For as long as I can remember, I've loved Highway 40. This must seem strange to those of you who sit in its traffic jams every day, but Highway 40 is the sole reason I live in New York City today. As a child, I would sit in the back of my parents' car, on the way to the fabulous Fox or a Cardinals game, and excitedly look for the Arena. After that, it was the Science Center, and finally, I would see the Arch looming smack in the middle of Highway 40. This was when I knew we were almost downtown. And I loved it.
Downtown was so completely different from Creve Coeur. There were people of all different backgrounds hanging around, doing stuff. I was fascinated by the parking attendants, vendors, the fancy people at the Bistro across from the Fox, and the old gaslights that decorate that part of Grand. And, if we were good, totally special downtown outings included a trip to the Old Spaghetti Factory, or sometimes the McDonald's Riverboat. Holy cow, those were the days.
In high school, I frequently took Highway 40 to choir rehearsal in Soulard. This is when I learned to cruise past everybody in the inside lane. It was dangerous, but my '76 Impala had a V-8, I was sixteen, and well, speeding was fun back then. After high school, I left St. Louis to go to the University of Missouri in Columbia. Country roads are good for driving around with boys and singing to the radio, but it was no super-four-lane highway.
Once I graduated, I really stopped driving for the most part. I moved to New York City, then Prague, and then back to New York City, and ironically, I blame Highway 40 for my love of large, pedestrian cities. Forty was the entryway to downtown, and represented a whole new, exciting, urban, and sometimes dangerous world to me. (Please imagine Petula Clark's Downtown fading in right now.)
(And now... fading out.) So, now I'm in New York City, and I'm experiencing a new longing I haven't felt, um, probably ever. I want a car. And, I want the suburbs. I'm sick of "downtown" all the friggin' time. Do you know how crowded pedestrian cities like Prague and New York are? It's definitely worse than any traffic jam you'll experience on Highway 40. At least in a car, you have air conditioning, personal space, and you can sing as loud and off-key as you want.
Oh, how I miss the personal space of a car. In a car you don't have to listen to obscene catcalls from large, swarthy men from Brooklyn, or hear the rants of crack-heads every morning on your way to work. (Yep, everyday on the northeast corner of 14th Street and Third Avenue, in front of a Duane Reede drugstore.) I've even seen a parked car engulfed in flames on my way to the deli. Granted, I live in the East Village, and hey, I wanted grit and "colorful" characters, but sometimes it's just a little too much for a nice midwestern girl.
Once off the street and in the subway, you have to be seriously NON-claustrophobic if you want to get to work without having an episode. It starts on the stairwells. They are jam packed; if one person trips, the whole crowd could fall like dominos. I shudder to think of track fires. Then, you have to get on the subway.
Straphanger rush hour in New York City is very similar to St. Louis' vehicular traffic.
Imagine each car a person, crammed into a small pathway, all moving in the same direction. Each car (person) expels fumes (body odor) contributing to the general pollution (gross subway smell) and there are fender benders everywhere (people ramming into each other in attempts to get a seat). Sometimes the older models break down and won't get out of your way. The lemons leak all kinds of fluids everywhere, and you always have the new, flashy models that make noise and cut in front of you without warning.
This all adds up to a stressful situation and what I like to call "walk-rage." Like road rage, walk-rage makes people want to do crazy things like scream at strangers. You can scream obscenities in the privacy of your car if someone cuts you off, or stops for no reason right in front of you, but how would it look if you started screaming at pedestrians? This is why you see so many angry lunatics talking to themselves in New York. They are not insane but suffer from walk-rage. Even I sometimes wish for a "crowd-bat" that I could swing around to get people out of my way.
These unstable feelings towards my fellow footsloggers are one of many reasons I am contemplating a return to the Lou. I know once I come back to St. Louis I'll appreciate any traffic jam on 40, 270, or 170 for that matter (but never, ever, 44 or Manchester Rd.). Really! I will! I'll sing Petula Clark's Downtown as loud as I can. I'll scream obscenities at stupid drivers through my closed windows while shaking my Slurpee, and just maybe I'll get that wonderful feeling of getting to go downtown all over again.
Kathie Fries lives in a small box in Manhattan, and loves to take cabs.