Creative Nonfiction: Driving Upstream On The Saw Mill River Parkway

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Driving Upstream on the Saw Mill River Parkway
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So, really, it’s become something standardized, an apocryphal story I can use at parties or when just meeting people, a story that neatly encapsulates my hate/hate relationship with New York City. It’s the short, finely tooled version of a long, boring story. It’s sort of like when someone gets an injury, gets a brace or crutches or something, and for the first 10 or 20 times, when someone else asks, “What happened?” the injured party will tell the story, the details, the odd bits and the erratum. Eventually, though, it gets repetitious and tedious, and the story gets shorter and easier to tell, and efficient until it becomes something like, “Fell down the stairs outside my house. Six weeks in a brace and another six weeks of physical therapy.” Information conveyed, questions answered before they are asked, and we’re all on to another topic, one of real interest.*

So, this is the long way to introduce the idea of me driving up the Hudson River in my ridiculous green Jeep Patriot** and how I sometimes struggle with the steering wheel as the little car fights to cross the George Washington Bridge, to head west, to make tracks for Moab or Pie Town or Snowflake or Fort Collins or just about any damn place 1,500 miles thataway. Instead, I muscle the thing like a half-broke mustang and guide us both together up the river to another river, the Saw Mill River, and drive that river upstream, drive north instead of west, to Yonkers, to Bronxville, to my home and my family on, more or less, the shores of yet another river, this one named the Bronx River. That’s a lot of rivers.

If someone has known me long enough to watch me meet new people, that person will probably hear me tell this story every time in pretty much the same way I told it to them. It is kind of humorous, but it also clearly states how difficult it is for me to even imagine myself living in New York, commuting into the belly of the beast every other morning and getting paid to talk about movies, books and writing. Beats working six ways to Sunday, believe me, because I’ve worked, and any day without a paper-hat and a name-tag is a good day, any day without gloves and boots to protect one’s digits from dirty and dangerous things, any day without breathing harmful fumes without benefit of proper ventilation is a good day.

It was just a little over a year ago, however, that I let the Jeep have its head and we crossed the George Washington Bridge, crossed the Hudson River, and headed west loaded with snacks, beverages, maps and my science/cultural advisor and researcher, OV Jr. At some point we recognized that we were driving on the very first interstate highway ever built.*** Can’t say I was thrilled beyond reckoning, but the lanes were suddenly alive with 4-wheelers, pick-up trucks, don’t-tread-on-me snake stickers and the Confederate Stars & Bars. We were in Pennsylvania, all right. OV expressed confusion.

“The North won the Civil War, right?” he asked me.


“Pennsylvania was on the Northern side, right?”


“Gettysburg was a huge battle in the Civil War, right?”

“Absolutely. It was the seal of doom on the Southern rebellion.”

“In Pennsylvania, right?”


“About 5 miles from here?”


“And these guys fly the Confederate battle flag on their Pennsylvania pick-up trucks?”

“It speaks more to ideology than geography,” I answered.

OV slumped in the passenger seat, though he was surreptitiously checking his ammo and stared out the window.

“Amish people and shit, right?”

“Hundred percent.”




“Liberty Bell.”

“Uh huh.”

“Declaration of Independence.”




“United States of …” I replied.

Brooding silence.

In this part of the country, wildlife is abundant and careless, while people have learned to keep their pets away from the highway. Roadkill is almost always a skunk, a rabbit, a squirrel, a raccoon, an opossum, a wild turkey or a deer. Sometimes, there is roadkill piled on top of roadkill as a vulture or a hawk or even an eagle that once scavenged interstate buffet found itself part of the entrée du jour. I found myself longing for the days I carried a can of silica gel, plastic gloves and bags, a hatchet and a knife for the harvesting of roadkill … interesting skulls, feathers, claws, etc. You should see my house. No, you shouldn’t.

Harrisburg has the look, the look of America, the look of biscuits and gravy, hold the irony. America wears its damn hat frontways forward. America will not suffer what it has suffered every day for the last … ooooh … the motel has a build-your-own-waffle machine for breakfast buffet. America is doing just fine.

Three Mile Island is right there, surrounded by poor people who seem to be distinctly brownish and enjoy high rents in the lowest valued real estate in town with the highest cancer rates.**** It’s the cost of doing business, I guess. The Susquehanna, a pretty damn big river, rolls on, and the snail shells are at least as radioactive as the cultured granite countertop back home. In Yonkers, I mean.

Living in New York and, specifically, the Greater East Coast Megalopolis, the one stretching from Baltimore to Boston along the Atlantic Coast, that megalopolis, it’s easy to forget that only 50 or 100 miles inland, it’s America. It’s not New York City or some suburb-connector community between the pointy bits. It’s strip malls and country-Western music and fluorescent lights on the highway at night and big, deep rivers rolling on silent and strong in the deepest of Pennsylvania nights despite nuclear accidents here, there or anywhere. Poisonous snail shells aside, the world is a confused and confusing place; here at the eastern edge of the Heartland, a message is broadcast from the AM stations and the strip-mall (not storefront) churches (with white pastors, not black preachers): God, the perfect essence of perfect love, is angry and wants money.

The local motel with the waffle machine is stuffed full of traveling Christian teens singing and dancing their love for the Lord from small city, big town churches within striking distance of their task force of logoed Chevy vans and stout sedans of uncertain origin. They are the Armor of God or something. They wear a bible quote of their t-shirts (Ephesians 5:18), but they don’t know the verse (“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”).

“Good to know,” says the youngster.

“Good to believe in and use as a guide in this confused and confusing world,” I tell him.

“Yessir,” he says, staring straight at the number flasher thing in the two-storey elevator.

“God don’t want you messing around with nothing but the Holy Spirit, boy,” I continued. “He don’t hold with the distiller’s wicked art.”


“Beer and wine?” asked OV.

“Exactly,” I was happy to affirm. “These are drinks which man working with nature ferments, a totally God-approved process.”

“You getting this boy?” asks OV, only this time a little bit of pistol shows.


How long does an elevator take to travel a distance of … say … 15 feet? In Harrisburg, Pa., the site of America’s worst known nuclear disaster, it takes way too fucking long for a poor kid in a t-shirt. It’s a living example of relativity, of how time is a function of perception. For OV and myself, this is an amusing few seconds of chitchat with a fool, though it’s not really his fault, so we’re not going to mess around too much.

“You might want to suggest the rest of your crew, your little brainwashed choir chirping out your upbeat teen tuneage ’cause Jesus is cool and like your best friend if you let him into your heart learn what it is they’se singin’ about, about just exactly who they’se singin’ about.”

No response. This kid’s had training. He’s done time in some summer camp learning how to block abortion clinics, debate evolutionists or, more likely, protect himself against the temptations all male Middle American teenagers face: alcohol, sex, drugs, anything with an eternal combustion engine, other male Middle Americans.

“We let Jesus into our hearts,” I say, and OV is pushing the “doors closed” button.

“We didn’t like Jesus in our hearts,” he tells the boy in the Armor of God t-shirt.

The kid is good, and even though he’s turned a bright shade of red and he’s shaking, trembling, he won’t look at the red letter “L” in the elevator control panel. Or OV’s finger holding the door shut.

“One day,” I told him, “We asked Jesus to leave our hearts.”

“There’s like holes in our hearts shaped like Jesus,” OV explains.

“They’re all empty,” I add. “They’re all empty, our Jesus-shaped heart holes.”

OV withdraws his finger from the button, and the doors sort of stutter open; our boy is gone so fast, he’s somewhere in the middle of a huge, and by “huge” I mean around 20, group of similar teens, both boys and girls, wearing identical Armor of God t-shirts.

It’s like the end of
The Deer Hunter where the landscape and the stag and the man form a perfect, resonant shape of mind-body-spirit in the light of a truer kind of dawn, enlightenment. Well, not so much that, but there is a kind of poise between what once was, what’s left, what could have been and what is probably going to happen. They’re telling us now that maybe the radiation at Chernobyl is actually good for a couple of species of birds who seem to benefit from the antioxidant effect of constant, low levels of certain kinds of radiation.*****

I’m not going where everyone seems to always go. Is it safe? Of course not. It’s the site of America’s worst nuclear accident (that we know about). Is there any scientific data to show how unsafe? Sure. And a bunch that shows the area to be perfectly safe and certainly no worse than any other particular place. I’ve been to Chernobyl, and Harrisburg is no Pripyat. Pripyat is a freak-show ghost town, frozen in time, anbandoned, except it’s constantly decaying and deteriorating, collapsing and succumbing to Darwinism via Relativity. One big difference, see, is that we can build our own waffles in Harrisburg, and we do so with gusto, though we, OV and I, never completely abandon firearms. We’ve got places to be, and they don’t include confrontations with local Tea Party, Confederate, frontways hat-wearing locals pissed off that Mexicans are getting all the good jobs. None of this would be possible in Pripyat.

OV and I are able to locate the areas of Harrisburg considered to be “hot,” to be “cancer clusters,” to have been directly covered in the plumes of radioactive steam vented on and off and on during the management of the what-the-hell brinksmanship that keeps a nuclear reactor already off the rails from getting worserer and worserer forever and ever, by looking for a Crown Chicken place. When we find one, we know we’ve found the epicenter of the contamination. It all looks fairly benign, this Three Mile Island does, and what is anyone going to do about it anyway?
3 All those people in Japan, in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima now, all those people in Ukraine, didn’t get a Crown Chicken place. They got to relocate themselves to whatever passes for a FEMA trailer in those parts.

OV and I are sort of sad when we leave Harrisburg for our return to Megalopolis, kind of let down and discouraged and a little bit sad. To help out, we stopped at The Pennsylvania Gift Haus
4, home to Roadside American, The World’s Greatest Indoor Miniature Village.5 Certainly, that’s a judgment call, but since we didn’t really go look at it, we don’t have the experience required to really judge the thing at all.

So, now, I guess, I’m more or less back in one of the world’s largest life-sized cities driving upstream, eventually under the George Washington Bridge, and I won’t go west, I’ll go north, and that will make all the difference.


*For instance:

Norman Mailer Buying Batteries

I have this imitation I do at parties. Most of my friends have seen me do it several times but it’s pretty funny, and they’ll say things like "You should watch him do this" or "Check this out; it’s pretty funny" to the person they’re talking to. Sometimes they will prod me and say "Come on, Robert, do that thing," and I’ll hold my hands near my face and say, "Oh, no. Not at a party," and then I’ll do it.

It’s pretty subtle, mostly gesture and expression, and a lot depends on lifting an eyebrow at precisely the right moment or on the way I curl my hand around my glass or can of beer or whatever and point my index finger just so. It’s more like a gestalt or a channeling or something psychic than just doing an imitation, an impersonation.

A girl I met at a party asked me to do it for her one morning.

She said, "Do that again. Do that thing you did at the party."

I told her I had no idea what she was talking about.

Masterson, Robert C. “Norman Mailer Buying Batteries.” blink/ink, North Branford, Connecticut (November 2011)

**NYC parking garage attendants and I have been trying to name this color for five years. It’s pointless to try to explain Hot Wheels or Deora from the 1960s, so we usually settle on “electric” or “neon” green. Nothing to be ashamed of …

***It’s almost certain that the bones of dead people are mixed in with the cement that was used to build this highway system. Think about it.

****When radiation moves in, industry moves out. Quite near the hottest of hotspots in Harrisburg.


1. The Holy Bible [New International Version (NIV) (].

2. Ezekiel 25:17

3. The other reactors and power generating stations at Three Mile Island still pump out the kilowatts.


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