On the corner of Robert E Lee Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, I pick up a hitchhiker — there’s a knapsack on his back — he’s unwashed, emaciated, Whitmanesque in a Johnny Winter sort of way, somewhere between the ages of 40 and 65.
I’m in a good mood, have just gotten word The Kenyon Review has accepted one of my poems. When I pull over, I sing, “Val-deri, val-dera” as I lean over and open the door for him.
There’s the spring 2014 issue of The Paris Review on the seat, which I stick into the side pocket of the open door. He frowns, takes off the knapsack, which is actually a blackened, tattered bookbag, and struggles to jam it between the seats into the back compartment of my Fiat. Finally successful in the stowing, he sits down and turns and grabs for the seat belt like he’s just fallen overboard.
“Where to?” I ask, once the commotion is over, a little ashamed of myself for singing.
“Ultimately, way out west, I reckon.”
He reeks of cigarettes, campfire, mildew, and that metabolic sour wino sweetish stench that in-excess Mad Dog 20-20 and digestive systems produce.
He says, “Let me amend that. Wherever.”
“Drop me off wherever?”
The smell is getting to me as we tool down Malcolm X past Eldridge Cleaver Middle School. I decide I’ll take him to the Interstate exit, which is both headed west and qualifies as wherever.
He turns to me, and I can tell he’s looking at me, so I take my eyes off the not-so-heavy traffic and make eye contact with his barely blue eyes all rheumy and sad and staring at me.
“Who’s your favorite poet?” he asks.
I know the answer to this one: “Me.”
“You’re a poet?”
“Yep, as a matter of fact.”
“Okay, then. Who’s your second favorite poet?”
“Frederick Seidel,” I say, thinking I’ll name someone he’s never heard of.
“Okay,” he says. “You can let me out here.”
“Here? How come?
“Seidel’s a pervert; that’s why.”
You sure you don’t want me to take you to the Interstate?”
I pull over, he gets out, and I bid goodbye with a sarcastic salute. Self-righteous son-of-a-bitch.
I pull back into traffic, the post-industrial claptrap warehouses scrolling past my side windows, but I can still smell him five blocks away. I have a theory that loud noises drown out odors. I click on the music. Big Brother. Cheap Thrills.
It’s not until I’m past the Huey Newton on-ramp that I realize his bookbag’s still in the back.
No telling what I’m going to find in there.