You can tell a lot about a person by the way he travels. Take someone I live with. I’ll call him Harold.
Let’s start with the positives. He can find his way anywhere. I’m pretty sure the GPS is structured on his brain that I imagine to be an immense grid with points A and B clearly marked. Kind of like the ending shot of The Matrix when Neo jumps up from the street and the streets become a map that then becomes a computer matrix.
This makes Harold, in some ways, a terrific traveling companion. After landing at Fiumicino Airport recently, catching the Leonard Express into Rome, and making our way through the gauntlet that is Termini Station, I suggested we shake off the dust of the road in an air conditioned taxi to our hotel. Harold wouldn’t hear of it. He looked at the map. He pointed straight. We zigzagged through the crowded streets. We arrived at our hotel. Amazing.
I used to whine a lot about asking directions, but I’ve learned that when Harold puts his snout to the sky and sniffs, he knows what he’s doing. The only thing you have to watch out for is when he stops suddenly, either on foot or in the car, and mutters mysteriously, “Oh, I see” and you know he’s gone the wrong way, possibly by as much as ten miles, but he’s figured out what he’s done wrong and, therefore, is incredibly pleased with himself and is ready to get back on track. Tired feet or a sore seat, Harold will deliver you to your destination…eventually. If you complain, he looks at you, at your shallow, impatient self, and never says, but you know he’s thinking, ”It’s not the destination; it’s the journey,” or some similar Zen like bon mot.
Most Clevelanders have never driven the entire length of Central Ave. But I have, with Harold, his completely open Howdy Doody face turning this way and that, taking in all the wildly different cultural opportunities offered by the urban landscape.
But even Harold’s not perfect. Once he has a destination in mind and convinces himself that he knows how to get there, it’s like pulling gum out of hair to get him to reconsider. His grandmother owned an old car that wouldn’t go into reverse. So, grandma only parked where she could go forward. Harold must have inherited this gene. Once the car is going north, for example, it’s going to stay north, by golly. Even if the better way is, say, south.
This happened the other night. Even though I’m the one who spent three years driving our daughter back and forth to cello lessons with a teacher at a college 15 miles away, Harold was sure he knew the better way to go there when our nephew, a student at said college, had a recital.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been such a big deal if I hadn’t already spent five hours in the car that day, in an ice storm, driving to Columbus and back to pick up our daughter. Maybe, as Harold ridiculously claimed, he had no control over the immense traffic jam at 8:30 that night, clogging the onramp to the freeway that we shouldn’t have been trying to get on, that wound around the curve like the insides of a hair-and-yuck-stuffed drain. But at the pivotal moment, when I said, “left” and he said “right,” dear ol’ grandma’s spirit took possession of Harold… and the car… and jammed us into 30 minutes of traffic-stalled hell. Because, after all, who knew the car could be turned around and go back the other way – not Harold, apparently.
There’s something about the men in my life. For example, my father’s myth-making driving blunder when my parents decided to take seven of their eight children (my sister managed to miss this) to Washington D.C. for a sweltering Memorial Day weekend in 1968. You know those great big roomy truck-like things that you can buy now to transport many people from place to place? We didn’t have one of those. We had a wood-paneled station wagon. It fit all ten of us – uncomfortably.
As someone who has lived in D.C. as an adult, I can tell you that our founding fathers missed the idea of streets that connect to each other in a grid. Or, the idea that if you’re going to have disjointed roadways, it might be wise to give them different names.
So, it’s no wonder that our poor father was confused. Not to mention the aforementioned sweaty, sardine-packed offspring teasing each other all the way back to the third row of seats.
But when Dad took the turn and started up the one-way ramp – the wrong way – he trumped any travel faux pas you could ever imagine Harold committing. The sight of three lanes of traffic coming full force at you is a vivid memory. And it just makes me laugh. Probably because my father’s response to our screams of “Dad!! “ “Watch out!!” and to someone’s hysterical screech, an ominous baseline to this wacky scene, was his usual understatement – “Oops.” There were some nice people in D.C. at that point in history – they’re the ones who stopped while my discombobulated dad did a u-turn to get us the hell out of there.
John Steinbeck who knew a bit about travel, having driven across the country with his dog Charlie, wrote that “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike” and when thinking about D.C., I say thank God. And when thinking about Harold, it’s clear that we can be on the same journey, but different trips.