Rides galore – only when none is needed

Out on foot, he was always a magnet for passing motorists offering rides – until one day he wasn't.

I have an odd gift, if one can call it that. Frequently, when I am out walking – and I love to walk – someone will pull over, roll down the passenger window, and offer me a ride. Sometimes – if they are in a hurry, I presume – they only tap the horn and signal to me. When I decline, they toss me a neighborly wave and drive on.

At first blush, this might sound creepy. But here in Maine, in my small university town, such gestures are invariably friendly and usually proffered by folks who either know me or have come to recognize me as a familiar figure.

Still, I've often wondered why I'm a magnet for such attention. I must have that look about me.

I've tried to picture how I must appear to passing drivers. Do they see a tall, inoffensive-looking man, hurrying along for an important appointment, who has abandoned almost all hope of arriving on time? Or perhaps his car wouldn't start and, after tinkering with the engine, he bailed out and took to his heels. Maybe he needs a ride but is too embarrassed, or afraid, to hitchhike.

I first became aware of this talent of mine many years ago when I was in college. I was walking toward campus on a perfectly lovely day – warm, bright sunshine, a gentle breeze – when someone in a '65 Ford Mustang pulled over and honked.

Assuming the driver was looking for directions, I bent down to the passenger window. He appeared to be a student around my age. "What can I do for you?" I asked.

He corrected me. "No," he said, "what can I do for you? You look like you need a lift."

"Do I?" I asked.

"Absolutely," he said before driving off after I declined his offer.

Well, that was it, then. I guess I did have that look of the guy who needs a ride.

What all this means is that whenever I really do need a lift – if my car is in the shop, say – people have always jumped at the opportunity to give me one.

I must admit that I am somewhat suspicious of their motives. I would like to think that they want to help me for altruistic reasons. But then I wonder if they aren't simply trying to impart a subtle lesson – that this is an automobile nation, and I really should be in a vehicle at all costs, if only as a passenger.

In other words, am I or am I not an American?

My theory was supported by the tussle I got into one day when I mentioned to a friend that I had to drop my car off at my mechanic's and intended to walk home – a perfectly doable distance of two miles.

But the man registered shock. "You can't just walk," he argued, as if I had proposed climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen.

"Why?" I asked. "What will happen if I do?"

I must have paralyzed him with my response because he stared at me with the faintest suggestion of a smile on his lips, as if he thought I must be kidding.

But I wasn't, and I got my way. Or so I thought. I took my car to the mechanic and then set off on foot toward home.

I didn't get far when my friend appeared. He drove slowly alongside me, waving me in. I stood – or rather, walked – my ground while he honked and cajoled. He finally drove off, and he was cool toward me for the longest time thereafter.

Then came the great disillusionment that led me to question my magnetic ability to attract ride offers from passersby.

It was like this: I was en route to my first class of the day (I'm a college teacher), driving down the road on a cold and snowy winter morning in Maine. I hit black ice, and my car skidded into the deep snow on the shoulder.

I tried to dig my way out with my son's hockey stick, to no avail. So I began to walk down the road, fully expecting a passing motorist to offer me a ride at any moment.

But just the opposite happened: The man who in the past never wanted for a ride was now being roundly ignored by the other drivers, as if he didn't exist.

A passing patrol car finally arrived, the policeman called a tow truck, and I was soon on my way again – under my own steam.

When I finally got to school, 20 minutes late, I was breathless. "I'm sorry," I apologized to my class. "I skidded off the road and got stuck in the snow."

A light came on in the eyes of one of my students. "Oh," he remarked, "was that you?"

"Yes," I said. "Why didn't you offer me a ride?"

"I dunno," he said. "You didn't look like you needed one."

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