Thumbs up, or thumbs down? Hitchhiking is almost extinct...

One of the most depressing things about the recent bus strike was how it highlighted the fact that hitchhiking was almost extinct, so says Ailin Quinlan
Thumbs up, or thumbs down? Hitchhiking is almost extinct...

THUMBING A LIFT: Standing on the side of the road with your thumb stuck out, asking strangers for a lift to your destination, is a rare sight nowadays. Picture: Stock

I GOT a phone call during the bus strike from an old friend who is the Head of News in a large media organisation.

“Tell me,” he said, “what’s the story down your neck of the woods?”

He wanted something that would fly. He wanted a good yarn, preferably from out in the sticks, which is where he thinks I live. Anywhere outside Dublin, in his estimation, is out in the sticks.

My friend wanted something that would bleed. Colour. Drama. A bit of the old Life & Death.

Had I heard anything, perchance?

I knew he was hoping I’d pop right up with a great yarn about a neighbour who’d just died of cardiac arrest that very morning while trying to hitchhiking to hospital for open heart surgery.

Or, maybe, some poor baby who’d been born at a bus-stop out in the Deliverance-style backwoods because its hick-ignorant young mother-to-be didn’t read the papers or listen to the news and had sat in the kitchen with her head in a bag for the last few weeks which was why she had been waiting for a bus to the city and to the hospital labour ward.

Not a hope. I had the flu, I told my friend. And as far as I and most other people were concerned, the bus strike was nothing but a stressful inconvenience.

One of the most depressing things about it, I complained, was how it highlighted the fact that hitchhiking was almost extinct. The Snowflake Generation (also known as self-absorbed, hysterical crybabies), I said bitterly, quailed at the thought of having to stand out on the road, stick out a thumb and find its own way home from anywhere.

For example, I said, here was I dying of flu and I still had to drive to the city to collect my strapping 6’3” son who has traveled by himself all over the world and plays about five different kind of sports at college and elsewhere. He would of course, also have to be driven back again on Sunday. I didn’t want to drag myself, my streaming red nose, my mountain of damp tissues and my aching miserable body out of bed, into the car and drive to the city, I told my friend. But I had no choice. Thanks of course to the bus strike. Because nobody hitches anymore.

A few years ago, and increasingly weary of being my son’s chauffeur, I put my foot down. I informed my son that he had to hitch home from somewhere. After he reported that he had waited on the side of the road for three hours and never got a lift. I still ended up having to go in and collect him.

Motorists, I told my friend, are more wary than they used to be when I was in college.

I still remember, I said, this nice guy who gave two friends and myself a lift home from college, one Friday back in the early to mid-1980s. He pulled in to the side of the road to allow me and my two friends to get in — they scrambled into the back seat, leaving me to reluctantly take the passenger seat in the front and make the conversation.

At one point, I recalled, the amiable driver, a man in his 30s or 40s, asked me to get his cigarettes and lighter out of the glove compartment. I did so. The cigarettes and lighter were in there all right — but they were nestled on top of a revolver which in turn was sitting on a beret and a pair of gloves. I removed the packet of fags and the lighter with now-trembling fingers. I pretended nothing. He pretended nothing.

My friends in the back seat were blissfully ignorant of the contents of the glove compartment. We were getting a drive home from Limerick to Cork city so I wasn’t going to demand that he let me out of the car pronto. In fact, I don’t even think I bothered telling the story to my parents.

But motorists won’t stop for hitchhiking, these days, according to my son — no matter what they have in their glove compartments. Furthermore, according to my son, he wasn’t able to get a spin home from a college friend because none of the friends who either had cars or were being collected by parents lived down our way. Plus, hint, hint, all his friends’ parents were, like, coming up to the city after work to collect their sons anyway, so like, why couldn’t we?

True, his friends don’t live near us, but I was quite sure he’d eventually get a lift. If he waited long enough.

But then, the Snowflake Generation won’t wait. They’ve never been taught to or expected to wait, I complained.

Now that I really thought about it, I myself would quite possibly be cautious enough about pulling over to allow a strange 6’3” muscle-bound male in his 20s into my car.

So those are the stories of the bus strike, I told my friend. Nothing particularly life-limiting, nothing hugely dramatic, just mundane stress and excoriating inconvenience, day after day after day with no apparent relief in sight. Appointments missed. Taking time off work to drive a grown-up child somewhere to which they should have been able to catch a bus. Spending time fighting rush-hour traffic on a Friday when you should be in bed with the ‘flu. And would you just look, I told my friend, sneezing irritably into a fistful of tissues, at that ridiculous picture of Shane Ross, three weeks into the bus strike and posing in a feather boa. I ask you. My friend sighed. Get well soon, he said.

It’s all over now and I never thought I’d be so glad to see a bus on the road.

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