We live in a building right off the George Washington Bridge. We love this location for its proximity to Manhattan (ten minutes to midtown) but we have begun to feel squeezed by the steady toll increase over the last few years. It costs $15 to cross; $12.50 if you have EZ Pass. My son’s school over the bridge ensures we take at least two roundtrips over the GWB each day. Without any coupons, school commuting alone costs us $500/month. With days when we have additional school events, go out to dinner at night, or when my husband goes to work, the monthly EZ Pass bill regularly reaches 4-figures.
In an effort to balance the astronomical costs of crossing a bridge, the Port Authority of NJ offers a carpool rate. When traveling with 3 or more passengers, you go through a designated lane, declare “carpool” (like you would yell out, “Yahtzee!”), a clerk will verify the 3 people and push a magic button and you’re only charged $6.50, 50% off. Throughout the course of the year, a savings of over $2,000! On school mornings, it’s just myself (a small woman) and my 13-year-old son who commute over the bridge; we need a third body for the discount. Initially I considered buying a hyper-realistic doll to put in my daughter’s car seat, but as I’ve mentioned, I’m not much of a rule-breaker.
Enter the Fort Lee hitchhikers. For the first three years we lived here, I refused to consider such a seemingly dangerous situation, but as I studied this fascinating microcosm every morning, I grew enticed. Commuters can wait for slow shuttle buses for $2 to cross the bridge, or if they would prefer to hop in a car and get an expedited, free ride across the bridge. A perfect symbiotic relationship.
This casual carpool practice, unique to this area exhibits a fascinating contrast. With my journalism degree in tow, I can assure you, “If it bleeds, it leads,” still holds true. The press convinces us we’re less safe than ever, but every morning I experience the opposite. I participate in a socially-organized and maintained smart program, saving money and reducing our carbon footprint. In the 25 years this unofficial hitchhiker carpool alliance has existed, there has never been a crime connected to it.
The abundant police presence helps ensure safety. On top of a police precinct, uniformed officers regularly patrol the toll lanes and booths. Additionally, the high volume of traffic means most of us are traveling at a snail’s pace. Either the driver or the hitchhiker can instantly end a scary or dangerous situation by opening the door.
When this school year began, my son, who hovers 6” taller and 40 pounds heavier than me, declared this was the year of the hitchhiker. He promised his immortal protection and we hopped aboard the hitchhiking bandwagon.
On our first brave day, with my sweaty palms, at 7:30am, I pulled up to the designated area, where 6 straphangers stood shyly looking into each car with a shrug to say “do you have room?” I nod back to a petite Asian woman and feel confident I can take her down from the front seat if I need to, because she is tiny and quiet – and I am presumptuous.
When she gets into the car, my son, an honorary member of the Hitchhiker Welcoming Committee, cheerfully says, “Good morning. Welcome. Where are you headed to this morning?”
She just sat there dumbfound. “Good morning,” she whispered back. “Over the bridge.”
“Obviously,” I join in sarcastically. “Everyone goes to the same place,” I explain to my teenager. There are no stop options. It’s across the bridge and drop off in front of the bus terminal. The route has no exceptions.
We crossed the bridge at the standard 5-10 MPH. It took about 15 minutes before we safely pulled up in front of the bus station. I unlocked the door, let the passenger out, and she thanked us with a slight head bow. My son sent her off with loud wishes to have a great day! He instantly looked over and gave me a high-five, a tradition we’ve continued daily.
It’s been four months of this exercise. Somedays we take one person – man, woman, big, small, any color and some days two shove in next to the car seat into the backseat. We all greet each other “good morning” and occasional pleasantries. I always continue conversations with my son. Usually we listen to Elvis Duran’s Morning Show on Z100 and they guarantee to break the ice with some of their comedic, often inappropriate conversations. Sometimes I secretly observe silent giggles through the rear view mirror. Other times we get into great conversations and want to keep in touch, but they’re off they go as soon as we cross the expanse.
One morning, we had a professor and a pharmacist. My science nerd son was in his element, en route, to the fancy private school. He made me beam with pride as he confidently asserted a convoluted scientific pronouncement about some kinds of velocities or chemistries. I can never admit I have no idea what he’s talking about, but his authoritative deliverance of the material reveals a flicker of myself. He’s always preferred grown-up company to those his own age, exactly as I had my whole young life. I watch him, as the co-captain of our adventure, and sometimes I get to be the invisible driver, peaking into his behavior as if I wasn’t there.
The hitchhiker pickup has become something we look forward to together every morning. It makes the otherwise bumper-to-bumper traffic more interesting. I never have any fear anymore, no matter who comes into the car. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve become too relaxed; maybe I’m too cocky. Perhaps I should take my Swiss Army Knife out of the glove compartment and put it closer, into the cup holder for easier access. I’ve always thought I was born in the wrong decade; now I have the opportunity to channel my inner hippie, bonding with my son and strangers as a positive side effect.