American Life in Poetry: Column 151

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Thirty, forty years ago, there were lots of hitchhikers, college students, bent old men and old women, and none of them seemed fearful of being out there on the highways at the mercy of strangers. All that’s changed, and nobody wants to get in a car with a stranger. Here Steven Huff of New York tells us about a memorable ride.

Safe

You used to be able to flag a ride in this country.
Impossible now—everyone is afraid   
of strangers.   Well, there was fear then too,
and it was mutual: drivers versus hitchhikers.
And we rode without seat belts,
insurance or beliefs.  People
would see me far ahead on a hill like a seedling,
watch me grow in the windshield
and not know they were going to stop until
they got right up to me.  Maybe they wanted
company or thought I’d give them
some excitement.  It was the age
of impulse, of lonesome knee jerks.  An old woman
stopped, blew smoke in my face
and after I was already in her car she asked me
if I wanted a ride.  I’m telling you.
Late one night a construction boss pulled over.
One of his crew had been hit
by the mob, he said as he drove, distraught
and needing to talk to someone.
We rode around for a long time.
He said, I never wore a gun to a funeral before,
but they’ve gotta be after me too.
Then he looked at me and patted the bulge
in his coat.  Don’t worry, he said, you’re safe.


We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright © 2007 by Steven Huff, whose latest book of poetry is More Daring Escapes, Red Hen Press, 2007. Reprinted from the “Chatauqua Literary Journal,” Issue 4, 2007, by permission of the author. Introduction copyright © 2017 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.