The Brotherhood of the Road

The Oakland-Bay Bridge, San Francisco, 1973

I made my first solo round-the-world trip in 1973. I flew to Los Angeles, spent a few days there and then boarded a Greyhound bus at the North Hollywood bus terminal late one evening, bound for San Francisco. For the first part of the journey, I was sitting by myself; but when the bus pulled into Santa Barbara a crowd of passengers boarded, and among them, two young men of a similar age to me, one of whom came and sat next to me.

Over the course of the next few ours, I learned their names, that they lived in Denton, Texas, and that they were Jewish. These facts were interesting but of no consequence; but the slow revelation of our common interests and attitudes eventually lead us to the decision that, when we arrived in San Francisco, we should hang out together; and thus, avoiding the drug dealers prowling around outside the San Francisco bus depot, the three of us headed off in search of budget accommodation; which we found in the nearby Tenderloin District.

It was still early, so once we’d dumped our stuff and ordered breakfast in a greasy spoon on Turk Street, I outlined my plans for the day, hoping that they would find favour with my new compadres and they’d accompany me; but they looked at the map on which I had traced my proposed route and balked at the ambitiousness of the proposal.

‘That’ll cost a fortune in cabs,’ one of them reacted.

‘No cabs,’ I replied. ‘I’m planning to walk.’

The other one, who was an early adopter of the American obesity program, almost choked on his egg roll and flatly refused to entertain the idea of all that walking. So we parted company and I set off on foot in the direction of Union Square, then to Chinatown, North Beach, Coit Tower, Fisherman’s Wharf, a boat trip to Alcatraz which also passed under the two significant bridges crossing the harbour, then The Cannery, Van Ness Avenue, Lombard Street and finally, somehow, I found my way back to the Tenderloin and a well earned rest. My roommates didn’t believe I had done all that; and when I returned to San Francisco, many years later and much older, I could hardly believe it myself.

The next morning, I went down to the bus depot to check out the timetables for the next leg of my journey, to Vancouver, Canada. Ahead of me in the queue was a young couple, also around my age, and they were having difficulty communicating with the booking clerk. I noted also that they were talking to each other in French. Now, I had completed four years of French in High School and since I had never visited a French-speaking country at that stage, I assumed I could speak French; so I approached them and offered to help. Before long, I had managed to understand their needs, convey them to the booking clerk in English, and translate his response to them into French and thus help them conclude their transaction. They were so grateful that they waited me to finish mine and afterwards, we spoke.

It turned out that they were from Algiers. They wrote down their names, addresses and home telephone numbers for me and told me that if I ever came to Algeria I should contact them and they would look after me there. I was overjoyed. I had no plans to go to Algeria but it was just the idea that these two strangers would offer me their hospitality that thrilled me. This was my first experience of the Brotherhood of the Road and I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel to tell my two roommates about it. But as I recounted my story, they just stared at me, blank faced.

‘You’re not going to go there, are you?’ one of them asked.

‘Probably not,’ I replied. ‘But it was so cool to be asked. And if I did happen to go to Algeria, now I have friends there.’

‘But they’re Arabs,’ came the reply.

I was shocked. My soaring euphoria came crashing to the ground; and I couldn’t imagine what experience might have caused two Jewish boys from Denton, Texas to feel such hatred towards two Algerians that they didn’t even know. But whatever the cause, it had nothing to do with the friendship that had developed between us over the last couple of days.

We parted company on the best of terms, wishing each other luck on our travels, expressing a hope that we might bump into each other again; sometime, somewhere down the track.

As it turned out, I didn’t ever see my compadres again; but it had nothing to do with the fact that they were Jewish. And I never did go to Algeria. But that had nothing to do with the fact that the people there are Arabs.

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