John is 24. He’s listening to the new Sleigh Bells album a lot lately. He’s studying kitchen design at the Academy of Art, which he tells me has no centralized campus. He has a girlfriend, who he says would “kill him” if she knew he was driving us home. I ask him if kitchen design means microwaves and ovens. He says something to the extent of ‘sort of’ and I pitch him my idea of a removable counter-long cutting board. He thinks it’s a good one.
This is the modern-day face of hitchhiking.
John finds us on a busy street corner near the Twitter office in downtown San Francisco. We’re desperately trying to wave down a cab. I’m trying to get a Mac charger to a friend who’s boarding a plane in an hour, so it’s starting to feel sort of urgent. We even pop into the W to see if a concierge can help out. “Uber is so much more expensive,” says my colleague when I suggest we call one.
A hitchhiker’s thumb is a peaceful, international symbol of need
We’re feeling a bit of an Uber/Twitter high (having visited the two propinquitous startups back to back). We’ve spent the last few days putting giant exclamation points around the city as a flash promotion for our upcoming conference (which we’re calling “a social experiment in startups”) and we’re in the mood to discuss symbols that transcend language barriers. Like exclamation points, and hitchhiker’s thumbs. Both globally comprehensible and even beloved, hitchhiking in that warm nostalgic hippie past sort of way. Especially in San Francisco. Arguably its capital.
Empty seats are wasted ones. It’s a practical observation.
“So many of these cars would take us if they were going in the same direction, you know?” I say to her as we watch the cars pass speedily, occasional smiles passing our way as traffic lodges them, my thumb’s erection dwindling at the appearance of an occasional sketchy-looking dude with music flaring, who looks a little too interest in picking us up.
We also observe that most of the cabs that pass have empty seats. “There must be a way to make smarter use of this,” we agree. “Especially in San Francisco, where everyone used to hitchhike. And there are very few people who wouldn’t rather ride with us than ride alone.” Sure, there are selfish bastards. But the majority of people will help, if they can.
We’re competing with speed, time, and bluetooths…
There needs to be some way of alerting people looking for a ride which direction people are heading. With the current system, it took us 15 minutes to get someone to open their door and bring us in the direction of our destination. Sure, we’re two young blonde women, and this definitely made the process quicker, mainly because young blonde women don’t trigger as security threats.
The good thing about cars is they have windows. With good judgment, windows make the safety issue a null one. Some drivers are grey-haired, blue toothing, and unconcerned with the young, certainly not-prostitutes looking for a ride on the corner of Market St. Others visibly lack the extra room; either full or are themselves a tractor without a backseat. But many look engaged. Some stop, and let us ask if they’re heading in the direction of Pacific Heights.
And then we score. Not only a ride, but maybe a cofounder.
So here I am alternating between a standard taxi arm (the sunlight preventing me from confirming the light atop) and an old-school hitchhiker’s thumb, when I see a guy who looks both trustworthy and Twitter-friendable paused at a red light. “Are you going to Pacific Heights?” I ask him through his cracked window.
John rolls down his window…capping our search at 15 mins
John not only looks normal, but even interesting. Sort of like a friend, in that superficial way certain girls determine friendships on the first day at summer camp. When we hop into his backseat, he asks us what music we listen to. “No one’s asked me that in a long time,” I laugh- (remembering the days when I’d always say “Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, Radiohead”) and telling him about this upcoming Marina & the Diamonds concert in Berlin, where we’re from. “That’s what I’m always asking people,” he says. “What music they listen to.”
I’m glad he doesn’t ask too much about Berlin. Berlin’s like having a hot celebrity sister, or something.
John bypasses his stop in Nob Hill to take us the full route to Pacific Heights. He senses we’re a bit harried, and probably likes us. “Did we convince you?” I laugh, as he instructs me to GoogleMap it, though he knows the direction he tells me, pretty much. “For some reason my phone is not acting smart right now,” I say, and we all laugh. I get that distinct feeling of wanting to quote and then retweet myself. I’m wondering if my temporary TMobile contract is running out. We’re heading to New York tomorrow. Damn. But there’s no doubt we’ve been lucky.
“Thanks for the ride, John. We’ll pay it forward.” He agrees to that, waits till we cross, and drives away.