On the Road to . . . Jersey

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 /by

1968_volvo_144_2Beware city slickers on wheels.

My President’s weekend trip out of town started so pleasantly, in an East Village sort of way. I snuck away from work early on Friday afternoon and took a subway downtown. The sun was shining on the ragged, treeless streets as I pounded my way east. Dark little bars and restaurants were stirring. Peering into each, one thought kept entering in my head: I could be happy in there.

When I crossed Avenue B, I caught site of the car I’d be sitting in for the next four hours. My friend Mark had been talking about the vintage 1968 Volvo he’d picked up a few months ago. In front of me now was a low-slung yellow Volvo wagon that looked like it could have been built in 1938—when did those cool 60s models begin to look so ancient? I had a hard time imagining this car holding its own on the Jersey turnpike today.

Mark, a friend from my hometown in Pennsylvania—we were in second grade together but went to different high schools—met me there. We piled in, two skinny New York guys with scraggly beards, dressed in all black and headed for the sticks. We had no idea what we in were in for.

The bad signs started early. Immediately, I should say—Mark couldn’t get the car in gear. The shift was one of those long school-bus jobs that look unnecessarily difficult to control. Eventually it relented and we stuttered up to the red light on the corner.

“Let me just give this a spin around the block to make sure its going to be all right,” Mark said.

The car, and the trip, improved as we crawled through holiday-weekend traffic toward the Holland Tunnel. The interior gave new meaning to the word “basic”: beat-up, dark-yellow leather seats, a non-electrified dashboard that provided nothing but the essentials, and no air-conditioning or radio. All of which was a nice change: We were forced to entertain ourselves and use our brains to keep the conversation going.

Coming out of the tunnel on the Jersey side, we plugged Mark’s Ipod into its little white speakers and began to crank an old Art Blakey album. We had music, we were on the move, the gears were behaving—everything was going our way. Did it matter that we hadn’t brought a map, or that I couldn’t understand the Internet directions he’d printed out? Not at all—this was a road trip, no need to get uptight. After all, we had Blakey laying down the beat.

He must have distracted us. Before we knew it, we were forced to decide which way to turn, and we couldn’t make heads or tails of the half-dozen signs in front of us. Did we want I-9? 24? 280? Did we really want to make the detour to a place called Milburn that we were rapidly heading for? Again, the directions were no help—none of these roads appeared on the irritating printout in front of me, with its 1.6 miles this, 15.4 miles that.

We decided to get off and do the abominable: ask directions. This was a tacit admission of incompetence—defeat, in other words—but our road trip was in danger of becoming a circle route. For all we knew, we were going to be back in the East Village in 10 minutes. But there was a problem. When he slowed down for the off-ramp at Milburn, Mark couldn’t downshift. First and second gear had ceased to exist. A red light and a busy suburban intersection loomed ahead. I braced myself for god-knew-what.

Mark ground the gears as we got closer. No luck. In the end he did the only thing he could, sending the car over a curb and onto a grass-covered island at the side of the road. We waited there until the light turned green. Mark floored it. The Volvo lurched across the intersection—Beverly Hillbillies style—and found its way into a Safeway parking lot, where it safely, if erratically, crash-landed between two pickup trucks.

Thus marked the end of our adventure out of the big city. We’d made it 15 minutes into New Jersey, but we felt—and looked—a million miles from home as we walked up the sidewalk, past the auto-body shops and strip-mall stores, whipped by the stream of cars flying past us. A tow truck came to get Mark’s car. The driver was a fearless Italian guy who barreled right through traffic. We hadn't told him where were from, but he took one look at us and said, “Need a lift back into the city.”

OK, tennis, right, I haven't forgot. I’ll be back tomorrow with a preview of the upcoming women’s weekend in Doha. Pretty much everyone, excluding Justine Henin, is there.

For the time being, check out my recommendation to Pete Sampras over at ESPN.com.

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