Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | October 8, 2017

BUSTED #3: HITCHHIKING June 16, 1973, Utica, NY

[This story is the end of, or perhaps more properly a footnote to, another story; one about meeting Bett. But I think this one can stand on its own with a little bit of introduction. Briefly, I was hitchhiking to Newport, Rhode Island and a younger guy named Jim (I was all of 20 which means he must have been maybe 15-16) had just walked over to where I was hitchhiking when a car stopped and picked up both of us. That was Bett. She took us to her cabin in the Adirondacks for the night and the next afternoon she dropped us off at the Utica interchange of the New York State Thruway. I was to continue on to Newport and Jim to wherever he had been going. And that’s where this story begins.]

It was late afternoon at the Utica interchange of the New York State Thruway. Almost as soon as Bett dropped us off and drove away a patrol car pulled over and Jim and I were picked up by State Troopers. We were “arrested” just beyond the tollbooths for the crime of being pedestrians on the New York State Thruway. We hadn’t even started hitchhiking yet, we were just walking. They packed us into the back of the patrol car and took us to a police station in Utica, a small city in upstate New York.

There we were searched and they took everything we had away from us, except the clothes we wore. We were put in a single cell with two bunks. There was no one in the other cells. It was practically church quiet in there, in fact the whole precinct house seemed too quiet and eerily empty. It was creepy on top of being scary. Jim and I had just met less than 24 hours earlier and didn’t have much to say to each other. They didn’t fingerprint us, or take pictures, or any of the standard police bullshit one expects; just stuck us in that cell and walked away. I was freaked out by the whole thing and it occurred to me that there might be no record of our ever having been picked up at all. I doubt if we were processed into their system in the least. Anything could have happened to us in there with no record left behind and that thought settled uncomfortable on my mind.

After leaving us to sit in the cell for an hour or more, no doubt to think over our evil ways, they brought me out front. One cop stood me in front of a desk where another cop sat with our wallets and the contents of our pockets laid out in front of him. I had about $26 in cash, no fortune but a not insubstantial amount in 1973. Jim had 8¢. It was at this point the cop informed me that our bail would be $5.00 each. He went on to explain that it was expected we would jump bail and forfeit it since we were from out of town. So basically we were being charged $5.00 each for being pedestrians on an interstate Thruway. I considered for a moment explaining that I didn’t even know Jim, we weren’t friends and I didn’t see why I should have to bail him out of jail. But, I figured that they might change their minds and take all my money, so I was probably better off giving them what they wanted. Besides, who knows what they might have done with Jim after I left if he couldn’t pay. I bailed us both out. They did not give me a receipt and we never got a traffic ticket of any kind. I’ve always figured they just pocketed the money.

They brought Jim out and let us have our stuff, absent the $10.00 of course. Our packs had clearly been searched and sloppily repacked. I wondered if I’d find anything missing later. I thought fleetingly of the cops reading my diary and flushed with a combination of rage and embarrassment. They told us to get out of town as soon as possible. If they found us there again things could get worse. It felt like I’d stumbled into an old Western movie right there in upstate New York. Boy, don’t let the sun go down on you in Utica.

Since it was already getting on toward evening one of the cops, apparently taking pity on us, took us aside and directed us to a Salvation Army not too far away. He said we could crash there for the night before walking out of town in the morning. I thanked him, not so much because I was actually grateful but because he seemed to be expecting it and I didn’t want to do anything to get in the way of getting out of there.

We left the jail behind and headed for the Salvation Army. It was not in a nice part of town, they never are. Once we found it we were informed that you had to be 21 or older to get a bed, so we couldn’t stay there. They directed us to a Christian Rescue Mission not too much further away that they said would take anyone. That worried me.

We got to the Mission a little bit before dinnertime and they were already full, there were no beds available. I pointed out that we had sleeping bags and would settle for spots somewhere on the floor. They talked it over and finally took us upstairs to a small room with two narrow, single beds jammed into it and said we could sleep on the floor. There were two old men already lying on the beds. The room smelled bad, a musty combination of disinfectant and stale human sweat.

We started unrolling our sleeping bags and making places to spend the night as out-of-the-way as we could get. These guys were clearly not happy about our being dumped on their floor. The way they were looking at us made me even more uncomfortable than the police station had. Maybe the experience at the police station had affected my thinking but I became convinced that if I didn’t stay closely attached to my stuff the entire time I was in this place it would disappear. Jim however seemed to be quite happy with the situation and was trying to chat the men up, settling himself in.

Then the grizzled old winos, they were probably in their 40s or so, started talking to us. I tried to ignore them and went about putting my pack back in order after the police search but Jim engaged them in conversation, or what passed for it. One told us we wouldn’t like it there, then the other one contradicted him and said it would be good for us. They began to argue. I said it didn’t make no difference to me because I was only staying for one night.

An aggressively over-groomed young man came into the doorway and announced that we had 5 min. to get downstairs for the prayer meeting which would precede dinner. Attendance was mandatory. No prayer meeting, no dinner, no bed. Anyone not attending would be “invited to leave.” Well, that was enough for me, I decided to take my chances on the street. I rolled up my sleeping bag, stuffed everything back in my pack, and told Jim he could do what he wanted but I was leaving. He tried to talk me out of it, apparently on the presumption that I expected him to leave with me. Or maybe he just didn’t want to be left there alone. Personally I was glad to be rid of him. He had not said or done a single thing since we had met on the side of the freeway the night before to cause me to want to spend any more time with him. Maybe it was just how young he was, I don’t know. But I felt no connection. Better to part ways.

Jim and I shook hands and said our goodbyes. He made a cursory promise to pay me back for his bail but there was no exchange of addresses or phone numbers, no pretense of seeing or hearing from each other again. I hoisted my pack and left.

On my way out of the Mission I got directions to the freeway, I wasn’t sure which freeway or if there was even more than one. Walking out of town I felt a strong mixture of relief and intense fear. I was afraid to get back on that highway in Utica and stick out my thumb, especially anywhere near those tollbooths. But I didn’t feel like I had any other option.

With my funds reduced I decided not to continue on to Newport. Syracuse, where Bett lived, was not too far down the Thruway so I figured to go there and call her. I felt sure she would take me in until I was up to traveling again. I left my camera in her car and I figured that was a good enough excuse to head to her place. Later, when I told her what happened she scolded me for not calling her from the jail. Told me she would have driven back to get me and taken me home to Syracuse with her.

After walking a fair distance into the urban twilight I figured I had to have walked far enough to be outside the city limits, which made me feel a little safer.

Not long after that I found myself on an overpass above a freeway. It was probably the Thruway, but I really didn’t know then what freeway it was or which direction was which. I honestly didn’t care what it was as long as it would lead me away from Utica. I walked around to where there was a chain-link fence that wasn’t too high and then a steep embankment down to the shoulder of the freeway. I figured this was as good a spot as any so I tossed my pack over the fence and climbed after it. I scooted down to the freeway, brushed myself off and stepped toward the speeding traffic.

I looked around and realized what a stupid thing I’d just done. It’s hard enough to get rides on entrance ramps when folks are already stopped or at least moving slow, but getting someone to stop for me between exits would likely be impossible. I considered walking until I could find an entrance ramp, but I couldn’t make up my mind which direction to walk. Which direction was the nearest exit likely to be? Finally I just stuck out my thumb for the hell of it to see what would happen. If I’d had a Catholic bone left in my body I probably would have started praying, but I didn’t.

To my complete surprise almost as soon as I stuck out my thumb a car pulled over and picked me up. I was able to determine that we were on the Thruway headed west and he would take me to Syracuse. As the driver was cruising slowly down the shoulder of the road waiting for an opportunity to merge I saw a New York State trooper car fly past us and I knew that if this guy hadn’t stopped to pick me up that trooper probably would have and I would’ve been right back in that jail again finding out what the cop meant by things could get worse.

The driver was a pleasant enough guy and it was good just to be moving again. I got to Syracuse and tried calling Bett. A phone booth in a strange town is one of the loneliest places to be when you can’t get anybody on the line. So when she didn’t answer after several tries I felt like I just wanted to be moving again and decided to head back to Cleveland before anything else could happen. Back to the Thruway. I sneaked past the tollbooths, walked to the end of the entrance ramp, and stuck out my thumb. It was starting to get dark.

I wasn’t there long before a van pulled over, spraying gravel on the shoulder of the road as it skidded to a halt. With no hesitation I ran to it, tossed my pack in the back and climbed in after it. The door slid shut behind me and I looked around to see what I’d gotten myself into this time. To my great relief it was a family of hippies – safe, at last. Brief introductions were made all around. They were going to connect with another highway down the road and head south into Pennsylvania. They said they could drop me at the junction. But I asked to please be taken down into Pennsylvania with them. I just wanted to get the hell out of New York State. I told them what had happened and it was not the first time they’d heard such a story, which was why they’d stopped. They said they could take me to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I could head back to Cleveland from there. Sounded good to me.

They gave me much appreciated food and drink. At that point I must have looked and sounded as tired as I felt because after feeding me they arranged a comfortable place for me to curl up in the back where the kids were already sleeping. It wasn’t long before I fell asleep too. I have no further memory of the drive into Pennsylvania until they woke me up at the Turnpike interchange.

After the hippie family dropped me off I spent the rest of the cold night hitchhiking across Pennsylvania and Ohio. The rides were steady, if not always quick to stop. I spent a lot of time just standing on that dark, windy highway. During a particularly long stretch on the side of the road I found myself feeling sick. Lightheaded, panicky, queasy. I was not sure what was going to happen or how long I was going to be stuck there. Waiting is simply in the nature of hitchhiking but I didn’t need getting sick on top of it. By the time a car did stop for me I had convinced myself that I was truly ill. As we began driving west I told the driver how I was feeling. He said not to worry and fished a pill bottle out of his glove compartment. Told me to take one and it would make me feel better. It was a tranquilizer of some kind, maybe valium. I took it and in a short while the symptoms subsided. I was probably having an anxiety attack but didn’t yet know what they were.

It either didn’t occur to me or simply didn’t feel important that I was taking an unknown drug from some guy who had picked me up on the side of the highway in the middle of the night. Who knows what it could’ve been or what he might have done? Of course we used to buy drugs from strangers without thinking about it and nothing ever seemed out of place about that. My own naivety in those days sometimes astounds me. Maybe I just felt that he had good vibes and I could trust him. He had been kind to me.

The rest of the trip passed uneventfully. I got a little bit of sleep now and then but most drivers pick up a hitchhiker that time of night for help with staying awake. They want someone to talk to so sleeping is out of the question. I finally arrived at my parents’ house around 9 o’clock the next morning, exhausted and more than ready to settle into my own bed.

However my rest did not last long. That evening my friend John came over and announced to me that we would be leaving in the morning, by four-seater airplane, for Joliet, Illinois and then to hitchhike through Wisconsin and Upper Peninsula Michigan just to see what was up there. But that is another story.

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