(In which our hero gravely hurts someone who loves him deeply, takes advantage of others’ kindnesses, betrays his heart, and only realizes years later that none of that was OK.)
I used to be a born again Christian. It didn’t take. I converted under duress: Laura, the first woman who was ever really interested in me, was one of those born-again hippie types that were prevalent in the 1970s. She was beautiful: long, wavy hair, sparkling eyes the color of cinnamon. She wrote me letters with long, drippy calligraphy, sketches of snowy Vermont hillsides and moons a half-day new. We dated for a couple months and then realized the religious difference was going to get in the way. Neither of us wanted to hurt the other, and so we agreed it was best to end things.
I got a mile away from her room and felt desolate. “Fine,” I said. “If this is what it takes, then come into my heart, Jesus.” I said it as a dare. I suddenly felt lighter. I went back and told Laura what had happened: she and her prayer partner had been praying fervently that I would see the light on my walk home.
And then my mind came back. My problem was I actually read the Bible. The thing that was the breaking point for me, as I recall, was the delineation of the roles of a Christian husband and wife. The inequity repelled me viscerally.
I saved myself: I fell away from Christianity, came to a tearful agreement with Laura, and decided what to do next. Laura left school and moved home to Schenectady. Self-centered, insensitive person that I am, I didn’t realize until a few years later that she’d done so because of me. As for me, California suggested itself. I took forty bucks from my mother’s hoard of cash and headed for the interstate, wearing a canvas knapsack with one change of clothes, a tent and thin cloth sleeping bag, and nothing else to my name.
I got to Medina, Ohio the first night. I walked into the police station, said I was heading to California looking for work, and asked if there was any place in town I might spend the night without bothering anyone. The police chief of Medina, Ohio was a very nice young woman who called the local homeless charity — which was apparently sitting around waiting for someone to be homeless — and they put me up in a motel. The police chief kept asking whether I wanted pie.
I was, back then, 5’9” and weighed 120 pounds soaking wet. I probably looked like I needed pie.
The next morning I was on the Interstate again, thumb out. Someone offered me a ride a little ways: he was turning off just ahead to head to southern Ohio, to visit a hippie herb farm in the Appalachians. I decided that sounded fun and tagged along. A mistake, kind of. First rule of cross-country hitchhiking: don’t forget where you want to go. I didn’t get to California for another five years.
I was terrified. Alone and on my own, a runaway, unused to doing anything for myself other than sulking, and heading who knew where. The Christianity seeped back into me.
The herb farmers were very nice, Ron and Ann, and a baby, Dylan, who would be 29 now. (Fuck, I’m old.) They offered to let me camp on their land, and then when it got down to about 20 degrees Ann insisted I sleep on their couch.
I lay there and realized that as the infectious tendrils of Christianity had once again metastasized though my heart, the obstacle to my engagement to Laura had gone away. I decided to head for Schenectady.
The next day I walked five miles down Ron and Ann’s driveway to the road, then another two to town. I bought a couple packs of cigarettes and some matches and hitched south. I crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky at Portsmouth, walking across on a long silver bridge. A few rides in succession took me to Ashland, into West Virginia at Huntington, and to Charleston. I stood at the interchange of Interstates 64 and 77 in Charleston, thumb out, and after half an hour a bearded guy in a pickup offered me a ride north on 77.
“Don’t you get scared doing that?” he asked. “Sometimes,” I said, “but I just pray for strength.” And he started digging frantically in the cardboard box he had next to him on the bench seat. I thought to myself “He’s either gonna pull out a gun or a Bible.” It was a Bible. He pressed it on me, told me he’d wanted to give it away. He dropped me off in Ripley. I stood there hitching for an hour. A school bus full of kids drove by a block away. One of the kids yelled out the window. “Hi, hippie!” I waved.
In Caldwell, Ohio that night — yes, I know it sounds aimless: the meandering route made sense to me at the time — I again walked into the local police station to ask where I could stay. The chief was not a friendly, pie-offering young woman, but rather a lanky guy with a cop mustache and a Stetson hat who asked me to wait in the lobby for a moment. The door to the back failed to shut all the way, and I overheard the discussion he was having. I heard the words “runaway,” “marijuana,” and “run a computer check.” I was a runaway, and I knew my mother would have filed a missing persons report on me within hours of my leaving.
I opened up the Bible, started reading.
The chief came out and sat down across the room from me. He asked me a few questions. I would look up from my book at him, answer the question brightly and politely, and then look back down to the book again. After a few iterations of this he got impatient. “What’s that you’re reading, son?” His voice was noticeably sharper, annoyed at my rude behavior in continuing to read a book while a duly sworn officer of the law was asking me questions.
I handed him the Bible. He looked at it for a second. He handed it back. He got up, went to the back for a moment, came back with a slip of paper, folded. “Give this to the woman who runs the hotel across the street,” he said.
I walked out of the police station, went around the corner and read the note. It said “Ruth; please find this young man a bed for the night. He is OK.” Signed the Chief of Police, Caldwell Ohio.
I ate at a diner in the center of town, which center of town was about two blocks long in either direction. The waitress, who was about 19, opined that I was crazy to hitchhike. I slept in a flophouse room with eight empty beds crammed into it, a hissing steam radiator in the corner, bathtub down the hall and television in the common area.
I got stuck the next day in Pennsylvania. I was dropped off at a rural interchange between Interstates 70 and 79. It was a high-speed interchange. No one was stopping for me. I decided, after an hour, to walk to the next exit along country roads I saw in the distance.
One of them took me several miles to a dead end at the edge of a field. I tried to be upset. I failed. I went into the woods, sat on a log and read Ecclesiastes.
That night in Youngwood I decided to try the YMCA before the cops. They wanted seventy bucks for a room. The cops suggested a park near downtown. “Just sleep in the picnic area,” the cop said on the phone. “If you see a black and white coming up to you during the night, don’t worry. I’ll just ask the night officers to keep an eye on you.”
I slept atop a picnic table, shivering.
The next morning a cop pulled up, asked me how I’d slept, waited while I rolled up the sleeping bag and gave me a ride to the edge of town. At the edge of town was a restaurant. “I’ll buy you breakfast,” said the cop. After we ate he handed me ten bucks. He wouldn’t budge until I took it. The bus station was two miles away, in downtown Greensburg. I walked there through a downpour.
The bus from Greensburg stopped at the downtown Pittsburgh Greyhound station. I went to the counter, asked how much a ticket to Schenectady was. It was five dollars more than I had. I bought a ticket to Buffalo. By the time the bus crossed the line into New York that Christianity had oozed out of me again, and it never came back.
A year later, melancholy, I found Laura’s phone number in Schenectady and dialed it. Her father answered. “She’s not here, who’s this?” I said it was Chris, and wondered if she’d call me back. “I’m sure she will, Chris!” “Let me give you my number.” “Well, goodness, I think she’d have your number, Chris! She’d sure as heck have her fiancé‘s phone number, wouldn’t she?”
Laura had gone back home and gotten engaged to a guy named Chris.