I hitched with my three-year-old daughter the other day. From the bottom of the hill in the centre of town to where we live way up top. She was tired, my shoulders sore, and so instinct and laziness gave it the go-for-it. The foot of the hill is a fairly well-known hitching spot for classical music students who want to get to school at the top with their bassoons and double basses. I had a human musical instrument, so I stuck out my thumb and she giggled.
A car stopped and it turned out to be someone we knew. One of my daughter's little classmates and her family in a big family car. They let us hop in. I spoke to my daughter's friend, fired a few questions at the older ones. The answers were monosyllabic, gazes drifted out the windows, and as they dropped us off, I thought they must just be a silent family.
But on Monday at school, the little girl's mother who usually says hello, didn't, she just smiled awkwardly. The next day she did the same, and the day after that offered a kind of robotic side smile which is a conundrum to smile back to. So we stopped with the smiles, and busied ourselves with shoelaces and looking at hand prints on walls.
"I personally wouldn't have taken the risk...", said one of my friends the other day, over a coffee, appalled at what I'd done with my daughter. "You never know...", she said, her eyes widening.
I stayed mute.
Her 'you never know' brought images of thigh-grabbing, stolen wallets, paedophiles in suits, the cutting up of limbs in a shadowy bedsit - images spawned from headlines, perhaps from some genuine anecdotes, from popular fiction - and I felt dazed. I felt like a bad mother, that what I'd done could be equated to self-abasement, begging without the real need to beg.
I may have muttered a "what happened to keeping social interaction alive man?", but by that time my friend had already left for her meeting, and I was staring down at the bubbled remnants of latte in my cup.
I thought about the risks I'd taken in the past, the cars I'd flagged down, the random people I'd gone and spoken to, even the old lady who nearly decapitated me with her umbrella because I said she had nice socks. They were bright yellow. Anyway, I started to think it might be about time to stop all this crap. After all, we are living a time of terror.
"Hitch-hiking is extinct", said one of my students, Baptiste, a few days later. It was becoming a theme. "There's too much risk and it's not practical. Plus we've got apps for that."
"But what about leaving space for the unexpected?", I said, wiping words off the board.
"People don't want the unexpected," he replied. "Listen", he began, 20 years old and already mansplaining to his teacher. "Our lives are ruled by algorithms. And the only way to solve the problem of you needing to get from A to B would be to go with Blablacar. That's it. It's controlling the unexpected."
"And just for the record", he continued, "I used the app last year to go to Bordeaux and I made a friend on the way. I wasn't expecting that. And now we sample music together. He's called Pierre."
But I didn't want to meet a Pierre like that! I wanted an un-digitalised and free-thinking Pierre!
"Are we so distrustful of one another that we have to use an app to protect ourselves?", I asked. My board rubber was in the air like a question mark or a weapon or perhaps a last resort.
Baptiste stared at my board rubber a while. "We've evolved, that's all", he said calmly, and walked out the door.
But I couldn't buy this kind of evolution, it was so unhuman. Propelled by fear of the unknown, wrapped up in commodifiable convenience and phoney connectivity.
"So will you do it again then?", my friend asked just the other day. I felt her forehead crinkle with concern, even over the phone.
Yes, I will endeavour to hitch alone, again and again, restricting hitches with my daughter to the bottom of the hill. I'll scan the face, the contents of the car, sift about for a genuine sparkle in the eyes, and based on this, I'll decide whether to get in or not. That's about all the risk assessment I'll do. And on the journey I'll make a friend, or have the strangest of conversations, get to know a fascist or a spoon collector.
And I know I won't be alone. I trust that there will still be people out there who leave space for the promising side of 'you never know'. Who won't be walled in by their internet profiles, who'll run the risk of speaking to a stranger in a bar without cyber-vetting them beforehand, who'll still reach out to others, in real time, face-to-face, as their own trusting species vie for survival.
"Probably", I answered and then spoke about something else.
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