The weather deteriorated rapidly after leaving Chief Red Hawk in Southampton County, Virginia. Our next stop was Arlington where we were determined to visit a friend at the National Cemetery. Once more the GPS bitch tried to kill us. Sometimes I question whether she is malignant or simply blond, but the conundrum of DC area freeways was more than her geosynchronous brain could handle. In truth it wasn’t completely her fault that we crossed and re-crossed the same interchange twenty times. Road conditions were worsened by the snow, construction—ubiquitous construction, trucks and Democrats. Regarding construction, the whole national highway system is under repair which is a two edged sword. It certainly needs it after long dark decades of neglect that allowed our once superb roads to lapse to into a bone jarring disgrace of misspent public money. The downside of highway restoration is the superabundance of those “Fines Doubled” signs. The offensive things are everywhere. Construction was completed two years ago, or ten miles ago, but the signs are still there, or appropriation of funds is pending a vote in the next legislative session, but those cunning politicians know they can raise revenue by putting the signs out immediately. My objection is the concept that highway workers are somehow twice as precious as the rest of us. Of course the legislators are not the least concerned for the poor muddy schmucks idling behind the K-rails, they are only thinking of money. Some states are more creative than others. New Jersey doesn’t bother with the construction zone myth, they double fines if the speed limit is sixty-five. Other states double fines in “Safety Corridors.” What the hell is a Safety Corridor? Are they saying that on rest of the road it is okay to be unsafe? Texas probably has the most rational rules of the road. Whoever sets Florida’s speed limits is either bipolar or rolls dice to decide how fast people should drive on any given mile of highway. New Jersey and New York’s speed limits are totally insane and they are universally ignored, well, speed limits are universally ignored everywhere, aren’t they? As for our home state, California is just plain stupid.
Enough ranting about the foolishness of state and local government, let’s get back to the cemetery. Arlington, once you find it, is stunningly beautiful. The endless identical markers standing in ranks on the rolling hills of Robert E. Lee’s confiscated home strike the first time observer viscerally. The staff in the visitors’ center was extremely efficient at directing us to the grave we wanted to visit. Lou Mauro, air force colonel, veteran of WWII and Korea, professional football player and long time family friend, rests near the leading edge of the endlessly growing field of white stones. We were moved paying our respects, however hurriedly the weather forced us to do it. That same weather convinced us to skip visiting the Eternal Flame, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Marine Corps Memorial which, at the end of the day, was a wise decision because the ice storm worsened to the extent that the Outback Steakhouse adjacent to the Holiday Inn of Laurel, Maryland closed two hours early. We were some of the last to dine in relative comfort and plenty that evening. Everyone else in the elevator clutched pizza delivery flyers. Presumably pizza delivery boys are braver than the manager of the Outback Steakhouse.
We weren’t on Manhattan fifteen minutes before I hated it. The usurious tolls beginning in Maryland and culminating in a thirteen-dollar larceny at the Lincoln Tunnel should dissuade any reasonable person from proceeding, but we had prepaid reservations at a converted brownstone in the lower west side with a room rate close to twice what we paid for a really nice place on Key West. Before we could inspect our accommodations we had to unload three-hundred pounds of baggage without the boon of a loading zone. Double parking on Manhattan is as common as potholes but I wasn’t there two minutes with my flashers blinking and traffic passing freely before one of New York’s finest, finest pig maybe, stopped on my bumper, blocking the street, and honking until I felt obliged to flee. Barricaded avenues, prohibited left turns and exclusively one-way streets kept me circling for fifteen minutes until I found my way to where Sandy and the innkeeper crouched in the doorway. Of course there was no alternative to double parking, and in the absence of malicious cops, nobody gave it a second thought.
The room was surprisingly large and tolerably warm if somewhat shabby in its appointments. One could almost squeeze into the bathroom while shutting the door but there were no surfaces on which to set toiletries. The back of the toilet was cunningly sloped so that anything placed on it slid into the bowl. We were naive in thinking that an exorbitant price assured maid service. We did see her, however, when she brought an armload of towels that we didn’t need but refused to make the bed or rinse the glasses. A sign outside the window informed us that we were in Historic Chelsea. I believed it’s historic. The last time it was updated the Dutch owned it.
Fools that we are, we didn’t linger in the relative luxury of the room, we charged into the rain and gale walking thirty blocks to see the Christmas festivities at Rockefeller Center which would have been nice but for all those annoying people.
We had drinks and dinner in an iconic place called P.J. Clarke’s which was pleasant enough until you tried to move. Opening the door to the restroom required the displacement of at least a dozen people. Our effervescent waitress warned me to take note of the ancient urinals which were as tall as I was and must have contained four or five hundred pounds of porcelain apiece. I tried to photograph them surreptitiously using Sandy’s phone but it was too dark. The shepherd’s pie was average. Sandy’s burger with three types of chiles was better—she always makes better choices than I do.
In the morning we took the subway to visit the Ground Zero Memorial. One might expect it to be easy to find—one unfamiliar with the obfuscating nature of New York, that is. We slogged around in the freezing rain for an hour, following locals’ misdirection, until we stumbled onto a banner lashed to a construction fence that pointed to the entrance. One doesn’t simply walk to the brink of the abyss and pay his respects. No, one must enter labyrinthine queues depending on whether you are preauthorized or hoping the passes aren’t all gone. Early on a miserable day the passes were plentiful but leaving a donation and receiving a pass is not free passage to the site. There is airport style security to negotiate. The only outrage we didn’t suffer was removing our shoes. In my opinion, making visitors run that gauntlet to see the 9/11 memorial is tantamount conceding that the terrorists won.
The memorials themselves, one covering each of the footprints of the two towers, are eerily appropriate. Everyone having seen them on the news knows that they are rectangular chasms surrounded by a parapet with the names of the victims incised on the broad, black top. Curtains of water falling from all four sides are artfully contrived to minimize turbulence when it crashes to the floor of the fountain. Ultimately the water flowing into a seemingly bottomless pit at the center of the pool is darkly appropriate for what took place there.
More than 1.6 million residents share Manhattan with at least that many commuters and uncountable tourists, but there are only two public toilets—one in Grand Central Station and the other I’m generously conceding must exist somewhere. A pot of coffee followed by a couple hours in the cold rain is a recipe for urgency. We had hopes of a warm, comfortable lunch in some cozy tavern redolent with history, but my bladder droves us to Charley’s Pizza & Deli where one serves themselves and waits for access to the only functioning restroom. It was dingy, drafty and fell far short of our lunchtime expectations. Later we made our way to Wall Street to shoot the bull, but the famous Charging Bull of those heady days when the Dow closes above sixteen-thousand is not on Wall Street. It is at the foot of Beaver Street—yes, Beaver Street. Whose idea was that?
We sought refuge in Starbuck’s for a little warmth and access to another bathroom. Everyplace you enter to buy something legitimizing access to a toilet seems to have two restrooms but one is out of order so there is always a line. One quickly learns to join the queue before the matter becomes desperate. Being close to Battery Park, we decided to brave the tempest to get a look at the Statue of Liberty which was hazily discernable through the mist. Battery Park is a shambles of construction barricades and fences. We had to dodge puddles and muddy walkways to reach the ideally framed vantage point to view the statue where we found the ever-present cop idling in his car beneath a sign that said, “No pictures from this point.” It really said that! In a public park with a perfect view of one of the most photographed American treasures some miscreant tries to prevent people from taking pictures. Hurricane Sandy was having none of it. She got her pictures and the cop was too warm and lazy to stop her.
That night we had a pleasant evening with our friends, Sherban and Christina, California exiles counting the days until their repatriation to Claremont. Sherban supplied me with a prophylactic dose of gin and Christina showed us how to navigate the subway to a station a few blocks closer to our historic hotel. Nevertheless, we were still chilled to the marrow before we found our unmade bed. The problem, at least for a novice, is emerging from the underground without landmarks. No matter which direction you choose to proceed, inevitably within two blocks you know you are one-hundred and eighty degrees off course.
How anyone could claim to love New York is beyond me. This was my second visit and I had some slight hope that I would see it in a better light than on a miserable Christmas Eve in 1968. It was a vain hope. Aside from the wretched climate, the place suffers from excess and scarcity—too many buildings, too little space, way too many people completely self-absorbed. To move about Manhattan one must abandon every notion of courtesy, be immune to pushing, obstruction and reeking hoards of simply rude smokers crammed in doorways beneath signs prohibiting their vile habit. The squalor and inadequate sanitation must not bother you and you must be unconcerned that in all likelihood your car will not leave the island without being sideswiped on the too narrow streets. The whole place is crumbling and redevelopment aims at property value rather than restoration. The prices are exorbitant and value imaginary. Concentrating such an excess of people into such a confining space strips the humanity from the human. Rats go mad when forced to live in hyper populated pens, apparently so do New Yorkers.
On balance I will say in fairness, Sandy loves the place and can’t wait to return without me.