Nanook of the West Side Highway
I was helping my wife Jenny with a gourmet craft services gig at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. Although she works in the industry as a wardrobe stylist, her original cooking is to die for, and it’s something I’ve encouraged her to share with the world long before we were married. On this particular gig she had four huge travel bins full of gear, two coolers, and assorted boxes of stuff which we had to get back to the loft after a fashion shoot. The loft is about 38 miles away in northern Westchester County.
It would interest readers to know more about the client, or what went on at the shoot, or what minor celebrities were milling about, but we each signed legal documents which promised men in long coats would come to our loft late at night and do bad things to us if we revealed any details whatsoever.
Locked in the studio for the job, we knew it was snowing all day, although the only white we saw in the windowless studio was the expansive cyc. They asked us to work until the wrap, and it was no big deal. After a certain point, the mental difference between 16 hours and 18 hours is negligible. Jenn’s food, as always, was incredible, and no one wanted to see her close up shop. We were tired, but I kept making the crew espressos and cappuccinos with our awesome Nespresso machine, even sending a production assistant to one of their only retail locations to get more crack pods. When they finally wrapped, we began to break down our gear, wash everything, give away leftovers, and pack. With the help of some P.A.s, we got the Civic loaded, and headed out of the garage.
Pulling out onto 12th Avenue, it was obvious we were in for an adventure. I asked Jenn to call relatives in Hell’s Kitchen so we could crash close by, but she was sure they were sleeping. This combined with the thought of unloading the car and climbing stairs with all the gear was highly unappealing to me. “Fuck it. Let’s try to make it,” I told her.
During the first serious snow of the season a few weeks earlier, the New York City Department of Transportation decided keeping the roads clear was not a priority. Some tertiary roads were not plowed for a week, and the Bloomberg administration slid in the polls faster than cars were sliding into each other. I’ll stop here, before I get to the conspiracy theory.
Things hadn’t changed much at the Department of Transportation, apparently, despite massive reassurances from all official channels. Nine inches of snow sat on 12th Avenue, otherwise known as the West Side Highway with traffic lights, and cars were ignoring traffic lights once they got momentum and were no longer fishtailing. Plows were nowhere to be seen, and drivers had that “save myself first” mentality as they swerved around each other, locked brakes in the middle of intersections, and cursed as they used gloved hands to clear windshields both inside and out.
Jenn is from Los Angeles. Accordingly, she isn’t comfortable driving in snow. She was exhausted from the gig and suffering the early stages of the flu, but she was unable to sleep. The drive was going to be harrowing, and she was amped up on cappuccinos, as was I. She worked the environmental controls and kept our windows clear. I felt both lucky to have her and concerned about getting her home as quickly as possible so she could get some meds and sleep.
At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two kinds drivers in winter conditions: those who perform confidently and everyone else. Unfortunately, most drivers fall into the latter category. Just north of Dewitt Clinton Park, this fact came back to me in a hurry.
We were screwed as soon as we got on the ramp where 12th Avenue transitions into the West Side Highway proper. For those readers not familiar with this area, all it really means is the traffic lights stop and the highway begins. The problem with unplowed snow on this stretch of road is the ramp which begins elevates the highway is steep in this kind of weather. The snow was coming down wholesale, and cars began to crawl for no sane reason. Fear had gripped most drivers, and as they slowed down, so too did their traction.
American cars fared the worst, of course, with rear-wheel drive vehicles essentially damning them to become roadblocks. Taxi drivers, who are supposed to be professionals, displayed laughable competence, sliding back down the ramp at crazy angles, their paying passengers wide-eyed with terror as fare meters ticked on.
Jenn competently kept the windows clear and often looked back to her right, saying, “It’s clear! Go!” At any opportunity, I scooted past disabled vehicles, passing on the right, even in the breakdown lane. “Maybe there’s no snow where these cabbies come from,” Jenn said. A simple statement which must be true. There’s no other excuse for such a bad professional showing. Doesn’t the TLC have any type of training for this kind of thing? It appears not.
What drivers that night failed to realize was the Ninth Egatz Law of the Road:
In snow conditions with poorly plowed surfaces, the goal is perpetual motion. Torque is your friend. A moving car doesn’t get stuck.
Forward motion wins, particularly if you’re able to keep it under control by not fishtailing. When you have drivers living where snow is a rarity telling you to slow down, you have drivers who shouldn’t be on the roads. Sure, a sane speed is smart, but when you slow down too much, you run the risk of not being able to overtake hills. When you can’t make it up a hill, there’s a good chance you’re going to spin your wheels until you’re stuck.
Once we got past the first bottleneck, we did pretty well making our way to the Henry Hudson Bridge. The road looked like some bad disaster movie, with small groups of disabled cars stuck—occasionally right in the middle of the highway. Cabbies were standing in the snow, yelling at each other, civilians were crouched down to heave against rear bumpers, and police were nowhere to be seen.
Approaching the hill at the Riverside Drive exits just south of the George Washington Bridge we came to another clusterfuck of cars and cabs sliding back toward us, all piloted by drivers who had ignored the golden rule of maintaining forward momentum. We almost had to come to a complete halt, which probably would’ve forced us to be stuck like them, but squeezed through and passed them on the right, on the left, and in the middle, until we got a momentary reprieve from the snow when passing under the bridge.
Passing the Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park, we saw more disabled cars on the approach to the Henry Hudson Bridge. Rolling up almost silently to the tollbooth, the attendant stared at our snow-covered car in disbelief. “Where you headed in this?” he asked.
“All the way,” I said, and we pushed off again, four dollars lighter. The Saw Mill River Parkway was plowed slightly better than the West Side Highway, but we had our worst sliding on it. Perhaps I was pushing it too hard. My mind was racing faster than we were traveling. I was visualizing the route ahead, and how far we could take it back to the loft. Would they be plowing in Westchester? Which hills would be impassable? What would traffic be like?
Along with the Ninth, the Tenth Egatz Law of the Road came to mind:
Other vehicles traveling on the same side of the road as you are in snow conditions should be avoided at all costs.
Other cars slowed down and paid for it. We saw them sitting all over the road, their occupants trying to dig out tires by kicking with futility under their cars. Others merely waited for help to arrive while hoping their gasoline—hence their heaters—wouldn’t run out. Being found frozen like a popsicle in your own car the next morning isn’t a good way to be remembered. It’s like being a Darwin Award winner, to my mind: cause of death? Too stupid to drive in snow. It was madness. We didn’t want to be near any other cars. They’d slow, get stuck, and we’d be behind them, or run into them. Remember, kids: avoid other vehicles, even if it means passing them in the snow.
Not only was I working on avoiding drivers who drove like they were lifelong Floridian senior citizens with myopia, but I was trying to keep us from being stuck or winding up in the trees. On top of that, I was mentally playing out the entire route home. How long could we make it on the Saw Mill River Parkway, a road which is often shut down when it rains due to poorly engineered flood zones? What would be plowed? What about the increasing hills as we got further north? Alternate routes?
Jenn said, “I don’t think the Saw Mill is gonna be cleared all the way up.” She was right. It wasn’t likely. If New York’s Finest weren’t even out to rescue people on the West Side Highway, what hope did we have for the wilds of Westchester? “Let’s try the Sprain.”
Again, she seemed right. The Sprain Brook Parkway has three lanes on a side—a larger highway than the Saw Mill. Surely it would be plowed more thoroughly than the winding, hilly, two-lanes-on-a-side Saw Mill. It was decided.
We rolled up on the Cross County Parkway and eased our way down the ramp for the eastbound side. At the bottom of the ramp was what we feared. Two cars backed up, unable to get through the wall of snow plows had deposited when they were working the Cross County. I stopped behind the second car, and we talked about options. Soon there was a line of cars behind us. The first car, and SUV, eventually blasted through the wall, which was at least two feet high. The second car was an American sedan and unable to make it. An elderly gentleman was soon standing at my window, and I got out. The driver of car number two got out and said he couldn’t make it. We decided to put a little muscle on the trunk. There was no other way we could get out.
Obscenely large flakes soon covered us, but we dug in, and eventually the driver broke free and was underway. I got back in the car. “Good job,” said Jenn. She grabbed my hand and together we put the Civic into Drive. There was some fishtailing, some tire-spinning, but we got out, and blasted through the remains of the wall. Another small victory.
The Cross County was barely plowed, particularly in the lanes on the right. We went up and over the huge hill in Yonkers just west of the Major Deegan. Sure enough, the exit ramp hadn’t been touched, and there was a solid wall of snow plowed up over two feet high. There was no way we’d make it through there. Jenn was thinking out loud. “Maybe the Hutch is clear,” she said.
Although it was just about as far out of our way as we could go before hitting the Long Island Sound, we didn’t see an alternative. After the Cross County made the perverse swing north where its name changed to the Hutchinson River Parkway, the road conditions got worse. The exit ramps seemed plowed a little better than the Cross County, but what would happen on all those local roads? We had the all-important forward momentum, and getting off the highway seemed like suicide.
Dodging slow moving cars, we shamelessly passed them on the left and right. At one point we barreled past a cop on the right side of the road dealing with a disabled vehicle. Huge flakes of snow were bouncing off the windshield. We fishtailed once, but it was nothing major. “I don’t know how you’re doing this, but don’t stop,” Jenn said. She wasn’t feeling well, and I wanted to get her home to our bed and whatever over-the-counter meds we had.
Just past Mamaroneck Avenue, we lucked into coming up on a plow which was also spreading salt. “This guy is plowing in New York. He isn’t going to drive up the Merritt Parkway into Connecticut,” I told Jenn. “If we’re lucky, he’ll stay in the county by going onto 287 heading west.”
The plow approached the clover where the Hutch and I-287 met. He slowed, and we held our breath, hoping he wouldn’t go east. A small cheer erupted in our car as he rolled past the eastbound ramp, and got on Westchester Avenue heading west. We followed.
I didn’t want to stay with him on Westchester Avenue. Who knew how slow he’d go, or where he’d turn off, leaving us on a barely plowed county road with no way to get back onto the highway? We broke left and got onto 287. Jenn checked her iPhone for hotels in White Plains, saying maybe we’d never make it home. 287 had about six or seven inches of snow, and fewer cars than even the Hutch.It just kept coming down.
The exit ramps around White Plains didn’t seem impassable. I knew there were hotels in Tarrytown, and thought we should push it to get as close to home as possible. Soon, we were rolling up on the Sprain Brook Parkway again, after having lost another hour. I asked Jenn to check the ramp and let me know the condition as soon as she could. Suddenly she shouted, “It’s not bad. Take it! Take it, baby!”
We got up the ramp and onto the Sprain headed north in total silence. It was virtually unplowed. We could make out another car about a kilometer ahead, blazing a trail right up the middle of the highway. I tried to get into his tracks and was hoping we could push it all the way. I told Jenn the hospital at Valhalla was a possibility. We were close, and if we got stuck, we could try to walk there and wait out the storm in the Emergency Room if we didn’t want to sit in the car. Walking in that deep snow probably would’ve been a stupid move, but the promise of mobility—of not being stranded on the side of the road, slowly turning into a popsicle—was seemingly all-important. We had phones, and the County Police station wasn’t far. In keeping with our never-ending mantra, we kept the car in motion above everything else.
At one point, on the other side of the highway, we saw a car stopped dead in the middle of three lanes, headlights burning, the driver digging out in front of the car. The oddest thing about this was he had miles of unplowed road to shovel. It was like the driveway from hell. Where he was shoveling out to, we didn’t know. It was an insane scene I’ll never forget: his lonely dark jacket moving in the headlights, snow flying everywhere, not another car anywhere to be seen on his side of the highway. I hope he made it somewhere before dying of a heart attack, which is how a lot of people die when shoveling snow.
Soon, we were upon the exit for Route 9A. Jenn and I both got crazy. It was scary because this would mean local roads up to the loft. We didn’t know how much worse they could be. I was pushing it hard, but it somehow seemed easy. I was in my element, one of the few things I do really well without trying hard. In a way, it was art. Neal Cassady was smiling upon me.
“I want you to know there’s no one else I’d rather be doing this with,” Jenn said to me. “Thank you for getting us home.” She took my hand in hers. It was warm, and I could tell she wasn’t feeling well. I took my eyes off the road and looked at the woman I loved, the woman I asked to spend the rest of my life with. She was definitely fighting the flu, but her eyes were as sincere as I’d ever seen in anyone at any point in my life. It takes a lot for her to open up, and I felt connected to her in a way I hadn’t in a long time. It had been that kind of year.
In the car, approaching our last chance ramp, I loved her like I never had before. I’d get us home safely, I knew then. I’d get her into our warm bed and nurse her and make sure nothing bad would happen. The snow seemed trivial. The people stuck on the sides of all the major highways we’d been on for two and a half hours seemed like extras in a commercial she was working on. Nothing seemed real. The only thing that mattered was her hands on mine, her words of trust and love, and the groove the car was in. There would be no more fishtailing. We were safe and we’d make it home easily. I just knew it after she said those words.
I hit the ramp as fast as I dared. It wasn’t plowed much at all; even in worse shape than the Sprain itself. We made it through the long S-curve of the ramp and came down toward Route 9A. “Oh shit, baby!” Jenn shouted. The bottom of the ramp had been plowed in by trucks clearing 9A. There was a wall at the bottom. I hit the gas and didn’t think about consequences. We needed to get through and onto the other side.
When the front end of the Civic hit the wall there was a huge explosion. For a few moments, it looked like the snow was falling both down and up. We were in a whiteout for seconds which lasted far too long. After only the normal snow coming downward resumed, we were off the ramp and flying up 9A. It was almost completely clear—we couldn’t believe it. We must’ve been just five or ten minutes behind the plows which had just cleared it.
Soon, I was actually traveling above the speed limit. It seemed like the thing to do after the endless delays; the Ninth Egatz Law of the Road, indeed. The snow was still pouring down, but the road was in great shape. At almost three in the morning, there were no cars to be seen anywhere. We were laughing aloud and squeezing each other’s hand as we hurtled all the way up to the Briarcliff-Peekskill Parkway.
When we got to Croton, it was somehow reinforced that everything would again be fine. The county road-type feeling of 9A gave way to the parkway, and it, too, was completely clear. The snow was unrelenting, but I was able to push it hard and get us to our exit with no problem. The exit itself was not plowed too well, but it was nothing compared to the West Side Highway and almost every other road we had travelled.
Cruising up the long hill away from the Hudson River and right up to our loft, we couldn’t believe the local road department was infinitely more competent than the New York City Department of Transportation. Even the co-op board had it together, and our driveway was well-plowed. We had made it after just over three hours of driving to get less than forty miles.
We sat in our parking spot, and looked at each other in disbelief. The snow ironically decided to almost stop at that point, and we were exhausted, but not finished. The car needed to be unloaded. Jenn carried a few bags inside. I made trips until all the heavy containers were in our home. Our cat, a new addition to the family, looked at all the gear I brought in and wondered where the hell we had been and, more importantly, why we didn’t feed her already. My wife was a trooper and helped me get the perishables into the refrigerator while I continued to make trips to and from the car. Feeling miserable, she eventually went upstairs and crawled into bed.
Undressing, wet and cold from all my trips back and forth to the car, I thought of how our lives are made up of choices. Small and large decisions we think will lead us to some end goal are made each day, but we’re almost always wrong. Reality rarely matches the ideal we painted for ourselves years earlier. The unseeable future is always influenced by forces we can’t control, people we choose to trust and love, and our own plans and dreams. Sometimes we choose right, as I had that night: to push the odds at all costs, to pass everyone on our way to our warm home, fear be damned. Other times, our trepidations cause our failure, like every individual who crawled through the unplowed streets and highways until they were disabled on the side of the road.
We choose lovers who are good for us and help us grow; we choose lovers who we must carry like a large consumer electronic appliance strapped to our backs. We choose jobs which make our hearts sing with joy and never feel like work, and we choose careers which speed our trip to the grave. There are mistakes and bad tattoos and oppressive bureaucracy and snowstorms and mates who provide temporary escape. There are wins and preventative maintenance and fine institutions and sun-filled days and unconditional love. The hardest daily decisions in life are choosing well without fully realizing which are which before the benefit of hindsight.
I held my wife that night long after we fell asleep. I drifted off thinking of all the craziness people put themselves and their loved ones through. It’s been like that since before recorded time. You know that more than a few ancient Mayas were caught cheating on their mates. You know more than a few Neanderthals shared some extra meat with someone they shouldn’t have, and in a flirtatious way. You know too many ancient Greeks and Romans and guys from Ames, Iowa were forced to get up pre-dawn and thought long and hard before going to post bail for their idiot, drunk brother-in-law.
Human history is full of pogroms, inbreeding, forced rides in boxcars, fratricide, rageaholics, and men in long coats knocking on doors in the middle of the night. Before humans, there were forest fires, meteor bombardments, ice ages, tsunamis, geomagnetic reversals, and countless extinctions. There were also snow storms. Somehow, love made it through all.