Get some shots in the morning, in Chicago’s suburbs, but don’t venture for too long. It’s a six hours to Cleveland, wisping through Indiana and Ohio, which I’d seen on the way West…
I’m writing from Bar Louie in Cleveland, it’s Labor Day weekend. There’s an airplane show and several are on display by Lake Erie, making it difficult to find parking. Wished I could visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum but unfortunately didn’t get time.
Time… a scant resource these last 10 days – although in general too. Get some portraits of people and then back in the car. Slightly lost in the remains of the industrial era, although, as dusk’s dark blue hues paint the sky, the abandoned brick buildings and steel bridges and cranes seem to awaken, moved by an intangible spirit that lingers in the air.
A doe and her fawn strut across a few feet from me, amidst the silhouettes of industrial civilization. The feeling is hard to pinpoint, but I wish it to be hopeful.
As I enter Pennsylvania exhausted beyond recognition, I must put up with an unnerving ordeal, for which I’m to blame, though perhaps not for the extent of its unpleasantness. I’d been paying toll machines with my credit card throughout the day, and did so again leaving Ohio and entering PA.
Another set of toll booths came straight up… I stop the car. It’s Labor Day, past 10pm, and the lady in the booth doesn’t look like she’s happy to be there. I hand her my card.
“I don’t have enough cash.” I answer wearily. The toll is $4. I have $2 and change.
“I don’t have checks.” I do, but they’re way back in the trunk. “Is there an ATM here?”
I ask innocently:
“Is there any way to turn back?”
“Yes, if you’d like to, the last person who did that got torn to pieces by oncoming traffic.”
Wow, that was unpleasant and unexpected.
But the grumpy old hag leaves me no time to ponder the first assault, escalating it on her own:
“Look, if you don’t want to pay, you can discuss it with the state trooper.”
Since it looks likes she might actually enjoy – make that hate less – this prospect, I quickly comply.
“OK, OK, I have some checks, it’s just that they’re way in the back.”
I crawl to the trunk and start digging in the darkness through, well, my house. At last I unearth the checkbook. By now there are a few cars patiently waiting. The other booths are available. It’s not busy a night, people are already celebrating Labor Day.
Hand her one of the checks. Of the cars waiting, myself and her, she seems the most disgruntled by the wait.
“These checks are no good.”
“What? You asked me for a check.”
Something wrong about the check.
“You’ll have to send your payment by mail, hand me your license.”
Give her the license.
“Do you know if I can pay online?”
“I don’t know, you can pay by mail.”
I’m talking to a wall. She’s digging through the paperwork.
Grieve silently, powerless and resentful. It’s strange, after having travelled for so long, after having met dozens of people and more than once obtained their precious help when it was needed to surmount obstacles, I had almost come to expect people to be generally kind and helpful. It sounds naïve, but as I sat and watched the witch laboriously complete the paperwork, I was taken aback by this known sensation of piteous apathy, which I had seemingly escaped from for a time being. Couldn’t shake the perhaps founded feeling that I was back ‘East’.
There’s something wrong with the paperwork, it’s taking way too long.
I finally get out of the car, which I had been hesitant to do as long as there was an easy solution to this problem. There are now three cars waiting behind me.
The driver in the nearest one is a swarthy man, accompanied by his wife, perhaps kids in the back. Maybe they took a day trip to see family in Cleveland, or go to the airshow, or maybe another reason altogether.
He rolls down the window, obviously he’s realized there’s some kind of problem.
“I’m really sorry to do this, but I’ve been using my credit card and they only take cash here and I’m a bit short. Could I borrow two bucks?”
He accepts rather indifferently, places more value on ending the ordeal, and fishes for some change.
I thank him and return to the toll booth, slightly eager to shove the cash in the witch’s face (well not literally, through the double-glazed security glass).
When she sees I have the money, she loses it:
“What? You actually went over to that car and asked for money? And why did you do it now, now I’ve done all this paperwork for nothing – she wasn’t actually done with it, notwithstanding the fact that it was her job and about six minutes had elapsed since I had arrived at the toll booth – you made me do all this paperwork for nothing and now I have to throw it all away, such a waste of time for me and everybody – it seemed the everybody was thrown in for emphasis on the ‘me’ – and I can’t believe you went up to a stranger and asked for money, you just don’t do that.”
“Look, you have the fee, can you let me through.”
She opens the gate, silently cursing.
I remain there, with evil eyes.
She reluctantly hands me my driver’s license back. I drive off angrily after this calorific welcome to Pennsylvania. (Bear witness, if ever the evil woman actually filed the paperwork, I did pay that toll.)
Drive into Pittsburgh, still bitter. The city seems pretty, bridges hither and fro. People are out on the streets, celebrating. Gnaw on a chicken gyros, across the river from the baseball stadium. There’s a private party in a nearby bar. Walk in, shorts and grime. The party’s ending, people take little note. I crash in the car, for the last time, for the last time during this trip.
One more day before I arrive. I’m happy, a bit sad, and very sticky. Tomorrow I will be back. Tomorrow I will divulge the name of my car, my likably untrustworthy companion, which I have kept to myself so far, though not typically prone to superstition.
Wake up and tour Pittsburgh’s downtown area briskly, stop by the Heinz ketchup buildings on my way out of the city. Forget the pieces of torn plastic casing on the sidewalk – I had been uselessly lugging them in the car ever since my tire tore them apart in Wyoming. It’s a rainy day, I follow an alternate route to the freeway, through hilly Pennsylvania. Farm houses, fields, this is one of the last small roads I’ll be driving upon.
Stop by at a gas station. There are two men dressed in biker wear. They’re driving a car however. I ask them if they’re willing to talk for an interview.
I look at him credulously.
“I’m kidding, but we don’t want our faces out there.”
The miles pass. Rest the car on the shoulder of the freeway at some point, as it overheats going up a hill. Trucks and trailers thunder past. Pull over at a rest stop, shoot a short video assessment. It’s 7 pm when I at last reach New Jersey and am within shouting distance of New York. I call my friends up at the hotel, victoriously, to announce that I should be joining them soon.
Despite the exhaustion, venture into the woody groves of Morristown County, in search of a friend’s house, where I’ve stored a row of seats during the five months of the trip. I get lost in the unfamiliar woods, as dusk turns to night and all country roads become the same.
I’m very nearly a zombie when I finally pull in behind the house, creep through the backyard into the shed, pull out the eighty-pound row of seats and bring it back to the car in the darkness, tipping it over a fence.
A few more miles, or so I think. But I am not yet at the end of my ordeal. As I near the George Washington Bridge and merge onto the express lane, or above road, a huge traffic jam appears from nowhere.
Most likely an accident near or by the bridge. The car is strained, already exhausted by the long drive. I’m hoping the traffic will let before the engine overheats. The situation is furthermore frustrating because the adjacent “non-express” lane gleams emptily at our right. No doubt I am not the only one to be frustrated by that sight.
Soon have to rest the car on the shoulder, amidst the fumes of bumper to bumper traffic, and pop the hood. The cars go by, eyeing the distraction with curious indifference. Nobody stops. Then again, I am not trying to attract undue attention, would rather not be pulled over by a cop.
After about fifteen minutes, hoping some respite in traffic, I merge back into the slow, winding, line of cars. I have no way of knowing how long it will last and fear the worst of tragic irony: breaking down just across the Hudson, a few feet away from New York, after more than 13,000 miles.
Suddenly something happens up ahead. One, then two, then a few cars dash out to the right. There’s an opening, no doubt a passageway for emergency and tow vehicles, from the “Express” lane which is jam-packed to the “non-express” lane which is still emptily fluid. I gun it, relieved.
As I get to the toll booths before the bridge, the situation ahead becomes ominous. I refuse to run the risk of blowing up my engine by being stuck on a bridge where I can’t pull to the side. Not this close. It’s past 10:30pm, doesn’t make much of a difference at this point. Stop the car, yet again, in an area reserved for the GWB maintenance crew, hoping nobody’s going to give me trouble.
As it turns out, this leads to one of the most interesting encounters of the trip, which was saved for last, and due to the series of inconveniences that had occurred till now; fate has its own mischievous ways. I meet Richard, who supervises GWB emergency crews. We have a long talk.
Around 12:30am, I cross the now navigable GWB. I’m back. I feel great. Victorious, in a way. I am so tired.
End up driving over to a friend’s in Queens. It’s 2am when I finally park – but not before having blown into a fury after a ‘serial honker’ kept pestering me while looking for a spot.
I walk on the New York sidewalk. The summer air wraps around me warmly.
So, there it is, this part of the road is over. Or almost. There are still things to be said. A wedding to attend. A Big Apple to take a bite of. Stay tuned.
But for now I need some sleep. And I may now name my companion, friend and caretaker;
this is to Fanta.