The year before I moved away from home, I worked at a nearby golf course to earn some money before college. On my way home one day, I was stopped by a man asking for a ride. I was already at my car, and here was someone who didn’t have a car, so I thought “Why not?”
He was stuck here, needing a ride, and I was sure there would be something I’d gain from the experience.
In my mind, he was a character worth meeting.
As we drove down the road, he confirmed to me that he was definitely, indeed, a character. Full of color and flavor, he talked my ear off, charming and funny, even though I cannot remember anything he said.
But I do remember.
His voice was slurring and waning in and out of coherence. A weariness of life in his voice, something darker emerged underneath his humor. It wasn’t long before I smelled the scent of alcohol in his breath, and realized he was actually not someone traveling on foot, but someone who desperately needed a ride.
I dropped him off at his home, and before he shut the door, he turned back.
“Do you mind loanin’ me a couple bucks?”
I’d just had a quite good day at work, so I thought “Why not?”
I gave him a couple of bucks.
A few dollars short, and slightly depressed by the drunkard hitchhiker, I wasn’t sure now that he was a character worth meeting.
But maybe he’d just had a bad day, maybe a bad year, maybe there’s more to him than this.
Let’s look at it across the span of a few years:
A few years ago, he probably owned a fishing boat. A few years before, maybe he’d had a successful business. This was a slump in his life. A few years from now, he’ll be back on top. Fifteen years from now, I might not even recognize him, there's no knowing how far away from this moment he will be.
I watched him go. Knowing I’d never meet him again, I was glad I had helped.
If only that was the end of the story.
I moved to Atlanta soon after, wide eyed that great things happen in big cities, and that’s where I should be if I was going to do great things. The trajectory was enough to keep me moving, and along the way, I was sure to find a destination. Just keep moving.
I was right about one thing: trajectory. If you take one step, you must take the next. That leads to another, and soon the world expands, you’re not looking at your feet, but you’re looking at the road ahead of you. If you are open to life, and all the possibilities, you don’t need a destination for things to get interesting really quick.
You only need the motion.
I graduated from college and snatched up any opportunity that came my way. I was quickly directing for local market television shows, creating videos with founding hip hop stars, and hanging out with an interesting collective of artists, who were all trying to make a dent in the universe.
But without a destination, you never meet the horizon. It’s always out of reach.
Through many wandering opportunities, and even more interesting characters, I soon found myself living in Europe, still searching, with more miles behind me at every turn, but still with the elusive horizon ahead of me, always miles out of reach.
I taught myself Italian in Italy, partied with movie stars in Prague, snowboarded the Austrian Alps with Hungarians, and studied visual effects with Czechs in London. I worked hard, I played hard, and I gained and lost in equal measure at the great gambling table of life.
But what originally was meant to be a few months abroad turned into a year.
Then another year.
Before I knew it, a decade had passed, and I was not the same wide eyed person who arrived to absorb it all. The sponge was full, and I was full. I had accumulated enough tragedies, hilarity, victories and defeats to last a few lifetimes, with no room left for more.
It was time to give the sponge a squeeze.
On my way out, I was trekking through the south of France for one last leg of a long and event filled experience, when serendipity came around to visit again, although it wouldn’t be apparent until now.
I was stuck a few miles from Nice without a train or bus coming my way for several hours. It was a long hike, but the view was incredible. On one side was the palace of Monaco, right below the road, a breathtaking view. Here, Prince Albert lived (I thought he lived in a can), and just around the bend was a lagoon of crystal blue water I’d swam with a Norwegian friend, just the day before.
Above the lagoon, the ancient town of Eze was on the top of a very steep hill, always in sight, and I knew inside that town was tiny little passages and a history equally full like a sponge.
Just around the next curve would be a bay, full of yachts and partying movie stars who I had bumped into at the Cannes film festival only a few days before.
The walk would be interesting, for sure. I didn’t mind. This was a wonderful thing.
But I was not so familiar with the area, so I stopped a young couple just walking up from the beach and asked them for directions. They told me they had the same destination and they could give me a ride instead.
But taking a ride, the palace of Monaco passed by me quite quickly, as did the town of Eze. We rounded the bay, and I barely saw the lagoon I had swam in before. I had only a moment to enjoy the bay, and although the sun was setting, I’d never watch that last glimmer of light as I had thought.
I’d be in Nice in minutes.
Before our destination, we stopped at a shop for the young French couple to buy a bottle of wine, and we sipped wine and shared stories and laughs the rest of the way.
Hitching through life, enjoying the view. Never easy, but always worth it. Not in it for the destination, but in search of experience. I’d lived three lifetimes, full of memories, experiences, and knew a cast of characters interesting enough to create our own opera.
To be the hitchhiker was a wonderful thing.
If only that was the end of the story.
I returned to the United States, and I felt like Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas. Sitting there in the normal life, not really congruent with it at all. Who were these people in their Izod sweaters and SUVs?
The life of six inches in front of me at a time was now gone, and all I had left were the pretty neighborhoods, ugly shopping malls, disgusting billboards, and friendly people who read the newspaper in the morning.
Where were the colorful characters who built robots for Star Wars, the seedy underlings who steal your jacket and then try to sell it back to you, the man from Luxembourg who pees on a police car while talking to the policeman who drove it?
Where was the artist who risked death to paint a Russian tank pink in defiance of Soviet invasion, and now hangs out and drank beers with you at the bar while he plots his next great middle finger to the establishment?
Where was my friend who stumbled across Budapest with me, recounting tales of death and danger, being shot at while he was a cameraman in the Bosnian war, and with videos to prove it?
Where were the tall tale telling tumblers of life, touring through the dream?
Where were the dangers of the unfamiliar, the epic possibilities of the wild wild east I had come to know?
The thirst for life had not been quenched. The sponge had been squeezed, but I’d left a vacuum in it’s place.
But even worse, there was no one who knew what I was talking about.
If only that were the end of the story.
I went back to the old stomping grounds, the place it all began. Just down the road from that golf course I worked at the summer before I left.
When I got in my car, everything was fine. The sky was clear. But not for long.
The open air suddenly closed up, tightened by a blanket of black clouds, which released a cannon of rain, firing down, beating my car like bullets.
The storm seemed unreal, like it was waiting for me, peeking out from somewhere else. Only when it was sure I was on the road, too late to turn back, would it show itself, and with great vengeance and a cackling laughter of lightning.
Splashing through pocket deep puddles and keeping my eye on the road, I spotted two figures ahead of me. They were on foot, also caught off guard in this tempestuous and angry world. I knew how that was, and I wasn't going to let us all go down alone.
Though the rain had come from nowhere, it would now bring us together.
I pulled over, in front of them, and they ran to hop in.
One of the men got in the back and the other sat next to me in the passenger seat.
They weren’t going far, to a store up the road on my way. They could use a ride.
“Why not?” I spoke, to myself.
As they spoke back, I felt a presence of familiarity.
I looked over at the man sitting next to me, not in the back seat. The one who'd chosen the passenger side. The one with a weariness in his voice.
He had a mustache and wrinkles, a baseball cap, a smell of grease and liquor and a colorful air of experience in his eyes.
I recognized him, but I couldn’t place how.
“I’ve given you a ride before,” I said, not sure when or where, but knowing that if I said it, he would find a way to tell me.
“Yea probably so, man,” He said, dripping all over my seats, nonchalant, as if he'd done this before.
“Bad night. Just walkin' to pick up some beers. Didn't see the storm comin'.”
I knew him from somewhere, but where? And how did he end up here again?
“This storm came out of nowhere. And you stopped and picked us up. Thanks for stopping.”
Suddenly, I saw serendipity, sitting next to me again.
“Say, you mind waitin’ out here for us, and givin’ us a ride back?” He asked, as I pulled into the service station.
Fifteen years since ago flashed forward and met me here, on this same road, this rainy night.
I had given this same guy a ride from the golf course long, long ago. I'd returned briefly, and now here I was, a lifetime later, doing it again. Prague, Budapest, Italy, tragedy, victory, agonizing defeats, and splendid successes all stood between both our younger selves.
Or maybe not. What bridged us both depended on where each of us stood.
Because, perhaps, for him, the gap of time that separated us had only been several bottles of liquor and a few long walks when no one heeded his thumb in the air.
Same old road, same old questions.
“I’ve got to keep moving,” I told him. I could help him when we were on the same path, but at some point, that path diverged.
He would need to carry it the rest of the way.
“A’right, man.” As he got out, stepping into the drenching rain. He was willing to pay that price, I guess, for what he really wanted.
The door remained open for a beat, like he had something else to say.
“But do you mind loanin’ me a couple bucks?” One last deja vu from the hitchhiker.
I declined, a bit in a daze, more in awe of the moment than I was in what either of us were saying. He didn’t remember me, but I remembered him.
This time, I didn’t give him a couple of bucks. He didn’t remember me because I was not the only one who’d given him a ride. And he didn’t remember me because he didn’t want a destination.
He wanted a ride.
One of my greatest teachers shut the door, disappointed.
Once again, I knew I had met a character, the same character. But I was still not sure if it had been worth it.
I watched as he asked someone leaving the store for a dollar. But I looked back to the road ahead of me before I saw their answer.
As I continued on to my destination, the awe of coincidence wore off, and it all came back to me.
The nineteen year old, wide eyed about the world, who gave this same hitchhiker a ride so many years ago had just met Sisyphus on the road to a liquor store.
I’d lived a lifetime and he was still looking for the same five dollars.
If only that were the end of the story.
The memory stays with me, but in my life I have realized there is no such thing as the uncanny.
Somehow it all fits.
In Dante's Inferno, Virgil takes the poet Dante through various layers of hell, showing him the possibilities of fate.
The puzzle of your life is the mythology you create by living it and relating it back. And with the right eye, your life, is indeed, it’s own myth, full of characters and symbols disguised as people and moments.
Don’t mistake the luminous for the mundane.
Even I found it, outside of the wild wild east, the adventure I sought, and in the land of billboards, pristine and packaged golf courses, and stories in the newspaper.
I picked up the hitchhiker when I was a kid because I knew stories came from life, and lessons come from stories. But the lesson, the story, did not end when I gave him those couple of bucks.
The lesson ends here, today.
The rain stopped, eventually, and the sun came out. That storm which seemed to be handmade especially for that meeting disappeared like a faded memory. Like a dream. I likened the experience as serendipity, the magic of coincidence. I was happy that I stopped both times because stopping to help had created the coincidence.
But not long ago, I was back on the same road, near the same golf course, driving the same car.
All too familiar.
I saw a figure ahead of me, walking towards the only store around. Someone who needed a ride.
I didn’t need to look to know who I saw, and why he was stumbling towards that store. I saw myself reflected back. I saw my own journey in his steps, moving and not going anywhere, and I gripped the steering wheel tighter at the thought.
This time, I didn’t stop. I was too disturbed. I kept my eyes on the road. But a shift was occurring. My eyes are not on my trajectory, now they are towards my destination.
And that’s where the lesson ends.
You receive what you ask for in life. For some, it’s motion, a trajectory, and not a destination. You’re happy with the journey.
For others, there’s a destination, but what they’re really looking for is a ride.
And for some, that wine store is not the destination. It’s just a short stop on your way to Nice.
Either way, it doesn’t matter what the weather is like when you set out on foot. The weather can change in an instant, and you must decide if you continue forward or go back.
I traveled four hours last night in a torrential storm to solve an internet problem so I could deliver this story today.
The universe will have an attitude anyway, so you better have a destination that’s worth the storm.
I say, hitch the ride when you need it, but give the ride when you can. It’s called a gift because of the exchange, so you better pay attention.
Because the palace of Monaco will slip past your window if all you ever did was only hitch a ride.
And you thought it was a wonderful thing.
If only that was the end of the story.
The Journey Continues.