Thumbs Up

     It’s been a hot, muggy July in Vermont – the rainiest on record – lousy for bike riding, and biking is how I keep my toehold on reality. So when Monday dawned clear and cool – my first day of vacation – I figured I was in luck. I headed down the back roads into Massachusetts, to the biggest hill around. But downshifting at the bottom of Frizzell Hill, the derailleur went into the spokes, twisting itself into junk and freezing the back wheel. It was a 10-mile hike back home.
     Carrying the bike on my shoulder got old fast, so I dragged it beside me, backwards, holding the useless rear wheel off the ground. First thing I did was to step into a pedal, whacking a shin and raising a bump on it the size of a Tinker Toy.
     There’s no traffic on that road, which is why I like it. It was quite a while before a pickup passed me. The driver pulled over. I threw my bike into the bed of the truck as his little girl got out of the front seat to let me ride shotgun.
     “I never pick up hitchhikers, but you looked pretty pitiful,” said the driver, a strong, good-looking guy about 35 who runs his own construction business.
     “Thanks,” I said. My exaggerated limp had done the trick.
     “You know,” I said, “when I was in high school and college, back in the ’60s, we thought nothing of hitchhiking across the country. We did it all the time. But now I won’t pick up hitchhikers either. Do you really think people have become that much worse in thirty or forty years?”
     “Yes,” he said.
     But I wonder. We haven’t lived through any social or economic catastrophes since 1969 that did violence to our human nature – nothing like the plagues, wars and rapine that devastated Europe for centuries, and that are devastating the Middle East today. We’ve lived through the most prosperous four decades that any nation has ever enjoyed in history.
      Our guns laws haven’t changed to make guns more available to hitchhikers. Hitchhikers could buy a gun as easily in 1969 as they can today.
     We haven’t been wracked by escalating poverty that would make people more likely to steal the car from a guy who stops to give them a ride. Though the rich people are a lot richer today, so are a lot of poor people.
      We can’t blame it on “liberal” laws, judges or lawmakers. Millions more people are in prison today; sentencing laws are tougher; the liberals have been out of power for most of the intervening years.We can’t blame it on drugs. The ’60s generation was the druggiest in history.
     What is it, then? I don’t think the subject is amenable to reliable statistical inquiry. What could you do – ask people if they are willing to pick up hitchhikers today, or if they ever have done it, and compare the answers with a poll no one conducted in the 1960s, or compare it with what people like me remember about the good old days? That’s not science; that’s nonsense.
     Yet nearly everyone who was around in the 1960s will agree that it’s so: that most young people, and plenty of older people, were glad to give a hitchhiker a ride back then. But even old hippies like me won’t do it today. Even in Vermont.
     Why is that?
     The last time I remember giving someone a ride it was years ago. She was a high school girl lugging a trombone case. She wasn’t hitchhiking, but she looked like she needed a ride. The time before that, I gave two undocumented Mexicans a ride toward a farm where they heard there were jobs. This was more than a decade ago, in California. They weren’t hitchhiking either, but I picked the up. I suppose I could have lost my car if I’d been stopped with two “illegals” in it. But I like undocumented farmworkers. I’ve known a lot of them. They’re hard workers and good guys. I feel safe with them.
     Why don’t Americans feel safe with other Americans anymore? Why have we become so fearful? Why do we feel so much more fear today from a lone stranger on a road? And if most all of us feel like this – and I think we do – is it because American actually are less trustworthy today than we were a generation ago?
     I don’t have any grand theories about this. I’m not going to denounce anything, or suggest how to fix it. I just wonder why Americans don’t trust each other anymore, why we feel so threatened by strangers.

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