Please Be With Me, This Is My Hard Time

Dedicated to my friend Dr. Jon Rothenberg. In his last minutes he asked me to hold a vigil for him; somehow, I heard him.

At Woodlawn I Heard the dead cry
… 
I shook the softening chalk of my bones
Saying, Snail, snail glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

-Theodore Roethke

On the evening of Friday May 7, 2010 I was riding a commuter bus from Manhattan where I work to Nyack where I live. There was nothing extraordinary about the evening. The workweek was over and I was headed home and then to dinner at a friend’s house with my wife and son.

In the town of Piermont, about 4 miles south of Nyack, just as the bus was about to pull away from a stop, I was overcome by an irresistible urge to get off the bus. For a second I resisted: “why,” I asked myself, “would I get off the bus 4 miles from my stop, and moreover when I was expected for dinner at a friend’s in 45 minutes?” Logic was useless, I felt utterly compelled, and called for the driver to wait. I gathered my things and, all-of-a-sudden discombobulated but as if watching myself from above, hurried off the bus.

It was as if I were under a spell: I needed to escape the bus. I wasn’t spooked in the sense that I feared the bus was about to crash, but I did feel that somehow I was trying to change my destiny. Or, maybe more precisely, alter the flow of events in time.

I got off the bus and walked into a restaurant just across the street from the bus stop, sat at the bar and ordered a glass of wine. I asked the bartender if the restaurant had fish. He said the only fish on the menu was a cod appetizer. I ordered it without opening the menu and asked for some bread.

Other than ordering from the bartender I spoke to no one, and I drank my wine and ate my fish and bread as if somehow it mattered. When I finished the wine and fish I paid my bill and walked a few hundred yards to the edge of the Hudson River. I stood strangely still and looked across the water for at least 10 minutes. I had no idea why I was doing any of this.

My cell phone rang. It was my wife wondering why I had not arrived at home. “I can’t explain it,” I said. “I felt compelled to get off the bus, drink a glass of wine, eat a fish appetizer, and look out over the river. I’m in the T & R Marina in Piermont. Come get me.”

My wife came, picked me up, and drove us to our friend’s house.

At dinner my cell phone rang. I looked at the caller ID, hesitated for a second because it seemed rude to take a call, moreover a call from someone I know well but am not particularly close to, but then I answered.

The caller told me that a man dear to me had just died. She went on to tell me that his closest friends were gathering in his hospital room to keep vigil. I was unable to focus on her words.

I hung-up the phone and sat very still. My host looked at me and asked what the call was. “My friend Jon just died.”

Twenty minutes later a close friend called.

“Jon died.”

“I know.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m in Nyack, at Janna’s house.” I think my friend heard something in my voice, something that told him I was paralyzed.

“We are meeting at the hospital.” He told me the name of the hospital in Manhattan and the room number and then he said: “Leave now. I’ll see you there.”

_____________________

When I pieced the timelines together I discovered that when I got off the bus my friend Jon was in extremis; he died either while I was in the restaurant or while I was looking at the water.

_____________________

In February 1978 my grandfather died. As we were making preparations for the post-funeral meal my grandmother said “the meal needs three things: fish, wine and bread.”

Summers with Homer

When I was in my early 40’s I spent a month traveling around the Greek islands. I didn’t have a fixed itinerary: I left Athens early one morning and took the seven-hour ride to Santorini. After a few days I studied the ferry schedule and decided to visit another island in the Cyclades, and then another and then another.  The third or fourth island I visited was Ios, an island known for its decadent night life.

The ferry arrived near midnight so I found a hotel room and went to bed.

The next morning, at an intersection near the center of town, I saw a sign with an arrow pointing to the left. The sign read: “Homer’s Tomb.” I stopped and read the sign over and over as if it might change. Then I thought: “Homer was from Ios, I knew that. How did I forget?” Then I remembered a grainy photograph of Homer’s tomb on the frontispiece of a high school textbook. I decided that I’d visit the tomb the next day.

The tomb, I learned, is on the deserted side of the island, about 8 kilometers from town, and reachable only by dirt road. All the trees on the Cycladic islands, except cultivated olive trees, have long since been harvested for lumber or firewood, with the result that the 8-kilometer walk to the tomb would be entirely without shade, an unthinkable hike in the summer sun.

The next morning I rented a scooter, packed a day bag–meat, a bottle of wine, a box of matches, some newspaper for tinder, a water bottle and sun-block–and rode out of town.

The road was rough and hard to ride and meandered over deserted hills covered with nothing but scrub brush. Every now and then a car would pass and I’d have to stop and wait for the dust to settle.

The road ends in something like a cul-de-sac, and when I arrived there was a small car parked in it. There was an obvious footpath leading up a hill and a sign indicating that the path led to Homer’s tomb. For some reason I decided to hide my helmet in a bush off to the side and then took my day bag and began walking up the hill. I became unexpectedly emotional and found myself choking back tears as I walked.

When I reached the tomb I found a woman sitting cross-legged on a rock next to a marble tombstone, a book in her lap, and reading out loud. Although my Greek is weak, in a few seconds I realized that she was reading Homer. She paused to look at me, saw that I was crying, and kept reading. We sat together like that–the woman reading and me silent–for about 10 minutes. Two tourists, a man and a woman, appeared and started taking pictures. The tourists were British and asked some questions to the woman who had been reading. She answered the questions in English and then, without further prompting, gestured to the marble tombstone and said that it was cracked because vandals had desecrated the tomb. Then, rather suddenly, the man said: “I feel like we are interrupting something. We’ll go now.” And they left.

The women looked at me and in English said: “I see that you love Omeros very much. I can read with you here.”

I looked at her and said: “I brought matches to build a fire and meat and wine to make an offering.”

She paused and said: “Let’s build the fire when I finish the first rhapsody.”

The tomb is on the highest hill over a point of land on the north side of the island. The view is stunning and the place desolate. I sat silently and looked out over the sea as she read. Then something caught my eye in the water just off the edge of the land. I looked closely and saw two dolphins.

When she finished reading we exchanged a few words and then set about gathering firewood, twigs and roots from dead bushes.

We built the fire about 30 feet downhill from the tomb. Once the fire was burning strongly I put the meat directly on the flaming wood, and handed the woman the bottle of wine. She poured the wine around the fire in three places, then handed me the bottle and I did the same with the remaining wine.

We stood together and as we watched the meat sputter and burn I asked her: “How long do you think its been since someone made an offering like this here?”

“I don’t know” she said. “I’ve been coming here 20 years and I’ve never seen it. It never occurred to me to do it. It may be centuries since someone has done this. You have made me very happy today.”

As we walked away, me to my scooter and she to her car, she invited me to dinner and then to a festival happening that night at local monastery.

At dinner I asked her how it happened that she was reading Homer at his tomb.

“I do it a few times a week. I was a heroin addict in London–that’s where I learned English–I got straight with Homer and moved back to Athens. Then, after a few years, I bought a little place here so that I can spend my summers with Homer.

My Grandmother’s Honey Cake

A couple of years after my grandfather died I went to visit my grandmother and took a college friend with me. The three of us sat at her table and chatted. My grandmother got up, made coffee and served it with cake she had made.

My friend tasted the cake and said: “Phil, this is Jewish honey cake.”

“Neal,” I answered, “my grandmother is from Crete; this cannot be Jewish honey cake.”

“Phil, I’m a Jew and I know Jewish honey cake. This is Jewish honey cake, and what’s more its very good honey cake.”

“Neal, my grandmother always serves this cake. I’ve been eating it for 20 years. It’s Greek cake.”

“Phil, it’s honey cake, it’s classic Jewish honey cake.”

“Giagia” I said (giagia is Greek for “grandma”) “Neal says this is Jewish honey cake.”

“It is,” she said.

“Giagia, how do you know how to make Jewish honey cake?”

“Do you want to hear a story about how people can change” she asked.

Neal and I looked at each other, then to my grandmother; a moment passed, and my grandmother started to speak:

“Before your father or Bob were born, and Steve was only 3 years old, we lived upstairs in a two-family home. On the first of every month the landlady would come for the rent. I kept the rent money in a cup on a shelf by the kitchen door. When the landlady came I would reach-up and take the money from the cup and give it to her.

One day the landlady came while Steve was in the kitchen. I opened the door and gave her the money. She would always bring a treat for Steve. On this day she brought a bag of donuts. I closed the door and put the bag of donuts in the coal stove and burned them-up.

Steve started to cry because, naturally, he wanted to eat the donuts.

I explained to Steve that the landlady was Jewish, and that the Jews killed Christ, and that therefore we do not eat the landlady’s donuts.”

Neal and I, already silent, became very still.

My grandmother continued: “A few years later I was shopping in the local market. It was the depression. A woman from down the block was in the store, saw me, and came over to say hello. She looked into my cart and saw that I was buying cake. ‘Why are you buying cake?’ she asked me.

‘Because I want my family to have something sweet after dinner.’

‘But it’s very expensive’ she said. ‘Why don’t you make cake?’

‘I don’t know how,’ I told her.

‘She told me to wait, and then she went around the store and started to select ingredients and a pan.”

My grandmother got up and, walking unsteadily on arthritic knees, went to a cabinet, opened the door and took-out a very old and very used 9-inch by 9-inch aluminum baking pan.

‘This pan.’

‘And the woman came to my house and taught me how to make this cake. She was Jewish. She taught me how to make honey cake.

I make this cake about once a month. It reminds me how people can change.”

When my grandmother died I told my family that the only thing that I really wanted of my grandmother’s possessions was her honey cake pan.

This pan:

Photo coming soon

Echoes of a Fight

In school I was always an outcast. I called myself a loner, but the truth is I was an outcast.

My family moved from California to suburban Philadelphia when I was 11, and I was simply never accepted into the social fabric of my new school. I was not invited to birthday parties, to bar mitzvahs, to celebrations generally. On weekends no classmate called to suggest I meet at the playground to play ball.

I went to school. I went home. I had no social life connected to school. This hurt, of course.

Soon after we moved I began writing poems about loneliness. My teachers would read them and cry.

Then I buried myself in science and entered science fairs and won top prizes. To my classmates this made me a geek, and even weirder. And I became more outcast.

In eighth grade I started reading pornography and became obsessed with sex, a fact I could not hide. This made me yet more unacceptable to my classmates. The constant teasing took on a more sinister edge, and became something closer to taunting.

Of course, what I wanted was to expiate my loneliness in sex, which in 8th grade I could not manage. I became bitter, and angry.

One day at lunch I was enjoined by classmates from sitting at a specific table. That table was reserved for, for lack of a better term, the “in-crowd.”

I had had enough, and something snapped in me. I looked at the table from which I was excluded and proclaimed for all to hear: “All the girls in the in-group are sluts and whores.”

This outburst offended and infuriated all at the table. Girls demanded an apology. I refused. They demanded again. I refused again. Anger swelled. Voices were raised. Faces became very red as demands that I back-down increased.

I stood my ground, and repeated my assertion, again and again. It was my moment in the center of it all after years eating my lunch alone, and I was not about to back down.

The class pretty boy, the most popular boy of the in-group, challenged me to a fight after school. I agreed to the fight, and with that the confrontation ended. The matter would be settled after school.

News of my confrontation with the in-group, and that after school there was to be a fight between me and the most popular boy, spread fast.

We were to meet on a field near the school, but out of sight, the better to avoid interference from teachers.

When I got to the field the entire school was there. This was an event: the most popular boy and the outcast were going to have it out.

The greasers were there. They wanted to see the popular boy get whipped. The in-group was there, they wanted to see me get my comeuppance. The unaligned were there, they wanted to see the fight.

It was like going on stage. There was a buzz in the crowd. It was my moment. I was astonished and apprehensive. The boy I was about to fight was several inches taller than I, at least 10 pounds heavier and athletic.

One kid, a hoodlum, came up to me. He was carrying a stick the length of a billy club. He got close and whispered so no one else could hear: “If you get in trouble, look at me. I’ll throw you the stick,” he waved it for emphasis, “and you go fucking animal.”

When the fight started a ring formed around us. There were at least two hundred kids watching and there were no adults.

I beat the daylights out of that boy. His nose was bloody. His lips were swollen. His shirt ripped and covered in blood. He didn’t quit fast. I would take him down, and he’d struggle back up. I’d take him down again, and he’d struggle back up. But each time he got up he was a little woozier, a little more wobbly. And I kept pounding him.

Eventually he didn’t get up. He lay on the ground, cowering. He wrapped his head with his arms, as if afraid that I was about to kick his head and kill him. His body shook uncontrollably from pain and fear.

I looked down and saw him, a beaten terrified boy, and was overcome. I felt a wave of revulsion, an impulse of remorse, of deep shame. I could not believe what I had done, and I tried to help him up.

The crowd jeered. “Look at Phil trying to be the hero.”

I had forgotten about the two hundred kids watching, all my attention had been on the fight.

But now I saw the crowd. It was a ghastly impression. It’s the faces I remember: vacant and blood thirsty and mesmerized. They loved it. I could have killed that boy and no one would have intervened. We were 13 years old.

I swore that day never to make a fist and hit a man again. And to this day I have not broken that vow.

After that fight the teasing basically stopped. I did not all-of-a-sudden become welcome in my class—quite the contrary, I was not welcome in the in-crowd—but now no one bothered me. The next year my family moved to Europe and I forgot all about my high school until I returned a year later. On returning to town I made friends outside of the high school and simply went back and forth to the school as a kind distasteful necessity. The day I graduated was the last day I spoke to any of my classmates.

35 years after that fight I went to my 30th high school reunion.

I had thought to skip the reunion, just as I had skipped my 25th, 20th, 15th and 10th reunions. This time there was a class website and a near daily stream of imploring e-mails sent mostly by classmates I had hardly known. I had read a few of the e-mails, but not responded to any of them. I thought of the huge energy some of my past contemporaries were putting into planning the event and was both mildly astonished and vaguely amused. I had told a friend over a cup of coffee that I would no more seek-out my high school classmates than I would dig-up last year’s Christmas tree in the town dump.

The Saturday afternoon of the reunion my evening plans fell through, and I decided “what the hell, I’ll go to the reunion.” I found an e-mail with the time and address and, without having RSVPed, got in my car and drove the two and a half hours to the reunion. I arrived mid-party, paid the admittance, and grabbed a beer. Had my weekend plans not fallen-through I certainly would not have attended. After all, I had not kept-up with a single person in my class. I was living in Manhattan, and my time in a suburban Philadelphia high school was something I had not thought about in years, much less missed.

I had not finished my first beer when the boy I had fought 35 years before, now a man of 48, came up to me, half drunk, and said: “Phil, you want to go to the field behind the school and mix it up over the girls?”

“Jon” I said, “that fight changed my life. Remember when I tried to help you up? How everyone jeered and said I was trying to be a hero? I swore then that I would never fight again, and I haven’t.”

I went on to tell him how rattled and ashamed and horrified I was when I looked down at him, bloody, shaking and terrified. How I was revolted I was by the faces of our contemporaries, who were delighted with the spectacle, like Romans at the Coliseum.

Jon looked at me. His face became like putty on the front of his skull. He looked somehow deflated, and he said: “wait here” and left. He returned a few moments later with his wife in tow. “Tell her the story,” he said. And I told the story again. Then we opened fresh beers. Jon starting telling jokes and I started chatting with someone.

A few minutes later Jon reappeared. He had brought someone to me. “Tell them the story” he said, and I told the story.

As the evening wore on Jon came back to me at least 5 times, each time with someone else in tow. Each time he said: “Tell them the story.”

Each time I told the story Jon looked vulnerable and sad but strangely relieved.

As I drove home I thought about the reunion. Sipping beer and chatting with old classmates had brought me no sense of nostalgia for my time in that suburban Philadelphia school. I did have a few business cards in my shirt pocket that I had accepted in conversation, but I knew I wouldn’t be calling anyone from my class. My time there was over long ago, and I would probably never go to another reunion.

Still, I marveled at the exchange I had had with Jon. It seemed to me, as I drove the New Jersey Turnpike back to New York City, that he had carried the humiliation of that fight with him for 35 years, a kind of inner irresolvable loathing and shame. And I had the unmistakable impression that somehow, in hearing me tell the story of our fight again and again from my point of view, that Jon’s pain and humiliation had been washed away.

Miracle on Interstate 80

I have never believed in God. But in March of 1978 God saved my life. Twice.

Somehow, a day or two before spring break of my junior year at Swarthmore College, the subject of Dungeness crabs came-up in conversation. I noted that I had not eaten one since my family had moved away from California in 1967, and that I had loved them.

At the end of the conversation I said: “Tomorrow is the last day of classes before break. I’m going to hitchhike to California and eat a crab.”

The next day I packed my bag and asked a friend to drive me from campus to the Interstate highway a few miles away. He noted that he thought me under-dressed for the cold weather I was sure to encounter.

I decided to take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Interstate 80 and go west on I-80 across the country to San Francisco. I figured 3 days out, 2 days in California and 3 days back.

I was behind schedule almost immediately. Snow on I-80 in central and western Pennsylvania slowed traffic to 20 or 30 miles an hour. I got a series of short rides, which is the worst thing for a hitchhiker. Better to wait at a major exchange for a long ride than take a ride for 50 miles and get left off in a backwater. I knew this from months spent hitchhiking on a semester off, but took rides to get out of the snow. I told myself that getting a long ride in that weather was not likely anyway, but I suspected I was making a strategic error.

Pennsylvania is only 400 miles wide, or about a  7-hour drive. But I did not get to Ohio until past daybreak, about 20 hours after leaving Swarthmore. I was frustrated, only a few years earlier had I hitchhiked from Swarthmore to Ann Arbor Michigan in 17 hours.

I considered turning back, but my luck improved. I got a ride with a trucker all the way through Ohio and into Indiana. Rides with truckers are not like rides in private cars. When a trucker stops to pick-up a hitchhiker he is taking a big risk. A fleet driver can get fired for picking-up a hitchhiker. A private trucker’s insurance might not cover him in an accident if a hitchhiker is in the cab. So when a trucker picks-up a hitchhiker, he usually has a reason besides good will.

Most long-haul truckers go days and days, even weeks, without a real conversation. They buy diesel fuel. They buy meals. But between stopping for fuel and food, they drive for hours and hours alone. Most sleep in their cabs. Theirs is a crushingly lonely existence. And so when a trucker picks up a hitchhiker it is usually because they crave company and crave conversation.

The trucker who took me through Ohio and Indiana needed to talk. He talked about his truck. He talked about hunting, mostly deer hunting. He talked about his kids, three daughters. He talked about the road. By the time he dropped me off in Gary, Indiana in the late afternoon I had gone about 36 hours without sleep, but I was now making time.

Interstate 80 in Gary, Indiana was a tough place to wait for a ride. In 1978 it was the center of the industrial north–now the rust belt–and the sheer number of long-haul trucks on the highway was staggering. The highway had four lanes in each direction. Trucks, separated by only a few car lengths, filled the three right lanes. The sound of all of those trucks was deafening, and in 1978 the air was so dirty my throat burned and my eyes watered. I thought I was in hell.

But I was not in hell for long. I caught a ride out in less than ten minutes, this time in a passenger car with a man maybe 35 years old. He was going across Indiana and Illinois, almost to Iowa. I told him that I had not slept since leaving south east Pennsylvania. He told me not to worry about being social and to sleep. I slept most of the 175 miles, about 3 hours.

He woke me up in the early evening and told me we were getting close to his exit. I knew he was getting off the road just before the Iowa border. I wanted to get off at a major exchange, the better to catch a ride. He noted that it was getting cold, and I opened the window and realized he was right.

I pulled my map out of the outer pocket of my knapsack and asked him his exit number. I started to pay close attention to the signs. One sign indicated a truck stop in 15 miles. His exit appeared to me to be 15 miles away. I figured he was getting off at the exit with the truck stop. He said he wasn’t, and that I should get out an exit or two before his exit because they would have more traffic and because of the cold. I was quite sure I had read the signs correctly, and told him I’d stay with him until he got off the road.

When he pulled over to drop me off it was at an exit in the middle of a cornfield. There was not a building in sight. I got out, he pulled away, and I discovered immediately that it was very, very cold. I had made a terrible mistake. I was underdressed. There was no available shelter. My situation could get critical fast.

Not more than three or four minutes after my last ride had pulled away, a state police trooper stopped his car next to me. He rolled his window down about four inches and asked why I was there. I told him I was hitchhiking to California. “Why?” he asked. “Because I grew-up there. I have not been there in 10 years. I want to eat a crab. I can’t afford bus fare.”

“It’s five degrees now,” he said.  “It’s dropping to minus 10.”  With that he pulled away.

In a few minutes my fingers and toes started to become numb. I dug in my knapsack for my hand-warmer and special fuel sticks and matches. The hand-warmer was a cigarette-pack size metal box that hinged open like a book. Inside was some non-flammable spun glass. The hand-warmer worked by holding a smoldering fuel stick in spun glass. The spun glass allowed air to get to the stick but held it away from the metal sides of the hand warmer. Once lit, the hand warmer fit in a plush drawstring bag. I unwrapped a fuel stick and got a wooden match. I could not light the stick. It was not the wind; the problem was my fingers. They were too stiff with cold to manipulate a match. I realized then that the trooper had told me that I was going to die.

I was loosing feeling in my feet. I started shivering and realized that my core temperature was dropping. I knew that if I just waited for a car to stop, and no car stopped, I would die.

Had this been a road through woods, I would have dragged tree limbs into the road to stop traffic. I considered standing in the roadway and waving my arms to get a car to stop, but realized that I’d be a spectral and frightening figure to most drivers and would probably just get run-over, the more so since the traffic was doing 70 miles per hour plus.

It became clear that I could not wait; to survive I would have to do something. I started walking.

I walked up the exit ramp to the unlighted farm road that crossed the interstate at a right angle: north to the left, south to the right. When I got to the top of the exit ramp I saw a faint light in the distance, maybe a farmhouse, maybe a light on the side of a barn. I could not be sure. In the dark in the open plains your eyes play tricks. One moment you think you see the outline of a house around the light, the next moment the light seems to flicker in a field of black.

I started walking north along the road. The light was to the northwest, across fields. I realize now, after spending time fishing on boats in the ocean, and in the plains hunting pheasants, that that light was several miles away. Had I turned across the field I would have never made it to that light; not just because of the distance, but because pushing through corn fields, even in daylight, is hard.

I had walked less than fifty yards, and had not yet turned into the field, when a truck came up the exit ramp, crossed the farm road, continued onto the entrance ramp and stopped.

As fast as I could I ran up to the truck, to the driver’s side.

“May I have a ride, please?”

“I’m only going 2 exits up the road. I’m waiting here for another truck.”

“Please. I’m very cold. Please.”

“I suppose so,” he said. And I walked around to the passenger side of the truck and climbed in.

When I sat down the driver could see I was in trouble and he turned-up the heat. “How the hell you get stuck here?” he asked. I told him about my miscalculation with the location of the truck stop.

I asked him why he had stopped in this God forsaken place, and he said:

“I left New York yesterday morning together with another truck from this same company. We stayed within eyesight of each other the whole way, even in the traffic around New York City. Somehow I got ahead of him here, 20 miles from the end of our trip. I can’t figure out how this happened, there is no traffic on this road. Anyway, I called him on the CB radio, and told him I’d wait for him here.”

I am not a man who looks for supernatural explanations. But when this driver told me that he had no idea how he got separated from the other truck after a thousand miles of driving together, I was dumb stuck. All of a sudden it seemed to me that there was only one explanation: God had separated the trucks so that one would have to stop where I was stranded. God had intervened so that I would not freeze to death.

In a few minutes the other truck pulled up behind us. The driver turned to me and said: “I’m only going two exits down the road. At the first one there is a gas station. The second exit is just like this one. Where do you want to get off?”

It turned out that the gas station was the evening hangout for the local farm boys. They asked me about my trip. I told them that I had started in Philadelphia. That I just had a close call with the cold. That I was headed to California. One kid, about my age, looked out vaguely into the distance and said: “I’ve never been outside of Illinois or Iowa.” That was 34 years before this writing and I can almost see that kid’s face. I can certainly still hear his words.

Around midnight two cars pulled-in to the gas station to fill up. Both cars had skis on the roof. College kids got out of the cars. I tuned to the farm boys with whom I had been chatting for a couple of hours and said: “That looks like college kids going to Colorado. I think this is my ride.”

It was my ride. And it was college kids going to Colorado. They were planning to drive straight through.  I got in one of the cars and continued west.

I pulled out my map. They would be on I-80 all the way across Iowa and more than three quarters of the way across Nebraska. Just west of Big Springs they would turn southwest on I-76 into Colorado. I was traveling with kids my age, in a warm car with conversation and snacks, and I was set for 650 miles.

I was exhausted and would have slept for most of it but in western Iowa we hit an ice storm. There were spinouts every mile or so. There were trucks on their sides next to the road. The kid driving the car I was in was driving too fast. I was scared, and afraid to sleep.

I asked him to slow-down, but he only humored me. “As long as I stay on the crown of the road we’ll be OK” he said. I wasn’t so sure. I could feel the wheels slip and grab, slip and grab as we headed west at fifty miles an hour or faster. I was terrified, but eventually I fell asleep.

The morning broke sunny and clear. The road conditions improved. By mid morning we were doing at least 80 miles an hour.

As we got near the split with I-76 I was determined to dress more warmly. I was not afraid to stand on the side of the road because I would be hitchhiking at midday, in the sun, in 20-degree weather. I put on all the clothing I had: long johns, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, and several layers under my coat.

As I dressed I realized that what I should have done the night before was walk to the overpass at the exit, climb up the bank and into the crawl space just under the roadway to get out of the wind, and put on all the clothing I was now putting on. I realized that in my fear the night before I was afraid to undress and dress.

I thought I had been stupid to miss-read the signs. Stupid not to listen to the man who knew the road. But I realized now that when I was most alone and most in need of my wits, I had been too afraid to stop and put on the clothing I had in my knapsack. These thoughts were hard to digest, and I did not linger on them. But in the years since I have suffered with the memory of how inept I was in that critical condition. And I have learned that the most dangerous paralysis is the kind that hides in movement.

The junction of I-80 and I-76 is in the middle of a cornfield. I-80, the road between New York City and San Francisco, runs dead east west here. I-76 begins at I-80 and runs south and west into Colorado.

The cars stopped. I got out. I was rested, fed, warm, and dressed for the cold. I was not afraid.

Sometimes when you are hitchhiking the road can be magic. You put out your thumb; the first or second or third car stops. You and the driver have a touching conversation and share a cup of coffee at a truck stop. You ride together for hundreds of miles and get out of the car feeling light and fresh and in love with living moment-to-moment.

But sometimes hitchhiking can be spooky. This was a spooky moment. I was not waiting long when a truck swerved at me. Had I not jumped back just when I did I would have been clipped and killed.

I had been standing near the edge of the road, but now I moved closer to the guardrail so that I could jump over it if I needed to dodge another maniac.

I remember what happened next very clearly, as if it happened in slow motion.  Another truck approached. Sometimes you can feel malicious intent, and I felt it in this approaching truck. I got right up against the guardrail, ready to jump. The truck came by, too close but not close enough to make me jump. I saw the driver clearly. He had on no shirt. He was looking at me, not the road.

When you hitchhike a lot you learn that most drivers look at the road and see hitchhikers only in a glance. When a driver stares at you it is very disconcerting. You feel very vulnerable and alone on the side of the road.

As the truck past the driver raised one hand and showed me his middle finger.

This was not magic. This was spooky.

I continued to wait, and wait. Then things got spookier.

A pick-up truck traveling north and east on I-76 merged onto the eastbound lanes of I-80, then pulled over, maybe 75 yards away. I could see that the driver was starring at me, and I could feel his malevolence. I could also see gun racks in the back window of the pick-up truck. It was clear to me that the driver was toying with the idea of shooting me.

If you hitchhike a lot you learn many things. One thing you learn is that drivers of Cadillacs do not pick-up hitchhikers. I’ve hitchhiked in or through about 40 states, and I have ridden in a Cadillac twice.

The situation was desperate. I was not making-up what I was feeling. I needed a ride.

I kept one eye on the pickup truck, watching for a barrel to emerge from a window, and one eye on the approaching traffic. There was a lull in the traffic. My heart started to beat faster.

A Cadillac approached. I prayed. I really, really prayed. I whispered my prayer out loud: “please stop, please, please stop…”

The Cadillac stopped. Another Cadillac pulled over in front of it. A Lincoln stopped behind it.

I ran to the Lincoln and tried to open the back door to toss in my bag. The door was locked. I tried the front door; also locked. I looked to the driver. He was slumped down in his seat and had a short-brimmed cap pulled down all the way to the top of his sunglasses. With a slightly aggressive gesture he waived me to the Cadillac in front of him.

I glanced at the pick-up truck as I ran to the Cadillac but I could not get a read. I was really afraid I might get shot so I ran fast.

I kept my head down as I opened the back door to the Cadillac. The driver said: “Put your bag in. Don’t scratch the leather with your knapsack.”  I loaded my bag and got in the front seat.

“Thanks” I said. “My name’s Phil,” and I offered him my hand. Over the years I had developed this introduction to break-though a driver’s natural—and sometimes palpable—apprehension in the first moments of a new ride. Usually my friendly politeness and extended hand did just that. But this drill I had developed had another purpose as well. If the driver did not respond with his hand and a friendly “hello,” I was put on guard and I would be especially attentive. Drivers fear wacko hitchhikers; and hitchhikers fear wacko drivers. Since most people with malicious intent do not have an organic impulse for friendly greetings, this was my first way of getting a sense of who had just picked me up.

The driver grunted a “hi,” put his foot to the floor and pulled into the left lane. In a few seconds we were going 80 miles per hour.  He looked up into his rearview mirror and said: “Where’s my niggers?”

Now, instead of being alone on the side of a road, and maybe in the crosshairs of a scope, I was in a very new top-of-the-line Cadillac. The seat was soft and comfortable, the air was warm, the ride smooth. I had no idea what was going on.

It turned out my driver was a used car dealer from Portland, Oregon. He had purchased 10 luxury cars at auction in Chicago and was caravanning them back to Portland with hired drivers. He was lonely and bored and wanted conversation.

It all seemed surreal. My fear ebbed. I relaxed. I was in the fanciest car I had ever been in. I was headed west at 80 miles an hour. And I was very, very grateful.

Later, as I thought about it, it became clearer and clearer to me just how close I had come to dying, twice. Maybe the truck driver who rescued me in Illinois was just a man who got separated from his partner. Maybe the used car dealer who rescued me—and I’m quite sure he rescued me—in Nebraska was just a tired and bored used car dealer looking for conversation. But maybe not: maybe these two men were angels sent by God to save my life.

Or maybe it was not God at all. Maybe human beings are connected in ways we do not understand, and mostly never suspect. Maybe that’s how I knew the approaching truck driver was malicious. Maybe when we emit something—an energy, a vibration—that others receive, and respond to. Maybe the truck driver in Illinois somehow stopped his truck 50 yards from me because he heard my distress call. Maybe the used car dealer heard my distress call.

But as I settled into the ride my mind was not on supernatural intervention. I was not pondering the possibility that human beings can be influenced and motivated by strangers at distance. My mind was on the conversation that had begun. This man lit Pall Malls one from the butt of the other. His lips bled onto his cigarettes. He confessed to me how he over-charged buyers, and he told me that now, in his second marriage entered into in his sixties, he had for the first time tasted the wonder of erotic love.

I told him of my adventures on the road and my time in college. Again and I told him how beautiful I thought the scenery was. Again and again he responded that he had never really paid much attention to it before. We were an old man and a young man from different worlds, informed by different symbols, speaking freely and never at a loss for conversation. We somehow heard each other.

As it got dark he told me that he was planning to drive straight through to Portland. I asked how he could do that, given that the trip still had about thirteen hundred miles to go.

“Open the glove box” he said. I opened it. “See that aspirin bottle?” he asked. “It’s Benzedrine. We’ll make it. No problem. I do it twice a year.”

I looked at the bottle, then back to the old guy, then back to the bottle. I thought to myself: “Jesus, this guy could fall asleep and crash at 80 miles and hour.” That thought changed my plans, I’d go to San Francisco via Portland. If this guy falls asleep, I thought to myself, I’ll grab the wheel.

The caravan of used luxury cars pulled into the used car lot in Portland 80 hours after I had left Swarthmore.

I walked to Reid College, went to the student union, and fell asleep on a couch.

The next day, around noon, I cashed a traveler’s check at the college bursar’s office. I asked the clerk the day’s date. “March 6,” she said.

“March 6,” I replied back to her, that’s my birthday. The student waiting in line behind me said, “Oh happy birthday. How old are you?”

“Twenty-one” I answered. “Oh bull shit,” she said. No one forgets their twenty-first birthday.”