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.)