Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Day 18: On the Road Again

August 1: New York to Roadside America to Shenandoah National Park

Soundtrack: Bartok, Sonata for Solo Violin ,WKCR; Gary Barsky, 91 AM (KZZO)

After dumping the last of my change into the meter next to the Rodeo Bar, I pulled into traffic ahead of the parking police, headed for the Holland Tunnel (with its No Bottled Gas prohibition that kept Steinbeck’s camper out). It was 93 degrees at 10:30 in the morning as I drove past a big red building with horns, around the Fashion Institute of Technology, and by the Handsome Dog Cafe, where the girl on the banner seemed to be sweltering already with the heat. The Bartok sonata on the radio was sad, the Statue of Liberty appeared briefly in the haze to the west and there were no more twin towers at the end of Manhattan.
This time I was careful and breezed through New Jersey into Pennsylvania, occasionally pulling off the road for gas and restrooms and enjoying the suburban ambiance along the turnpike. At Round Valley I found a filling station and a rustic detour around a meandering creek, past well-maintained stone cottages, and a burgeoning development of luxury farm-style houses set among rolling hills and bare graded lots. More Bartok, this time works for piano segued into a rant from a guy named Gary Brisky out of New Jersey who declared “Jerry Springer is worse than pornography” and carried on about Christie Brinkley’s problems with men. I usually don’t listen to talk radio, but he was a lively talker and kept it up until KZZO took over with classic rock. The gossip item reminded me that our friend Scott Harris once saw Christie Brinkley backstage at a Billy Joel concert and not, knowing who she was, said, “Now there’s a pretty girl!”
With no sign of the belching factories that Billy Joel sang about in Allentown, I stayed on U.S. 22 west until it merged with the 78. In Pennsylvania, there is an amazing attraction called Roadside America that recreates a miniature chunk of local countryside with attached souvenir shops and restrooms. The two Lauras and I had stopped there on the way to Fallingwater a few years before and it was charming. During an hour spent reading all the tiny signs and the history of its creation by two brothers over the course of 30 years, the lights dim and the stars come out. The Fallingwater Kaufmans are immortalized with a model department store, their house hovers over a real working waterfall, and the church in town plays Onward Christian Soldiers. Canned patriotic music comes on and the windows in all the little buildings and trains glow and I just sat and cried, the way you do when someone is gone. Charlie never saw Roadside America, corny as it is, and never would.
In the souvenir shop I bought a shoo-fly pie and a bag of pecans and made a meal of nuts and diet soda that fueled me for another hundred miles or so. When I started nodding, I pulled into the parking lot of a library off the turnpike and took a nap in the shade of the building with the windows open. The long days of summer meant light until nine or so and Shenandoah National Park was just ahead off Interstate 81.
All the way, it was around 96º and hit 100º in Harrisburg; the spectre of global warming oppressed the air all across the country; but, as one church in Virginia said “You think it’s hot here...”
It was cooler in Shenadoah National Park, but not a lot: 88 at the entrance and 78 by the time I found a space in Matthew’s Arm Campground. I confess to stopping for fast food at a Taco bell in Front Royal, a trim little National Park gateway town, but it was more for the restroom than the dining experience. My quest was not for cuisine, like a lot of road trippers, but to re-create the kind of trip I would have taken with my son. We would “get the good out” of the National Park pass, stop to hear a bird with a complicated song and look out over the Appalachians, have a smoke and a glass of wine at sunset. We would have put up the tent in Matthew’s Arm, sprayed down with Deepwoods Off and walked the nearest nature trail, maybe starting a fire for marshmallows in spite of the heat, but the most I could do on my own was settle into the bed in the HHR and read Grapes of Wrath by flashlight. It was too stifling to sleep with the windows closed, so I covered the car with a Mexican blanket and sprayed Off liberally, hoping it would repel bears, too.

Day 17: Loose Ends in Terrible Heat

July 31: Last day in New York City: JFK Airport to Huntington Hartford Museum to Auto Club to Macy’s to Monster House

Talk about white-knuckled driving! Laura Anne and I took off for JFK in the dark and the whole way seemed to be over high narrow ramps that hung in the air over nothing, with everyone passing us speeding. She got off to L.A. without a hitch and all the gritty way back oil tanks and factories reminded me of driving with Tony Soprano. I parked the car in the $12 a day lot and consulted the AAA guide for the nearest auto club office, which turned out to be off Columbus Circle.
Like Sister Laura, I was accustomed to walking the distances in Manhattan, so in spite of 100º heat I started uptown. Islands of coolness beckoned: the underground mall that made the transition to Park Avenue, the Disney store, where the hottest item was the talking, moving Jack Sparrow doll for $75, and a shop that sold archival photos of the Rat Pack and stars of stage, screen, and television.
The spookiest block was the sidewalk where Anne Baxter collapsed from a stroke in 1986, another coincidental location that I knew from the Elizabeth Arden Red Door nearby. In the cool spot on the sidewalk, I leaned against a nearby building and cried silently for her and Charlie and all the beloved gone too soon.
On Columbus Circle I tried to gain access to the former Huntington Hartford Museum, which had been given to Farleigh Dickinson University and later became a visitor center for the City of New York. From a haughty and handsome concierge in the Warner Building I learned of the remodeling of the Edward Durrell Stone building that Hartford, heir to the A&P fortune and editor of Show Magazine in the 60’s, had commissioned to house his idea of modern art. Two of his most memorable exhibits had been a Faberge egg show and a Salvador Dali retrospective. Now the building was fenced off and guarded and rimmed with garbage, including the contents of someone’s purse thrown up against the fence in the back.
My connection with Hartford was through his estate in Hollywood, now Runyon Canyon Park, once the proposed site of an ambitious Frank Lloyd Wright Country Club and Hotel Complex. The chamber of commerce, local homeowners, and the principal of Hollywood High had successfully stymied the construction of the futuristic “play resort” in 1947. Although a Lloyd Wright-designed museum was also canceled, a pool house and stone caretaker’s building had remained at the site, along with the ruins of other buildings dating back to 1929 and added to in the ‘50’s. After Hartford abandoned it for other investments, the estate had sat empty for thirty years, becoming a park in 1984. This urban wilderness was the history-haunted canyon where most of Charlie’s ashes had been scattered, illegally, in 2003, the place he had come to love most in the world.
Huntington Hartford had managed to dispose of most of an 80 million dollar fortune, funding an artists’ colony in Pacific Palisades, buying an island in the Bahamas, and pumping more of his millions into the gorgeous but short-lived Show, best know as the inspiration for Playboy. Hartford’s saga was sad, but he lived on, now in his 90’s, somewhere in upstate New York. His name remained on none of his projects; even the theater he had founded in L.A. had been renamed for Ricardo Montalban. The current museum renovation would obscure the gleaming marble facade of the triangular-shaped skyscraper and open it as a state of the art design facility overlooking Central Park.
Two blocks on, the AAA office was secreted on the second floor of an office building at 1881 Broadway and 62nd I waited in air-conditioned comfort for the opportunity to get free guides and maps for New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Middle Atlantic states, the Virginias, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, all on the Steinbeck itinerary. The whole package, in plastic carrying bags, weighed about ten pounds, a burden I looked forward to carrying 40 blocks back to macy’s. My one purchase the day before had turned out not to fit and I needed to exchange it.
Navigating the subway to 34th Street meant a few more minutes of air conditioning. I traded the blouse that didn’t fit for a skirt that did and luxuriated in the coolness for a couple of hours; the macy’s bill was due on the first of August, but I forgot. to bring it with me and it would become an impetus for a quest later.
Late in the afternoon, as the day cooled and a short shower refreshed the air, I schlepped the en pounds of AAA Travel Guides back to 27th Street and moved my car into a secure spot around the corner. In the morning I would get one of the Rodeo Bar spots to load in my luggage. The inconvenience inherent in moving the car about to avoid tickets was one explanation for New Yorkers’ not keeping cars. Most of the cars parked on Laura’s street had out-of-state plates.
Laura had a Pink Panther reception to go to after work, so I took one of the free movie passes I had brought from some promotion in L.A. and went around the corner to a multiplex. The animated feature Monster House was a movie that I would need to add to my repertoire in teaching elementary school, although I had been displaced in the last round and I had no idea what grade level I would be teaching in the fall. Knowing the latest kidflicks was indispensable to connecting with my students; the lessons implicit in Finding Nemo (survival skills), Cars (Route 66), and Spongebob Squarepants (marine biology) could always be applied to the material at hand. Monster House was a story of childhood bonding, with the Freudian overtones of the house as a manifestation of the female persona. It reminded me a little of a cartoon ‘Burbs, but the neighborhood freaks were not really evil, just misunderstood.
Sister Laura’s cinematic experience, outdoors on the roof of a building in the heat of sundown, had not been as pleasant. She returned ahead of schedule, wilted from the heat and thirsty. After a few drinks, we turned in early. Tomorrow would begin the return leg of my cross-country travels, a perilous task not often undertaken by a woman alone, at least in the literary annals of the American Roadtrip.