In a New York Minute
Everything Can Turn to Crap

I had a freak-out in New York last weekend.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve experienced one of those – a genuine, synapse-collapsing meltdown. I was meant to have been visiting a friend, with whom I’ve recently reconnected after seven years. Everything was set – on my way to Maryland, I would stop in for a few days, staying at her apartment on First Avenue. I had decent directions (given to me by a nifty individual who doubles as a Presbyterian minister and a sex therapist), I had a plan, and I thought I had control over my biggest fear.

You see, the only thing in the world I’m really afraid of is other people. I’m not scared to fly, I’m just frightened of the other people on the plane. Likewise, I have no fear of driving, but I’m terrified of the other people on the road. This phobia has mutated over time to provide me with a pathological fear of cities. I just hate them. I especially hate driving in them – so many other drivers, all with divergent destinations, and none of them give two rat’s shits whether you make it to yours alive.

Of all the cities I’ve driven through, New York City is the worst. At any given time, there are millions of people trying to navigate roads that are only wide enough to accommodate two horse-driven carriages. The streets themselves seem to harbor a dislike of drivers, particularly those unfamiliar with the city. They appear to twist in upon themselves, providing only one-way outlets going the opposite way one wishes to proceed. It’s impossible to retrace your steps in New York, as I discovered on Saturday.

One thing you need to understand about me for this story to make sense – I don’t have a cell phone. I hate those things, too. I find them inherently annoying whenever I encounter them, and consider them only useful in emergency situations. Despite my tendency to find myself in emergency situations in which a cell phone could be extremely useful, I haven’t broken down and bought one yet, and I’m not sure I ever will. So don’t email me asking why I didn’t just call someone. That’s why.

So, okay, I arrive in New York at about 3:30 in the afternoon, only about three and a half hours later than I intended in the first place. (Late night, oversleeping, late start in the morning, etc.) My first destination is the Triboro Bridge, a teeming disaster area of semi-mobile vehicles, crammed into five tiny lanes. I entered, by necessity, on the left side of the bridge, and had to somehow maneuver my way through three lanes of backed-up traffic to get to the right lane, which turned into my exit in roughly a quarter-mile. To top that off, everyone else on the bridge seemingly needed to get over into whatever lane I was inhabiting at the time as well, and most of them just turned towards my vehicle without a second thought.

I think I almost died four times.

Still and all, I got over the bridge and onto FDR Drive. My directions then specified that I was to look for an exit sign with no number or street name – one just marked “Exit.” That’s the kind of city New York is. Needless to say, about an hour later, I was completely lost, with no idea of how I’d managed to get where I was, or how to get back. (See previous comments re: retracing one’s steps.) Depressingly, there appeared no place to park, either – all the spaces were taken, sometimes twice, and traffic wouldn’t have allowed it anyway. Plus, given my fear of other people, I wasn’t about to leave my car anywhere unattended.

At one point, I asked a friendly police officer (who was risking his life directing traffic) how to get to First Avenue. He told me to “take a left on Centre Street and then a right on HOW-ston.” At least, that’s how it sounded to me, so I asked him to repeat that last street name, and he said it again: “HOW-ston.” When I asked him to spell it, he looked at me as if I had just crawled up from the evolutionary muck. “It’s spelled ‘Houston,'” he grunted. “Well then,” I thought, “why in fuck’s name didn’t you just SAY ‘Houston’ in the first place.” I didn’t say that, however.

No, I was just about in the throes of my freak-out, which came on full force when I took that right onto HOW-ston and found that it didn’t quite lead me where I wanted to go. The next hour or so is a blur of sharp turns, near-misses and hyperventilation, and when I stumbled upon the way out – blessed Route 495, which must lead to Route 95 – I jumped at it. I even pulled into a gas station and asked the fine gentleman behind the counter which 495 (east or west) would get me back to Route 95.

“East,” he said.

“Right-o,” I replied.

Half an hour later, I was screaming at my mental picture of that fine gentleman, calling him a filthy cocksucking liar. I kept thinking that the road would loop around, perhaps, or connect in some way south of the city, but no. I ended up pulling off into another gas station, and meeting the nicest New Yorker ever, who gave me a map and directed me to the Cross Island Expressway, which hooks up with 95 after the Verrazzano Bridge. I thanked him and hurried back, thinking I might give the city another shot.

Of course, the Expressway was backed up for miles and miles, so I didn’t reach 95 until 8:30 p.m. The decision to just go south to Maryland was a pretty easy one – I really couldn’t spend another minute in that city. By the time I hit the highway, I was a twittering, shaking, sweaty mess. I know I’m going to have to get over this at some point, but my fear of cities is so great that I can barely breathe when I’m in one. I don’t think I’m afraid of other people individually so much as in nameless, faceless groups – which extends to religions and political organizations as well. They scare the shit out of me.

Naturally, my friend was frightened out of her gourd that I might have died along the way, and I didn’t catch up with her until about 11 p.m. If the fear and anger in her voice wasn’t enough convince me that I need a cell phone, I don’t think anything will be. Over the last few days, I have found myself glancing with interest at Verizon Wireless stores as I walk past, so we shall see.

As a hopeful epilogue to this stupid little tale, however, I made my first tentative drives into Baltimore this week, and they didn’t go as badly as I expected. Baltimore is like a slightly larger Portland, Maine, in that people seem to all be going the same direction most of the time. Plus, it has the biggest freaking Barnes and Noble I have ever seen, and I’m really looking forward to driving back in and checking it out.

I’m right now in the midst of trying to find a job, which is why this column contains nothing of substance. Plus, this week saw a complete absence of noteworthy new music, which will hopefully be rectified by next week, when Jeff Tweedy’s Loose Fur project hits, as well as Billy Corgan’s debut with his new band, Zwan. In the meantime, drive safe, and try to think about the other drivers now and again. Especially if you live in a big city.

See you in line Tuesday morning.