Getting There

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We had the Plymouth then, and it was full of AM magic as we set out on golden cold Thanksgiving mornings. The Beatles The Long And Winding Road, Carly Simon Nobody Does It Better (a song I always associate for some reason with the NFL and Alcoa – “We Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow!” commercials), Nicolette Larson Lotta Love, Peaches & Herb Reunited and, as we got closer to New York, the perfect disco funk of Herb Alpert Rise. This is the sonic cloth of memory, always associated with Thanksgiving and drives to visit my grandmother in Brooklyn.

My brother and I were good travelers, content to listen to the radio, color and sight-see. Nothing was ever more thrilling than the little things: the Portland skyline, looking just slightly like New York; the pilgrim-hat-with-arrow logo on the Massachusetts Turnpike signs; reading the grids on the turnpike toll tickets; a water tower, a factory smokestack…all captivating.

I was always fascinated by the minutiae of travel. The McDonalds signs in Massachusetts were different from the ones in Maine. There were no billboards in Maine, so I had plenty of reading material starting in New Hampshire. The style of the road signs and streetlamps was different from state to state. The traffic lights in New York City were yellow, unlike in Maine. I am still enthralled by these regional differences, and it all started on the road to grandmother’s apartment.

Mom and dad had a red and black plaid Thermos full of steaming coffee, and they always had a Wash ‘n Dri towelette ready. They appeased us with Happy Meals, and the miles passed by uneventfully. 95 through Maine and New Hampshire, 495 to the Mass Pike, 84 to Hartford. Then, finally, one of the highlights of the trip: the West Rock Tunnel, just outside of New Haven.

The sign instructed motorists to remove their sunglasses for the tunnel, so my mom always did, never mind that she was always a passenger. And then we’d be in the tube, and it seemed like it lasted for hours. The tunnel itself was and is beautiful: the granite wall and arches, the soft red glow from taillights and the streetlamps on the ceiling. And the tunnel meant almost there… Almost New York.

Finally we would arrive. My grandmother lived in a building called The Bay Shore in the Bay Ridge neighborhood (yes, Saturday Night Fever was filmed there). I’ll never be able to articulate the smell in the lobby of that building, but whatever it was, it smelled like home. The tile in the lobby was black and white octagon, and it was always dark. Grandmother’s apartment had huge French doors, glass doorknobs, pre-war wooden frame windows with yellowed shades and cloth pulls. I remember waiting for the tubes in her TV set to warm up, and vintage radios and her paintings, many of which hang in our house to this day.

From our bedroom window, we could see laundry hanging on clotheslines with pulleys, and the apartments across the courtyard had keystone arches. And hovering above it all, close enough to touch, was the Verrazano. I knew the bridge from Saturday Night Fever, but I really knew it from watching the lights dance across the unimaginable span right before my eyes.

I don’t remember Thanksgiving dinner. I remember the etched gold of grandmother’s Manhattan glass, and little else. But I remember the drives, the sounds and the feelings. I remember the air smelling different than Maine, full of more and different kinds of foods, car exhaust, the piles of garbage and the smoke of buildings abandoned to arson at the height of the financial crisis, and the tides of the Narrows. And I remember being thankful, even then, for the sensory snapshots that have lasted a lifetime.

Photo Sources:
West Rock Tunnel: Bridge and Tunnel Club (I encourage you to check this page for the full tunnel approach experience!)

Brooklyn Queens Expressway: Danny Lyon

Bay Ridge: Dinanda Nooney

Verrazano Narrows Bridge:

  1. Snoring Dog Studio said:

    This was beautifully written. Your descriptions of even the smallest things (the red and black plaid Thermos) helped paint such a vivid picture of your travel. And how fortunate you are to have these memories still sharp in your mind. I remember no holidays with my grandparents. I remember car trips with my family, though – I remember noticing the differences between the place I lived and the place I traveled to. Wonderful post.

    • Why, thank you, ma’am! Yes, I’m definitely lucky to have a nearly eidetic memory, at least good enough that I can pull a few specifics out of the color swirls of false memory. I’m really glad to have brought back some of your own memories. Come on back every Monday and Thursday for more!

  2. Wow. this post brought back memories for me as well as feelings. Many thanks for the New York State of Mind..Remember going up to New England and passing through the Rock Tunnel as well.

    Grew up in LA, but moved to NYC after college. Lived in Brooklyn for 10 years; worked in Manhattan. Ultimately married ex-husband number one in NYC.
    The mother in law (affectionately known by myself and her son as The Anti-Christ, and grandmother lived in the same building that we did. Big-ass old pre-war brick apartment building off of Ocean Blvd near Sheepshead Bay.

    You post suddenly rocked back memories of not only family and friends in NYC but the holiday dinners, and emotions connected with those days.
    In a galaxy far far away know as the 1980’s…

    Many thanks for the post and the pics.

  3. Man. I am getting seriously overwhelmed (ova heah!, as they would say in Bay Ridge). Thank you all so much! I’m so fortunate to have these memories, and it’s so much better kicking them around with others that have similar visions in the rearview. Keep ’em coming!

  4. The opening paragraph of this story kills. It’s absolutely masterful, and perfectly done. That first sentence is crisp and sets the tone with classical perfection, and the subsequent ephemeral music details are intriguing and start to pull together the time, the place and the people. And the last line of the first sentence… *Shakes head.* I wish I had written that line. “Sonic cloth…” I’ve never seen/read a line like it. Nice.

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