Written in 1974 in Romania, this short story about hitchhiking while on a business trip details the atmosphere of those years, when we felt threatened by people in uniform, formed transient relationships beween perfect strangers, and the accepted customs that arose from an underground economy. I am publishing this story in two short weekly installments (Part 2, next Monday). Hope you enjoy it; please comment, clap, and share.
I’ve always been intimidated by people in uniform. Always. The stripes and stars of an officer, the dark blue overcoat of a policeman, and the helmet of a firefighter make me frown, my heart starts pounding, and I cling to the walls trying to disappear. Even the white and blue striped shirt of the sailor engenders a strange reaction in me. I imagine a strong and muscular chest underneath that inexpensive piece of fabric, a heart hardened by prolonged adventures at sea, and clashes with unforgivable Mother Nature. Gloomily I reflect on my own predictable life, my uninteresting profession, and my health, which, although good for the moment, could deteriorate without warning. In my mind, the only purpose of a uniform is to rob its wearer of personality. I, for one, would have a hard time distinguishing between two uniformed soldiers who stood next to each other. Has anyone ever imagined a barefooted policeman?
Sent on a business trip to Râmnicul Vâlcea from our little town, the best way to get there was, believe or not, by hitchhiking. On the morning of my departure the weather was good enough for a fall day, and I felt energized like a sailor before going to sea.
“Please be careful and come back very soon,” Liana, my wife, said longingly, while placing two sandwiches in my briefcase.
Most private drivers avoid hitchhikers. They don’t even look at the less fortunate who wave at them from the highway, while their faces clearly express they won’t bother to stop for just a anybody. I state this with all the disdain I accumulated from waiting around on many occasions. Van and truck drivers, on the other hand, work for the state and hitchhikers are an opportunity to make some money. They usually carry a rapid and silent conversation with you, from the moment they set eyes on you and until they stop or disappear. Their itinerary is revealed through reading of lips, grimaces, and hand signals, and they apologize when the desired destinations are not in their plans.
That morning, after about twenty minutes, a gray van stopped for me. The passenger seated in the front lowered the window and the driver leaned in my direction over the floor stick shift.
“Where?” he asked laconically while I thought he had read my lips earlier.
“Râmnicul Vâlcea,” I quickly responded.
He shook his head.
“Could you take me at least to the intersection, at the Olt River Valley?”
“OK, hop in the back,” said the passenger who tried to be helpful. “He’ll take you there.”
There were five people in the back, sitting three and two on two longitudinal benches, one on each side of the van. The bare metal interior was beat up and dented, looking like a passenger vehicle that had often been used to transport construction materials. There was white dust everywhere and a faint gasoline smell in the air. As I climbed in, people shifted to make room for me and I landed near a middle-aged woman in a peasant dress. A wall with a small opening separated us from the driver’s cabin and the only light came through a it. Gears shifted, and the van pulled forward. I felt uneasy, and everyone was looking at me furtively. Nobody spoke and their silence reminded me that we were strangers gathered in that van by chance, and our association was transient. But I had nothing to lose if I started talking, and I might find out something interesting and revealing about these people.
I had just gotten used to the smell inside the van, the ordinary faces of my companions and the uncomfortable bench on which I was sitting when we stopped. Through the small window I saw a Volga sedan parked ahead of us on the right shoulder and a traffic cop approaching our van. He asked the driver for documentation. Then he walked around to the back of and opened the door. He counted us, then shook his head as if he had discovered contraband merchandise, and, without saying a word, slammed the door shut in our faces. The driver stepped out of his cabin and followed him to his cruiser. Total silence engulfed the van. Assumedly, the traffic cops were trying to prevent drivers from earning illicit money from hitchhikers.
“Is there a reason to worry?” I heard myself asking aloud.
“Hush!” the peasant woman said. She seemed concerned.
“We’ll see,” ventured the man opposite her. “I think he could fine us.”
“But why?” I asked.
“Why…” the man repeated.
The wait came to an end when the driver returned, a sly smile on his lips. He started the van and as soon as we were moving again, the passenger next to him showed us the ticket through the little window. We all understood that a larger amount was expected from each one of us at the end of the trip to cover the fine. My companions didn’t seem to mind. Neither did I, and the rest of the trip was spent in a chorus of voices.
I got off at the Olt River Valley, about 150 yards from the actual intersection. Around me rose tall mountains, and the foothills were covered by rusty woods and green clearings. The rocky peaks of the mountains reached the clouds boiling at that high elevation, allowing from time to time a patch of blue sky to show through. The road glistened, and the landscape was majestic. Everything seemed large and small at the same time, like a game of sizes, and I walked slowly to the spot where the roads crossed and looked at the sky and at the dark ribbon between the mountains that was the next highway I needed to take in order to continue my journey. A small rectangular guardhouse enclosed in glass stood on a wedge of grass at the intersection. Inside it, I glimpsed the blue uniform and the white hat of a traffic policeman. The discovery didn’t make my heart leap for joy. Actually, the closer I got, the more worried I became and the beauty of the vista around me vanished. I needed to get to the crossing and keep going, get out of the cop’s field of vision. Me showing up there, in that wild and mountainous area where I had no business, would arouse his suspicion. He might stop and interrogate me. Arrest me.
Suddenly, I realized there were two officers, not one. The first one, inside the guard post, with his white hat — the distinctive sign of a traffic cop — and the second one outside, older, heavier, with a dark blue overcoat and a briefcase in his hand. It was possible that in some baffling way, this last detail caused me to become more daring. I tightened my grip on my own briefcase and, swinging it carelessly back and forth, I crossed the empty highway, passed by them and stopped looking back. A car was approaching, and the second policeman flagged it down. I was close enough to hear the short exchange.
“Going to Râmnicul Vâlcea?”
“Well, have a safe trip.”
Then, things happened in rapid succession. I cannot explain it, but I found the courage to turn on my heels and approach the second policeman. “I overheard you’re going to Râmnicul Vâlcea,” I said. “I’m trying to make it there myself.”
He eyeballed me suspiciously.
“If you don’t mind, I’d wait for an opportunity ride here next to you. Unlike me, you can stop any car, being who you are…” I left that sentence hanging in midair, hoping it might flatter him.
From his glass booth, the traffic cop was watching us.
“As you wish,” the policeman answered. “If there is room in the car and the driver doesn’t mind giving you a lift, I won’t object.”
I stood next to him. The road was a two-lane highway, one in each direction, and as soon as a car showed up on our side, the policemen took two steps forward into the roadway and raised his right hand. I waited back on the shoulder, enjoying his protection.