Road Worthy: Reflections While Passing Through

It’s 8:30 in the morning. I’m sitting in McDonald’s on route 87 in Sloatsburg, NY.  When I was a child, whenever we passed here on the Thruway, my father would say that everyone in Sloatsburg had an extra digit on each hand. What I didn’t know then was that having an extra finger was code for inbred. His humor regarding country people was that of a guy who grew up in the city even though at the time we lived not far from here.  There’s a TV on in the lobby talking about Sloatsburg’s part in the American Revolution.  Stuff must have happened here but all I can think about is my own personal history. It also occurs to me that I’m not really in Sloatsburg.  There is no place on the Thruway that is anywhere other than the Thruway where everyone and everything is in transit, in between one place and another. Today I order an egg, cheese, and sausage on a biscuit, counting the digits on the woman typing it into the computer and coming out to a disappointing five on each hand. She probably doesn’t really come from Sloatsburg, I think to myself, keeping the myth alive. That breakfast sandwich is the only two thumbs up I’d ever concede to this national chain and it’s not because its freshness is a result of fast turnover, because nobody passing through here has time for anything but a pee and a coffee to go.

The traffic outside on 87 has quadrupled in numbers since we passed the Harriman exit, gateway to the last reasonable roost for the daily New York commuter, that is if you don’t mind driving 80 miles per hour for an hour and a half every morning and evening of your life.  I’m waiting for Lainey to come out of the restroom, watching the line of people make the first leg of that event. I love that term restroom, as if the place were loaded with chaise lounges where you could lie back and catch a few Mcwinks.  Since at this moment I’m the only person at a table facing the passersby, I feel like a judge on a reality TV show: Best Walk to the Lavatory. It’s at the far end, past the regular flagship counter, pizza tagalongs, and a counter advertising Italian coffee except the gates are down on the last few. Most of the walkers are men, truck drivers I think.  There is always a gang of trucks in the far lot behind this stop.  The trucks are so enormous. When I pass them on the highway, looking up to catch a glimpse of the driver, or seeing his face reflected in his side view mirror, it’s always a surprise. I imagine an extra large presence controlling something so big and powerful, but no, they are human size, and inside their cabs they are at home.

A number of years ago an old friend from the ’60s, Everett, a graduate of Columbia, political science no less, parked his rig in the field beside Cucina restaurant in Woodstock and spent an afternoon in our kitchen talking about the last forty-five years of his life driving a truck.  He was so used to being alone that when he talked, sitting back with his prominent belly strapped down by suspenders, the kind with the inverted leather Y shape that receives two buttons on the inside of the waistband, it felt like he was talking to himself. I could almost hear the engine humming inside him—like he was sleeping but I knew he wasn’t, just idling. He had gone across the United States and back again, over and over and over. He told us stories about places and people that welcomed him each time he passed through, about how years ago he paid a surprise visit to his old ex-FBI New York Bureau Chief father, who he hadn’t seen in years and who, when he opened the door, demanded to see proof that he was in fact his son Everett. He reminded me that he had once dated Tricia Nixon.  I knew that but it was fun to hear him say it.  He had been the handsome son of an important FBI man who used to have him trailed—in case he stumbled onto some subversive path or fell victim to weed or worse.  After that afternoon I never again typecast truck drivers nor did I look down on them.  But not knowing their full history, today they seem like turtles out of their shells, many looking sad and beaten.

Four men in hunter’s camouflage take the stroll.  Three are hanging together like a many-headed hydra, their heads twisting and turning like turret guns on a battleship.  I know what they’re doing—combining forces to hide their shyness.  The fourth is lagging behind, dragging ass, his leg or maybe his back is hurting.  Just as well, if they were all together they’d probably split up into groups of two.  It’s too complicated to choreograph a moveable foursome. A short man with a white chin beard and a green coat with a large leprechaun patch on the back walks by with ease.  I can’t think of a better way of handling his stature than that—taking on the guise of a leprechaun. It explains everything you may have been thinking and gives him instant status.

As a young boy I often took pride in walking in a way I considered manly—like a cowboy, a wrestler, a roughneck. I still see men doing that (the four guys in camouflage were natural candidates for the cast of Planet of the Apes) and catch myself slipping into it at times, particularly when in what I consider a potentially dangerous situation, like an unlit street in a warehouse section of Brooklyn. The point is to telegraph the idea that there may be easier prey than me although these days I’m not sure that’s entirely true.

We’re on our way to New Jersey to see Doc Collins, a kinesiologist with extraordinary intuitive abilities who we’ve been visiting every two weeks for the past six months.  He’s been helping to balance all the parts of our bodies, but the two-and-a-half-hour drive there and back has been doing the same. After hanging out on six acres of land in Woodstock for the last twenty-five years, traveling less and less, our hitting the road on a regular basis is in a way just what the doctor ordered. We’re driving on three-lane highways, going fast and dealing with a wide assortment of personalities. Make no mistake, it’s dangerous business traveling these roads, and as we come down the long dirt driveway on the return trip I thank the car, Lainey, myself, and all the thousands of people who must have driven today with such skill for us to be returning unscathed. Talk about intuitive. We’ve been reading people’s minds, forming opinions about what they will do next based on slight alterations in the movement of their cars; their shadow forms that we see through their rear windows; inexplicable messages that we somehow pick up as we approach them: hold back, that driver is about to swing out in my path; pass quickly, they can’t make up their mind about what to do next but I feel they’re on the verge of doing something. Driving in busy traffic is the ultimate form of establishing a group consciousness, of people cooperating with each other. We’re using senses that most people haven’t admitted even exist. Driving cars and trucks is preparing us for teleportation—the day when we can will ourselves somewhere and instantly appear—when we catch up with our dreams.  Of course there are always those out of control drivers, OOC as Lainey likes to say: drunk on booze, pills, lack of sleep or aggressive maniacs, psychos who just like to take full possession of the road. Cars can be an extension of our personalities.  Funny, I actually find slow tentative drivers who can’t make decisions even more dangerous than fast aggressive ones.

I see a man who reminds me of myself.  I think it’s the way he’s holding onto that strange elusive thing we call dignity. He’s wearing a hat. In the movie Hook, Robin Williams as Peter Pan is about to deliver the coup de grace to Dustin Hoffman’s Hook, but first he flips off Hook’s elaborate wig.  For the first time, Hook shows his vulnerability and his rather sparse pate. “Oh Peter, let me have my dignity.” Peter allows him to place the wig back on his head.  I see in him what I see in myself, a complex creature. I’m an artist, a writer, a businessman, a father, a husband, a child, a winner, a loser, rich, poor, smart, stupid, brave, cowardly, generous, miserly, forthright, secretive, and the list could go. For everything that I am I have at some point in time been the opposite, and so in that man and in every person I see walking to the lavatory I see bits and pieces of myself.

Lainey has returned—it’s time to leave. Besides, spending an extraordinary amount of time watching people come and go from the restrooms could arouse all kinds of suspicions. Out in the parking lot I feel a sense of relief to settle in behind the wheel of my car.  It’s like being in a suit of armor, none of the imperfections are visible, I’m anonymous, bumper stickerless.  Once I start the engine, however, it is demanded that I perform in a way that is nothing short of impeccable, my life and the lives of those around me depend on it.

I look around, check the mirrors, and back out slowly.  Pulling forward, I stop to let a couple on their way to their car walk in front of me. We nod to each other. I turn right and slowly enter the ramp that leads onto the highway.  I put my left blinker on and, picking up speed, check the mirror. There is a truck in the lane I’m about to enter but it is far enough back that I can merge if I increase my speed.  I enter the lane at 75, check the mirror, and pull into the center lane. Good to be back, not just observing but being part of it—the human race.


About Austin Metze

Austin Metze is a writer of memoir and poetry who lives on the banks of the Sawkill river in Woodstock, NY. He has worked as an art director for numerous national magazines, as a painter and printmaker, and is still active in his book design firm, Austin Metze Design. He is currently working on a collection of stories, Em dash.
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3 Responses to Road Worthy: Reflections While Passing Through

  1. Ann Hutton says:

    Insightful, Austin! Always admire your writing, your mind. I’m thrilled for you.

  2. Abigail Thomas says:

    loved this, Austin, as usual.

  3. Carolyn L Dickey says:

    I am in awe of your ability to say so much in such a short piece. I enjoyed this piece very much.

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