Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Midwestern confusion on the George Washington Bridge

Early Tuesday morning I took my weekly Jersey cab home from work. The last few years I've become a regular rider to the regular late-night drivers. I've become friends with a couple of them, our relationships limited to the 15- to 20-minute rides, though the conversations veer off in a thousand different directions. There's been a lot of Brett Favre talk with the most devoted Favre fan outside of Deanna and there's been talk of adult-oriented parties with another regular driver.

The last two weeks I've had a new guy, who mostly keeps to himself, except when he's mildly chastising another driver. Last night we got stuck behind a car meandering onto the George Washington Bridge. The female driver - transporting three passengers - kept switching lanes before approaching the toll. She apparently couldn't decide whether she was supposed to go to the E-Z Pass or the cash-only booth. My driver finally honked his horn. The woman frantically looked around for the perpetrator, while continuing to seek the proper lane. Eventually she eased into the cash lane and they were on their way. That doesn't mean they found the right destination on the other side of the G.W.

Despite my eagerness to get home, I couldn't get angry with the other car's driver, no matter how much she irritated my own driver, a man I was relying on to maintain an even emotional keel. Eight years ago - actually, eight years and a month ago - I was in a similar situation as the lady with Ohio plates: helplessly trying to figure out the George Washington Bridge.

I first moved to New York City in February 2002, though my initial stay only lasted about two weeks longer than an Olympic Games. My oldest friends Matt and Brandon came with me, all of us crammed into my Cavalier with the boxes I took from Minnesota to New York. There was an overnight stay in Cleveland that ended with me suffering from alcohol-induced sickness. For the first few miles out of Cleveland, I sat in the car with a bag hanging on the door handle, an in-vehicle vomit bag Matt and Brandon devised. But from Cleveland we drove straight through to the big city.

I was at the wheel as we approached New York and my new home. It sounds sort of symbolic but was simply a matter of our driving rotation. We saw the skyline without having any real idea about our location. For years, every road trip we took followed the motto "we'll eventually get to the right place." As mantras go, it was idiotic. We hadn't consulted any kind of city map as our journey neared its destination, so the giant bridge looming ahead could have been the Brooklyn Bridge for all we knew, although the dozens of signs eventually gave away the answer.

Upper level or lower? Huh? Different signs screamed orders, directing drivers to get in a far right lane or this lane only if paying cash.

At one point I cut across about four lanes of traffic in a slow-speed version of a move usually seen on videos with words like "World's Wildest Police Chases" in the title. People honked and raised their fingers in salute to my Midwestern driving skills. Someone watching from above would have thought the blue 1998 Cavalier knew where it wanted to get, otherwise why make such a dangerous maneuver? But I didn't; I simply felt like it's always better to be on the right-hand side. It was late on a Sunday night but the bridge was still packed, or at least it seemed like it to a trio of small-town rubes.

We paid the toll and drove across the bridge. Matt and Brandon admired the view while I wondered aloud if anyone had any idea about what to do next. The views were so good no one really had an answer, so I just kept in the same lane, going the same speed.

I don't know when we first realized we weren't in Manhattan. Probably when we could see the world's most recognizable skyline and realized a body of water still separated us from it. We drove around for an hour, then 90 minutes. We went the wrong way down one-way streets and the right way down bad streets. To this day, even after six years of residency in the city, I couldn't tell anyone exactly where we were or recreate the trip, which surely had us hitting every borough with the exception of Staten Island. Somehow we ended up entering Manhattan from the east side, in midtown. And we didn't realize that until the overwhelming lights enveloped the car. Even three lost out-of-towners understood that this was Times Square. We spent the next 10 minutes debating how we'd arrived at the exact spot we'd wanted to get to all along, albeit nearly two hours later.

After a few trips up and down Times Square - where we encountered more horns and upraised fingers - we drove past a hole-in-the-wall Holiday Inn in midtown. I pulled into a parking garage, which would eventually cost about 500 dollars for the time my car spent there. The Holiday Inn had an opening. When we walked into our room, the door knocked against the bed. It was the smallest hotel room I'd ever seen. It looked like something Mr. Bean would use in a sketch. All that space for only $200 a night. We didn't know if that was a bargain or a rip-off, though we had our suspicions.

My life in New York had started, although it was only the first chapter and would only last a month.

Today I take the George Washington Bridge in the morning and the evening and I recognize every sign and every exit. It's practically as familiar to me as old Highway 14 in southern Minnesota. Eight years ago the G.W. was a bridge to nowhere, but we eventually found our destination. And, for the first time, I found the city I'd one day call home.

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