Lemons and Satsumas

Sunday Night Journal — November 25, 2012

Don and the Unprofitable Servant

When you pick up a hitchhiker, there's a moment when he opens the door and you look at each other, and you're both wondering whether you've made a big mistake: Is this guy going to do me some kind of harm? I could see that question in the eyes of the fellow I picked up the week before Thanksgiving, and I expect he could see it in mine. And for my part I had the impulse to say "Sorry" and drive away, because he looked and smelled so bad. The smell hit me almost as soon as he opened the door. He had stiff gray hair that stuck wildly out from under a baseball-style cap that would have looked dirty even without the painted-on bird droppings and the words "Damn Seagulls." He wore a grungy three-quarter length olive drab coat. His teeth were yellow and wildly crooked. A set of headphones sat askew, still on his head but not on his ears--so that he could hear, I suppose. I guessed his age to be somewhere in the 50s; whatever the number of years, they had not been kind.

This was on Interstate 10 in northern Florida, somewhere not very far west of Tallahassee. I was returning from a work-related conference in Ocala, driving a rented Toyota minivan (because the smaller car I had asked for was not available). It was a seven-hour drive, but flying would have taken just as long and cost more. And anyway, I very much enjoy a long drive alone with plenty of music to listen to. I had no desire for company, and had only stopped for this man out of a sense of obligation.

I often pick up hitchhikers if I think I can take them some useful distance, which means that on my way to and from work I pass up the occasional one near the Interestate who looks as if (or announces with a sign that) he has a long way to go. On my way to Ocala two days earlier, I had passed one by, and felt guilty about it. I had stopped for food--again near Tallahassee, but east of it--and was getting back on I10 when I saw a man sitting on a suitcase at the entrance to the on-ramp. And I hadn't stopped, because I didn't want to be bothered. I had my Zaxby's chicken and french fries open on the console where I could reach them easily, and had just inserted a CD of Mozart piano sonatas. I felt pretty bad about not picking up the hitcher, and for a few minutes wrestled with the thought of going back for him, until I had gone far enough that I could reasonably tell myself that it was now impractical, as I needed to reach Ocala by 6 or so and a time zone change was against me. 

 The drive on I10 across the Florida panhandle is extremely boring. The highway is many miles inland from the coast, and the area is sparsely populated. Towns are few and far between. Most exits take you only to a cluster of gas stations and fast-food restaurants. The man I had just picked up had been trudging along beside the open road, several miles past the last exit and several miles away from the next one. The temperature was a little on the chilly side and the sky was a uniform grey. I was cruising along happily, experimenting with the great variety of music on the XM radio. But having passed up the previous hitcher, I knew I had no choice but to stop for this one.

He was one of those who appears to be going a long way, with a backpack and a sleeping bag. When I stopped he began hurrying to catch up with me, but he was moving prettly slowly, so I backed up. He was a little out of breath when he opened the door and pushed his headphones aside. After that initial appraising moment, he asked me how far I was going. "To Mobile," I said. He  yelled "G*d*mn!", which startled me for an instant before I realized it was an elated and not an angry g*d*mn.

One reason I don't like doing this is the sheer tension of it. The odds are great that anyone you pick up is going to be perfectly harmless, but there's always the possibility that he won't be, so you're on edge, and in my case I generally stay on edge until I've taken the person as far as I'm going to take him. And even apart from that, there is for me the introvert's tension of having a stranger in the car.

Strictly speaking, I wasn't going to Mobile, but to Fairhope, which is on the east side of Mobile Bay, but I figured he probably wouldn't know where that was. I hoped maybe he wasn't going that far, but considering the load he was carrying I wasn't surprised to learn that he was heading for Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, another 250 miles or so beyond Mobile. I decided at that moment that I would in fact take him to Mobile, to get him past the long bridge and tunnel between the eastern and western shores of Mobile Bay.

We introduced ourselves. His name was Don, which happens to be my father's name (or nickname). He made me more nervous than usual because there was something about him that seemed...not crazy, but not entirely balanced, either. The tension was not eased when he pointed out the exit that led to a prison where he had spent several years. "I used to be a bad boy," he said with a chuckle. Nor was I pleased when he asked if I would stop at the next exit and let him get something to drink. I don't know why I agreed to that; mainly because I couldn't think fast enough to say no, and besides he didn't say he wanted alcohol, although I figured that was probably what he meant. But I did stop, and in fact gave him some money when he offered me a canned ham from his backpack in exchange for  something to drink. While he was in the store I considered dumping his stuff in the parking lot and driving away without him. But I discarded that idea, made the sign of the cross, and muttered Lord, into thy hands.

"Something to drink" proved to be four 16-ounce cans of beer, and it was only when he returned to the car with it that he asked me if I minded.

"Not as long as you don't get drunk and crazy," I said.

"Naw, naw, I'm a good drunk."

And he was. I'll go ahead and tell you right now, so you won't think later that I misled you, that this story isn't leading up to some violent or terrifying crisis. But of course at this point I didn't know what to expect.

He was very talkative, and I got more nervous when he mentioned another prison stay, this one at a sort of low-security camp which he considered much superior in the way of food and general atmosphere. At some point in relation to this second sentence I asked him what he'd been in for. Either he didn't notice the question--which is possible, because he didn't stop talking very often--or he didn't want to answer it, and I didn't repeat it.

He talked and talked. He was not unintelligent, and he was interested in many things.

"Tell me something. What's your theory of how the Grand Canyon was created?"

I admitted that I hadn't formulated one of my own. But he had: he thought an earthquake had released vast quantities of water from beneath the surface of the earth, carving, or blasting out, the canyon in one sudden cataclysm. He explained the tides as being caused by the magnetism of the moon pulling on dissolved metals in the oceans.

He talked about why he needed to get to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana: for a court appearance, regarding a matter of battery on an officer of the law--"I might have nudged him a little when he was shoving me into the back of the car." He told me about his deceased wife, and his daughter of whom he thought the world, of various incidents on various jobs. I didn't know whether to believe it all, but it was certainly interesting. He discussed his sex life in extremely crude detail, which combined with the smell to make me feel that I might lose my own appetite in that regard.

The time passed fairly quickly. I suppose he rode with me for three hours altogether. By the time we were thirty or forty miles from Mobile Bay it had come out in conversation that I lived on the eastern shore and needed to return my rental car there. I told him I would take him on into Mobile and asked where he would like to get out.

"Aw, you don't have to do that."

"It's no problem. It's just another half hour or so over and back and I've got plenty of time."

"Well, I would sure appreciate it."

His talk at this point, three beers on, was getting even more lively and rambling. As we got onto the bay bridge, he started talking about the tunnel. The tunnel is on the west side of the bay. The bridge is six or seven miles long, and at the west end takes a sudden downturn into a tunnel which goes under the Mobile River. It is definitely not meant for pedestrians--there aren't supposed to be any pedestrians on the interstate. There is a bit of a walkway for emergencies, but it's very narrow, with only a rail to hold onto and nothing between you and the traffic--always including a good number 0f 18-wheelers--flying by at 60 or 70 miles per hour a few feet away. It would be terrifying to negotiate on foot.

"I hate that g*dd**n tunnel. F***ing hate it. There ain't nowhere to walk."

He got more and more agitated. I told him I had a friend who was the same way about bridges.

"I don't mind bridges. But a tunnel is just not natural. Down in a hole in the ground, with a f***ing river right over your head."

And finally, as we entered the tunnel, it seemed that he was genuinely terrified, as if it had been the mouth of hell. "See what I mean? See?!? Where can you walk?!?" And then just "G*dD**N" over and over.  He was clutching the arm rest, and then he was clutching my arm, repeating "DAMN."


But then we were out, and he rejoiced. He began to laugh, and to thank me profusely.

"You've gone above and beyond, Mac. I really do appreciate it," he said several times. I asked again where he would like to get out. "It don't matter. Long as I'm through that damn tunnel, it don't matter."

So I stopped at the Texas Street exit. While he was gathering his things he kept talking, repeating his appreciation, and I kept telling him I just knew that if I was walking along that highway I would be glad to have a ride. He thanked me for letting him drink, "even though you're a religious man," which was odd because I'd said nothing about religion and there was no sign of it in the car--no Bible, no pamphlets, no books, no rosary. 

 We talked a bit more. I gave him what cash I had, which wasn't very much, and then remembered I had some beef jerky and some trail mix, and I gave him that, too. He was really happy to have the jerky. He had one beer left and he took that. He courteously crushed the empties and was going to take them with him but I told him not to worry about it, I would get rid of them. And we took our leave, shaking hands.

"I hope you get where you're going and don't have to stay there," I said: if the court appearance didn't go well he would end up in the Breaux Bridge jail.

"Amen," he said, "me, too." He squeezed my hand and looked me in the eye for a long time and said, "I know I'm going to be safe, because there must be a hundred people praying for me."

"Well, I'll make it a hundred and one."

He looked at me a little longer. "Let me show you something," he said, and started rummaging in his backpack. Well, here it is, I thought.  Here comes the gun, and he's going to explain why he didn't rob and shoot me, or maybe even do it now.

"Where is it?...here..." He pulled out a battered paperback Bible. "This is my sword. I don't go nowhere without it."

We shook hands again, and I left him there near the off-ramp, driving off with a very mixed set of thoughts and feelings. My most immediate reaction was relief that my anxieties had been proven unnecessary. And you will have surmised that there was more than a little self-congratulation: how generous I had been; how kindly I had treated this near-derelict; how pleased God must be by my virtue, perhaps even more pleased than I. 

But both these were crowded out pretty quickly by the knowledge that I could have done more. I could have offered to take him all the way to Breaux Bridge--it was Friday, and I didn't have to be at work the next day. I could have offered to put him up for the night and given him something better to eat than a packet of jerky and a handful of nuts and raisins. I could have made him a continuing part of my life, giving him a hand now and then, instead of being anxious to be rid of him. And if I could have done more, I should have. 

Common sense argues: no, you did enough. You can't be expected to disrupt your life, or give away too much of your money. There are thousands of people like Don; what would happen if you tried to help them all as you think you should have helped him? Your own substance, spiritual and material, would soon be exhausted. 

But someone else counters:

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

(I don't in any way intend to say that one is always obligated to pick up a hitchhiker. In fact I would say that a woman alone is generally obligated not to. I speak only of my own conscience and of this one episode.)


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This is great. I can really see, and unfortunately, smell this guy.


I sympathize with the tunnel-under-the-water phobia. I'm not that bad and usually it doesn't bother me much, but the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel gets to me a bit. I have to will myself not to think about all that water on top of me.


That's interesting, because when I was writing this I remembered having a bit of disquiet in another, longer, deeper tunnel once, and it must have been that one. It wasn't any more than a slight uneasiness, though. Actually I think that bridge made me uneasy, too--it was a rainy and windy day and way out on the bridge there was too strong a sense of being way out on the water in bad weather.

Glad you liked the piece. Sorry about the smell.:-)

Great story! I don't mind tunnels; I hate bridges.

Thank you. Do you go out of your way to avoid bridges? The friend I mentioned does--she'll drive miles if there's any other way to get where she's going.

I'm not a sufficiently experienced navigator to avoid bridges. I would like to use maps, but so far I am at the level of doing what the GPS says. I experience holy terror going over a bridge.

Most bridges don't bother me, but I have come across (or driven across) some in New England that were built so that ships could pass under them and they rise at such a precipitous angle that they scare me to death.


Not only that, but I had to pay a whopping big toll, $7.00 or something like that, to risk my life on one of them.


There are a couple of bridges in this area that might produce anxiety. They're of ship-clearing height: 125 and 140ft/38-43m. I find it slightly unnerving to look out over the fairly low railings. On the second, you're looking down at treetops.



If you go here: http://www.aaroads.com/guide.php?page=i0065shal

and scroll all the way down to the bottom, there are some pictures of the "Dolly Parton" bridge(s) that give some sense of the height.

I think of these as fairly high, but just read that the Golden Gate bridge is OVER 700 FT!! (i.e. 5x or so these two).

I have never picked up a hitch-hiker, and never had the slightest qualm about not doing so.

A wonderful post, though.

Surely there are no violent people in Canada?!? Or almost none, anyway.

(only half-kidding--I do think of Canada as having way way way less crime and general craziness than we do.)

Yes, and it has structural problems--bad cables or something!

It's not the height so much as the angle of the incline. The Dolly Parton one is a bit this way, but the one I'm thinking about made me feel like we were going to flip over backward.



Worst bridge ever -- the Tappan Zee across the Hudson.

If you look at the linked photo, you can see how it slopes down almost to water level. I had the only true panic attack of my life at that point once many years ago. I was alone in my car and had to sing out loud to avoid either veering into the rail or braking to a halt. I, in turn, probably caused panic in any other drivers who noticed!

Can't get the story of your ride with Don out of my mind. And can't begin to express how much I admire what you did. Or to say how saintly it was.

I agree with Don -- you went "above and beyond, Mac".

God bless you, Maclin Horton! Don met Jesus in you! I hope your kindness has helped to turn Don's life around.

My parents always taught me never to pick up hitch-hikers, and I had never really questioned the advice. I suppose now that I am a bona fide adult I might re-consider.

Although: a few years ago several members of my family were car-jacked by someone who had begged a ride to the hospital. Thankfully, they escaped. (Sadly, the passenger, who had overdosed on cocaine, died shortly after driving off with the car.) That experience did nothing to incline me toward hospitality to hitch-hikers.

Thanks to you both, but it was *not* saintly! Seriously. I hesitated about writing about it right up until I *had* to make up my mind, or not have an SNJ at all, because I didn't want to sound like I was patting myself on the back. It was a kindness, yes, but not a big deal. To me the significant aspect of it, and the reason I decided to write about it anyway, was the way I had to struggle to do a basically pretty small thing.

Cross-posted with you, Craig. You are a father and husband with young children--I would advise you not to do it. I didn't when I was in that situation. Nobody's that dependent on me now.

I'm glad no one in your family was hurt in that car-jacking. Seriously, it does surprise me to hear of that in Canada.

The one time in recent years when I felt like a really must pick someone up was one morning when I saw a woman staring at the engine of a really old car the way we do when the car is broken down although we don't know what the heck we are looking for. She had four boys in school uniforms, about 6-12, who were all standing around looking rather glum. Actually, since I they were on a plot of grass just past the expressway exit, I had to go up to the next exit and turn around. When I pulled up next to her car, I noticed that she had a rosary hanging on the mirror.

Turns out that she had just finished the night shift at a diner and was going to go to her mother's and sleep after she got the boys to school. So, I took them all to school. I think there were three different schools that weren't particularly close together. Then I took her to her mother's which was about half a block down the street from the Missionaries of Charity, in, of course, an area where the poorest of the poor live. Turns out the boys had made rosaries at a camp that a friend of mine helps the sisters run during the summer for kids in the area.

So, that turned out really well, but I didn't do it casually. I really had the sense that I was supposed to stop. And I wouldn't have done it had it been a man.


Well, saintly to me, Maclin, because I can’t bear filth and bad smells. A real princess and the pea am I. So simply being with Don under those conditions for more than a few minutes I just couldn’t do.

Anyway, I didn’t at all think when reading the piece that you were patting yourself on the back. The main thing I took away from your experience is that I must try much, much harder to overcome my weakness.

Just because Canada is a liberal utopia doesn't mean we don't have a few bad qualities.

Our main bridge in Hobart.


For a number of years I felt rather anxious crossing it, but I seem to be over that now.

Good story about Don, Maclin, and I think the smell would have bothered me a lot.

That bridge must be pretty massive, because it doesn't look as tall as it is.

I didn't care for the smell etc. but I could ignore it. Now if I had to be around it all day in an enclosed space, that would be a different story. My big concern on that count was that I had to return the car and I was worried that the smell would linger. Fortunately, rolling down the windows on the way home fixed that.

That's a pretty cool story, Janet. The part about the rosaries is nice. I don't think there can be much doubt that you did the right thing there.

The Tappan Zee bridge doesn't *look* that bad, Marianne. I think if it were going to bother me it would be the high part. But it's got that structure that gives you more a sense of being enclosed. The Dolly Parton bridge is a little unsettling because it's very open at the top, nothing but a three or four foot guardrail...well, probably four...between your car and empty space. That's what gets me, or doesn't, about any high place--the sense of how easy it would be to fall. Airplanes don't bother me because I'm completely enclosed.

Airplanes bother me because I am completely enclosed.:-)

There are roads around here with no shoulder and about a forty foot drop on either side. For about ten years they didn't impress themselves on my conciousness and then they did. Now I have to work hard not to think about them.


I love the Tappan Zee bridge! We take it every summer on our annual trip to Montreal, and as soon as it comes into my field of vision I get all happy with anticipation.

When I was a kid, my father often picked up hitchhikers if there was room in the car. It wasn't till I was an adult that I realized it might not be safe for me, as a woman driving alone, to do the same.

I did once stop for (I thought) a stranded woman standing by her broken-down car. By the time my car door opened to reveal that it was actually a young man, I was too embarrassed to say, "No, I won't help you after all." It turned out well--he just needed a lift to his parents' house, which was near mine, and he stopped by the next day with ice cream for my kids. He asked me, with some wonder in his voice, if I usually picked up hitchhikers.

Three times in the past three years I've had to hitch-hike to the railway station because of industrial action or other disruptions to the bus service. It's surprising how few people will stop.

When a woman flagged me down on a frozen midnight in the centre of Brussels a few years ago, and I stopped, thinking "I can't really ignore someone on a night like this, but I hope she hasn't got a knife", it turned out to be a misunderstanding: I was driving slowly because of the partially melted and refrozen snow; she thought I was kerb crawling.

I have been surprised that while I have been walking by myself down deserted that country roads that no one has stopped to see if I needed help. Sometimes when I get out of the car to take pictures, someone will stop and ask if I'm okay. Someone did stop for Bill.


And that's funny, Paul.



Gosh, Anne-Marie and Maclin, you do make me feel like a wimp!

Funny thing was that I'd crossed the Tappan Zee several times before the day I panicked on it. There was just something about coming down from a very high place, then curving a bit, and then driving down so very low, close to the water. Made me feel as if I were being pulled into it.

Anyway, I could never take that route again after that.

If she hadn't been so well wrapped up against the cold I don't imagine the confusion would have arisen.

The conversation went:
"You take me my hotel for sex?"
"Oh I'm sorry, there appears to have been a misunderstanding."

I was telling a Dutch friend about this, and she thought the funniest part was that I apologised.


I would certainly have apologized in that situation.

Don't feel bad, Marianne, I don't think things like that have much to do with wimpiness or lack thereof. It is odd that it hit you so suddenly, when the bridge hadn't bothered you before. At the risk of sounding too pop-psychy, I wonder if it was something else going on in your psyche that manifested itself that way.

Yeah, I had thought maybe it was just due to my wacko psyche at that particular time. I'd never been fond of the bridge, though, even before that happened; it had just never scared the daylights out of me.

And the odd thing is that I've had the same reaction ever since to any road, let alone a bridge, that's close to water.

So maybe something just kicked in at that point in my life and has now become a part of me.

Oh, joy.

Well, it might wander away as mysteriously as it came. And anyway, as one gets up in years things like that don't seem quite as terrible, since the end doesn't seem impossibly far away, as it does in youth. I admire those who gracefully bear some terrible cross from childhood or youth on.

Here is why the Tappan Zee should be feared:
"The deteriorating structure, which bears far more traffic than it was designed for, has led to plans to repair the bridge or replace it with a tunnel or a new bridge.[19][20] These plans and discussions were whittled down to six options and underwent environmental review. Part of the justification for the replacement of the bridge has been that it was constructed during material shortages during the Korean War and designed to last only 50 years.[21] The collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minnesota on August 1, 2007 has renewed concerns about the bridge's structural integrity.[22]"

I have always hated bridges and railroad tracks. Interestingly, learning to drive decreased both of these fears. I think it's being more in control.

Now if you could just learn to drive the train, you would really be in good shape.


Ok, that's pretty scary, dhoff.

Marianne, I hope that didn't sound callous. I was just thinking of various little neurotic anxieties of my own, and that advancing age has made them easier to live with.

Railroad bridges, now, are scary. It looks like it would be *so* easy for the train to fall off. Those really high trestles over deep canyons...[shudder].

Which reminds me, Janet, about your road with no shoulder and forty-foot drops: on the way home one night, cruising along the interstate at 65 or so, I was thinking about the fact that I have no trouble staying in my lane without even thinking about it. But if that lane were the entire roadway, and each side was a sheer cliff, I would be completely terrified and afraid to move at all. And if I had to it would be at the very slowest crawl of which the car was capable. [shudder] again.

I think about that often too, Mac: I can prance along a narrow brick sidewalk without any trouble, but if it were ten, or a hundred, metres up I'd be unable to move. But then I think of those photographs of workers building the Empire State Building; maybe, given the chance, I'd get used to the height and would regain my confidence. But I don't really want the chance.

It is inconceivable to me that someone could work at those heights, or do anything besides go nuts with terror, when a fairly simple mistake could mean falling. And that word does mean what I think it means.

Actually it doesn't even have to be those heights--a hundred feet would probably do as well as a thousand.

I don't know how they could work up there either. Lookat this. Apparently five people died during the construction of the Empire State Building; I don't know if they fell, but I'd not be surprised if it were so.

I just can't comprehend that at all. My first thought was "only five?"

I've often wondered how many people were killed in the construction of medieval cathedrals.

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