Thursday, December 21, 2006


Shifting lanes on the New Jersey Turnpike, I'm knocked out of gear by a 747 landing at Newark airport directly in front of me. The landscape blinks like a Pachinko machine as I maneuver the gearshift back into place, drafting off of an 18 wheeler. Manhattan is on the right, the Moulin Rouge of cities. On the left: oil refineries, closed factories, and then… swamp. The landscape darkens and I know that I'm just a bridge away from home.

My apartment gets direct sunlight for about 4 hours each day (it slips in between the cracks of skyscrapers, riding a serenade of the electric sanders of roofers. We have been growing a bulb in a glass bowl, a Christmas present that is blooming on cue, pink fading to white. I have put it in our sliver of light, and rotate the bowl every once in a while to make sure it grows straight, but in fact the effect is the opposite. The two stalks bend this way and that on their way up to the blooms. I feel like a snake charmer.

In the city, I have discovered a neighborhood bar that is not crowded where I can get beers for $3.00 (thus allowing me to go out for a drink without arranging financing beforehand). Unfortunately, the local video store closed. They delivered to my door: Altman, Melville, Marx, Allen, Polanski, Renoir, and Godard. Now it's gone. No wonder I'm drinking.

Overheard: "It's not like I want to sleep with you every night." "I don't need you to tell me you're despicable. I can see it through your ways and actions." "Four inch margins, you're such a fucking princess. Grow up."

I'm reading Shopgirl, by Steve Martin. It's engrossing, and I'm lost at a glove counter, and remember the particular bite of loneliness. My wife stirs me, makes me talk about Christmas shopping. I'm to buy mixing bowls today.

On the fucking turnpike again. Southbound, we are jammed into two lanes with no margins, no room in front or behind. Lewis Thomas says we are more like ants than artists, that all this crap about the individual pales before the regularities of our collective behavior. The New Jersey Turnpike is just one part of the colony, and I am a worker, returning with my crumb. I worry that my tires are bald and may be about to blow. I worry that the truck driver in front of me is on speed. I worry that the kids in the car on my right will start laughing too hard to concentrate. I worry that the moments, the pieces, the cars add up to something totally banal, as wasteful and useless as a bad dictator. But I am breathless in this motion, the acceleration and deceleration and danger.

It's just so hard to pay attention.


JohnMcG said...

Odd thing -- your description of the turnpike makes me homesick, as I grew up in South Jersey, but my parents grew up in New York City, so almost any visit of relatives involved a trek up the turnpike (and my widowed grandmother didn't drive, so this happened often).

Every Christmas Eve included a mid-afternoon trip up the turnpike to exit 14 to my aunt's house, where there was the Italian Christmas Eve feast (she married an Italian guy; as you might tell from my handle, I'm not Italian (:-) ) Then a late night drive back down the Turnpike to Exit 7 before Christmas. My parents were always sure to wish to unfortunate toll takers who had to work that night a Merry Christmas.

Now I'm in St. Louis, with no extended family within 200 miles, and I'll be coming up with new traditions for our girls.

switters said...

Have they all come to look for America?

Really enjoyed this, augie.

This is the time of year when I typically curl up in the fetal position with a bottle of Stolie and don't leave the house for 10 days.

Not this year, motherfuckers. I'm actually quite looking forward to Christmas Eve and an entire week off (and away from you people).

When I was 18 I moved to NYC. Christmas there really was something. I recall each and every one of the trees on the Columbia quad being decked out with simple white lights. Beautiful.

Best to you, pal.

P.S. Christmas really does suck. Or blow. Haven't figured out which yet. But I will.

Keifus said...

Liked the bit about the ants, the loneliness in a crowd, the unavoidable packaging of human experience. I'm really hearing that. I'm looking forward to blocking it out for a week (which is bizarre--coccooning myself in more deeply to get more free). I think I need a drink now too.

My reaction to the first sentence was the same as switters' however.

That stretch of the turnpike under the flight path is wild. I remember that from the times I passed through.


august said...

I think there's probably no getting around the Paul Simon reference. Nor the old New Jersey joke: "Which exit do you live at?" I also had in mind "Being John Malkovich." Hell, it's the turnpike. What are you gonna do?

Thanks, all.

TenaciousK said...

I love it. I don't really get it, but I love it.

Here - I often encounter vast stretches of roadway, where I'm winding down a lonely ribbon of two-lane highway, away from the city lights, under the forgotten multitude of stars. A couple of weeks ago, I was disoriented on a latticework of dirt roads near the Utah-Nevada border, GPS malfunctioning, trying to get my bearings from the shadowed impressions of the mountains and hills around me (If I'd chosen wrong, I could've driven hundreds of miles without seeing more direct evidence of humanity, that night).

Would that make me an emissary of the collective?

I remember driving in L.A. for the first time, taking my family to see the ocean and the Southern California theme parks, and feeling overwhelmed by the experience of that rapidly flowing, tightly organized stream. I feel like a foreign object there, waiting to be expelled by the bouncers of the collective's immune response.

I hope you have chances to see the stars, August, away from the polluting light in the night sky, and you get to drive down deserted roads, cut-off from the frenetic flow of humanity, and the continual sense of impinging presence. The vastness, and isolation, is a comfort.

twiffer said...

i'll be making that drive this weekend. sort of. since i'm headed to CT, i take the tappan zee and avoid NYC.

ah, jersey. how would we get to new york without it?

bite said...

August, that was a gorgeous piece of writing.

It felt like an early christmas present.

august said...

Bite -- thanks

twif -- indeed. The principle is the same

TK -- I spend much of my childhood in Southwestern Virginia, and believe in rural pleasures as well as urban. Although, I'm not sure that really being cut off from humanity is all that appealing (I can imagine the rescue operation being switched to a recovery operation).

I don't mean to be saying that we are merely ants. It's just that what we call freedom depends on our collective endeavors (gas in the truck, for example, and the marking of one's position as near a border, but far from humanity). Our lives have innumerable details that are worth recording. Recording them connects us.

topazz said...


I feel like I'm now intimately familiar with the NJ Turnpike, unfortunately. I picked up an old friend at the Newark Airport earlier this week, hopping back on the NJ turnpike and headed towards the Jersey Shore, Springsteen country.

Or at least, that was my intent.

So deep into conversation were we from the minute he got into the car that I just kept driving and never noticed I'd missed the exit for the Parkway - until all of a sudden it hit me I'd gone about 70 miles out of the way. $#%@&!!!

Seasons Greetings From Asbury Park!