Why toy guns and hitchhiking don’t mix.
I HAD ALWAYS BEEN INSPIRED BY THE HITCHHIKING ADVENTURES OF MY SWASHBUCKLING YOUNGER COUSIN. SO MUCH SO THAT I WANTED THE MAIN CHARACTER IN THE NOVEL I’M WRITING TO HITCHHIKE. THE HITCH, SO TO SPEAK, WAS ME. I’M CAUTIOUS BY NATURE. AS A CHILD, I RARELY WA
I had never hitchhiked, but if I was going to create this character, I knew I had to research. As it happened, one of my best friends, Theo, was planning his own odyssey—camping and thumbing rides from Winnipeg to Vancouver Island. We planned to meet in Victoria, where I lived at the time, and hitchhike to Pacific Rim National Park. I entertained no delusions about the scale of this adventure. Victoria to Tofino was a one-day trip—bite-sized compared to Theo’s. But for a girl who barricaded her cat indoors on Halloween because that joker down the street looked unsavoury, this bite was an undertaking.
For better or worse, hitchhiking comes with its own gendered algorithm. Male hitchhiker = threat; driver = vulnerable. Female hitchhiker = vulnerable; driver = threat. In male/female pairs, the woman hitchhiker gives her counterpart a less-threatening context. Conversely, the man provides security. Not necessarily because of physical strength—though in my case, that too—but it shifts the dynamic of who picks you up. Anyone looking for a power trip will keep driving. The ones who stop want to help. Theo and I were, in theory, the model of safe pickup-ability.
There is another detail about Theo: He is half Ethiopian. Sadly, race adds its own twist to this algorithm. We encountered the fallout of that
on our way home. On the last night of our road trip, we attended a wedding held in a series of tree houses. We didn’t know the brides-to-be, but we had been camping in their “venue” for three days. The wedding had a pirate theme, and we walked away with a toy gun and several lollipops. The next morning, we set off early to begin our journey home. The day was bright, and we were giddy from a week of sleeping in trees and cooking heavily cumined chickpeas over a propane stove. A Dutch couple had driven us from the park to the Island Highway. We were about to stick our thumbs out when we spotted two squad cars idling at the intersection. It’s illegal to pick up hitchhikers in British Columbia, so we worried that the police would discourage drivers from stopping. We heaved on our backpacks and started walking. As we traipsed along, I played with my toy gun, twirling it around my finger and occasionally shooting at the passing clouds. Its grip was embossed with gold plastic, and the muzzle had a red light that blinked when you pulled the trigger. The “discharge” released an optimistic pew-pew sound. At one point, I must have passed the gun to Theo while I adjusted the straps of my backpack. He was speaking animatedly at the time—about last night, the brothers we’d met, the two brides.
When I was set, Theo gave the gun back to me. I returned it to my purse and unwrapped one of the lollipops. A few minutes later, the two police vehicles pulled up next to us. First, I felt puzzled. Then worried. Then embarrassed. I was still sucking a lollipop.
A constable got out of one of the cars and approached us. He reached into my open bag and removed the gun, which was in plain sight. “Is this your imitation firearm?” he asked. In one chaotic moment, I tried to remember everything I had learned in Law 12. I recalled that an imitation firearm was as serious as a real one—but maybe only when it’s used for aggravated assault and/ or armed robbery? I didn’t point it at anyone, did I? Did having it in my purse count as “concealed”?
I think what I said was: “Oh, God, I am so sorry; I was fooling around! We were at a pirate-themed wedding in Ucluelet.”
The constable led me into the back of his vehicle, while the other officers who had joined us stayed behind to interrogate Theo. He ran my driver’s licence and asked about the nature of our relationship. “Friends,” I said. “Just friends?” “Yup.” “He’s not your boyfriend?” “No.” “How long have you known him?” “Since I was 16.” He looked impatient. “Six years.” “You can say if he’s your boyfriend. You’re not in trouble.” “But...he’s not.” The conversation continued this way. He asked again if we were fighting. I said, “No.” He asked, “Are you sure?” After a few minutes, he left to join the other officers. I meditated on the absurdity of the situation: I was sitting in the back of a police car with a plastic gun while sucking on a lollipop.
It turns out that someone had called 911 to report seeing a “black male waving a gun at a young female.” I don’t know if those were the terms used, but I suspect that race and gender stereotypes escalated the person’s reaction from “That’s odd” to “Call the police!” I held the gun for 90 percent of the time and no one reported a thing. Theo held it for two minutes and someone called 911. Would anyone have noticed him if he were a woman? What if he were white? Why was I cast as the damsel and Theo the threatening man? What formula of race and gender makes the same scene appear as an assault, a lover’s quarrel or hijinks?
The officers told us that if I had not put the “firearm” back in my purse, they would have approached us with their own guns drawn. Between the toy and my lollipop, such a scene would have been farcical. Indeed, we all (eventually) found the episode funny, and the police offered us a lift down the road to a spot where it would be easier for cars to stop. I could not help but think, however, that this is how tragedies happen: because of assumptions and often on the brink of senselessness. ■