ditch. A Volkswagen van driving in the other direction slammed on its brakes, and stopped in the middle of the street. The driver asked if I was all right. I think I said yes.
The people in the van were long haired hippie types. I knew instinctively I could trust them. I’ve always distinguished between two kinds of “hippies:” the health food eating, working for positive social change types who had jobs and places to live, and the drug addicted, wandering, burnout street people types. The people in the van, I surmised, were the first type. They brought me safely to my “home.”
I didn’t go up to my apartment that night. Somehow I just couldn’t be alone. Instead, I went to the next building and knocked on the door of my two gay friends, who were already sleeping. They welcomed me into their tiny one-room apartment, made tea, listened to my story, looked at my scrapes, and then one of them shared his narrow twin bed with me. Through the night he held me, like a mother holds a child. In this world you don’t have a fighting chance unless you have a mother or somebody who loves you.
Weeks or months later, I saw a newspaper article. They were calling it the “Hitchhike Murders,” or something like that. I didn’t go to the police with what I knew. I must have been too far gone, too absorbed by my own problems. I guess I thought then that they wouldn’t believe me anyway.
You probably wonder why, after all these years, I’d write this story. Actually, I’ve written it dozens of times in my head, and I’ve told it scores of times to others—women and men and kids—to warn them. It’s because he might still be out there, never caught, that I write this, and because I wonder how many others before me and after me, went on this ride and never came back.
This is a true story.
If there are any lessons here it’s these:
1. Listen to your inner voice and always trust your instincts.
2. The driver had no gun-- that I saw, and he would have killed me.