The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Saturday, April 09, 2005

DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO SAN JOSE...NO, I DON'T: I don’t like giving directions, especially to people who don’t live here in our happy little burg. It’s not that I harbor some deep xenophobic animosity towards the hordes of visitors who come here in search of knickknacks and gewgaws; I’m sure that all of them are very nice people and I am for any activity that stimulates the local economy: there is no more loyal native son than myself. It’s just that the people I give directions to have a distressing tendency of following my directions to the letter and then turning up at the border with Connecticut some fifty miles away with no clear idea of how they got there. I don’t know how they manage to do this; the directions I give work for me and I rarely, if ever, wind up in Connecticut, so it seems something must be lost in the translation.

I’ve always had a problem with directions; in fact, this problem runs in my family. The first of my ancestors to leave Ireland for America didn’t quite make it; he paid for passage to Boston but wound up in Liverpool instead, where he lived for the next fifty years, married and raised a family, and wondered aloud on more than one occasion why there was never any news about how the Red Sox were doing this season in the newspapers. The family had no clue what he was talking about, and began to think him quite mad when he objected vehemently to receiving red socks for Christmas.

After the old man’s death, his eldest son decided to fulfill his father’s dearest wish and emigrate to America. He set off one fine day with a high heart and a silly looking hat his mother had given him for his birthday with five pounds stitched into the lining. The journey of a thousand miles, the Chinese proverb says, begins with the first step, and the journey of a thousand steps led the son from his home to the Admiral Benbow pub, where the son drank away his ticket money and took part in a profound theological debate with some Presbyterian worthies from Belfast about whether or not the Pope was a greater or lesser servant of the Anti-Christ, said disagreement spilling out into the street and eventually, after the smoke cleared away and the damage assessed, to ten year’s transportation to Australia. On the bright side, the son did get to keep the silly hat with the money in the lining, which stayed with him all his life and now comprises the Australian branch of the family’s most valuable heirloom. At least, this is what they say about the hat; I don’t like badmouthing relatives this way, but I think they all keep an eye on that hat because they don’t trust each other not to rip the thing apart for the money. Family history is a wonderful thing, you know, but money is money.

No, it was not until my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island that the family finally realized its dream of emigrating to America, realizing that dream at the precise time we’d given up on ever getting here and had bought tickets to Canada instead; they’d gotten lost on the dock, but we were finally here, at long last, and in New York as well, not Boston, an accident that’s saved us from a lot of athletic heartburn over the years.

In any case, I seem to share this directional blank spot with my ancestors. In my graduate school days, when I studied library science with the high hope of being of service to my community and earning a pittance, a course of study my mother definitely discouraged; she wanted me to be a loan shark. The money is good, she said, and you can work off your hostility whenever you pleased. I demurred, allowing that such a career choice had some definite benefits, but that it wasn’t really me. In addition, I didn’t like the retirement package; I dislike orange jump suits and the free steel bracelets are so last year. My mother disliked my final choice, but she was ultimately supportive of me, even if I was an imp of Satan sent to torture her in her declining years and we all wound up out on the street eating supper out of garbage pails. Mom has a taste for hyperbole, but you’ve already figured that out, haven’t you?

So one fine spring evening I returned from Albany, the dysfunctional capital of the most dysfunctional state in the Union, where I attended the classes necessary for me to go shush to schoolchildren for the rest of my working life, driving home on the New York State Thruway with my radio set to the college’s classical music station, and them in the midst of a Going for Baroque marathon. I drove south with my windows wide open to let in the warm spring air and to let out the sounds of Bach and Handel, Pachebel and Boccherini, and all the other masters of seventeenth century elevator music for the amusement and edification of the deer trying to get from one side of the highway to the other. (So why does the deer cross the highway? Well, it’s not to get to the other side, I can tell you; as far as I can tell dashing across highways in the middle of the night with tractor trailers bearing down on them is the deer version of extreme sports, like roller skating down the side of Mt. Everest or swimming in shark-infested waters wearing links of raw sausage draped around your neck.) I got off the Thruway at the designated exit and there changed the channel, the music of the baroque period giving way to the static of the twentieth century, and went on my merry way to the strains of the Platters singing ‘Smoke gets in your eyes.’ I made the left turn at the bottom of the off ramp and headed off in the direction of the cesspit of urban squalor that lies directly across the river from our happy little burg, there to get on the bridge and cross over.

I suppose it should have occurred to me that, barring accidents, landslides, or Confederate counterattacks, going from the Thruway exit to the bridge on-ramp does not take the better part of an hour; this is, at best, a distance of some two of three miles, but the music was wonderful and the night was warm and the sky a dark velvety purple, with the constellations of spring slowly becoming visible, and it was a good day, all told, and I felt pretty good about myself and all the world that day, and so I didn’t really pay attention to the signs as they whizzed past me until I got to that really big one that says, Welcome to Pennsylvania. That one’s a little hard to miss, accompanied as it is by a squadron of Pennsylvania State Police cars laying in wait for the hapless New Yorker violating the Buckeye State’s traffic laws. Pennsylvania’s not that bad, all told; it looks an awful lot like New York and the natives seem friendly enough, but I wasn’t really planning on going there. And I was late for dinner, too.

I haven’t been back to Pennsylvania since then. These days I restrict my driving to a series of roads that I’ve more or less (more rather than less, actually) memorized, along with the associated landmarks. I never travel beyond these landmarks, and I often think there really isn’t anything out there beyond them, in the same way that ancient mariners, with and without the gooney bird necklace, believed that sailing beyond the edge of the map meant one might soon sail off the edge of the world and fall into the pit of hell or the life insurance business or some other unspeakable travail. All of which renders me unfit for this whole business of giving directions to the unsure and transient, I think, but you never know; some people may actually like Connecticut--there's no accounting for tastes, after all.


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