May 8, 2016

That time I picked up Manson-clone hitchhikers

Never, NEVER pick up
hitchhikers. Serioiusly.
Look, friends, Virginia Opera's season is over. The artists have departed, the scenery has been struck, the wigs and costumes all put away. Frankly, I could use a break from the whole deal. Don't misunderstand: I love opera. I'm an opera composer, librettist, lecturer, educator, and occasional performer and coach. And when the 2016-2017 season cranks up, I'll be blogging like a crazed man, sharing insights with you Faithful Readers.

But this week, I'm sharing a story that is:
  1. completely unrelated to any aspect of opera;
  2. and yet kind of operatic in its high drama; and
  3. 100% true. The following events really happened just as I'll describe them.
In 1977, I was a newlywed, having gotten married the previous December. I also had a shiny Master's degree in piano from Indiana University in my pocket, with plans to begin a doctorate at Northwestern University in my hometown of Evanston IL.

My wife was a year behind me back at Indiana, so we would be separated for the duration of one academic year, a situation that appalled parents and friends alike. Our response: it wasn't as if we would miss each other less if we weren't married, so why not go ahead and tie the knot?

In any case, the time came when I needed to motor up to Evanston and look for an apartment for that upcoming school year. I took off by myself, zipping up Interstate 65 as I'd done many times during my years in Bloomington. I was driving an elderly Plymouth, a hand-me-down from my wife's parents.

I stopped for gas about midway. Standing in line to pay, I was suddenly approached by a couple of clean-cut looking young guys. They were well-groomed, with fresh faces and - I swear - rosy cheeks. One of them, the more talkative, had thick black hair; his quieter companion was a mousy blond. They each had a backpack strapped behind them. I guessed they were 4 or 5 years younger than me; I was 24.

"Excuse me, sir", politely asked Black Hair, "would you by any chance be going to Chicago?"

"Uh... yeah...", I answered with no enthusiasm.

"Would you possibly consider giving us a lift that far? It would really be a big help, if it'd be no trouble. Do you think you could help us out?"

Don't ask me why I didn't come up with any of the 500 answers that might have avoided all the trouble that ensued. "Sorry, I'm sick." "Sorry, my psychiatrist says I should avoid all human contact until the voices go away." Anything. But they had caught me off-guard. In one of those moments when you seem to be standing outside your own body, I heard myself say,

"Um. Sure. No problem."

"GREAT!"

So I got back on the road with two very eager and chipper passengers, Black Hair in the front seat and Mousy Blond claiming the back.

At first, during the period I now think of as the calm before the storm, things went well. Black Hair noticed that the old Plymouth lacked a radio antenna and offered to jerry-rig one out of some wire in his back-pack. I consented to pull over, and within a minute or two we were on the move again, now with a functioning radio. Black Hair scanned the dial as Chicago drew closer, looking for music while we engaged in trivial small-talk.

After a while, he came upon a station playing some cacophonous acid rock with unintelligible lyrics. Black Hair perked right up. "LISTEN TO THIS, MAN!", he gushed, "this song says it ALL, man!" He looked at me for validation.

"Right on!" I piped up companionably, though I had no clue what the artist was screaming about.

By this time, we had entered the Chicago area, heading straight for a bank of skyscrapers looming in the distance. We were on the Dan Ryan expressway; traffic had thickened, with an unusual number of 18-wheelers careening along on either side of the Plymouth, as well as blocking my path in front.

And this is when my brakes stopped working.

Due to what turned out to be an oil leak dripping onto the brake pads, the brakes' performance had been deteriorating for several miles. At first I had to tap them 2 or 3 times to get a response. But now, with tractor-trailors threatening to run roughshod over me, it had reached the point where I had to pump the brakes a dozen times or more before they would work.

In the meantime, Black Hair had launched into a rant about vaguely anarchist topics, inspired by the angry rhetoric of that song on the radio. Giving me a sidelong look, he asked me if I'd ever heard of Manson.

"Ch... Charles Manson?" I gulped. Black Hair gave what he thought was a sly grin.

We were now on the South Side, with working-class neighborhoods on either side of the highway. Black Hair's voice turned conspiratorial. He shared with me the back-story of my two passengers. They were gradually working their way North from Alabama (or maybe it was Arkansas, I'm not sure any more), financing their travel by shoplifting and other criminal acts. They had plans to end up in Montana, where some Manson-like commune awaited them.

"Hey man," he said, "you don't really have to stop in Chicago, do you? We'd kind of like to go all the way. We figured you might want to take us there."

Holy crap. What had I done, what had I done?

I don't know whether Black Hair was giving me the straight dope, or whether his tale of theft and a commune was all a fantasy, created to give me a hard time; a little prank he and his buddy could laugh about later. I can tell you I was pretty much in a state of panic. And, of course, I was negotiating the oil-slicked brakes as best I could, trying to avoid rear-ending vehicles ahead of us.

All of his former politeness and inhibitions now gone, Black Hair rolled down the window and began shouting obscenities at the cars we passed.

"Hey man," I said, trying to sound cool by speaking his lingo, "cool it. You'll get us in trouble with... the pigs; you know, with The Man."

Black Hair suddenly turned to me. "I have to pee. Take this exit." Getting off the interstate seemed a step in the right direction, so I was happy to comply. Still deep on the South Side, we pulled into a Shell gas station right at the top of the exit ramp. Black Hair jumped out. Instead of heading for a rest room, he ambled over to the side of the building, unzipped his jeans and began christening the wall.

Mousy Blond, who had been pretty quiet thus far, suddenly piped up. "I'm gonna pee too." And with that he flipped open the door and headed towards the same wall.

The car was empty. They were 15 feet away, the rear door still open. I saw my chance, and I acted. Cranking the ignition, I slammed my foot into the gas and tore rubber towards the street like a scene from a Vin Diesel movie. Behind me, Black Hair and Mousy Blond began galloping after me, waving their arms and screaming in outrage.

"Well," I thought, merging onto the little one-way side street, "they wanted a ride to Chicago and I gave them a ride to Chicago. They can't complain."

I'd only gotten a half-block down the street when I had to stop for a red light. The two guys were in hot pursuit, running for all they were worth. And then I realized what I'd done.

Their back packs were still in the car. Oops.

Desperate times do in fact call for desperate measures. Reaching to close and lock the door, I looked out for cross-traffic and ran the red light, zooming recklessly until I'd left my former passengers out of sight.

I was still concerned,  because getting back on the expressway would involve making a U-turn. This, of course, would bring me back to the gas station where they could be waiting for me.

As it turned out, I made it back on I-94 without spotting them.

I had a long, anxious ride to the North Shore and the Evanston city limits. I imagined Black Hair phoning the police and reporting my theft. They might even know my license plate! There might be an APB out for an old black Plymouth! I might be arrested!

And what about those back packs? What in God's name should I do with them. And WHAT IN GOD'S NAME WAS IN THEM???

In this stressful state, I had a strong instinct: to return to my childhood home. My parents had moved to Virginia years earlier, but home is home is home. So as evening shadows began to lengthen, I headed towards my old house on Lake Shore Boulevard. Driving down the alley behind the garage, I stopped the car and laid the back packs beside the same aluminum trash cans that were there in my high school years. I would not have opened them to inspect the contents for anything. I didn't know, and didn't want to know.

Exhausted by the dual trauma of bad brakes and giving a ride to possible Manson clones, I crept to my motel room, half-expecting a detective to knock on my door in the middle of the night.

That was the end of it. I have no clue what became of Black Hair and Mousy Blond. I suspect they were resourceful enough to figure something out. As for me, I found an apartment and began classes in September.

It seems a hundred years ago............

4 comments:

  1. A very scary episode. Have you thought about composing an opera based on that experience? In northern Virginia we have Wolf Trap Opera to get us through the summer. Does Norfolk and Richmond not have any opera to sustain fans through the heat and humidity of Virginia summers?

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    Replies
    1. The closest summer opera of which I'm aware is Ash Lawn opera in Charlottesville. There used to be a summer festival-type production in Portsmouth at Willett Hall, but it bit the dust several years ago. Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton does Gilbert and Sullivan in the summertime, if that counts.

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