This is from the archives of my life. It’s a bit lengthy, but I found it interesting enough to write down. It’s just a roll of words, and being seven years old, it presents questions I can’t answer. Still, if you have six or seven minutes, you might find it interesting too. Much love, friends; praying that you’re well.
June 21, 2011
“An Awful Long Way To Go (If There Ain’t
Nothing Waiting For You When You Get There)”
Earlier today, I was driving back from town, and I happened to pick up a hitch-hiker. Folks still do that occasionally. It turned out to be one of the best moves I’ve made in a while, because the young man left me with a couple of useful reminders, should I ever forget just how good I have it in this world. I’d like to share the experience with you; perhaps you can take something from it as well.
“My name’s Jeff, and that’s about all I have to say,” was what he said as he got into the car.
That was fine with me, but I had the sneaking suspicion that that would not turn out to be the case. I’ve picked up my share of hitch-hikers, ten or twelve perhaps, and I don’t recall any of those rides to have been speechless. Nor do I recall one that wasn’t somehow enlightening, and, while I don’t recall them all, today’s may not have been the most enlightening, but it’s the first one that I’ve ever bothered to write down.
“Where you headed?” I asked him. I was then heading out of Gettysburg on Lincoln Way, US 30, going west.
“Going to Chambersburg, then heading south.”
Taking him at his word that he didn’t care to talk, I told him that I could get him up the road 5 or 6 miles or so, to Cashtown or thereabouts, and said no more.
“Well, I don’t know where that is,” he said, not defensive or standoffish; rather, he was simply stating a fact. I’d gotten a quick look at him when he got in—careful not to stare—and I had the impression that he didn’t have the capability to be either of those things. He was big, probably cumbersome on his feet, and decidedly unshaven, with big blonde curls. My first impressions put me in mind of Tom Cullen from Stephen King’s book The Stand, a role filled by Bill Fagerbakke on the small screen. Had he said “M O O N, that spells moon,” I would have pulled over and asked him to get out of the car right then, Cashtown or no.
“If you know where the next flashing light on 30 is, that’s where I’ll be turning,” or something to the effect.
“I don’t know where that is.”
“Well, it’s about 5 or 6 miles up the way,” I said, ending further unnecessary talk on the subject.
“You can’t do any painting around here,” is how he began. “I got here a few days ago, and then this rain started, and you can’t get any painting done when it’s raining. I was at the McDonald’s. I was. I was there at six o’clock in the morning like I was told to be, but nobody ever showed up. I was there all morning, but nobody ever showed up. It’s pretty sad when they tell you to be at McDonald’s at 6 o’clock in the morning and you’re there and you wait all morning and nobody shows up. Well, well, you can’t take any pictures when the rain moves in like it has. I gotta find some work. I was supposed to get some work in Cumberland, New Hampshire. I was at the church that morning and the man came up and talked to me, said they might need some help at the textile plant. He even brought me the application. I didn’t even ask him for it. He just gave it to me, and I waited around there for eight days, and I waited at the McDonald’s all morning. I can’t even call the man; all I’ve got is an e-mail address; don’t even have a phone number. They said I could find some work in Hershey, but I wanna wait to hear from Hershey before I take off and head all the way up to Hershey and there not be nothing there for me when I get there. That’d be a long way to go not to have anything waiting for me when I got there. Well, well, but I gotta find some work, gotta get me a little money and maybe a shower and, man, I’ll tell you, these shoes of mine are about to fall apart, I like to eat a little too. I was there at the McDonald’s at 6 o’clock when the man told me to be, and now all I’ve got is this e-mail. Some folks don’t like to do business by e-mail, but I don’t mind, ‘specially when there might be work at the end of it for me. I was at the church that morning, but I never heard back from any textile plant. I waited eight days there in Cumberland, New Hampshire, and that man, he was good to me. He let me stay at his house on his porch, it was closed in, and all’s he let me do was use his bathroom, but that was enough for me, and I’m training to be an electrician, just started; that’s why I was waiting for the man at McDonald’s and I was there at 6, like he told me to be, but he never showed. I was there until 9:30. That’s when the man asked me to leave and gave me a dollar, and I told him that the man had told me to meet him there at 6 in the morning and I had been there on time and he hadn’t showed up. He told me that that couldn’t be helped but I had to move along and he gave me the dollar, and he said that I couldn’t be bothering his customers asking them for money, but I ain’t ask nobody for no money, and why was that when he told me I couldn’t be asking nobody for no money would he give a dollar? I ain’t asking nobody for no money, and here you are giving me a dollar; what kind of sense does that make? That don’t make no sense. But I gotta find me some work.”
I reinforce, I can only hope to do a bit of justice to the barrage of words that Jeff hit me with, and I hated to interrupt him, but he had hit what I imagined to be as close to a lull as I could expect him to hit; plus, it didn’t seem like he would spill all of this were he not looking for some kind of help or insight, so I asked him. “Have you checked at any of the farms?”
“Farms?” he asked, as if it was the oddest notion he could have heard.
“Yeah, farms. This is farm country, and, unless I miss my guess, at least one of these big farms around here might have need for an extra body, a day laborer. Why don’t you check with some of those guys?”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” he said with a laugh, finding my suggestion a bit preposterous, “those farms are a long walk from here. What kind of work you expect they might have for a man?”
I honestly had little idea, and I told him as much.
“That’s a long way to walk if there ain’t nothing there. I don’t mind walking; I was in Cumberland, New Hampshire before this, waited eight days, so I don’t mind walking, but that’s a long way to walk if there ain’t nothing there for a man. I’ve done my share of walking, don’t you think I ain’t, and I done my share of walking to places where there wasn’t nothing there for me; that’s hows I know it ain’t no good walking somewhere if there ain’t nothing there waiting for you. I didn’t have to walk too far to get to the McDonalds, but I had to wait, and that was time that I might have been making ten dollars an hour, and then the man asks me to leave….”
He seemed to lull a bit more, and I didn’t think that was good for him. My notion of this guy and just who all he might be was morphing. Potential parallels were coming at me from different places in the culture Americana, the first of which was the similarity between his manner of talking and that of the character of Jerry in the Edward Albee play The Zoo Story—which might be my single favorite piece of American literature—and we know what went down with that dude. (You can read it for free online in about 45 minutes if you don’t, and I highly suggest it.) Then, I was getting this Tim Conway deal of the old man, where he will just stop talking to the person he’s talking to and begin to almost whisper to himself. Whatever his entire mental landscape comprised of, I didn’t think he was the kind of guy who needed to be alone inside his head, so I spurred him on. “I’ve never been to New Hampshire.”
“I have; I’ve been in 43 states and I want to get to the other 7. I drove through DC; some people would say it doesn’t count because I didn’t do anything there, but I drove through; that’s enough for me for it to count.”
I told him that it was enough for me for it to count too, and I asked him which 7 states he hadn’t visited, to which he rattled off 5 Midwestern states and Alaska and Hawaii. “So I don’t mind walking, but I don’t want to walk nowhere if there ain’t no reason to walk there. I went down to the McDonald’s because I thought there was a reason for me to go, and I waited there until 9:30, and the man told me I couldn’t be asking nobody for no money and told me I had to go and then he gave me a dollar, and why would he tell me I couldn’t be asking nobody for no money and then give me a dollar? I wasn’t asking nobody for no money, and then he give me a dollar, but why would he do that? That don’t make no sense.” He grunted a laugh as if this action were as preposterous as the notion of him looking for work at one of the local farms. “And I went to that church on Sunday morning and the man saw me over there and he didn’t say anything and then I saw him talking to the policeman—he pronounced this word with the emphasis on the first syllable, so it came out like “PO–leese—man.”—and I didn’t want to talk to no policeman, but he came over there and talked to me, and I didn’t want to talk to no policeman, I never wanna talk to no policeman.”
At this point he trailed off into an indecipherable mutter, which he rejoined with, ”…so I come down here and I wait around for seven days, but you can’t take no pictures when it’s raining, so maybe I can get down to Hagerstown and find some work. That’s where the man was from, but I was at McDonald’s all morning and he never showed and all I’ve got is an email address; some people don’t like doing business by email, but I don’t mind so long as it gets me work. And maybe if I can make it down to Hagerstown I can find him. Ten dollars an hour ain’t bad for painting, but you just can’t get no painting done when it’s raining.” He lulled.
‘’So, you’ve been in 43 states, but where do you come from originally?”
“Alabama and Florida. I might be able to get some work there, but I don’t know.”
We were about a mile from where I would be dropping him off, and my mind started working over the logistics of that drop. Even though I would take the left exit onto Old Route 30—I had foregone my plan to take him all the way down to the flashing light at Cashtown—at McKnightstown, I decided I would pull off the road to the right a bit short of my turn and drop him there. Then, there was the question of whether I should give him money. I should give him money, I knew that, but I had 50 or 60 bucks in cash left over from my trips to the grocery store and gas station, and I wasn’t so sure how much I wanted to pull it all out in front of him. Just because my parents raised me to have a bit of giving soul, it doesn’t mean that I’m not cautious. I made up my mind that the ride would have to be enough charity from me to Jeff on this day, because I just wasn’t comfortable pulling all of the cash out of my pocket.
“I just really need to find some work,” he said sadly.
Seeing that I was going back to my house where not only our oldest, Finnegan, was, but also my sister-in-law Jody and her two kids and another sister-in law, Karrie’s, four kids were waiting, there was no way I could have offered him work. “Sorry, brother, I don’t have any for you.”
“Cuz I can paint. The man was going to pay me ten dollars an hour to paint, and I’m studying to be an electrician, and I work hard at anything so long as I can get me something to eat and maybe a shower and some shoes that ain’t falling apart.”
With the 30/Old 30 split nearing, I began to slow. He spoke once again as if he were just speaking assurances and justifications to himself. “And I got this flashlight and this candle holder and those games I bought at the fair; I guess I could part with those…”
“Well, brother, I got you a little farther along the way down the line,” I said, as I pulled to a stop. “You should be in Chambersburg in no time.”
“Yes, sir, shouldn’t be no time. I hope I can find some work.”
I told him that I was sure he’d be OK.
“Thank you, sir, and thank you for the ride, sir. What’s your name?”
“My name is Paul.”
I didn’t tell him that I already knew that.
“Nice to meet you, Jeff.”
“Same to you, sir.” He closed the door, and as I pulled back into traffic he was beginning to talk to himself again.
As I made the left onto Old Route 30, my mind was going as fast as his mouth was moving. It said something to this effect: “I should have given that dude some cash, but I really didn’t feel like pulling out my entire small wad. He seemed harmless enough, but you never know. Maybe I should have taken him all the way down to the flashing light at Cashtown, that’d have gotten him a mile and a half or so farther on his way, but Jody’s up there with those seven monsters all by herself and has been for the better part of an hour and a half, and she could probably use my getting back as soon as possible. But, man, you take note of this, Paul, next time you get to feeling nervous about your life, you think about ol’ Jeff and realize just how good you have it. What a sad and scared dude. I wonder if there’s anyone in the world wondering where he is right now, any mom or pop down there in Alabama or Florida who lays awake nights worrying whatever happened to ol’ sad and scared Jeff. Might I be the only person in the whole world who can speak of him in a current light? Sure, there might be folks up in some church in Cumberland, New Hampshire talking about how glad they are that the PO-leese-man finally ran off that simple drifter who wouldn’t stop talking and my but how funny it was that Lester gave him an application for work at the textile mill as if he was ever gonna get any work at the textile mill. How long was he around here, anyway? I could tell them; he was there for eight days. And then there was probably some fella, who might or might not pay people ten dollars an hour to paint or train to do electrical work. Certainly, such a man exists; cats like Jeff don’t know how to lie I don’t think. And maybe that dude was somewhere just now telling some chum about how he’d had to promise that slow tow-headed boy that he’d meet him at McDonald’s to get him to leave him alone. I might just be the only person in the entire world right now who cares anything about how well ol’ Jeff gets along. How sad is that? You better remember this and be thankful for the people who love you and care about how well you get along. I should go back and give him a twenty so he can at least get himself something to eat when he gets to where he’s heading.”
I did that.
I drove back around and pulled off the road across from him and held the twenty out my window, so he could see that I was bringing him some cash rather than further transport. He didn’t see it, and he ran around the front of the car reaching for the door handle. I reached the twenty across to the passenger side window where he could see it.
“Oh,” he said as he saw it and accepted it.
“Get yourself something to eat when you get to Chambersburg,” I told him.
He thanked me, sounding somewhat disappointed. I guess he would have preferred farther transport to the cash. Maybe I don’t blame him; it sure is a long way to go if there ain’t nothing waiting for you when you get there.