Helen Ellis Bums a Ride

On hitchhiking, Southern manners, and taking the subway

Illustration: DAWN YANG

My editor said, “Helen, I can’t believe you ever hitchhiked!”

“It was the summer of ’89,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “that’s the year I was born.”

In 1989, I was a camp counselor in Upstate New York. I canoed. I color-warred. I wrestled in short shorts in a vat of chocolate pudding. And I hitchhiked. On my days off, if there wasn’t a dog or a chain saw in the back of a stranger’s flatbed, my friends and I would pile in and get dropped off at a river eerily called Beaverkill. I was nineteen. I did a lot of things outside of the glove box.

Bermuda shoreline
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Do they still call it a glove box? Or is it a gun box? That’s what I remember was in there when I was growing up in Alabama (along with a map you could fold into an airplane, a billy-club-esque flashlight, and proof of registration). But these days, I wouldn’t know. I moved to New York City when I was twenty-two and haven’t driven a car in more than thirty years.

I don’t know how much a car costs. I don’t know how to convert miles to minutes, so if I ask you, “How long does it take to get there?” just tell me how much time it’ll take.

Speaking of long commutes, I’ve lost at least three and a half hours of my adult life trying to figure out how to operate child locks, window buttons, overhead vents, seat warmers, and cup holders; and, though I’ve never smoked, lamenting that they don’t make armrest ashtrays anymore. Cars don’t click the way they used to. I miss all those clicks.

My husband and I have been in more back seats together than our entire horny high school graduating classes combined. My husband is a real New Yorker, which means—except for once in college—he’s never owned a car.

As a Southern lady, once in college is when I did a lot of my experimenting. Like hitchhiking on summer break. Or sophomore year at the University of Colorado: Birkenstocks, LSD, and Alpha Chi Omega. I spent one semester backpacking across Europe and sleeping on trains so I didn’t have to pay for hostels. I spent one semester at Walt Disney World hawking frozen Mickey heads out of an ice cream cart; and, after I clocked out, strode through tunnels beneath the park, stripping off my pastel uniform to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” If I hear that song today, my fingertips go numb from the sense memory of dry ice. I call these my Teflon years. I tried things, but they didn’t stick, like fried eggs on an infomercial. Or as driving didn’t stick for my husband.

illustration: DAWN YANG

New York is made for people who don’t drive—especially octogenarians pushing granny wagons and strollers for their pugs. We’re walkers. We’re committed to walking, and when our feet are killing us, some of us go through surgery to keep walking so we can Ratso Rizzo, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” I personally know three women who had their toe bones shaved. Our nickname shouldn’t be the Big Apple, it should be the Bunionectomy Capital of the World.

And let’s hear it for our public transportation system! Even for a time during the height of the COVID pandemic, our subways only stopped running in the wee small hours of the morning to get what I imagine to be Silkwood showered. With no traffic, the buses had our streets pretty much to themselves. If you dared to venture out of your apartment, you got to ride the bus for free.

Friends and tourists tell me that they’re frightened of the subways.

“There’s murder!” they say. “People get shot! People get shoved!”

Well, what can I say? These things happen. But in all my years of getting around underground, I’ve never borne witness. And, honestly, the death risk is worth the reward of getting from the Upper East Side to a Broadway show in fifteen minutes.

New Yorkers have the reputation of being rude, but most of us are on our best behavior because the MTA is our Miss Manners. Only in New York can you learn how to tactfully insert yourself into a 6 train and simultaneously avoid eye contact with a mariachi band, straphanging acrobats, someone in costume when there is no reason to be in costume, and a sexual deviant treating his personal property like a taffy pull.

As a Southern lady, raised with the Golden Rule of do unto others, I was ready for the subway before I ever set foot on one. I knew better than to put my purse in an empty seat. I knew better than to hog a pole like a koala. If I got lost, I asked for directions, but otherwise I didn’t ask anyone for anything. If my personal space was encroached upon, I pushed back politely. I once thwarted a mugger by saying, “No thank you.”

When my husband and I do leave the city, we choose destinations based on where we don’t have to drive. We fly commercial. We take Amtrak. We go Greyhound. We’ve ridden streetcars in New Orleans, double-deckers in London, the metro in France, and hotel vans two hours from the Montego Bay airport to Ocho Rios in Jamaica. In Greece, if there’s a mountainous island route littered with decades-old crashed buses, we’ve been there—on other buses. I pack Dramamine before my credit card and passport.

Some people call us environmentalists because we don’t drive. The truth is we fear we’re too old to relearn now. But this won’t stop us from going places. I wouldn’t hitchhike again, but I’m fueled by the nerve I had in the summer of ’89.