What I Miss Most: The Open Roads Past City Limits
Welcome to What I Miss Most, a recurring column in which writers wax poetic about the things from home that they found themselves yearning for upon moving to NYC (or the things from NYC they craved upon moving away from it). For an archive of previous What I Miss Most columns, click
It occurs to me, after eight solid years in New York, that its world-class transportation system has an infantilizing effect upon a would-be driver. I’ve never had to change a tire here. I don't often check myself from drinking to excess, as it’s rarely necessary to get behind the wheel at the end of the night.
The city streets, clogged with cars, are just narrow veins of anemic asphalt in the compact grid. Drivers are frustrated, hemmed in on all sides. No autonomy, no chance for speedy thrill.
NYC’s streets are nothing like the multi-lane roads of the outlands, despite being poured from identical stuff.
I came of age in New Jersey. Driving there, as often as not meant making your own way. That is to say, I got lost a lot. One of my greatest humiliations: a posse of friends and I had shown up to a cash-only bowling alley whose ATM was out of order. I decided to hit the nearest one, across the highway. I took off alone in my parents’ janky red Ford Windstar minivan, expecting an intuitive route to and from. Ten minutes later, I was swerving through traffic in a barren part of town I’d never seen, cursing myself steadily.
Real roads serve as their own reward.
Jersey has lots of these phantom zones, pockets of spooky infrastructure and commercial space allegedly for rent, all without evident human touch. In the smartphone age, it’s tough to recall the anxiety of turning awry in one of these dire purgatories, but it was acute, a pressure behind your eyes. There you were, deep in a preposterous tangle of jughandles, cloverleafs, and off-ramps, with only an underdeveloped sense of direction and the street lamps’ halogen glow to light the way. In this morass, anywhere is 45 minutes from wherever you happen to be. On roads like this, you are alone.
Which is exactly what I was. After recklessly chasing landmarks -- Have I passed that McDonald’s before? Wait, is that the same Honda dealership? -- changing lanes, and taking turns on brute whim, I fully abandoned hope. I’d be lost till the sun came up, I concluded grimly, and possibly the whole day after. The fuel gauge dipped with my spirits. Night seeped in through the windows. Despair reigned.
Just then, from the inky industrial murk, an unlikely sight swam into view: a clean, well-lighted drive-thru ATM -- my bank, no less! The parking lot of this corporate oasis was empty and entirely yellow, as if spotlighted by the moon itself.
I have no idea how much money I withdrew from this blessed machine; I was so high on relief I probably overdrafted my account. I also had no idea how to get back to the bowling alley, but was able to easily find my way once the panic subsided. I returned from the ordeal as a conquering hero, acting as if I had never doubted my own resolve or the Windstar’s notorious transmission. With cash in hand, we bowled into the night, triumphant.
The city streets can’t give me that. They can’t offer the meditative mind clearing of buying gas in an empty filling station, or the methodical comfort of jumping a dead battery on a grass patch safely beyond the shoulder.
I crave the thrill of knowing that I'm off the map.
There’s no isolation to be had driving in NYC, where the narrative is just a series of intrusions punctuated by strangers’ horns and regular stoplights. New York reaches concisely upward, not haphazardly outward; there’s simply no room to learn vast, sprawling life lessons while hunting bank branches on darkened, rain-slick highways.
Even New York’s best approximations of the suburbs’ grand canals are uncomplicated and bland. The West Side Highway is the picture of urban grace, and maybe the finest mark Robert Moses left on Manhattan, but all it does is ripple in tune with the shoreline. The Cross Bronx Expressway is a concrete monstrosity laid over the poor, choked with commuter traffic, trucks, and capitalist anxiety.
Roads like these don’t wander, and you don’t wander on them, either. You fight with bleak purpose for release from the jumbled boroughs, and only just barely break away. They’re an escape to somewhere else, these thoroughfares, a means to some end over the horizon.
I prefer roads, I realize now, that are their own reward, and that encourage foolhardy, impulsive navigation; roads that challenge you to stay alert and alive.
I miss the way shitty strip malls splash pale light onto sooty asphalt. I crave the thrill of knowing that I'm off the map, speeding at 60mph through a convoluted web of manifest destiny. I want a space of my own to think, undisturbed by the squawk of train announcements or the indecipherable smells of strangers. I want to wind up and around mountains and hear the radio station switch over when I come down the other side.
My last time driving was my first in Los Angeles, from the airport during Friday evening rush hour. I sort of loved it. Hertz had come close to selling me on the convertible upgrade (I’d planned a drive up the salted coast that weekend, and it was tempting), but in a final shudder of frugality, I envisioned myself with the top down, roasted red by the desert sun, and passed.
Drop-top or not, it didn’t matter. Bubbled in the sedan’s air conditioning, with garbage-pop throbbing from the stereo, I was isolated and happy. The wheels gripped the road perfectly. The pedal picked up each tiny flex of my foot. I only got cut off once, by a teal 1980s Toyota. Even that was rather charming.
I’m back in NYC now, writing this from one of the Financial District towers I dreamed about as a kid stuck in the suburbs.
Strolling near my office not long ago, a taxi rolled through a stop sign and nearly struck me. The cabbie leaned out of his window to spew his abuse at me, and my hand swung reflexively up to offer him the bird. What a pleasure! His vitriol doubled on the spot, but there was nothing he could do. Cars had piled up behind him, and I had vanished down a one-way alley in the other direction. That was that.
But if I’d been in my own car, and we’d been on a wide turnpike instead of a city street, we could have driven side-by-side for miles, trading obscenities upon an open road.
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