by Jeffrey Rosenthal

(A true story. Written May, 2001.)

It is funny the things one remembers, and the things one forgets. It seems like so long ago that I was seventeen. Most of that year has collapsed into a blur of university exams, late-night parties, unsuccessful dating, fun music jamming, social athletics. Yet certain memories have remained in great detail, even about seemingly unimportant moments. This is one.

It was a Saturday evening. I was on my way to a party, hosted by a university classmate. I felt the usual excitement at the prospect of seeing a few friends, telling a few jokes, eating junk food, listening to music, dancing. Plus the vague anticipation of possible romance, of meeting someone special, which never quite happened but always could.

I was actually running late. The party was called for 9:00 p.m., and it was already closer to 10:00. And the party was in the east end of the city. Fortunately, my father had let me borrow his car, which was exciting all by itself. So I sat in the traffic of Bloor Street, radio on, with all the trepidation and anticipation of a teenager on Saturday night.

While waiting in a long line of cars for an interminable red light to change, I caught sight of a middle-aged woman standing at the side of the road. Her right thumb was confidently raised into the air. A hitchhiker. On Bloor Street. How odd, I thought.

I was driving alone, so of course I had room. But my mother had always told me never to pick up hitchhikers, lest they turn out to be homicidal maniacs. I had never quite bought my mother's argument, and my youthful socialist communal leanings told me that resources such as cars should always be shared where possible -- but my mother's warning had stayed with me. So I sat in my car, waiting for the traffic to start moving again. The tingle of excitement remained. Being out on the town was a fairly new experience for me; being out on the town in a car all the more so.

The hitchhiker was of average height, thin, moderately pretty. Her black hair had a few streaks of grey, though she wasn't more than forty years old. She wore lots of makeup. I don't recall how she was dressed, though an image of black slacks comes to mind. She was the only hitchhiker I have ever seen on Bloor Street, before or since. It is a city street. A street with its own subway line. A street of cars, pedestrians, shops and services. A street of fast pace and slow traffic. Not a place to hitchhike.

Then she saw me staring at her. I was horrified, and instinctively tried to quickly look away. But her reaction was simply to raise her thumb higher, while looking at me with raised eyebrows. "How about a ride?", the eyebrows were asking.

Puzzled and intrigued, and strangely nervous, I reached over and rolled down the passenger window. "Where are you going?", I asked.

The question caught her unprepared, and she fumbled for the right name before responding. "To Sherbourne, a block south of Bloor."

I was heading east well past Sherbourne, so her destination was on the way. How could I refuse? "Okay, come on in."

I opened the door and she sat down. Suddenly I felt very important. Here I was, operating a car, giving a strange woman a ride, making decisions which impacted on other people's lives.

I asked her how long she had been waiting to get a ride. "Oh, about five minutes," she replied. I had been expecting her to say half an hour, or two hours. Such a short waiting time made my decision seem less important. I was disappointed.

We chatted as I drove. She told me her name, and something about her job situation, but I can't remember them at all. Instead, I remember that she seemed upset, and had some sort of relationship problem, though she was reluctant to discuss it. I expressed my concern. She started to cry softly. Suddenly the radio music seemed absurd, and I hurriedly and awkwardly switched it off. More important matters were at hand.

Instead of leaving her at the corner of Sherbourne and Bloor, I drove her south (it turned out to be somewhat more than one block), which she appreciated. She told me to stop in front of a downscale low-rise. "Thank you for the ride. You're very sensitive," she declared. Which I knew I was.

And then meaningfully: "I'd invite you up for a drink, but I can't ... that's part of my problem." I wasn't quite sure what this meant, but it sounded exotic and other-worldly. Perhaps a jealous boyfriend awaited her at the top of the stairs, and the sight of an unknown male would set off anger and violence. Perhaps the hitchhiker had had one too many relationships, and had "man trouble". Did her comments imply a hint of romantic interest in me? Hard to say. But to a protected, middle-class, inexperienced teenager, her words implied brief contact with an unknown and forbidden world.

I finally made it to my party. I was quite late, but that didn't seem to matter. It was a small party, hosted by an odd young woman. There was food and music (I didn't drink), and friends from university. It was fun enough.

But throughout the party, I felt a strange inner glow. I had touched, briefly, a whole other life, a whole other context, something different than I had known before. I had been important, significant. I had grown in ways I couldn't articulate, or even understand. The party, which had once promised such excitement, seemed small by comparison.

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