Short Tales

Jewish World Review March 22, 2001 / 27 Adar 5761

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The Hitchhiker
It was toward the end of the week, a chilly night in October that seemed prematurely dark, I remember, because they had only recently turned back the clocks. I flipped on my headlights and pulled out of the company parking lot, hardening myself for a merge onto the crowded freeway and another grueling commute, and then I saw him: a bearded, yarmulke-wearing Jew like myself, standing by the on-ramp and thumbing a ride.
aruch Hashem (Thank G-d), I said, signaling and pulling over. This is His way of telling you to stop complaining, to yank your exhausted carcass out of bed in the morning and welcome the Sabbath with joy. Just when you begin to feel sorry for yourself, He wakes you up by presenting you a fellow Jew in need of a helping hand.

I lowered the automatic window on the passenger side, allowing the stranger to peer inside. He was at least ten years younger than I, probably no older than 20 or 25, but there was a seriousness and intelligence around his dark eyes and long, beaky, almost bird-like face. Based on his patchy and not quite manly beard, bushy hair, denim jacket and blue jeans, I figured him for a youthful Ba'al Teshuva (newly-observant Jew) like you see all the time in Israel, though rarely here in California: maybe, a Chabadnik.

"Looks like we're on the same team," I said.

"Mountain View," was his answer.

"Car trouble?" I asked.
"N
o, I don't drive," he said. "I like need to go to Mountain View. Are you like giving me a ride, or not?"

"No problem," I said, conscious that I'd allowed yet another air-headed local idiom become part of my vocabulary. "I'm going to Palo Alto, just one more exit down the freeway. I'll be glad to take you, wherever you need to go."



"Finally," he said, climbing inside.

Forgive him his rudeness, I thought, accelerating into zooming, streaming rush-hour traffic. So thin and frail, with just a light jacket. Look at the way he's gripping himself, shaking from the cold.

"Is that better?" I said, turning up the heat.

"Is what?"

"The heater."

"Fer sure, whatever," he said.

From the corner of my eye I could see him staring straight ahead, squeezing himself and jutting his long neck forward, his eyes flashing and his mouth partway open, like he was watching a very personal and very disturbing movie.

"So I take it we're both shomer shabbas," I said.

"Huh?"

"I take it you keep the Sabbath, like I do. Only one more day to go!"

He hunched his skinny neck and shoulders once, twice as he thought things over. He looks like a bearded chicken, I thought. His long, curved nose so dominated his thin face that I could imagine him using it, head bobbing, to peck at kernels of corn. And then I remembered a Far Side cartoon that one of my co-workers had pinned above his workstation: a group of flat, deflated creatures, lying prone in a barnyard with horrified expressions on their faces. Boneless Chicken Ranch, the caption read.

This odd bird, as it turned out, talked like an ordinary California college boy. Low-gauge, snotty, sarcastic in an unearned way. With a slight overlay of Intro to Sociology.

"I like categorically reject the concept and institution of the Sabbath," he said. "Why like work six days and rest one? Why not like work four days and rest three?"
There went my Baal Teshuva theory, along with the hoped-for sweetness of a chance encounter with another Torah Jew. No doubt I was locked in a speeding vehicle with one of the more messhuga members of our tribe. Now I had to wonder, this being California: just how messhuga was he? In Israel I'd gotten used to carrying a loaded Desert Eagle in the car, a practice I had discontinued in California. If Boneless Chicken tries anything funny, I decided, I'd smash his beak with the back of my right forearm. I can bench press 225 pounds, which was probably twice his weight. I have a neck like a bull, I'm told, along with the stubborn personality.

"Some of us believe that there's a moral structure to things," I tried. "Revealed to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai."

"Well, I like categorically reject that structure," he answered. "Why shouldn't I like work a few hours at night, seven days a week, sleep late in the morning, and then do Tai Chi in the afternoons?"

Because the creator of the universe, Blessed be He, commands you otherwise, I thought, you ridiculous bird disguised as a Jew. It was at about that point that I also noticed his odor: cheap and artificially sweet and fruity: like strawberry candles in a hippie head store.
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