Columns

2017.09.07 A brief visit to the Big City

By DAVID GREEN

I was just looking at my knuckles to see if the color had returned. You grip the steering wheel long enough and the knuckles lose their usual hue.

I've been driving the parkways and expressways of New York City—way too much, it seems. If I had logged the time spent behind the wheel of this trip, I would probably stop using the word "vacation."

Colleen, my wife, grew up in the Bronx and we were back for a visit to see where one of her sisters has moved and to see a brother who is in from Alaska. And a nephew, another brother and cousins and an aunt and two uncles.

When you think of driving in New York City, you might get the image of threading your way through the canyons of Manhattan with crowded streets packed with taxis. I wish. I could handle that. Instead it's expressway after expressway filled with drivers ignoring the speed limit.

Approaching New York from New Jersey means waiting in a long line of traffic as people pay their $15 entry fee at the George Washington Bridge. Of course it's worth the price to gain entrance into this most amazing city.

We had plans to meet Colleen's brother, Kevin, and his son, Matthew, at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. Colleen never went there as a kid. Kevin remembered a grade school visit a few decades ago.

When we got off the bridge, I looked for the exit to Route 9, also known as Broadway. I wouldn't have minded the slow trip north because I'm just there to look at everything and everybody. Of course I missed the exit, and it certainly wasn't the last time I would do that.

But I found a great substitute, the Henry Hudson Parkway that travels along the west side of Manhattan and the Bronx. What astounds me the most about New York City every time, over and over, is how it was developed with such beauty in mind.

In Michigan, our highway bridges are steel girders and concrete. In the city, bridges are constructed with big blocks of stone. Dozens and dozens of beautiful stone bridges, each with different characteristics. 

Our big city highways are surrounded by big city landscapes of buildings and parking areas and empty wasteland. In New York it looks as though you're driving through a woods. When a road is called a parkway, there's a reason for it. There are exceptions, but it's so amazing how this big city has so many trees and so many parks. The city planners never said, "I think we have enough parks."

Eventually you have to leave the parkway and enter the city streets with impatient drivers who learned well how to honk their horns, where there's always an opportunity to get stuck in the wrong lane.

We entered the Gardens at a different point than Kevin and Matt and went off in search of the Fountain of Life where they were waiting. I spotted Kevin engaged in conversation with an older woman. Colleen joked about how we should go up and give the woman a hug as though we were coming to see her. So I did. I walked up to her with my arms open and she responded, giving me a kiss on the cheek as they do in NYC. 

She asked, "You remember me?"

I admitted that I never met her before. She turned out to be a real gem. She was a volunteer at the Gardens and had been telling   Kevin about the reason we were there: The Chihuly exhibit. We once encountered a Chihuly glass show by chance at a garden in Miami. It was impressive and we were ready for more.

That wasn't the end of the fun. We left the Gardens and drove a few blocks to the old Leddy neighborhood. Apartment buildings everywhere, including the building where they grew up: five floors up, no elevator.

It was determined that we probably shouldn't get out of the car, but there was no place to park anyway.

All good things had to come to an end. I had to drive the expressways to reach the home of Colleen's sister, Linda. You start off on the Bronx River Parkway, then you switch to the Cross Bronx Expressway, then comes Interstate 678 and over the Whitestone Bridge. 

It turns into the Van Wyck Expressway. We cross bridge after bridge. That's another surprising thing about NYC. People think about big buildings; there's also water everywhere. Next comes a stretch on the Belt Parkway, a little drive on Flatbush Avenue past Floyd Bennett Field, then over the water to Beach Channel Drive to Rockaway Beach Drive and 118th Street. That was a 31 mile drive. This is such an incredibly big city. Visiting Linda opened up yet another part of the city we had never before visited, and only two blocks from the wide open Atlantic.

The next day brought an even longer drive to visit a cousin in Yonkers. This visit was made notable by the tiny bathroom with entirely mirrored walls. You walk in and see three toilets, but only one of them is real. This visit also marked my failure to button Uncle Tommy's pants that kept slipping down.

Finally, on Sunday, I was behind the wheel for a 20-mile drive to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a stroll through Central Park. We had another good encounter at the Met. When Colleen's nephew Matt gave a "What's that all about?" sort of response to some contemporary art, a man standing next to him said, "That's just what you're supposed to ask" and then discussed the painting with Matt for a while.

It was a rare departure from Morenci and a really great break from the usual. I seldom thought about the paper, but now, as I write this while heading west on I-80 through Pennsylvania, I wonder what will happen in the next couple of days. At least my knuckles will be rested after the leisurely trip home.