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Remebering Airhitch founder Robert Segelbaum

Posted by guest  June 2, 2009 10:32 AM

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"Hello Patricia,
Certainly you have received a mail or a call from Gislaine who is Robert's wife...In fact it's not good news... Robert is dead ..."

It was August, 2008 and barely two weeks had passed since I'd shared lunch in Martinique with Airhitch founder Robert Segelbaum. Our last chat about Les Guignols and Obama's nomination was still open on my laptop screen. For those who haven't heard of him, Segelbaum was a free spirit of the 1960s who founded a travel concept connecting would-be passengers with vacant airline seats at very low cost. No stranger to computers, he later migrated the concept to the Internet. A nod to Paul Bowles on the extant Airhitch website encapsulates the vision, 30 years ahead of its time:

“There is a vast difference between a 'tourist' and a 'traveler.' The 'tourist' goes to visit a faraway place, stays for a few days or weeks, and then returns home. But the 'traveler' is at home wherever he may be visiting."

Volumes have been written about Airhitch, mostly by Segelbaum himself. Arthur Frommer reprinted his article expounding the Airhitch philosophy. Sascha Sagan reported in on the legal dispute between Segelbaum and a former business partner over the Airhitch name. There's even an Airhitch gripe-fest on, testament to the extreme feelings Segelbaum could incite in his Internet correspondences. Here's a taste:

"I just received the rudest and most condescending email I have ever received from a representative of an organization, and that organization is Robert Segelbaum's Air Hitch."

I met Segelbaum twice, six years apart, both times on writing assignments in his adopted country. On the first meeting (arranged by my brother Steve Borns, a photographer and videographer who was shooting my story), Segelbaum took us for a swim off the Le Diamant beach, peeling off his trunks with a hint of the bad boy he was alleged to have been in his former Manhattan life. In a leafy shopping mall courtyard, his beautiful Martinican wife Gislain cooked lunch for us at her restuarant La Providence. There we spent the afternoon, six of us talking and laughing in exuberant spirits; each of us with a significant other and in love.

Segelbaum was a passing acquaintance, and for the next several years I didn’t think of him again. Interestingly, the most vitriolic rants about Airhitch seemed to occur in those interim years. In 2006:

"Years after my only, brief and mild encounter with this monstrosity, I still carry around a lingering curiosity as to what form the eventual conflagration will take, when this clearly extremely miserable existence finally immolates itself."

I make no apologies for Segelbaum or dispute those he infuriated. But I do believe he was misunderstood. Because he steadfastly refused to commercialize the venture, Airhitch operated, and may still, in the random, personal manner of the hitchhiker's universe. From being part of the 1970s collective unconscious, this non-business model diverged with the travel culture of the 1990s. By 2000 the Internet was becoming a corporation's world. Consumer expectations changed. Segelbaum did not. Alternately coaxing and CURSING IN ALL-CAPS, beneath the rhetoric were the unworldly impulses of a too-soft heart. He expatriated to Martinique.

Our next contact was in July, 2008 by instant message for a Boston Globe story about Martinique's Tour des Yoles. IM was new to me. Segelbaum showed me the ropes. He created a yoles chat room and brought his contacts from around the island together for me to interview while he translated.

We met for the second time in August, eating Gislain's wonderful food and talking as before. In conversation Segelbaum was like a dog with a bone, worrying a subject to its concealed, emotional marrow and offering it up in crescendos of triumphal joy. By this time he was teaching web design at the local high school; Le Diamant had adopted him and he it. Far from immolating a miserable existence, he was ecstatic; on the verge of another Internet breakthrough that like Airhitch was ahead of its time; that by dint of personality he would never exploit commercially. He had become a family man and enjoyed a sea bath every day. Segelbaum had evolved. He seemed happy.

Before I left, he showed me a special place: When you enter the town, take the road winding uphill to Le Musée du Coquillage, a remarkable shell collection with a sweeping view of the bay and iconic Diamant Rock. Here he lived in hotel L'Ecrin Bleu when he arrived on the island from New York, before he met Gislain.

Traveling to Martinique in ‘09, Greg McDonald of S. Dakota visited this site. He wrote:

In early January I searched the Web for information on Martinique and found something you might have written about Robert Segelbaum and the shell museum. My wife and I rented a car and drove to Diamont … We found the hotel and made the sharp turn down the driveway. I thought of your friend, and imagined how it would be to live at such an enchanting small hotel. On the Internet, I stumbled into things about Robert Segelbaum -- legal briefs - donations - acknowledgments of his pioneering efforts on the ARPAnet. …We found a foosball table (little French sailors) and played a game in his honor. I thought you might like to know.”

It was as if Segelbaum had given me a parting keepsake. Struck down by an aneurism, he died in September in his wife's arms, aged about 60. In all likelihood, I was the last American to see him alive.

"One day I just disappeared." Maybe this is what happens when you expatriate to Martinique, to virtual reality, or as Segelbaum did, to both. (The quote is from Two Gray Rooms by Joni Mitchell, his muse. In one of his chat transcripts he even links Mitchell’s live recording Miles of Aisles to “the magic of network connection,” or IM.)

From what I can tell surfing the net, it's been a great while since someone posted a rant about Airhitch. Most people seem to have forgotten it and Robert Segelbaum. Travelers continue to shop the web for bargain airfares without a clue that the Pricelines and Cheaptickets owe their ideation to him. But perhaps it doesn't matter. In Martinique, he was mourned by family, students and a prodigious number of friends.

Posted by Patricia Borns, Globe correspondent

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1 comments so far...
  1. In 1992 I went to work for Robert Segelbaum at the Youth Hostel on 103 st and amsterdam ave, Robert was a tyrant, and a marvel at the same time. I learned a lot and began a journey there that is still unfolding, in between I started my own 'hitch' style company that soon became more successful and to roberts great dismay 'commercial' however at airtech we wanted to preserve the legacy of the last minute standby travel without the cult of personality that went along with it. I could write a book about this and may just do so. By this company that we started accomplished a few things over its 17 year history including being the producer of the high times cannabis cup in holland for 6 years, but that my friends is another story for another day.

    Posted by mike February 7, 10 12:59 AM
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