Thursday, December 15, 2016

A New York driveby

New Jersey Darla helped me tape a sheet of lined paper to my motorcycle’s gas tank. On it were instructions on how to navigate through lower Manhattan – Holland Tunnel, right on Varick, right on West Broadway, left on Duane Street, “and if ya get lost, just give us a call.”

“I really think George Washington Bridge is a better choice for him,” her husband Gregg said.

“No, Holland Tunnel is the best.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“There’s more to see.”

“More traffic.”

“Yeah, if he goes right now, but if he waits a bit…”


“He’ll be fine.”

Monte, their orange and white cat, looked on clueless.

“Well then,” I said, “I guess I’ll take the tunnel?”

I waved goodbye to New Jersey Darla and Gregg and headed toward The Big Apple. I wasn’t really scared, but I had this strange inkling that my 19,000-mile motorcycle ride across America was about to end in some dark Gotham alley, me mugged and beaten. Just another Texan sprawled on the pavement covered with leather and oil for tourists to wonder, “Do you think he’s hurt, George?”

“Nah, this is New York. That’s how they live.”

I didn’t have much cash on me to begin with, but what I did have I gave to the attendant at the Holland Tunnel. She didn’t say much, but I knew in another place and time she’d probably ask, “Mister, you gonna ride that little thing through town? All by your lonesome?”

Yes ma’am.

“Well good luck, but I’ll warn ya – don’t stop at the Drop Dead Pigeon Saloon and engage Boss T in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. He don’t like strangers just passing through his town.”

Thank ya ma’am.

And with that, I lowered my visor and rode into the hole under the Hudson River. Now, this wasn’t your everyday hole. There were no paneled walls or tiled floors, or polished chairs, or pegs for coats and hats.  This was a highway hole, with silver walls and evenly-spaced lighting. The hole smelled of cheap diesel and stagnant water. On and on it went, 90 feet below the river, and I prayed I’d come out the other side at the very most a little bit wiser, and at the very least, alive and well.

The light at the end of the tunnel turned into an overcast sky which turned into New York City which turned into Frank Sinatra singing, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” and I looked down at New Jersey Darla’s instructions and almost missed my first turn.

And then I saw trees.

I had imagined I’d see a lot of things in New York City, but trees weren’t one of them. And if they had trees, I reckoned they had to have squirrels as well. Of course city squirrels wouldn’t be like their poor country cousins. City squirrels would lounge around all day, eating bagels and pizza crumbs, dodging taxis and buses and not worrying a smidge about becoming stew.

I took a right on Varick and immediately thought, “NYC just doesn’t seem as big as it looks on TV.” It’s possible that maybe I was in an older neighborhood, the buildings a bit stooped over with age; geriatric buildings biding their time walking their old dogs in the shady park, waiting for family to visit, or the undertaker.

The City, or at least the portion I was in, was also quieter than I’d expected, like it hadn’t gotten out of bed yet to have its first cup of coffee. I didn’t hear any horn honking or police sirens or tires squealing or pedestrians banging their fists on cars or gun fights during broad daylight – all the typical sounds I’d imagined would be a part of my New York experience.

I glanced over at the sidewalk on the corner of West Broadway and Duane Street and saw two men in conversation.

“Seems a bit quiet out this morning,” said Joey the dishwasher. He dropped his cigarette and crushed it under his toe. He was talking to Harry, a fellow dishwasher.

“Too quiet,” said Harry.

“Boss T seems to be in a mood this morning, which doesn’t bode well for someone.”

“I’m just glad it’s not me,” said Harry. “I saw the undertaker this morning working on a new box.”

Joey lit up a cigarette.

“His Sally sure is a looker,” said Harry. “What, she must be 30 years younger than him?”

“At least,” said Joey. “Rich men have all the perks.”

The light turned green and I turned left at the intersection. I doubted very seriously the two men at the corner were named Harry and Joey, but they were smoking and talking about something, and rich men do seem to have all the perks.

Me? I was far from rich. All I had was a 10-year old motorcycle, a few bags stuffed with stuff, and New Jersey Darla’s cheat sheet for getting through New York.

I stopped at the traffic light at the intersection of Duane and Church, and checked to make sure I was going the correct way. I noticed a city bus was on Church, waiting to cross the street in front of me. When his light turned green, he went into the intersection, but stopped in the middle of it – right in my lane of traffic. When my light turned green, and he was still there blocking my way, I heard the first strains of New York – a veritable honking riot that sounded like a Yankee cry of, “Get your stupid ass out of this is not your goddamn driveway you fucking piece of shit like this everyday and I’m stinking tired of your attitude that you think you fucking own nothing around here, dickhead. Do you want to be another notch on Boss T’s belt? Now move your ass.”

Ah. Music to my ears.

Duane took me to Broadway where the neon lights were turned off for the moment, it being daylight and all, and then led me toward the Canyon of Heroes.

“The Canyon is where important people go, ” Duane whispered in my ear, “but you’ll turn off at Chambers before you get there.”

But can’t I have a look? Just to see?

“No. You ain’t all that important.”

New York has a way of doing that to you; making you feel small, irrelevant, a drifter just making his way through town. No, these lights aren’t for you, these wares aren’t for you, don’t even gander at our women, just keep on moving, stranger. We’ve seen the likes of you before, and you don’t belong.

It’s possible that feeling of unworthiness is just that – a feeling; a reflection of one’s own lack of self esteem when confronted with greatness. And it’s also possible the reality is more attuned with, “Yes, we don’t care a shit about you, but next time, if you stick around for awhile, maybe we’ll put you up for the night and order some pizza.”

But I wasn’t going to overstay my welcome to find out. So I took a left on Chambers and immediately got stuck behind a taxi parked in the lane. A lady was opening the back door, giving instructions to the driver.

“I’ve had enough of this town, Roscoe,” she said. “Boss T only thinks he owns me, but I’ll show him.”

“Hate to see you leave, Sally,” Roscoe the cabbie said, “but I’ll take you anywhere you wanna go. So, where to?”

“Over the bridge to Brooklyn,” said Sally. “I’ll make my way to Port Jefferson, take the ferry to Bridgeport, then head north. I just wanna go home.”

The taxi turned right on Center, and I followed along.

The Brooklyn Bridge was finished in 1883. It spans the East River and is more than 1,500 feet long. The bridge has starred in movies such as “Independence Day,” “Godzilla,” “The Avengers,” and “CSI: NY.” On September 11, 2001, after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the subway service was suspended and New Yorkers used the bridge to leave the island.

I didn’t know all this at the time. I was just happy to have made it to the Brooklyn Bridge without getting lost. And then, as I came into Brooklyn, I got lost.

That moment, when you know you need to turn left on HWY 278, but the flow takes you right toward the waterfall and you think to yourself, “I’ll just float along until I can catch hold of a tree hanging over the rapids, then everything will be fine and dandy, unless I die first” – that was the moment I was really trying to avoid.

But it all worked out in the end.

I took the first exit I came to, made a quick turnaround, headed back up the highway the correct way, and was treated to a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline – its buildings all lined up along the river like good townsfolk waving goodbye to Sally, and maybe even me, hoping one day we’d come back for a visit.

And maybe, when Boss T and his henchmen are all gone, maybe one day we shall.

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