Hitchhiker's Revival

Reportage

 

Standin' on the turnpike

Thumb out to hitchhike

Take me to New York right away

– The Mamas & the Papas, “Creeque Alley” (1967)

 

 

A smartly-dressed, middle-aged man of Asian descent pulls his car into the last bus stop in New Jersey before the George Washington Bridge. An overweight and elderly white woman carrying three tote bags climbs unsteadily into the front seat. A young black man with headphones, a backpack, and a purple beanie pulled down to the rim of his glasses hops into the back. There are few places in America were a trio as incongruous as this has occasion to breathe the same air, let alone share the intimate space of a blue Mini Cooper.

 

In Fort Lee, NJ, hundreds of commuters catch lifts into New York City with perfect strangers every day. It’s called “slugging,” a casual ridesharing scheme where not only the hitchhiker but the driver benefits; in this case, by meeting the two-passenger quota for the E-ZPass discounted carpool toll on the GWB ($4.25, compared with as much as $13 for those paying with cash and $10.25 for E-ZPass users not carpooling).

 

The objective circumstances nurturing this system of mutual aid between strangers are, in themselves, undesirable. The recession struck residents on both sides of GWB, compelling some among them to take up various forms of penny-pinching, of which slugging is but one. Traffic congestion and the accompanying emissions gave rise to the discounted carpool rate in the first place. And then there’s the escalating bridge toll,which is slated to rise again in December. Like penguins huddling to fend off the biting Arctic chill, the characters in this story inch closer together to protect against their own increasingly aloof and precarious surroundings.

 

At just past 1 p.m. on a Friday, there appear to be more people awaiting lifts than there are cars stopping, and something of a line begins to take shape. Roberto Fernandez, a 55-year-old busboy at the Holiday Inn in Fort Lee, has just finished a shift that began at 5 a.m. and sits patiently on a wooden bench nailed to the cement bus shelter. He is on his way home to East Harlem. Speaking fast in a heavy Dominican accent, he says, “Me, I no pay two dollar. Spanish bus,”—25-seater jitneys, or “guaguas,” operated primarily by Latinos—“very expensive. Lot of car. If full, one more coming.” Within a few minutes, sure enough, an opening presents itself, and Fernandez darts off. “Chao amigo!” Like Fernandez, most of the people catching lifts here are immigrants from places where riding with strangers is, if not always a norm, not a taboo either.

 

Lindel Sudan, a hitchhiker in her 40s and originally from Trinidad, spends five days a week as a housekeeper in Alpine, NJ; the wealthiest zip code in the US (median home price: $4.25 million). “Alpine is very nice. Big homes, lots of work,” she says, with a genuine smile. At the end of each week, Sudan goes home to Flatbush, Brooklyn. The bus straight into the city from Alpine is $5.90. But if she goes to Fort Lee, it’s only $2.50; with a free lift across the bridge, she saves $3.40. This has been her routine for the last two and a half years. “It takes more time, but I don’t mind it,” she says. “For me, every penny counts.”

 

Not everyone slugs out of financial necessity. For some, like Travis Reilly, a 21 year-old volunteer firefighter from Edgewater, NJ, the inconvenience of having to wait for a bus is reason enough. Reilly has a football player’s build and wears a stern expression as he scrolls through his iPhone. Interrupted, he instantly smiles, as though it were a reflex developed to put smaller people at ease in his presence. Three years ago, he saw a slug line develop at the bus stop. “And I asked someone, ‘What are they doing?’, and the guy told me, and I was like, ‘Alright, cool.’”

 

Does he feel safe? “Look at me!” he says and slaps his chest with his hands. Does the driver feel safe? Reilly laughs and says, “Most of the time, but this one old lady. She looked at me like [Reilly bulges his eyes out], but then I start talking and she calmed down.”

 

“I think it’s a good thing,” Reilly says, “It helps people out. It brings people together. Strangers. Everybody.”

 

"Slug lines” began to appear in the Washington D.C. area in the mid-1970s when the US government created HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes to encourage carpooling on major highways in response to the peak in US oil production in 1971 and the Arab oil embargo two years later. Drivers wishing to access the faster HOV lane would pick up strangers who would otherwise take the bus. Bus drivers pulling up to a stop would distinguish between bona fide customers and the phonies awaiting a free lift, the slugs – named after obsolete American slangfor a counterfeit coin that clever bus passengers used to slip into the transit fare box to get a free ride.

 

Today, slugging has spread to Pittsburgh, Houston, and the San Francisco Bay area, among other locales. In 2008, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey initiated the discounted toll in to incentivize carpooling, which is described on their website as “eco-conscious and… economical.” Most of the hitchhikers awaiting rides this afternoon say they started doing it in the last few years, when commuters were hit simultaneously with a flagging economy and escalating tolls. It was then that droves of solo drivers suddenly started lining up at the bus stop to offer would-be bus passengers lifts.

 

One among these drivers is a young rabbi named Yair, who wouldn’t share his last name. Sitting in the driver’s side a black Honda CR-V, he says “there’s no official rule against this that I’m aware of.” As far as he’s concerned, slugging “is a neat way for people to help each other out.”

 

A man with a short-cropped salt-and-pepper beard opens the back door and, breathing heavily, plops down. “Thank you,” he says in a thick Eastern European accent.

 

Yair takes off, and almost collides with a bus pulling in. The bus driver honks. “Sorry, sorry. On our way,’ says Yair.

 

Yair says he won’t let his wife give lifts, but he feels safe, “because I’m picking up two people. So, unless you’re both ax murderers…”

 

Pulling up to the Cash-E-ZPass toll lane, Yair greets the attendant with a smile, and the states the word “carpool” as though it were a secret password. The attendant glances into the backseat to verify the number of occupants in the vehicle, nods, and the light turns green.

 

It’s not exactly generosity of spirit that compels this happy practice. For one, drivers tend to pick up only the bare minimum number of people to meet the carpool requirement. And trying to catch a lift in the opposite direction on the bridge—from New York to New Jersey, where there is no toll—is as futile as it was before the economic crises, toll hikes, and discounted carpool rate. This is pro-social mutual aid of the sort Russian zoologists encounter in the unforgiving Siberian hinterland, not charity. (See Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.)

 

On the New York City side of the bridge, there is a bus terminal outside the 175th Street subway station. About a dozen passengers getting off the A train here make their way into a small white bus that seats 25 passengers. The engine is on and fumes spill into the air even though a sign reads “Idling of motor vehicle engines over three minutes prohibited.” It’ll be another six minutes before the bus leaves.

 

Robert, a middle-aged man from Peru, who chose not to give his last name, has been working at this terminal for nine years, and is charged with a number of responsibilities, among them directing commuters to the buses. “Leaving now, leaving now, Fort Lee, let’s go, leaving now,” he belts with practiced rhythm. Robert takes a dim view of slugging. “It’s a problem for me, for my company,” he says. Most of the people getting picked up, he says, are would-be bus passengers. And the cars pull into the bus-only lane. “We’re just waiting for an accident.”

 

Would he ever accept a free ride? “Never,” Robert says, with a resolute wave of his hand. “What’s inside the car? I don’t know. If the police stop the driver and find something, it’s your problem too.”

 

Robert pulls out a large wad of singles, starts counting them, then stops, and puts it back in his coat pocket. “What if a crazy guy picks up a lady?” he says abruptly. “We have a problem.”

 

With the exception of one minor scuffle between two slugs going for the same car earlier this year, there haven’t been any incidents in the slugging community. (Statistically, you’re more likely to kill yourself on the George Washington Bridge than be murdered by a hitchhiker or a driver who offers you a lift. In 2012, there were 18 suicides on the bridge, and 43 attempts – the highest in any year since the bridge was constructed in 1957.) In Washington D.C., a city notorious for its high homicide rate, more than 30 years of slugging has yielded just one single violent crime: in 2010, when a driver dropped off, and then ran into, a hitchhiker he’d gotten into an argument with in the car.

 

Safe, yes, but is it legal? Technically, no. New Jersey Statutes 39:4-59 (Begging rides prohibited) has it that “No person shall stand in a highway for the purpose of or while soliciting a ride from the operator of any vehicle other than an omnibus or a street car.” But the moral and legal status of slugging is lost even on the people who are meant to enforce it. One officer told me in an informal conversation that he considers it illegal only “in a certain way.” Is it okay to do it then? “It’s not okay, but we don’t really enforce it.”

 

In the days that followed Hurricane Sandy, not a single subway line was in operation and New York City saw some of the worst traffic congestion in its history. On October 31st, City Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued an emergency decree: no cars carrying less than three people will be permitted entry into the city. Commuters crossing via the George Washington Bridge were exempted from this rule. The official line was that they were exempted because many among them were crossing the bridge to reach destinations other than the city. Perhaps, though, it was because the Mayor’s message was all too familiar to them already and didn’t need enforcing.

 

“The bottom line is the streets can only handle so much,” the Mayor said.

 

“Hopefully we can find ways for you to pick up people who will be standing by the bridges. They’ve got a problem of getting in – you’re their solution and they are your solution as well.”

 

 

Follow David @davidkortava

--

 

 

New York City