I left Atlantic City by the back way, stopping at a Wawa where a polite young man with a tall fade pumped my gas. I had gotten out of the car thinking I would handle that but remembered midway through the car-exiting that in NJ you can’t pump your own gas. Pretty gracefully by my standards I switched up like I meant to clean off my windshield, not pump gas. And anyway I did need to deal with the uneven smear of ex-bugs on my automobile glass. I gave the tall faded gas teen $3 on top of the credit card charge. I don’t know how gas tipping works but 20 percent on a $40 fill-up seemed excessive. He seemed pretty OK with $3.
The Garden State Parkway is mostly your basic road. Like the whole of New Jersey it is slightly smaller than the big-boned Midwestern infrastructure of my childhood, the asphalt spiderwebbed with age cracks and everyone acting 5 percent more like an asshole than necessary. This includes the state turnpike authority, which has erected toll booths every few miles to harvest quarters from you. Maybe five times that Sunday morning I threw change into the battered plastic mouths that took them away to the state coffers.
I thought about ditching the Parkway to drive the Jersey Shore. I mostly wanted to run my eyes over Asbury Park for Bruce Springsteen-related emotional valences. I decided against this, feeling for the first time on this trip the presence of Fuckitiwanttofinish, which is a kind of corrosive, surly desire to complete the present action as fast as possible, to file the conversation, to fill the bucket, which strips away most all possibility of enjoying the process. I blamed creeping cellular-level awareness of being in the greater Northeastern United States Babylon. Looking back I can probably blame myself more than Babylon.
At the actual entry point into New York City, in my case the Outerbridge Crossing, I had to pay $14 to enter the city and immediately felt a nostalgia for the $1.50 tolls of the Garden State Parkway. My immediate surroundings did not change much for the loss of $14; Staten Island looks a lot like New Jersey. I had a lot of time to make this comparison because of traffic. Eventually I was on and over the Verrazano and into Bay Ridge, a neighborhood I still have a crush on despite some fairly profound flaws. I drove past diners I have eaten at and Arab pastry shops and the movie theater that has $5 matinees (I saw Gravity there in the middle of a pretty heinous depressive episode in 2013). I crawled in traffic related to some kind of Scandinavian-American public demonstration of pride, and Brooklyn squirmed in the sunlight around me.
I lived in Sunset Park from September 2009 to May 2014. I stayed there for two days and change on this return trip. I stayed in the same apartment I used to live in, and I had keys and only saw my hosts when they were home from work. So I felt like nothing had changed. Not that much had changed outside of the location of my personal array of clothing and books and brain activity. The Chinese fruit cart ladies were still there. The graffiti on the side of Payless Shoes was still there. My old bodega reorganized where the drinks are (closer to the door).
I have to remind myself that I like New York, and that I liked living here for the better part of six years, although both things are true. It is a wonderful city with a depth of culture that does not exist anywhere else in America. It has totally functional mass transit and museums and movies and loved people and food. When I got sober in the fall of 2007, in Chicago, a counselor-type guy at the rehab place told me not to make any major life decisions for six months or preferably nine months or a year, to let my brain just kind of get used to its sober self, like how the acoustics in a room change when you move around the furniture, or stop drinking in the room all the time. I took that advice very literally. As soon as my six months were up, I got a tattoo and made plans to move to New York, mostly because it was the only place in the world other than Chicago where I had enough friends to not be lonely. Over time I developed a second version of the narrative that elided over the sobriety thing, because that tended to be too heavy for casual conversations. So I just said I moved to New York for a job, even though that made me sound like my early 2008 shit was way more together than it actually was. That is part of life. You lie about how together your shit is. Sometimes your shit is pretty together, which is both its own reward and its own punishment. Anyway by the end, New York — not so much what it was but what it stood for, office jobs and growing loneliness and high rents — stressed me out, even though I never stopped liking the overall experience. I used the silhouette of what NY stood for as a target in the shooting gallery of my mind, and shot them up pretty good. I am very excited about going to school for writing in August, but I guess the smell of my time in NYC, good and bad and unclear, still kind of wafts down my brain corridors, drowning out Cleveland and other things/places.
I rode around on the N train and reacquainted myself with vistas and actual non-figurative smells. I saw friends and ate meals and got impatient to leave. Halfway through my stay in New York I decided I would drive to Maine before turning back home, because I had never been to Maine before. At express stops people looked into the train, trying to figure out whether it was the one they wanted. I watched the disposable grace of a person giving their seat to a pregnant woman, which felt like a tiny blessing on everyone’s day even when the pregnant person in question politely declined. On platforms I watched for the secondhand glow of the train’s lights on the rails.
In Manhattan, some of the men held their dates by the arm like cops hold prisoners in transit. People also held luggage, or held children like luggage. Almost everyone held small internet devices. Birds held crumbs. Cars held people. I wasn’t holding anything so I just kind of wiggled my fingers to stay ready for my object, whatever it was.
I went to Book Culture and bought Preparations for the Next Life by Atticus Lish, which I read and enjoyed a lot. It was an appropriate read for days mostly spent scuttling cautiously around the margins of New York. I reflected that I spend a lot of time looking out for the messages in the margins of life which has the unintended consequence of maybe overlooking or mishandling a fair number of the messages written in the middle of the page of life
I took a walk up the edge of Central Park to the Met. I thought that a hot dog/pretzel knish guy was yelling at me to buy one of his hot dogs but he was just yelling into his bluetooth phone thing, in a language I did not understand.
I made weirdly specific plans about doing laundry at a Motel 6 somewhere in New Hampshire, going so far as to use the internet on my phone to see which Motel 6es in New Hampshire had laundry for guests to use. I even bought a small jug of laundry soap at the Pioneer on 5th Ave, next door to what used to be a pizza place called Grandma’s and is now a Puerto Rican chicken and fried things place that has a blank spot in its sign where the word GRANDMA’S used to be. The former Grandma’s also has a endearingly amateur painting of a New York Mets pitcher on the back wall that appears to be a combination of Mets-era Pedro Martinez and current Bartolo Colon, in terms of physiognomy and skin color.
I drove up 3rd Avenue, past the porn shops and halal butchers, under the shadow of the rust-and-green BQE. I took the Battery Tunnel and drove under the harbor to the southern tip of Manhattan. I missed my lane change for the FDR and wandered through the 17th century lanes of the financial district before finding the on-ramp hidden next to the Brooklyn Bridge. I inched around Corlear’s Hook in traffic. I made it to the Bronx and said some kind of lay vehicular prayer for no last-second eruptions of NYC traffic. I felt like the tiny men inside my molecules lowered the PTB personal defcon as we crossed into Yonkers.
I drove on a road named after a river named after Anne Hutchison. Not far into Connecticut I had to pee, so I got off at a sign that said GREENWICH NEXT RIGHT. What this really should have said was “five miles of windy roads lined with the entrance gates to mansions NEXT RIGHT.” Everything was fine eventually. I got to downtown Greenwich, moving opposite a steady line of luxury vehicles headed out toward the highway. I peed in a Cosi without even pretending like I was going to become a customer. No one there cared what I did. I went to a Stop N Shop and bought a box of granola bars and a gallon jug of water. I wound up eating granola bars for dinner that night.
I didn’t stop again until I peed in Marlborough, Massachusetts, at a Dunkin’ Donuts on the rim of a small lake hugged tight by roads. I am always surprised by how mountainous and nice Massachusetts can be when it feels like it.
NEW HAMPSHIRE I
I resumed driving until I saw signs for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I wandered on the edge of the downtown, trying to see Maine across the small harbor. I saw something purplish-black that seemed to be Maine, and went to a Motel 6. I did laundry and read a book.
In the morning a weird guy at the motel asked me if I smoked cigarettes. He had pink skin and bad tattoos, but was handsome and seemed to be in pretty good health. He chased me into the parking lot and knocked on my car window to ask about cigarettes. Normally this would have freaked me out a little but it was a sunny, breezy morning and he seemed harmless. I said no sorry I don’t smoke and without missing a beat he said “Good, good, it’s a bad habit.” He immediately ran off to find another person. As I drove away he was in the middle of receiving a cigarette from a middle-aged woman in sunglasses. She dangled the cigarette toward him like giving a friend’s dog a treat. The pink guy looked back at me as I drove away and I waved in recognition of his happiness. He seemed proud but not vengeful.
I drove across a tiny steel bridge dedicated to World War I veterans, past frantic flags and skinny white ladies power-walking, into Maine.
I drove for a while on the Maine Turnpike, and didn’t stop until Portland. The first thing that happened in my experience of Portland, Maine, after parking my car, was seeing a large, thoughtful Malamute peeing on a bush. The next thing that happened was checking out the bookstores freckling the central area of Portland. At Yes Books, I bought a used copy of Trilogy by H.D., mostly because it was the same price as the other H.D. book they had but longer and I figured I was getting a better deal: more 20th century modernist poetry for the same amount of contemporary dollars. I also bought Pilgrims in Their Own Land by Martin Marty, which I have subsequently read most of. I keep falling asleep during the portions where Protestant argue about the shape of heaven but overall it is good hsitory. I also agonized over purchasing a copy of Terrible Honesty by Ann Douglas but I resented variously spending $12, carrying around a ginormous hardcover book, and tacitly endorsing a book that celebrates New York City’s status as the cultural center of American life. All of this was pretty dumb and I’m probably going to get the book from the library anyway. Mildly stressed out by these bargainings with myself, I made a note that there was a chill-looking diner on a side street and made plans to return there for food and mise en scene.
I went to two more bookstores. I bought a Delmore Schwartz book because I remembered he was the inspiration for a memorable character in Humboldt’s Gift (not Humboldt though) and because I wanted to spend $5 at the Green Hand. I have been wondering whether Saul Bellow sucks recently. I stand by The Adventures of Augie March and Seize the Day but some of it might be terrible. I stuck my head and part of my upper body into a cryptozoology museum but it looked like a tourist trap.
I went back to the diner I had spotted earlier but foolishly I had forgotten to check what time the diner closed. It closed at 2 pm and it was 1:29. Eating at a restaurant when the people who work there want to initiate the closing sequence makes me feel bad, and generally devalues the money you spend to get to chill in a place while they feed you. Against my better judgment I ate there anyway. The people were nice but you could tell they resented my timing a little. I sat at the counter next to a guy nervously reading a book. The waitress was a 40ish pretty woman with dyed-red hair and a huge, slightly tacky chest piece tattoo, like a cool tough mom who has lived some rock n roll moments in her earlier times. I definitely projected some of my desire for companionship onto her but not in a public way. I didn’t hit on her or really even say anything other than “yes” to her question about coffee.
I ordered the chicken parm omelet directly from the grill dude, who was like two feet away from me. I chose that because they were out of the coconut French toast. The chicken parm omelet was not very good, although the ingredients were fine. Just not a good combination of foods. I ate quickly and they asked if I wanted a coffee to go even though I didn’t really want it. I took the coffee and left it in my car for six hours and then disposed of it in a drain in the motel parking lot, where the nice people from the diner couldn’t see me throwing away the coffee I should not have accepted in the first place.
Not longer after the diner that I noticed a noise that I now can identify as valve clatter and a related, intermittent flashing of the low oil pressure light on the Accord and I got stressed about that and forgot my regrets re diner experience and the waitress and Saul Bellow and whatever else. I drove to a motel like I was trying not to wake someone up. I checked in and read the car manual and googled the symptoms on my phone. I didn’t like the potential consequences/seriousness of my car’s complaint, but I decided to assume that an oil change and a new filter would fix everything. My hope-assumptions worked out although I no longer totally trust the car, like a dog that bit you once.
I went to a Portland Sea Dogs game for $9. It was pretty fun although I felt a little weird being there by myself. The mascot joked around with me, in that pantomime mascot way, stealing my cellphone for a minute. I didn’t mind but I wasn’t sure how to act. I think I just sort of said “Haha Slugger took my phone” to the woman across the aisle. Then I made a comment about how it didn’t make sense that the mascot had two legs if it was supposed to be a sea lion. The woman across the aisle nodded, but not in a way that meant she agreed.
The next morning I felt like it was time to go home, even though I didn’t really want to go home. I got coffee at a convenience mart and sat in the Jiffy Lube for two hours while they eventually got around to my car. From there, starting at like 10:30 am on Thursday, I drove 750 miles back home.
I did not take a direct route. I went back down to Portsmouth on 95. Two things that I remember happened in those 40 miles. First I saw a huge dog in the far back of a Toyota 4Runner in the middle lane. It was a huge dog, possibly another Malamute. The dog was doing that dog thing where you get stuck turning in circles just before plopping down, except he was zooming through existence at 70 mph and all his fur was whipping around. I drove three car lengths behind the Toyota for what must have been ten miles just to watch this dog. He (or maybe she) turned and turned. Sometimes he would stop and stick his head out the back and stare down at the asphalt ripping past under the tires. I wonder what the dog thought about highways and velocity and his/her temporary condition. Then the dog would resume turning in a circle in the back seat, a little epicycle within the Toyota’s orbit of the earth. I was a little sad when the dog and his vehicle peeled off onto an exit ramp.
The second thing I remember about the southbound Maine turnpike was pulling up behind a seafoam Ford Taurus (the old kind, from the 1990s) that had handicapped plates with the vanity designation I R I E. It seemed like a good omen, enough of one to guarantee good vibes for the rest of the day.
NEW HAMPSHIRE 2
At the suggestion of a friend I drove the entire coast of New Hampshire, all fifteen miles of it, from Portsmouth to Hampton Beach. It was beautiful. The tourist season hadn’t started for real, and it was cold, so there was no one around but a few contractors repairing things on motels and cottages, plus a few tough senior citizens walking in a stiff ocean breeze. I felt like I was walking in a school building on a weekend, like the sun was hanging in the sky differently and I was lucky to see it.
There was no more coast and I turned the wrong direction, northwest toward Vermont. Somewhere between Manchester and Concord I pulled off into a rest stop that was also a some kind of discount wine retailer. The rest stop was a mock village inside a larger generic building. I paid $12 for a coffee and a small container of chicken salad and a peanut butter square. The world outside the car steadily got more and more beautiful/empty. This trend continued and steepened through all of Vermont.
I didn’t do much in Vermont other than look and breathe and operate a car but I still profoundly enjoyed the state. I stopped to look into Quechee Gorge. I bought an energy drink even though I had had two coffees. I thought idly about the consequences of just abandoning everything in my life and creating a new existence in some tiny mountain town in Vermont. The last time my brain flashed this kind of rare error message I was in Telluride, Colorado in June 2004 in sunlight and air so pure they seemed to reverse time.
In Rutland, Vermont, the graves seemed to wander around town instead of confining themselves to cemeteries. Clouds were smeared across the sky like ruined messages. There was a sign on a small bridge that said SCARIFIED PAVEMENT.
NEW YORK 2
The chicken salad wasn’t cutting it, and it was already like 5 pm, so I stopped at the first fast food place I saw after the state line. It was a McDonald’s in Whitehall, NY, the alleged birthplace of the U.S. Navy, according to a sign/the internet/general lore. In the McDonald’s at the birthplace of the U.S. Navy, one of the employees jokingly told another one “You can suck a toe on that one” but it was pretty clear that by toe she meant something worse than a toe. I scribbled down directions in my notebook to some motels, entertaining an idea that I might head for Pittsburgh instead of home.
I refused to get back on anything resembling a highway and this definitely cost me like an hour. I saw what Saratoga Springs is like. At Amsterdam I finally got on the New York Thruway. There are a bunch of little cities along the Mohawk that stagger down handsomely into the river valley. They seem shitty but earnest and chill about it. I drove for an hour and a half and stopped for coffee again somewhere in the infinity of central New York state. I got a little discouraged when I saw how far away Buffalo was but somewhere inside I said fuck it I am getting where I am going today, wherever that is.
I stopped two hours later for more coffee, and I feel like maybe there was a third stop ninety minutes after that.
The last thing that happened in New York, on account of all the coffee and energy drinks and gulps of water from my gallon jug from Greenwich CT, was that I pulled over just after paying the final toll on the Thruway before hitting the chimney of Pennsylvania. I passed some dozing semis and got out. It was really windy, but clear. In the distance there was a store that sold porn to truckers, and underneath a big sign saying ADULT STORE, spotlights embraced the sky. I was right under the Big Dipper/The Plough and I felt like the stars were looking back, restless like the dog in the Toyota from Maine.
I don’t think I’ve ever stopped in the chimney of Pennsylvania in the 10 times I’ve driven/been driven across it. The road was so dark and I was locked in. I barely noticed that Pennsylvania was there.
You sort of forget, living in Cleveland where the north is fenced off by the lake, that there’s this pretty large swath of Ohio curling up toward Canada for 60 miles before the eastern edge of the state. Last summer I actually attended a reenactment of the D-Day invasion in Conneaut, the last town before the PA border. But this night I just drove. The encounter with the Big Dipper was the last thing my brain felt compelled to record. I kept waiting to get too tired to drive, but I never did, even after I stopped.