In writing this week’s feature, I was cast back to memories of my traveling days. Being on the streets (or “on the road” as I liked to think of it) wasn’t all pretty, however I usually choose to frame the experience. I remember one night, up in Eugene, OR. My friend and I were 18, on one of our first “adventures”—dipping our toe into a lifestyle we had recently become aware of through people we met downtown. We had set out hitchhiking along with an older guy—an experienced traveler and friend of her mom’s, who had volunteered to “protect” us (I have a side rant about the chain of trust that I’ll save for another time). We wound up at this cafe where we met some other travelers, and a couple of old hippies who offered to let us stay at their house. Around twilight we walked with them to their place, a large white house with a spacious yard, in the middle of which was a campfire ring. Tents were set up, the fire was lit, and one of them, who fancied himself a sort of Bob Dylan (he literally told us he was as good as Bob Dylan and should’ve been famous), played guitar and sang badly (Hey! Sort of like Bob Dylan!) while the other passed around a bottle of whiskey. We were dead tired after a day of walking, our over-burdened backs aching and stiff, and it was such a relief to sit there with hot liquor burning in our throats.
The whiskey-passer put his hand on my knee, his thick thumb swishing back and forth like a cat’s tail before it pounces. Time stopped. I bristled, my heart pounding suddenly and all my senses sparking with electricity. I sort of laughed in that fake way that I do when a situation is on the verge of crisis, and deliberately pushed his whole arm back into his lap. I threw up that feeble shield of women everywhere, “I have a boyfriend.” “Why isn’t he here then?” asked the creeper, his hand returning to my leg, but higher on my thigh. He didn’t care about my pretend boyfriend, or the fact that I wanted none of him; this was the toll, this was something he had probably done a hundred times, the reason he hung out at that cafe and brought wayfarers back to his den.
I looked at John—my “protector”—and raised my eyebrows in expectation as I said “cut that out.” He didn’t, and John shrugged. I leapt to my feet—not having it. I wasn’t trading sex for a night’s sleep, however tired I was. “Come on guys, we’re leaving.” “Calm down,” John said. He expected this of me too, that I would be willing to take one for the team. This was something he had seen girls do, this experienced traveler. I insisted, and we spent the night wandering, looking for a park with enough shelter to hide us so we could rest. He was mad at me, but not as mad as I was at him, and at the whole world for being a place where girls had to barter their dignity for basic needs.
I had more of a choice than a lot of girls in that situation, I wasn’t desperate, I knew there were options in life and people out there who cared about me. If I made my life as a traveler it would be by choice, and that alone made all the difference. Anyway, long story short: I’m glad there are places like the 6th Street Center where young girls can go to consider their options. It can be rough out there.