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

Elle (Canada) - - News - By El­iza Robert­son

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. ■

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