Getting Into Cars With Strangers

What it was like to take cabs in New York City and hitchhike in L.A. in the heyday of sex, drugs and rock and roll

I spent my teen years hitchhiking. For the most part, I got to where I was going but often there was something unexpected along the way. When I moved to New York City, I thought those days of getting into a car with a complete stranger, usually male, were long over, but then I started taking cabs.

Now I’m writing a memoir, so lately I’ve been thinking about hitchhiking and randomness. The book is set in Los Angeles of the '70s, when I was a teenager and plunged headlong into sex, drugs and rock and roll. My life was one unpredictable event after another, propelled forward by chance and a little luck, but what I yearned for was to be normal, to have an ordinary life.

There are times when I’m stuck writing this book. I have trouble wading through the disorder and mayhem of my youth to be reflective. Or else I just have writer’s block. When that happens, I work on a jigsaw puzzle or make some kind of a list. It slows down my mind, unscrambles the randomness and organizes it.

I started making a list of what happened to me while hitchhiking but my mind kept jumping to things that happened to me while taking cabs. Were they really that different? A cab has a built-in structure — the cabbie’s name displayed, the license prominent, the exchange of money — to give the feeling of “safety,” but it can be as unpredictable and, at times, as dangerous as hitchhiking.

RELATED: The Practice of Being Normal

So I started a list of things that happened in New York City cabs and hitchhiking in Los Angeles:

Traffic came to a dead stop on Broadway as I was in a cab heading downtown to get my daughter at P.S. 234 near the World Trade Center. The cabbie radioed in and I heard the dispatcher say, “... bombing at the World Trade Center.” I bolted out of the cab — didn’t pay, for the first time ever — and ran two miles to get my daughter.

A guy picked me up hitchhiking and handed me a stack of porn magazines. He said I had to look at them or he’d drop me off in the middle of nowhere. I looked at them.

RELATED: Whole Lotta Love

I found $20 in a cab once, coming back from the Paradise Garage at dawn as people went to work. I also once found a bracelet and designer sunglasses. Not long after, I lost $20 and a sweater in a cab .

A smelly guy in dirty tennis shorts picked me up hitchhiking, took me two hours from where I wanted to go, and raped me.

“Mahmud the Red,” a World Trade Center bomber, was my cab driver a couple years before the bombing. He had red hair, freckles, sang along to the national anthem on a tape for U.S. citizenship,and told me he was from Egypt.

My first girlfriend taught me how to drive when I was 16 so I didn’t have to hitchhike anymore.

The first kiss from my first girlfriend in New York City was in a cab.

My friend Mark and I were picked up by a man who took us to his fancy house in Laurel Canyon. While they had sex, I stole trinkets and drugs, and read up on architecture.

In the late '80s, in a desolate area of downtown, back when NYC was dangerous, I got in a cab outside a club that smashed into the only other cab in sight. They jumped out and started fighting and I walked home in heels for almost an hour, alone.

A trucker gave my friend and I our first ride from the Valley to Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in Hollywood and shared his booze with us.

An angry cab driver sped onto the curb in front of a restaurant as people jumped back and screamed. He hit trashcans. My co-worker and I tried to jump out. He grabbed my shoulder purse and told me to pay. Someone helped us get away.

A thin white man in glasses picked me up and put religious pamphlets on my lap, told me about Jesus and warned me that a guy like him could kill me … or worse.

My husband opened the door of a cab at 1 am and said we were going to Beekman Hospital. The cabbie turned to look at me, enormously pregnant and in labor, and took off with the back door open. I had to hide behind a mailbox to get a cab.

I stepped in a cab just as a huge piece of an NYU building facade crashed down onto where I just stood. The cab was damaged but the cabbie took me to get my kids. The whole way, he told me I was blessed and looked at me in the mirror, shaking his head and saying how lucky I was. The next day I went back to look at the scene and scaffolding was up — for the next 3 years.

Tags: memoirs