Cross Bronx Expressway
"This doesn’t look like Aroostook County to me.”
I had plans for the Thursday after Memorial Day; I was going to be in northern Aroostook, visiting a couple of small schools. The Sunday before that trip I began to get telephone calls from relatives—“Thelma is ‘real bad.'” My aunt was not young, I knew she was very ill, I knew she was dealing with some serious doctoring, but the sound of the voices on the other end of the telephone told my gut a few things that my brain didn’t immediately register. Go. Go to the mainland, and do it soon. Pack up your duffel bag and get moving.
Go, but first check the weather. When you live on an island, even the sad bits have to work around the weather.
I paced around my kitchen for a few minutes, thinking out loud and hoping for some signal from the wider universe that would indicate what I ought to do. I had been away from home so much recently…doing research for a writing project, visiting a sick kid who goes to school out of state, attending to other commitments, going to the dump…my friends were starting to tease me about “not really living here.” Should I leave on short notice again? After all, I’d only been home a few days. Aren’t I supposed to be on the island as a rule? It was raining a little, but the ceiling (the height of the cloud layer, determining whether or not it is legal to fly passengers) was still reasonably high. I called the air service. “Yes, we’re flying.”
That was my signal.
People come here to visit and say “Oh, if I lived on an island, I’d never leave.” Baloney. If your teenager gets kidney stones in New Hampshire, you leave. If your chosen occupation means you have to drive to Greenville and see the moose, you leave. If your aunt who sewed clothes for you when you were a child is dying in Maryland, you leave.
With a call to Sally at Penobscot Island Air, my husband’s blessing and a couple of sandwiches for the road, I left. According to Mapquest, it would be 600 miles. I’m not much for praising the electronics, but I’ll tip my hat to Mapquest this time…or Google Earth, whichever it was. I packed a tire pressure gauge, to keep an eye on that slow leak…no time to get the tire changed like I’d planned to later in the week. I packed some decent dress-code sort of clothes, in hopes that I’d get back in time to still visit the schools (I didn’t, but they were just what I needed for the funeral). I packed things I didn’t use at all (like books to read) and failed to bring things I later wished I’d had along (pictures of my kids, to show to relatives whom I rarely see).
At the Kennebunk truck stop I bought a new road atlas. Mapquest directions are all well and good, but I want to see the whole map. Maps are good.
Three hours into the drive, I stopped at Exeter, NH to buy gas. I didn’t call my daughter, who was right there in town. I just rode around and got on the wrong road and wasted time. Realizing that I was just being more or less chickenhearted, I told myself to snap out of it, went back to the Interstate and started for Massachusetts. When I got to Rocky Hill, CT at 9:30 that night and checked into a motel (not wishing to arrive in Maryland at 2:00 a.m.) I found out that I had unwittingly made the right move. Central Connecticut had been hit with violent thunderstorms with big hail and trees down, at just about the time I would have got there, had I not dawdled for a while up the line.
Driving through the middle of New England is a walk in the park. The familiar part was behind me. Things were about to get serious.
I was about to hit New York City.
Actually, I was only about to tangentially strike New York City. The map indicated that I was to cut across a little bit of the Bronx, on a major highway, cross the George Washington Bridge, and get onto the New Jersey Turnpike, and that all of this was basically still my old familiar Interstate 95.
I’d heard about the Jersey Turnpike. There are songs about the Jersey Turnpike. O, as the kids say, MG.
Allow me to report that things aren’t nearly as bad as the folklore would have us believe. The air no longer seems to be entirely green. I didn’t see anybody unloading bodies out of the trunks of large American-made sedans. I saw no scantily-clad women smoking cigarettes on the side of the Interstate (where does this stuff come from? Like they think we all wear a golden hoop earring and an eye patch on Matinicus?) I followed my computer-generated on-paper directions (I have no dashboard GPS nor do I wish for such an assistant, tyrannical as I understand they can be,) and aside from a few odd Mapquest instructions (does it really matter whether one traverses New Jersey with the cars or with the trucks, which are sorted onto separate, side-by-side highways?) I found it perfectly manageable.
Then again, it was Memorial Day morning.
New Jersey actually offers the anxious north country motorist frequent highway service stops, with Starbucks’ and the best price for gas I saw anywhere (way cheaper than New Hampshire, and full service, on the turnpike yet!) Jersey led to Delaware, and then to Maryland, and thankfully scary old Bal’mer has a beltway around it, a perfectly navigable 695 which would lead me to the local road I needed (“Do not go into downtown Baltimore!” I was warned, I suspect by people who don’t have any reason to go there anyway.)
I don’t know what’s the deal with Baltimore, but I will tell you, I was raised and well trained to hate New Jersey, fear New Jersey, at all costs avoid New Jersey. Did you read what I said? Clean roadside rest stops with mocha frappachino and cheap gas. Full service. Wash your windshield. On the turnpike. No kidding. So much for stereotypes.
Three days later, the day I’d planned to be well above Caribou, peacefully ensconced in a multi-aged elementary classroom, I was driving the same route back. I had made it in time to see my aunt the afternoon before she died. I’d begged a postponement by e-mail of the Aroostook teachers, and tried to make myself useful collecting relatives at various train stations and from the Baltimore airport (that side of my family is scattered all over the country). I attended my aunt’s funeral, explained where I lived as best I could to several wide-eyed second cousins, delivered folks back to their trains, returned to jeans and a T-shirt, put some more air in the slack tire, and headed north. That time it was not, of course, Memorial Day, and I hit the Bronx during the rush hour. I had been surprised on the southbound trip that the George Washington Bridge seemed to be free. It is not free. They get you for eight bucks going the other way (tolls round trip, should you care, were $55.00. That is not a typo, fellow Mainers.) I had another surprise coming to me on the northbound leg.
I wasn’t scared.
I mean I was not feeling entirely inadequate to the task of driving on the Cross Bronx Expressway with tractor trailers six inches from me and no elbow room whatsoever and the Bronx at its Bronxiest in every direction.
If you know what I mean.
My knuckles weren’t white. It was very odd, this feeling of not being especially anxious. Lest you wonder why this is in any way remarkable, know that I have very little occasion to drive in big cities. I remember feeling a sort of a rush, realizing “I can do this.” I remember thinking, not only can I do this in a stupid red minivan, I could do this in a truck. Those guys are threading the needle, believe me, there is not one iota of spare room. I remember thinking, I can drive onto a ferry, this isn’t all that hard. I remember thinking, I live with the pirates, or so they all say, this isn’t all that scary. I remember thinking, New Jersey wasn’t as bad as they always said, I ain’t scared of no silly ol’ Bronx…
I also remember being enormously grateful that I don’t have to do this every day, and that I wasn’t lost on some random Bronx street, and that my tire wasn’t going flat. Let’s not get cocky. Next time I get a little nervous about something, though, perhaps I’ll just remind myself that I can do the Cross Bronx Expressway.
Go ahead, laugh.
Eva Murray would still much rather drive north than south. She lives on Matinicus Island, where it is rarely necessary to even get above second gear.