Wednesday, July 25, 2007

riding the merritt parkway

Some wag said the young Al Gore was an old person’s idea of a young person. The Merritt Parkway, running from Connecticut down to the New York line, is an American’s idea of Europe. Or at least my idea of Europe. Built over fifty years ago, the Parkway is a relic already crumbling in places. But one still gets whiffs of what the planners were after as one races along under a sun blinking through leafy boughs.

I felt a momentary hallucination heading north toward New Haven yesterday when I looked in the rearview mirror of my folks’ Honda Accord and saw a silvery grey torpedo on wheels coming up on me. I watched the old Jaguar pass me, an antique vision of Futurity: aeronautic shaping combined curiously with chrome spokes sparkling in a Gatsby era sun. For that moment I felt I was in that earlier time, a Manhattan ad man heading to my Stepford home in Fairfield County, pulling off my tie as I drive. In that moment I sensed another era’s – and another class’ – effort to enclose even the highway in an aura of swift, modern elegance.

Even the highway! Think of it! Now, the idea of elegance in a highway is ridiculous in the extreme. There is hardly a more barrenly efficient space in the whole of America. It is reminiscent of recent efforts by some airlines to “restore the romance” to flying. But as a trenchant observer (whose name I forget) has observed, these efforts mistake material luxury for romance. The real death blow to this so-called romance, of course, is that jet travel has become a truly mass transportation, as romantic as taking a bus. The age of romance in flying was an aura born not of slices of avocado on one’s plate or boutique lotions on one’s skin but of class privilege. The early years of jet travel were defined by an elite exclusivity. That era is over.

At least some older folks remember such a thing. But who even associates the highway with elegance and class?

Riding along the Merrritt is analogous to flying on an airline that is strangely stuck in a time warp, with stewardesses in space age pill boxes and scarves striding up and down. One rides through a brief age when commuting by car held a sense of excitement and prestige. All one has to do is drive on I-95, the interstate parallel to it, for a few miles to see how far highway travel is from either the mass romance of the road trip or the executive romance of the gliding daily commute.

As Robert Sullivan notes in the Christian Science Monitor, highway services have been taken over by corporate providers, ironing out all sense of regional difference in a wide band along both sides of every highway. In facilitating more and more highway travel, these companies – La Quinta, Pizza Hut, Boston Market and Popeyes, not to mention the massive “mini-marts” smelling of stale Snickers and Pine-Sol – have also made difference (and the road trip romance) disappear. I challenge you to find one regionally unique product in these places (in Cumberland Farms recently I found an “ice cream canolli” produced in New Jersey). One bumps and swoops along I-95 in frightening proximity to roaring 18-wheelers, cars and SUVs of all kinds, and cement barriers scarred with slip ups. Sun glares down on defeated urban landscapes of which the highway is a part. Between cities, one rolls along in a broad swath cut through faceless vegetation. Either way, one feels like an ant naked on a wide, rumbling ribbon.

On the Parkway, on the other hand, trees encroach, arching over the roadway. Suddenly one is not trapped on an endless strip under a cruel sky, but is flitting down a cool, soft corridor. This feeling is accentuated by the fact that only sections of the original plan remain in places; some massive clover leafs have replaced the cramped, if intimate, on-ramps appearing out of the forest. These places are shorn of trees. The sense of vast space is oppressive, the force of the sky mitigated by nothing. Or a long, blank bridge cuts across the horizon.

But then the trees cluster closer again, the breakdown lanes disappear, one is enclosed in a green tunnel, and the four lanes squeeze together to fit under a wholly unique bridge. The bridges of the Parkway are treasures of public design, a rare example of resources spent on beautifying public spaces. It is even rarer for the transient space of a highway, as opposed to a park or train station, which have long attracted architectural ambitions. The fact that such thought was lavished on a roadway intended mainly for the wealthy white collareds shows how dominant classes are able to steer the definition (and monies) of the “public” in their direction.

One memorable bridge is arched and faced with rough rocks of many hues, and then is half swallowed in ivy. One is covered in wrought iron clusters of grapes. Others are modernistic or Art Deco, with stylized wings rising above and cut in sharp, simple lines. Some feature sculptural panels one barely glimpses. What fun it is whipping along, caught for a few moments by the sight of a modest but attentively made bridge before it disappears behind one and gives way to another. Enough of the Parkway is still intact that one can catch a whiff of a suburban class romance of the road – one which did not last long. You can sense that era even if you are not lucky enough to see a Jaguar racing up on you.

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