On a summer day years ago, I was hitchhiking on I-95 through Maryland—you could do that back in 1975—after spending three months thumbing through South America. The beefy guy who pulled over to pick me up (they did that back then, too) wore red Pro-Keds. I remember this vividly because my eyes kept drifting to them. For the record, I had long hair and was wearing a llama-hair poncho and black canvas Chuck Taylors. The driver just happened to be going to Columbia, Maryland, not far from where I attended grad school.
I was 23, majoring in sarcasm, minoring in theater. Offstage, I played everyone but me, whoever that was, holding myself in with a reserve that no girlfriend could breach. If I got too close to revealing any feelings, I'd interrupt myself in midthought and stammer to a stop. Talking in conundrums, hiding behind equivocation, I made myself untouchable.
I found a certain direction in my job driving a city bus in Columbia. Every afternoon I steered through the same suburban streets and ended up in the same suburban mall. My bus was often empty: In this new town everybody had a car. I drove alone and liked it. There was no need to perform, because I was totally anonymous.
One afternoon a girl got on outside the community playhouse. She was a high school senior with clear, dark eyes and an appealing tangle of black hair. She swung onto the bus with an easy grace. I'd been reeling off nonsense lines to myself from the play The Bald Soprano:
"I prefer a bird in the bush to a sparrow in a barrow... The car goes very fast, but the cook beats batter better."
"What are you talking about?" she said. Her smile was crinkly; her eyes, knowing; her voice, sly and swooping.
"Rather a steak in a chalet than gristle in a castle."
"Is that your idea of a pickup line?"
I could tell immediately that she was my kind of girl: sharp, nervy, and, critically, postmodern. All she lacked was 25 cents. I paid her fare. By the time she got off the bus, I had her name (Maggie), her phone number, and a date. A quarter went a long way in those days.
A few days later, as I arrived at Maggie's house, I noticed a well-stuffed man in a well-stuffed chair. He was wearing red Pro-Keds. He was, of course, Maggie's father.
Not all that long after, Maggie asked me if I wanted to get married. I said, "Great idea." While swilling a dollar bottle of champagne in plastic cups, we gleefully told Old Red Keds we were getting married and then hitching to Guatemala. He didn't share our glee. "Do you know the Mann Act?" he snapped. "That's the 1910 law that bans the interstate transport of females for 'immoral purposes.'"
"No," I deadpanned. "Could you hum a few bars?"
We got married anyway, on May 28, 1976, the day after Maggie's high school graduation. For years afterward, her three younger sisters would greet their dad when he got home by asking: "Daddy, did you pick us up a hitchhiker?"
Three decades and two beautiful daughters later, I haven't met anyone else I'd rather be around. Maggie still surprises me, still shakes me out of complacency, still makes me laugh. She's not sentimental; she sensible, decent, and much smarter than me. She showed me how to feel comfortable in my own skin, to embrace ordinary happiness. Which is pretty extraordinary.Read another chance encounter...