Hitchhiking adventures led to life on the edge, and an appreciation for black coffee

One summer day I walked from my folks’ place on the West Side of Cleveland to the I-71 entrance ramp at Bellaire Road and stuck out my thumb. I was bound for New England. I awakened the next morning in a jail cell in Rome, N.Y.

I hadn’t planned to tell this story. At least, not so soon. But several of my readers have been nagging me to tell it, so blame them.

In a previous column, I told a story about how − in the early 1970s − I hitchhiked from Cleveland to Los Angeles and back in three rides. It had been a remarkable trip in which I was treated to a special tour inside Kitt Peak National Observatory, helped a young man retrieve a TV set from his burned-out apartment and met a dog named Prince of Peace. In that column, I mentioned how my next hitchhiking trip paled in comparison.

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Ending up in Oneida County Jail was only part of the fun. That scenario began with me losing all my worldly possessions to highway robbery. Almost all my worldly possessions. It’s a good thing the thief didn’t know I had $200 stashed in the pouch of a football cup I wore when hitchhiking (minus the cup). It’s a good thing he didn’t; otherwise I might have ended up in jail and naked.

The thief drove a pickup truck with a camper. Along the way he pulled over and said, “Wait, I’ll mix us some  drinks.”

He went back into the camper and returned with a couple of bloody Marys. About 50 miles down the road he pulled over and said, “This is my exit.”

Staggering, semi-coherent at the side of the road

I stepped out. Before I could grab my guitar case and satchel, he sped off, leaving me staggering and semi-coherent at the side of the road. I wasn’t used to hard liquor or perhaps he’d slipped something into my drink. Regardless, I learned an important lesson. And got two weeks to mull it over in Oneida County Jail, charged with public intoxication. Or something to that effect.

It wasn’t a bad place all in all. Except for the coffee. You’ve heard of half ‘n’ half, which is half milk, half cream? This was half creamer, half coffee. With a tablespoon of sugar to make it even more unbearable. I’ve taken my coffee black ever since.

But jail isn’t about choices. Except the bad choices you make to end up there. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d see the inside of a jail cell. In my opinion, that made me a better criminal justice reporter. A history of incarceration should be required of anyone working that beat.

After a two weeks in the hoosegow, journey east resumes with just the clothes on his back and $200

After I’d served my two-week sentence − with four days off for good behavior − they cut me loose. A sheriff’s deputy gave me a ride to the freeway with the understanding I’d  be a good boy and hitchhike back to Cleveland. As soon as the cruiser rolled out of sight, I crossed over to the eastbound ramp and continued my journey to New England with just the clothes on my back and $200 in the pouch of my old football cup.

That night I found myself in a mansion in Cambridge.

Minutes after the deputy dropped me off, a well-dressed couple in late-model car stopped to pick me up. The woman told me they were headed to Cape Cod, but I was welcome to stay as long as I liked at her folks’ place in Cambridge.

No one was home when we got there. She’d mentioned something about her father having been an aide for former President Lyndon B. Johnson. After we had dinner, they headed for Cape Cod, leaving me with the run of the house.

A taste of luxury, feeling like a BB in a boxcar

A product of inner-city Cleveland, I’d never known luxury. I was blown away. These folks didn’t have a refrigerator; they had a walk-in cooler. The stereo amplifier was so huge it required two cooling fans. I had to go through the house several times to get an accurate count of the number of rooms. I felt like a BB in a boxcar.

I’d been there a week and no one came around. I awakened one morning to hear someone downstairs in the kitchen. It was the maid. I’d never seen a real maid before. I introduced myself. Fearing she might call the cops, I explained how I’d come to be there.

She didn’t seem concerned.

I began to feel guilty, just hanging around that big place, doing nothing. I noticed the grounds needed tending and I’d majored in horticulture in high school. So I went to work, tending the gardens, mowing and tidying up.

So began a pattern I would follow the rest of my life − living on the edge, somehow earning my keep wherever I went. Although I did get better at staying out of jail. I can abide a lot of things. Lousy coffee isn’t one of them.

This article originally appeared on Ashland Times Gazette: Hitchhiking adventures; Life on edge, appreciation for black coffee

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