It was 1978 or '79, and I was about to drive cross-county, from Santa Cruz, CA to New York. I was not psyched. I had spent several days trying to find someone to share the trip with me so I wouldn’t have to drive (and pay for the gas) alone. Santa Cruz was a college town, and there were several ride boards on campus and at local coffee shops that I had used myself to go places cheaply. But now I was the one with a seat to offer, and I wanted to find someone, quickly.
I had a drive-away car, the deal being that I was contracted to deliver this vehical to suburban New York City. For my trouble I had one free tank of gas and a way to get back to my parent’s home for less than a plane ticket, and could bring more stuff with me than if I was hitchhiking. But I had a time limit; they gave you 10 days to make the delivery, and I had already burned through 5 of them. And the only calls that came from my listings on the ride boards were from people who wanted to leave the next week.... too late. If I found someone, we could make the trip faster, but if I was driving alone I would need more time. It was winter, so I would be going the south route; not the quickest way. And now I really had to go.
I had been staying with a friend in Aptos, the car all packed in the driveway for days. I said goodbye and pointed the car south, feeling grumpy.
You should know that then, as now, I loved to drive, and usually loved the adventure of a trip like this. A photo of Jack Kerouac was in my journal. This should have been fun.
So I was on my way. I was approaching the freeway onramp when I saw a hitchhiker with his thumb out. He didn’t have a backpack or dufflebag with him, so the chances of him being someone who would want to go a long distance with me were pretty slender. But I pulled over anyway. I was in my hour of need.
I would never be able to say this guy was nondescript. He was black, and had a big, almost fake-looking afro that was a pretty unusual site for 1979. He was quite dark skinned, and dressed with more than a bit of gypsy style. He had large nose and an unusal accent. And he immediately came across as a gentle soul. He got in the car, told me he wasn’t going far, and as soon as we had exchanged the most basic pleasantries I opened up to him that I was at the start of this long trip and was not up for it. He listened, intently, and when he spoke it was with a profound calm.
I don’t remember what he said. I only know that when I pulled over to let him out, I had experienced a profound change of heart. I was ready. I was excited.
It was weird.
I felt like I had had a visit from a real teacher, and the deep wisdom at that point in time was a simple but honest variation on Everything Will Be Alright. I told him I wanted to write him from the end of my trip and tell him how it went. He said he would like to hear. I handed him my journal/address book, and he wrote his name in the back. He had no last name, and only scribbled down the initials RJ. His address was in Malibu. Which even at that moment seemed weird. Why would someone wealthy enough to live in Malibu be hitchhiking?
I said thanks. We said goodbye. And I had a wonderful trip.
I spent that first night in Needles, California. The next morning I got breakfast and on my way out of town I picked up a hitchhiker. She was a girl, and had two male friends with her. She needed to get to NYC quickly, and they were having no luck hitching together. The guys looked me over, and we chatted a few minutes before they considered me a safe companion for their friend. We put her things in the car, and had a great trip together. We stayed in touch for years afterwords.
I never wrote RJ. I regret that. I owed him. But I was young, irresponsible, and distracted.
And then the new Bob Dylan album came out, and I was stopped cold the first time I heard the song “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
You may call me Terry, you may call me Jimmy
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray
You may call me anything but no matter what you say.
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
yes indeed You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Dylan was living in Malibu. Dylan is a semi-mythical character. I still wonder.