We were driving home from an afternoon gig in Tiburon, the toniest suburb in Marin County across the Golden Gate from San Francisco and a quick ferry ride from Angel Island. My 10-year-old son had come with me to help me load equipment in and out and sell CDs during the gig. It was about 5 pm as we headed West on the road out of Tiburon, sweaty, tired, and with a few hundred bucks in our pockets. We had passed the last of the stores and hotels when we saw the old man standing with his arm oustretched, thumb up. His hair was white and fluffy, like Einstein’s, he wore a long black trench coat over dark clothing, and he held a black briefcase. It’s funny how you process someone’s look, the setting and the situation, and then make a decision that you don’t expect from yourself. I passed him, just barely, before deciding to stop. My son gave me a good-natured look of surprise.

He slowly approached. I pushed the button to lower the passenger-side window, and leaned over my son: “Where are you headed?” “San Rafael,” he said. “We’re going to Oakland… We can give you a ride there, it’s on the way,” I said. He opened the back door and climbed in. I started driving. “If you’re taking the Richmond Bridge, I can tell you exactly where to drop me. You won’t go out of your way,” the man said. “Great. So, why are you hitchiking?” I asked. “Well, on a Sunday the busses don’t come often, so sometimes I’ll try my luck getting a ride,” he said. “I don’t have a car.”

He fell silent and so did we. We wound along the road approaching the highway, and after a few minutes we were heading North on 101. I saw a sign for San Quentin State Prison to our right. “There’s San Quentin, California’s oldest, scariest prison,” I told my son. “Hope you never go there,” I joked. We could see the Spanish-style building jutting out into the Bay.

He’d been quiet in the back seat, so I’d nearly forgotten about him. “I went to San Quentin,” the old man piped up. “I used to be a delivery man. I made deliveries to San Quentin. The funny thing is, I always carried a very long knife to open packages with,” he said.

When you’re giving a hitchhiker a ride, knife is a word you don’t really want to have come up in casual conversation, and a slight current of awareness travelled through me. “Really? When was this?” I asked. “Oh, in the 1950s. I’d go in there with my deliveries, and they never checked me. And I would forget that I was going in there with a big long knife for opening boxes. But it was never a problem, the fact that I had that long knife,” he said. “I didn’t have that job for more than a few years,” he said. The car was silent again as we contemplated the prison, known for housing hundreds of condemned men on death row until all appeals ran out and they went to the gas chamber, or, nowadays, to lethal injection. We also contemplated the fact that he’d used the word knife three times.

Another few minutes passed until the old man directed us to an exit. We decelerated off the freeway. “Drop me here,” he said. He thanked us and got out. As we pulled back on the onramp he began shuffling toward downtown San Rafael.

“That was kind of weird when he started talking about the knife, wasn’t it?” I laughed. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” my son replied. “I could take that old man, easy.” We both cracked up. “Well, I would never pick up anyone if I thought it wasn’t safe,” I said. The fact that he was white-haired and frail had definitely played into my decision. We enjoyed the rest of the ride home, unloaded my heavy gear back into the house and forgot all about the hitchhiker.

A few months later, I was about to turn off the TV when the first few minutes of the late-night news came on. A mug shot of a white-haired, black-suited man flickered briefly on the screen. “A murderer who escaped San Quentin and eluded capture for nearly 60 years has been apprehended in Marin County,” the anchor read. “He had stabbed his wife with a long knife, but later escaped San Quentin by way of a delivery van. The man apparently has lived most of his life unobtrusively in the area.” The mug shot appeared again on the screen. My mouth fell open. Could it be… was it the hitchiker? I hadn’t looked that carefully at his face. In my mind’s eye, he resembled John Thaw, the late actor who played Inspector Morse on the BBC — only with fluffier hair. We’ll never know…

But the experience didn’t prevent me from picking up some Spaniards who were hitchhiking in Yosemite. My son was with me that time too. When they got out, my son let out a whoosh of air. “Mommy, those guys stank!” “Really?” I replied. “Yes! You’re lucky you can’t smell. Let’s not pick up any more hitchhikers. Remember the guy with the long knife?”