Road snapshot: Sputtering and spluttering all the way to New York


Bill Fredericks poses with the unidentified object that flattened our tire.

Hero of the day Bill Fredericks poses with the unidentified object that flattened our tire.

Sept. 10, Burlington, Vermont – Time to back up a little and start clearing out the journal backlog.
Accompanied by Max, I began this journey Monday, Aug. 25. Max had been angling for the Statue of Liberty for months, and I figured it was a pretty good excuse to steal him away for a week.
In the manner I should have been accustomed to, our takeoff from Berwyn was a spectacular dud. With Max fired up and riding shotgun, I started up the Behemoth and backed out of the driveway at Chez 531 around 11:30 a.m.
Less than a half mile later, as we turned onto Lancaster Avenue, an ominous thwap-thwap-thap sounded clattered up from somewhere down low. It was the unmistakable, heartbreaking sound of a flat
 tire.  Right off the bat. What are the odds?
Perhaps I’m not as good at rolling with the punches and finding joy in the absurdity as I once was. I pulled into the parking lot nearby the CVS pharmacy. I gave Fix a Flat a try, but that didn’t work. I gathered up Max and my laptop and stalked off in the direction we’d just come from, my psyche shrouded by a black and terrible nimbus.
As Max chattered about the iPad and “My Little Pony” my head was jammed with ugliness. I wanted to scream. I wanted to tell him to shut up.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Perhaps it would be more productive to direct my ire inward. After all, Max, who only just turned 7, can not be responsible for us embarking on a trip to New York City without so much as a spare tire or a jack. No, someone else is culpable.
We lost the spare last year somewhere between Golden, Colo., and Babb, Mont. At least I noted its absence in Babb, which lies on the periphery of Glacier National Park. Get a new one? Now why would I do that? That’s what we pay AAA for.
We made the brief, gloomy walk back to Chez 531, where I stewed and simmered for a few more minutes before making the obligatory call for help. This was, I believe, the fourth such rescue call I’ve made in this interminable odyssey, which began with successive blowouts in Oregon and then Arizona. Then of course there was the night we left Gig Harbor and broke down on the west side of the Tacoma Narrows. Or did we run out of gas? Shhhh.
After locating my membership, the friendly American Automobile Association associate promised a tow truck would appear on the scene in 45 minutes or sooner. With no spare, I planned to get towed to give me a ride to the local AAA repair shop. I hustled back to the forlorn Behemoth and waited. And waited.
Nearly two hours later, Bill from K & S Towing pulled into the parking lot.
I handed him odd piece of metal I’d pulled out of the right-front tire.
“What the fuck is that?” he said.
A right good question, I thought. The good news is he figured he could plug it right then and there, a $15 service. He did so. I gratefully handed him a 20 and told him to keep the change. I should seek reimbursement from AAA, as they got off easy.
At 2:30 p.m., three hours after our original departure, Max and I took off one more time. What ensued was a clusterfuck of remarkable proportions. Poor kid. For the next six hours, I made one wrong turn followed by another. After another. My wayward navigation was unerring.
I didn’t realize until the ridiculous saga had ended that I’d been bamboozled by a subtle change at Google Maps. Instead of laying out your itinerary right down to the last detail, as I’d come to expect, the program now summarizes only the main points of the journey.
You must click the down arrow of each segment to reveal the fine details. How the hell was I supposed to know this? I started off the cavalcade of stupidity by blowing right past our exit off the New Jersey Turnpike. By the time I knew for sure I’d screwed up, we were almost to the George Washington Bridge. I’d even stopped and checked the map at the Joyce Kilmer Rest Area while Max enjoyed a kid’s hot chocolate courtesy of the International House of Bitterness.
More surprises were imminent, and I did not handle any of them well. I handed the tollbooth operative a $10 and waited for her to return $1.50. My bill, she said, was $16.50. But it says $8.50, I protested. She told me, because the Behemoth is outfitted with dual wheels on its rear axle, it falls into a higher toll bracket. This is the first time in 40-plus states and three years that we have been given this kind of special treatment.
Now desperate to stay off the turnpike, I blundered south on Routes 1 and 9 through Jersey City. We stopped at Dunkin Donuts to reassess the situation.
Across the street loomed the White Mana Diner, which debuted at the 1939 World Fair. Then it was part of the future. Now it is mostly part of the past. You can, if you’re so inclined, still get a burger here for $1.12. A cheeseburger costs a dime more. I talked to a friendly employee named Edna. She told me that Mario Costa, the owner, was out of the country. He had worked here as a high school student and later bought the diner.
I scribbled a note for Mr. Costa, then Max and I crossed Tonnele Avenue and returned to the camper.

Max rolls with a day full of punches and poses across the street from the White Mana Diner in Jersey City.

Max rolls with a day full of punches and poses across the street from the White Mana Diner in Jersey City.

Energized by this minor encounter and revived by a new set of directions, we set sail for Staten Island one more time. We rode high above Jersey City on the Pulaski Skyway. Every last hackneyed description of north Jersey can be summed up in this 3.5-mile wonder. Below us unfolded a scorched-earth panorama filled with the rusting, rotting, putrefying detritus of the 20th century. The stench wafting upward from the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers caused Max to hold his nose.
All in all, it was a remarkable scene.
We’d only just had time to admire it before I realized we were lost yet again. I tried to adjust our course using the spotty Internet connection in the Walmart parking lot in Linden, N.J. As we turned right onto Routes 1 and 9 north, Max asked if we were, at long last, headed in the right direction. How the hell was I to know?
I asked if he would believe me if I said yes. I surely wouldn’t.
Somehow we got straightened out, eventually. It took us a tense six hours to make what Google said would be a trip of 1 hour and 40 minutes. That’s if you don’t count the flat-tire comedy.
We traversed the Goethals Bridge and landed in Staten Island. This time I came prepared. Or so I thought. We had stopped at a Shop Rite in Linden. I bought a bag of pasta and got $20 back. I cringed as the tollbooth capo craned his neck to get a look at the Behemoth’s rear axle. He informed me the bill for entering New York City was $34. Even with the $20 I’d just gotten, I didn’t have enough. He said not to worry. They’d send me the bill.
But hey, at least we were in New York! Soon we were on Bay Street, hard by the St. George Ferry. We parked there, where the parking is free after 7 p.m. Right next door, the Staten Island Yankees, aka Baby Bombers, were playing the Brooklyn Cyclones in the short-season New York-Penn League.
I dragged Max toward the ferry terminal kicking and screaming. We’d comfortably make the 10:30 ferry to Manhattan. Seems I misread the schedule and thought ferry service stopped around midnight, when it rolls on 24 hours a day. He was worried, and who can blame him, that we’d get stuck on the other side and spend the night in Battery Park.
My eyes zeroed in on a Staten Island Ferry associate who bore a passing resemblance to Wendell Pierce of “The Wire” and “Treme” semi-fame. He smiled and assured Max (and me) the ferry service would continue through the night.
And it’s all free. Max was satisfied. We were all set to embark on our inaugural journey on the Staten Island Ferry.
Things were looking up, though Max wasn’t quite comfortable. He is an inveterate worrier. I guess having a father like me will do that do a boy. 
 What was he worried about now? He feared a calamity would sink the MV John F. Kennedy to the bottom of New York Harbor.
I chuckled. Yes, I allowed, ferries occasionally sink, but such a disaster is extremely unusual. In any case, I said, I didn’t recall any disaster befalling the Staten Island Ferry.
Jesus, what an ignoramus.
The history of the Staten Island Ferry is littered with accidents. In 1871, the boiler of the Westfield explode while the ferry sat in its slip. Upwards of 100 people died in the accident. Thirty years later, the Northfield sank after being struck by another ferry, leaving five passengers missing and presumably drowned. Then in 2003, only 11 years ago, a captain drugged with painkillers steered the Andrew J. Barberi into a concrete pier at full speed, killing 11 passengers and injuring 165.
The moral of this story, I guess, that sometimes it’s good to have an ignorant father. Max’s worried quelled, we were bound for Manhattan.
After a day full of disappointment and father-son angst dissolved into the heady night air.  Decaying marine life commingled with spent petroleum to produce a wondrously aromatic cocktail. I thought of Joseph Mitchell riding the ferry back from Staten Island after hunting wildflowers and exploring Sandy Ground with Mr. Hunter.
The Statue of Liberty glowed off the starboard bow. For a brief time Lady Freedom vied with the Manhattan skyline for top billing. Then we sailed beyond her reach. Now all eyes were on Manhattan. A hundred smart phones were borne aloft as travelers attempted to capture the arresting scene.
We docked in Manhattan and joined the crowd spilling into Battery Park. We took a couple turns around the immediate neighborhood before Max requested to return to the ferry. We did so, and soon were were back on the ground in Staten Island. We found the camper and drove for about a mile till I spied a vacant spot adjacent to an apartment building. It looked nearly ideal.
We settled into our clandestine camping spot and went to sleep for the night.

Yes, that ghostly figure glowing in the distance is none other than the Statue of Liberty.

Yes, that ghostly figure glowing in the distance is none other than the Statue of Liberty.


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