Hitchhiking has always been good to me, but I can’t say the same for a certain drunk who once rolled in an early ‘70s Opel GT. His car was on the verge of a coronary; it was merely fate that put me behind the wheel when it had The Big One.
A dank and humid Kansas dawn was creating an eerie green kaleidoscope of light from the smashed-up malt liquor bottles and broken tumbleweeds collected in the crawlspace of an I-70 overpass I used for my bedroom one summer in the mid-’80s. I was headed home toward Kansas City and confronted with Rule No. 6, no hitching in the dark, I called it a night outside of Salina.
There are several keys to successfully begging rides, not least of which is avoiding looking like you might rob, rape or murder whoever summons the courage to stop and pick you up. So I opted for being clean shaven, showered and dressed on the preppy side. Smiling and leaving the sunglasses off doesn’t hurt, either.
This particular morning I was just getting settled into my backward gait, when the red Opel came at me, locking up the tires on the roadside gravel as it lurched to a stop, just missing me and the guardrail. The driver reached over and rolled down the passenger window. I was hit by the stiff reek of gin, cigarettes and bad cologne.
“Can you drive a stick?” slurred the driver, who leaned heavily on his forearm, braced on the back of the passenger seat.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You got a license?” he said, struggling to keep his head up, looking at me through the window.
“Sure,” I said, relieved that I might not have to deal with turning down a drunk. Rule No. 1, never ride with the wasted.
“Good. You’re drivin’,” he said, flopping awkwardly over the center console and into the passenger seat. He rolled up the window and put on his seat belt.
I got in, dropped it into first, and off we went.
“My name’s Jim…” He never heard me. He passed out with his head cocked against the window. A faint snoring ensued, so I turned up the radio and drove east.
He never asked where I was going and I never found out where he was headed. I figured we’d sort that out when he awoke.
About 50 miles out of K.C. the stick shift popped out of gear. I pushed in the clutch, put it back in fifth and kept going. Couple of minutes later, I put it back again. As the frequency of this problem increased, so did the volume of the angry grinding coming up through the floorboards.
It didn’t take long before the car struggled to cruise in fifth, so I dropped to fourth. This worked for a few miles, but fourth, too, started to go south. I was sure that the increasingly violent vibration of the stick shift and unsettling grinding noise would wake my passenger. Would he be angry?
Despite the mechanical drama, his coma continued unabated.
As I passed the rail yards just west of downtown Kansas City, the shifter would no longer stay in gear for even a few seconds at a time. The shaking was fast and intense. The grinding noise got louder. The snoring stopped and I was sure he would come to any second.
I was gripping the shifter hard, coming up on the Lewis and Clark Bridge over the Kaw River. I needed just a mile more, so I mashed the gas and jammed the shifter hard to fourth, arm-wrestling it with all I had. I got it up to about 80 and, as acrid blue smoke started pouring from the shifter boot, I let the stick pop into neutral and coasted toward downtown. Amazingly, my hammered co-pilot remained completely checked out.
I was doing just short of 20 mph as I coasted past the Broadway exit. I pulled the car out of the way and snugged the passenger door close to the retaining wall (in case he came to and decided to chase), turned the motor off, got out, grabbed my pack and leaned in the open driver’s side window.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said, waving away the blue smoke that had filled the car. Still nothing. I tossed the keys on the floor and got the hell out of there.