Saturday night I picked up two hitchhikers.
I was leaving Bemidji, MN heading home to Minneapolis when I saw two Native American men with their thumbs in the air just before the entrance ramp to the freeway. In the dark of 8pm, I saw they had grocery bags at their feet. A split second decision had me brake suddenly and pull over 20 yards past them. I moved my stuff out of the seats to make room as they walked up to the car.
“Are you sober?” I asked as one opened the front door.
“Oh yeah”, the man answered.
After discussing where they were headed (just 15 minutes up the road), the younger, larger one got in the back seat and the thin, middle-aged man in raggy clothes and a just-lit cigarette in his missing-teethed mouth sat in front.
“My name’s Gary. That’s my son Bruce”, he said.
“Nice to meet you”, I said to Gary and his 16 year old son.
“Are you guys from here?”
“I lived in Minneapolis”, said Gary. “Now I live in Cass Lake with my mother-in-law.”
“Did you like Minneapolis?”
Life was more manageable in the city–definitely easier to get around. It’s a long ways to Walmart on the comparably dark, desolate rural roads. (They had hitch-hiked to Walmart earlier this night, he said. And after shopping, asked other Indians for a ride home. However, none were going in his direction.)
But not too long ago, he and his family moved up north as he was kicked out of the housing he had in Minneapolis. There was zero-tolerance for legal infractions and he told me he got tickets for pan handling.
“They’re childish”, he said. “They check up on you all the time. It’s like prison.”
“How do you spend your time up here?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t do much. Sometimes I get some day labor.”
Gary shared that he and the woman he’s been with for 19 years have three children. I wanted to know what Gary’s aspirations were, what he wanted to do if he could do anything. But I thought to turn to his son.
In the back seat, the heavy-set teenager’s face was down into his glowing cell phone screen. “Bruce, what do you want to do when you get older.”
“I want to play football.”
He said he went to Bemidji High School.
“Oh, do you play for the Lumberjacks?”
“Naw”, he said dismissively.
“Well, maybe you can play next year”, I said.
A little later I told him to take advantage of the education he’s getting. “You have people working hard to help you learn.” I added that if he learns a skill, people pay good wages for that talent.
After only 10-12 minutes, Gary pointed to the exit off the freeway. I took a left and a right and then a left into a muddy, bumpy driveway leading up to an old, single-wide trailer house with a warped and beat up little deck sagging off the front entrance. My headlights shone to a small, empty front yard and Gary and Bruce got out, said thanks, and walked inside.
To those in the know, this story isn’t really special (aside from maybe picking up a hitch-hiker). Our conversation was actually what may would expect from two Native Americans in northern Minnesota. Of course, that’s the problem. If nothing alters the trajectories of their lives, father will wander through life eking by until he dies, and son will one day realize he can’t rely on pipe dreams as substitutes for actual growth and accomplishment.
Maybe I was particularly struck by the gravity of their situation because I was returning home from a funeral. Having honored the life of a great woman and absorbing the reality that these moments on Earth are precious and few, I felt for these guys as theirs are stunted.