A fictionalized, semi-humorous account of my hitchhiking from the State University of Binghamton, New York, to my hometown of the Bronx, New York City, when I was 19 years old.
That Thar Bebop
By Raanan Geberer
Rob couldn’t believe his luck. The first car – actually, a pickup truck – that came by picked him up. A student at the State University of New York at Binghamton, he had a gig with his amateur rock band with his hometown friends back in the city. And in moment of daring, he’d decided on the spur of the moment to hitch hike all the way down.
Not that this was uncommon – in the early ‘70s, everybody hitchhiked. It was sort of a reverse status symbol for many young people, kind of like wearing one’s jeans or flannel shirt for three days straight. But this was the first time that Rob would hitchhike to the city, rather than just around the Binghamton area. When Mark, the freakiest guy in the dorm, the guy with the longest hair, congratulated him, Rob joked, “It’s easy for you! You’ve been a hippie for five years, or whatever! For me, it’s only been a few months!”
So here he was, holding his third-rate bass guitar in its cloth case in one hand and his shoulder bag containing his schoolbooks in the other. Beside him sat two farmers. “You wanna hear the radio?” one asked. Rob nodded, and the driver turned on a country music station. “You like that?” “Yeah,” Rob answered in a weak voice. “He wants to hear that thar bebop!” said the other man “Yeah, he wants to hear some o’ that thar bebop!” The two farmers laughed good-naturedly. Rob knew they meant rock and roll rather than “bebop,” but he didn’t want to spend the time correcting them.
He looked out the window. “Bunn Hill Road,” the street sign read. How odd. Where he came from, in the Bronx, there was a street called Gun Hill Road. From Gun Hill Road to Bunn Hill Road! The story of his life. But he didn’t even want to be here. After eight months up here, he was ready to transfer to a college back in the city if his parents would let him. Most of the other students up here were upper-middle-class kids from Long Island, and he found their ultra-confident way with girls, their fancy stereos and cameras, their recent-model cars, their trips to Europe and to California, hard to take. He preferred his Bronx friends, who didn’t have any of their pretentiousness. He’d made only one friend at Binghamton – Danny Weissberg, a really short kid from Brooklyn who wore a black leather jacket and talked like a tough guy. Rob got to know Danny because they liked the same music – ‘50s rock, Commander Cody, J. Geils – and the same R. Crumb underground cartoons. Sometimes Rob felt guilty about laughing at Danny’s crude racial and sexual jokes, but most of the time he was just grateful that he had a friend, period. Danny also played the bass, and when he bought a new instrument he gave Rob his old one – the very bass guitar he was now carrying in its bag.
“Sorry, buddy, but this is as far as we go,” one of the farmers said, laughing. Ron picked up his bass and his shoulder bag and jumped out. He was still on a country road, not even on the highway yet, but at least it was a start.
After about 20 minutes without a ride, he got worried. After all, this place was somewhat off the beaten track. What if he was here for one, two hours and no cars came? Not only wouldn’t he get to the gig, he wouldn’t get anywhere. When the sun went down, he’d be all alone and forgotten. The thought was terrifying. He grew more and more nervous. He began to rock back and forth.
Suddenly a car slowed down. Ron couldn’t believe it–he ran as fast as he could and got in the front seat. The driver was an older black guy in a suit and tie, and yes, he was going to Route 17. He looked like a lawyer or something. As they proceeded down the road, the guy turned on his radio. The sounds of “When The Love Light Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” the Supremes’ first semi-hit, filled the car. “I haven’t heard this in such a long time,” Ron said, hoping the guy would think of him as an OK white guy, not the prejudiced kind, the kind of white person who appreciated black culture. But the guy said nothing, driving on. Perhaps he was tired of young whites trying to impress him with how hip they were, Ron thought. The guy kept on driving. Finally, he let Ron off near Deposit, or as the upstaters pronounced it, “Dee-paah-sit.” It wasn’t anywhere near where he wanted to go, but at least it was on the highway.
Once again, Rob stood by the highway with his thumb out, but this time it was busy Route 17, whose traffic included huge trucks as well as cars. He didn’t expect any of the trucks to pick him up, but you never knew. Hey, here’s a Pinto that’s slowing down. Deliverance! He ran up and got into the front seat.
This time, the driver was a sloppily dressed, half-bald guy who looked like he was in his late 20s or early 30s, “old” to the 19-year-old Rob. “I can drive you all the way to the Red Apple diner,” the guy told him. For at least 15 minutes, they drove in silence. Finally, the guy asked, “Where do you go to school. By the way, my name’s Joe.”
“My name’s Rob, and I go to SUNY Binghamton.”
“Hey! I’m from Binghamton myself! Do you hang out in any bars there?”
“Well, sometimes my friend and I go to the pub on campus, sometimes we go to the bars on Clinton Street or to Poncho’s Pit. My friend Danny, he just discovered this bar called the Turf Exchange Motel. Ever hear of it?”
Joe made a face. “It’s OK, if you want to get your dick sucked!” Something about the way he said it made Rob nervous.
“I thought the gay guys in Binghamton go to the Cadillac,” Rob said, trying to appear cool and not rattled.
“They sometimes go there, too. Where you from? You from New York City?”
“You ever been to that Port Authority Bus Terminal? That’s where the guys hang out in New York, right?”
Rob saw what the guy was driving at, and was trying as hard as he could not to show any anxiety. “Yeah.”
“Hey, nothing personal, but what would you do if I asked you to suck my dick?”
“I don’t think I’d be interested.”
Joe drove on for another minute or two. “Well,” he said, pulling over, “I guess I’ll leave you off here.” It wasn’t even halfway to the Red Apple, but Rob felt relieved.
Another hitch, desperate for a ride, and another driver. This guy drove a blue VW and was a musician. At last, someone interesting. He was also older, but Ron felt he could talk to him. The guy played alto saxophone and preferred to play jazz, but found himself playing in wedding bands most of the time.
“So, who do you like on alto? The Bird?”
“Yeah, you know, the Bird, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball, Lee Konitz ... yeah, it’s a tough life,” the musician answered. “Here, let me take a little drink.” He took out a bottle that was lying on the seat next to him, took a swig, then put it back. Ron admired his chutzpah, but was a little concerned about his driving ability.
“Hey, you want a drink, too?”
“Um, no thanks.”
“What’s in that case, a guitar or a bass?”
“I thought so. My brother plays bass. He used to play with Stan Getz.” And the guy went off on a tangent about all the famous musicians that he
knew, or met, or played with, or just missed playing with. He was going to look up some of his old friends when he hit the city and have an all-night jam session. Rob wished he could go, but his own gig took priority.
“Yeah,” the musician continued, “It’s a tough life. When you play club dates – that’s what we call weddings – they really don’t want you to play solos, and you have to play songs they already know. Even if you play a song by an artist they like, but one that’s less well-known, they look at you like there’s something wrong with you. Yeah, being a musician is a tough life.” He picked up the bottle and took another swig.
By this time, the car was wavering back and forth in the lane. Rob didn’t want to get into an accident. On the other hand, he couldn’t just say, “Please stop the car and let me out, because you’re drunk.” That would be an insult. What should he do? Rob’s anxiety was building up, minute by minute. He started to have breathing problems and had to take out his asthma inhaler. Then, around the bend, far away at first but getting closer, a rest area appeared. Rob knew had to make his move fast.
“Uh, excuse me,” Rob said, turning to face the driver, “but I’ve decided to get off at this rest area. I haven’t had anything to eat all day. I’ll be able to get another ride from there.”
The musician shrugged his shoulders, took another drink and said, “OK! Cool, man!” He slowed down and let Ron out. As the car sped away into the distance, Ron heard the sound of brakes squealing and saw the VW stop short, just inches from another car. He felt incredible relief.
Rob walked over to the main building, took a much-needed piss and then got a cheeseburger and a Coke. There were a lot of interesting things for sale and he would have liked to have looked around, but he couldn’t – he had to be at the community center in two hours. He walked absent-mindedly back to the side of the road. Here, this brown Maverick is slowing down. Better run to it.
The Maverick had two girls in front and another long-haired guy in the back. Because the girls were constantly talking to each other and not to the guy, Ron correctly guessed that he was another hitchhiker. They were going all the way to New York. What great luck!
One of the girls, the one who wasn’t driving, turned around. “Rob, is that you?”
“I heard you were up at Binghamton, too. I saw you on campus a few times. I’m Reena Greenstein. You remember, right?”
Ron remembered. He’d known her, although not very well, since junior high school. Something about her made him – and a lot of other kids –somewhat uneasy. Her father owned a hole-in-the-wall candy store that carried a lot of girlie magazines, and he was known to take bets on the side. It was rumored that one time in ninth grade when her parents weren’t home, Reena had made out with four guys, one after the other. In her first year in high school, she had gone out with Joey Fernandez, a neighborhood guy at least 10 years older than her who eventually OD’d on heroin. True, she was smart in school, but still ... She and the other girl, the one who was driving, had started talking to each other again. Rob started to eavesdrop on what Reena was saying:
“I might as well start having good relationships with my professors now, so I can get good recommendations for graduate school a few years down the road. I’m completely sure now that my future is in anthropology, probably cultural anthropology, teaching and doing research, and having relationships with people in the anthropology community. I’m trying to get a summer internship in New Mexico.”
Ron was surprised. Now she’s reinvented herself as some kind of prissy “A” student type! Well, this “B” student salutes you. Maybe she should get together with Danny Weissberg. That would be something – Danny, who tries to act like a hood, and Reena, who actually had been a hood! Something to think about.
Rob looked at his watch. He’d be back in the city in plenty of time. When they got to the toll to the Tappan Zee Bridge, he generously kicked in two dollars for the tolls. For the first time since he’d left his dorm room, oh, it was only a few hours ago but it seemed like a month ago, Rob began to relax and to be filled with positive energy. Soon, he’d be at the community center with his friends, doing one of the few things that really mattered to him – playing music. “Back in the USSR,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Watching the River Flow,” “Beware of Darkness,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Ramblin’ Man.” His girlfriend would be in the audience. And Binghamton? It was 300 miles away. He was happy at last.