In my early 20s, I did a fair amount of hitchhiking. (I’ve written about this several times on this blog. I survived, clearly, as I am here to write about it. Nevertheless, this isn’t a means of travel I would recommend in this day and age … and I probably shouldn’t have been so casual about it back then, either, but I did have plenty of great rides and got to travel a lot more than I could have if I’d had to pay for transportation on every trip.)
On my first long hitch, I traveled with my friend Rachel. We were in England, on our way south from Scotland. It was getting late and we needed a place to stay. Our driver brought us to Blackburn in Lancashire to a big, rambling house. He said it was a hostel for girls. I suppose it kind of was, but it was more accurately a halfway house or group home of some kind. It was run by an older, kind-but-flinty woman who was exactly as you might imagine an almost-elderly British matron of a girls’ home to be. She wasn’t thrilled to have us dropped off at her door, but she didn’t turn us away, either.
The house was full, but not. Some of the girls were away visiting family, so there were a few empty beds. Rachel and I were given a room to share for the night. We had adapted to our vagabond life by that point in our trip, so climbing into strange girls’ beds didn’t faze us. The room was small and cozy, the house felt safe, we had made it through another days’ hitch. All was right with the world.
The bed I chose for the night was surrounded by evidence of its owner’s fangirliness. The walls at the head and side of the bed were plastered with magazine spreads and publicity photos of various bands. If I had any question about her favorite, it was answered by the ceiling décor: a bed-length poster of Simon LeBon of Duran Duran. Simon and the rest of the boys were featured on the walls as well, but that poster basically had me sleeping prone beneath him. Oy.
I’ve often thought about that house, wondered who the girls were who lived there, how they wound up there and how long they stayed, where did they go when they left? It was definitely not a hostel. Those girls were home for however long they needed to be. But they also clearly had families with whom they had successful enough relationships that they could go for sleep-over visits … but with whom they couldn’t live year-round?
I like the idea of that house, the kindness of it, the awareness of its need to exist, and that woman giving over what had once been her family home to make it a reality. Yes, she surely worked with and hopefully received funding from some government service agency to make that house a going concern, but it still spoke of compassion to me. Rather than have those girls be destitute, they could live in a pretty house with their album posters and newspaper clippings on the wall. They weren’t thrown away.
We do a lot more throwing away here. It’s much too easy for us to see young people as disposable. Especially the unhoused. Especially girls.
Yes, there is foster care, but not every kid who might need to foster is in the system, and kids age out of the system. We need more and better options for young people who can’t live in their family homes and aren’t yet ready to live on their own and take full care of themselves. Such places exist, but they seem few and far between. And are there set-ups like the house in that quiet and pretty little neighborhood where I slept under Simon LeBon?
In the town where I grew up, girls were often sent away. They were sent to mysterious, anywhere-but-here places where they lived until they could return to town without the babies they’d been carrying when they’d been hurried off. Were they sent to places as kind and welcoming as that house where Rachel and I stayed? I have doubt. And the house where we stayed wasn’t for pregnant girls. It was for girls — the youngest we met was 15, the oldest 19 — who had nowhere else to live.
When Rachel and I hitched around Europe, we weren’t homeless, of course. We both had families on the other side of the ocean who eagerly awaited our return from our travels, who were ready to welcome us home, safe and sound. I can’t imagine that not being the case. I have always had a place to go home to, no matter how far away from it I’ve journeyed.
When we were hitching, however, we were absolutely in the hands and at the mercy of strangers. We weren’t always found by kind drivers who went out of their way to drive us to safe places to sleep, but we did always wind up being safe. Strangers, for the most part, treated us with care, with the understanding that we had value and were deserving of kindness.
Whatever became of the girl whose bed I slept in that night? When she came back from visiting her family, was she told that a random American had been in her bed? Did she scent me when she went to sleep that night? How long did she live in that house and what life did she walk into when she left it?
I was 20 when I stayed there. When I went home, I was embraced by my family and absorbed back into my entirely sheltered existence: living in a college dorm, living with my family. I worked on campus, but not to pay my rent or tuition. I needed that money, but my room and board was paid for by financial aid and loans. Yes, I was poor, but I rarely felt it, and it didn’t dictate how or where I was able to live, who I lived with or the level of kindness or safety I was afforded. At least not in ways that I had to be aware of … which was, of course, a big part of that kindness and safety.
Why does it seem so difficult to create places of refuge for young people? Or, perhaps more accurately, why are we usually not interested in doing so? We get emotional about that song, “The Greatest Love of All,” and sing passionately how the children are our future, but what we clearly mean is that some of the children are our future. The rest we see as chaff … when we see them at all. Years ago, I was in a meeting with Geoffrey Canada. He talked about the difference between thinking about “at-risk children” and “our children.” At-risk kids are somone else’s kids. They’re not our responsibility, so it’s easier to ignore their needs, to accept sub-standard outcomes from them. But when we think of our own kids, we are more invested. All kids, he said, should be our kids. If all kids were our kids, would we discard them with such ease? Wouldn’t we make more effort to see to their care?
My grandmother ran, for years, two large houses for adults who couldn’t live on their own. They weren’t halfway houses, they were residences, more temporary for some people than for other. I was young then, so not overly clear on the life circumstances that landed people in Mom’s houses, but nothing about her managing those houses or people needing to live in them seemed odd to me. Part of that was surely because Mom’s house had been full of people my whole life — first foster kids and then older teens and young adults. People needed places to live, and it made sense for them to live in houses like Mom’s — a giant, many-bedroomed home with a dining room large enough for a dozen folks to eat around the table. The two houses she eventually ran were an obvious extension of the care she’d been providing in her own home for hears. And the fact of people needing places to live continued to make sense, continued to be an obvious truth.
I know — or at least I insist on believing — there are many other people like Mom across this country, people who make homes for folks who need them. Maybe they, too, have enormous cooking pots on their stoves, constantly simmering in preparation for the meals they’ll serve every day. I believe these living arrangements exist, but they still seem rare, are still not nearly enough.
Rachel and I ate breakfast with the girls in England. We had coffee, eggs, toast and juice. When we left, we followed their careful directions to take a local bus to a place that everyone thought would give us the best chance of finding a ride.
We didn’t worry about where we’d sleep that night, just hopped off the bus and put out our thumbs. We landed hours later in Betws-y-Coed, Wales, at a youth hostel down a winding, tree-lined road. We had stopped on the way at a jumble sale in a church yard where, for no discernable reason, I dropped two pounds on an small bellows camera that has decorated bookshelves in my homes all these many years since. We spent the night in that hostel with many random, traveling young women, and then we continued on our way. We rode on, confident that we’d be fine, that we’d end up somewhere safe and suitably comfortable, that we could continue relying on the kindness of strangers.
Why is it so hard to reshape our society so that all young people, all people, can rely on that should-be-basic level of kindness?
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.