On the road – at last
Fortunately for me, June was not a busy month and so that I didn’t actually have to go out on the road until a week after I started working at Cosmetics Plus in 1974 and so I got comfortable with the warehouse work before I had to actually drive anywhere.
But I dreaded the moment when I would have to the whole time, and I kept glancing at the door to the front, expecting to see Donald’s blonde head appear with the command for me to hit the road.
This anticipation apparently added to my panic when Donald did appear and Stanley went to fetch the keys to the red Dodge van.
I could hardly breathe
Part of my concern was the fact that I was not going to be traveling any of the roads I was even remotely familiar with.
While I had gotten my license, I had driven only a little out west during my wandering there, and even less back here in New Jersey, but most of the time on open highways where there was little risk of hitting anything but a cactus or mileage marker.
I had rarely driven the streets of New Jersey and never in New York City.
Most of the trips I had taken to the city were by bus or in the back seat of one of my buddies’ cars. Even those trips were along the always familiar Route 46 or Route 3, and through the Lincoln Tunnel.
Stanley intended to send me via back roads to the Holland Tunnel for a pick up in the Wall Street area, a part of New York had had seen once or twice during my walking messenger days in Manhattan, getting their by subway or bus, never by car.
The ever meticulous Stan gave me directions so precise a blind man might have followed them. Yet in some ways, it was exactly these details that got in the way. He had the route firmly fixed in his mind because he lived in Kearny then and took those roads daily, and could not imagine how anything could go wrong. With the directions he gave me, he assumed I could not possibly make a wrong turn.
He did not reckon on someone whose familiarity of roads was as limited as mine. So he mentioned Route 280, all he got from me was a blank stare.
At which point, Stanley made me write down his instructions, directing me onto Bloomfield Avenue east to Passaic Ave South, and through a sequence of quick turns that included a totally foreign highway called Eisenhower Parkway, and streets like Roseland, and others until finally I found the entrance to the ever illusive Route 280 East.
This I was supposed to take until the highway divided with some lanes heading towards Newark and others to Harrison.
“Stay headed towards Harrison,” Stanley cautioned me. “You go the other way, you can get hopelessly lost.”
The highway would then lead me to Harrison Ave, and this would leave me to old Route 7, the Stickle Bridge, Charlotte's Circle, then finally the approach to the Holland Tunnel, at which point, Stanley said, things get a little tricky.
Downtown, he said, was a web work of narrow streets that get confusing.
`The easiest way to get there is to go along Canal Street until you get to Broadway,” Stan said. “You make a right on Broadway, and follow until you reach a street so narrow it looks like a driveway. That’s John Street. You turn left, and then on take the next left, then pull over to the curb because you’ll be there.”
This would become one of my regular stops, a cosmetic beauty supply retailer that would serve as a fruitful source of middle of the road fragrances that made up the bulk of Donald’s shipments south and later, I would navigate these streets as well as any cab driver.
My troubles started long before I got anywhere near Manhattan.
Finding Route 280 proved significantly easier than I expected, partly because Stan – figuring this was the most complex part of the trip – gave me turn by turn instructions which included landmarks so I was pulling onto the slow lane of the highway in no time – where I promptly saw a sign marked for “Harrison Street” and turned off the highway again, thinking it was where I was supposed to turn.
I found myself in a tangle of West Orange streets leading me towards Montclair and Verona, and I was so turned around, I lost track of which direction the highway was or how to get back to it.
Finally I pulled over at a public phone and called the warehouse to the ever-patient Stanley who I hoped would help straighten everything out.
Fortunately, I had ended up near a pharmacy in West Orange with whom Donald did a lot of business and to which Stanley had made frequent trips when he worked at the driver.
God knows what they thought back at the warehouse. I knew this did not bode well for the future. If I could not follow simple instructions, what good was I?
Stan’s new instructions steered me back to the highway where I clung to the slow lane, both shaking hands firmly on the steering wheel until I spied out the sign I needed, trying to ignore the other abusive drivers who were trying to get around me on and off the highway where the Garden State Parkway merged, their honking horns only increasing my agitation.
When the highway split, I navigated in the direction the signs said led to Harrison.
Perhaps due to lack of federal funding or troubles acquiring property rights, the highway came to an abrupt stop where the three lanes of highway traffic was expected to merge into one lane of Harrison Avenue, which was also fed by traffic coming over the bridge from Newark’s McCarter Highway.
I was completely undone.
Stanley’s directions swirled around in my head, stirred into a panic by the other cars cutting me off to get ahead of me onto the narrow road where advancement came in inches, not miles, bumpers often coming dangerously close to each other.
Brakes squealed. Horns blared. I looked this way and that and tried desperately to avoid bumpers and fenders that seemed ready to collide with the van, my foot jumping from gas peddle to break so often I nearly forgot which was which.
At this point, a Mercedes cut me off and when I slammed on the brake to avoid hitting it, my foot slid off the peddle and onto the gas, slamming hard into the car’s trunk, denting in the lock.
Everything ceased except for the beeping.
Our cars blocked the whole lane which was already backed up all the way into Newark.
All I wanted was for the beeping to stop.
When I saw an opening near the curb behind me, I engaged the gears and tried to pull into it. I didn’t see the Ford that had tried to slip around me on that side. The sound of scraping metal told me of the additional disaster.
So I stopped, got out, and was confronted by the two drivers coming at me from both directions, a gray-haired man in a business suit from out of the Mercedes, and a ragged worker in t-shirt and jeans coming at me from the Ford.
The Mercedes had suffered the most injury. The Ford had a few scraps. Remarkably, the van appeared to have no damage at all.
The man from the Ford wanted to make an issue of his scraped fender, but the honking horns annoyed him so much he just went back to his car, pulled back into traffic and gave me the finger as he went buy.
The Mercedes drive was not content in simply taking my paperwork, he insisted on giving me a lecture, too, but I simply got back into the van, pulled into the spot I had intended to go, and let him deal with the enraged drivers cursing him for remaining in the middle of the lane after our transaction was done. With one more glare at me, he climbed back into his car and took his place in the slowly moving traffic, vanishing as I got out again and hunted for a pay phone to once more call Stanley.
By this time I had become a comic version of Perils of Pauline.
Stanley sounded weary. I could hear Donald’s voice in the background inquiring about my latest exploits.
I asked Stan if I should return to the warehouse since technically the worst part of my journey lay ahead in the narrow nightmare streets of lower Manhattan.
I foresaw only worse things happening.
But Stan – after a brief consultation with Donald – told me to continue on, and so I made my way back to the van and after a significant wait for an opening, I once more plunged ahead in the direction of the Holland Tunnel.
After a few blocks the stores and houses faded away into a line of brick factories, many of which were already abandoned as industry fled the state for the Deep South and eventually out of the country, leaving only the vague flavor of a magnificent past. It was an industrial ghost town filled with the one-time dreams of working men who had come here daily gripping lunch pails and hopes for building a better life.
The weeds in front of these gradually changed into reeds as the paved road reverted to cobblestone and the wheels of the van gave off a sound similar to that of a flat tire.
I caught glimpses of meadows through the gaps in the reeds, the golden heads swaying in the breeze that flowed up from the Hackensack River I was about to cross.
The world my grandfather and my uncles knew was changing before my eyes, and I felt the change even as I steer, seeing the ruins of their way of life and it made me sadder than the accident had – though I still dreaded what might happen next and worse what Stanley and Donald would say if and when I made it back to the warehouse.
I cross the bridge, and encountered the circle, and found the road that led to the Holland Tunnel without additional mishap.
This all would become familiar turf since many of Donald’s supplies occupied lower or midtown Manhattan places like Wedgewood on West 8th Street in the village, the pharmacy in Kips Bay on Third Avenue and 31 Street, stops east and west side, and sometimes even in Brooklyn. Oh, I would go uptown, too, to places like Boyd’s and other so called “chemists” and to places throughout New Jersey: Teaneck, Bogotá, Hoboken, and such, sometimes even going as far south as Red Bank.
Having survived to the Manhattan side of the Holland Tunnel, I was already changed, even if I feared the return trip, and I drove down Canal Street with a strange confidence I should not have felt, making the appropriate series of turns until I pulled up in front of the place where the Greek owner greeted me and directed me to a pile of boxes in the hallway of store’s first floor, as he returned to the basement level to help handle customers there.
I piled the precious cargo into the van as I would for the next year and half, part of a ritual upon which the future of the business depended – most of which was the most precious of items Donald in a 2004 magazine article boast about being fundamental to his retail sales.
I called Stanley when I was finished loading. Although he had scheduled other stops for me, I had taken so long to make this one, he told me to come back. I drove up town to the Lincoln Tunnel and back along the more familiar roads to Fairfield.
To my surprise, Donald and Stanley greeted me with divisive laughter, seeing the whole thing as some kind of elaborate joke.
The laughing, however, stopped a week later when Donald got a bill for repairing the Mercedes – a deal he made with the owner to avoid a hike in his insurance.
Donald grumbled around my choice of cars.
“Why couldn’t you have hit a fucking Ford?” he said.