Going Nowhere Fast

ride_to_nowhere.jpg

This weekend’s City section of the New York Times featured a
mind-blowing essay by children’s-book writer Sarah Shey about her habit
of taking her one-year-old son out for drives in the city — drives
with no destination or purpose in mind, in which she crossed and
recrossed the Brooklyn Bridge endless times.

Shey, who is
originally from Iowa, writes that she missed "the pristine geometry of
vacant blacktops, where a car can travel at
least mile a minute, stair-stepping from field to unclothed field and
not meet a patrol car." So she decided to try to recreate her family’s
bygone post-supper aimless-driving ritual here in the big city. You
really have to read the whole thing to believe it, but here are some highlights:

Supper
hour didn’t work for us in Brooklyn. We had both traffic patterns and
my son’s schedule to consider. So early Saturday morning it was. My
son and I got to escape our cavelike apartment. My husband got to
lounge in bed for a few extra hours. And the best part of the deal: I got to concentrate on the road – not, for a change, on my family.

Our nondestination of choice was the Brooklyn Bridge. Back and forth we’d drive – sometimes 10 or 12 times – as if we were on autopilot.
I leaned back into the bucket seat of my hatchback, whose posture
recalled a dromedary. My hand squeezed the automatic clutch as if it
were a stick shift, and for the first time in a week I felt in control.

My destiny was clear: to span the East River. The
green light flashed above Tillary Street. I smashed down the
accelerator, and with its 130-horsepower engine, my car attacked the
1.5-mile route with exhaust streaking behind us, I imagined, like a
contrail.

Shey discovers a few little hitches in her unfettered freedom, like traffic regulations:

For
the first couple of times, I took the Manhattan-bound Chambers Street
exit, ignoring the "No Turns" sign, and spun around as soon as I passed
the triangular traffic divider, a risky maneuver. I didn’t want to make
that a habit; I was well acquainted with the New York Police
Department. Once, on Tillary Street, opposite Brooklyn’s main post
office, I got pulled over by a police officer. He had found fault with
my decision to circumvent a backlogged entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge
by cutting across two lanes of traffic while waving my arm out the
window. I pushed open my door.

"Ma’am, stay in your car," the officer said. "Do you realize what I pulled you over for?"

"Gosh, I know I did something terribly wrong, sir. It felt terribly wrong."

He looked into my eyes. "Ma’am, among other things, you ran a red light. " I’ll let you off with a warning.

"Oh, thank you, sir. It’s a very confusing approach. I’ll do a better job next time."

Luck wouldn’t always be on my side. It was time to find a legal route.

Luck
was indeed with Shey, and the hapless pedestrians and bicyclists
cluttering the streets she felt called to zoom down, unhampered by
silly conventions like traffic lights and lane markings. Not because
she didn’t get a ticket, but because she didn’t injure anyone as her
car "attacked" her chosen route.

It apparently never
occurred to her that she might need to create a new family ritual for
Saturday mornings, one more suited to life in New York — like, say,
going for a walk. For Shey, evidently, standing on her own two feet
doesn’t afford as much freedom as burning oil on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Photo: Todd Heisler for the New York Times

  • AD

    Toll it.

    Please.

  • David

    The insanity isn’t only limited to Shey. Consider that the NYT City section editors felt that this essay speaks of the life of the city in some salient way — that NYT readers would relate to it.

    Who knows. They might be right. It would explain why, so often, cycling advocates and Transportation Alternatives-types are presented in the media as crazy radicals or as “Low Impact Man” now refers to himself, “a bike Nazi.”

    We look at this Shey story and she looks like she is close to being sociopathic. The editors of the City section and who knows how many other New Yorker think, “Ahhh, yes, the call of the open road. Attack!!!!”

    It’s like some sort of baby boomer sickness this automobile = freedom thing.

  • I’m so glad you wrote about this, because I almost spit out my cereal this morning as I was reading this article.

    First of all, I can’t think of anything more miserable than driving back and forth in my car for hours on end in New York City.

    Second of all, I wanted to cry at the thought of all of that needlessly wasted gasoline. I know not everyone is as peak oil frenzied as I am, but seriously. She really thought this was a perfectly fine activity to partake in? Or at least tell me she must have been aware of global warming–but she still thought it was OK to spew all that CO2 for no reason?

    Not even carbon credits would absolve her of this (or her compatriots in Iowa who are probably doing the same thing).

  • Gizler

    LOL, this one floored me too. My favorite passage was “I saw that I was trying to do for my son what my parents had done for me, removing us from the address particular to our family to take part in something that existed beyond us.”

    What?!? Right – the only way to do that in NYC is to drive around aimlessly in a car. Lady, do us all a favor and get back to Iowa where you belong.

  • Matt H

    Oddly enough, I can relate just the tiniest bit. Getting on my bike and riding a loop somewhere within the city limits — to Central Park, some place I haven’t been, whatever, just to explore, look at the changing streetscape, etc., etc., is profoundly rewarding to me. Even if it’s not really utility cycling, and I don’t have much destination in mind.

    The fact that I’m not engaging in such an activity in a 2-ton CO2-spewing vehicle with a significant appetite for fuel and scarce urban space makes, well, a mite of a difference.

  • Andy

    As an Iowan living in Brooklyn, as a biker, and as a conscientious, sentient human being who is aware of my surroundings, I am deeply offended by this anecdote.

  • brent

    Yes, this article was selected because the NYT editors found it relevant and it represents a real viewpoint. I think the good of the article comes from how much it reveals about the suburban values that are eroding our urban way of life. The Times get enormous revenue from automobile advertisements and therefore the implications of this article make perfect sense; this person came from a non-urban place to NYC not to embrace a new urban lifestyle, but rather to impose her anti-urban ways on us. This fluff piece might as well have been written by the Toyota marketing department- “The way to achieve freedom in NYC is to buy a Toyota so you can drive back and forth across the BK Bridge!” One can expect this mindset in the Corn Belt where it is an offense to challenge the idea that cars are synonymous with freedom, but it is really frightening when NYers, even ones who were born here, accept this silliness.

  • jack

    No wonder no one takes bikers seriously, you don’t even want people driving in the city at the absolute lowest traffic times.

    Shey clearly falls into Einstein’s definition of insane, but to disregard a joyriding in its entirety is extreme. In my 9 years of driving, I’ve had exactly 3 NYC joyrides: off peak and beautiful.

  • BusGirl

    Yes, wasting the gas, proclaiming car culture… but what about all the illegal traffic maneuvers with a kid in the car??? Moves even she herself calls risky. We may not always agree with the standards by which our roadways are built, but they are often designed with safety in mind. There are reasons we don’t run red lights, cross multiple lanes of traffic and make illegal u-turns ignoring all signs. How can this woman risk her child in this way?

  • Anne

    many of us have fond childhood memories of family car trips, but those experiences should be seen for what they are: relics of a former time and place. even non-urban areas are dealing with the effects of strip-malls, sprawling developments, and traffic-clogged highways. the private automobile + open road = freedom equation doesn’t really work anymore, and it is obviously a particularly foolish thing to try to replicate in the city.

    today’s children need a 21st century paradigm. and the writer needs to have her license taken before she hurts someone.

  • Boon Doggle

    Anne – well put. I sure hope you (and/or the other folks with cogent comments here) wrote a letter to the NY Times.

  • We need to figure out a different way for car addicts to get their speed & power fixes. I dunno — free tickets to a roller coaster? Video game therapy? Hang gliding excursions? Somehow people managed to satisfy their need for speed and power before the automobile was invented; this isn’t an impossible assignment, it just requires some creativity.

  • Laurence,

    Bicycling?

  • Dan

    One of the most telling phrases is her statement that, “…for the first time in a week I felt in control.”

    Now we see what it’s all about. Not to play amateur psychologist, but she obviously has issues that extend beyond an affection for her car.

    What a sad sight: a woman roaring back and forth over the Brooklyn Bridge with her toddler son by her side, gripping the wheel tight and recklessly accellerating while screaming to no one in particular, “I’m in control! I’m in control!”

    I can’t believe the Times actually paid this woman to generate this hollow content.

  • aaron

    are you people serious? somebody driving across the brooklyn bridge “10-12” times is not worthy of ANY criticism and is not environmentally reckless. it’s only about 1.4 miles from city hall to tillary st. so once a week in this little hatchback which probably gets at least 20mpg she’s entertaining herself with less than a gallon of gas. i’m not saying she shouldn’t follow traffic laws but driving less than 20 miles for the fun of it is ok by me.

  • philipp

    i wonder if she would feel any differently if her son were sent to iraq? at first, she probably would not, but once he was brutally killed or maimed, maybe she would.

    perhaps charlie rangel’s draft plan should be aimed at families like shey’s. i’ll bet many ‘murricans’ opinions would change….fast though not as fast as we’d like.

  • Mike S

    Aaron,
    IMHO, entertaining yourself with gasoline is like throwing food off a building for fun.

  • Ian Turner

    Aaron,

    From my perspective (and I suspect others’ here as well), the thing that is truly offensive here is not the idea of consuming energy for entertainment; we all do that in some way and to some extent. Rather, the issue is the sense of entitlement that the author takes to her disregard for the safety of her urban companions, her son, and herself. Also, that the author uses this disregard as a way of escaping from the issues in her life represents to many the dominance of the private car not just as a mode of transportation but as a mode of existance — which ideal is certainly a damaging thing in the aggregate.

    Although you are correct that the oil consumed in this joyride is of little consequence, the sentiment expressed in the article is representative of much that is of great consequence.

    Cheers,

    –Ian

  • And on behalf of Aaron Donovan, Brad Aaron and myself, I just want to note that there are way too many Aaron’s on this site now.

  • anon

    This woman writes children’s books? I pity her kid. She was probably smoking and talking on a cell phone while driving on this careless trip to nowhere.

  • Ace

    The pure idiocy of these posts is frightening. Because someone drives in their hatchback over the Brooklyn Bridge several times at 7 am on a Saturday moring with their child, they are: (a) destroying the environment; (b) ruining their children; (c) endangering pedestrians; (d) supporting the Iraq war; (e) supporting the suburbanization of NY and (f) (gasp!) not performing a family ritual appropriate for a NY resident (whatever that means). Clearly, most of you are allowing your anger to overwhelm any common sense that you may have once had.

    The point of the article is taking something most “sentient” Americans have experienced – (and which human being, by the way, is not sentient?)– the thrill of driving the open road — and applying it in a humorous way to our cramped existence in New York. The parts about the officer pulling the driver over are obviously funny to anyone who has ever been pulled over by an officer — although by the sound of things you lot don’t get out much (probably as you’re too busy figuring out who else to hate). In sum, I would encourage the posters who are genuinely in favor of progressive change to focus their ire on more pressing targets than a mom who drives her child over the brooklyn bridge at 7 am on a Saturday.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Ace, we welcome your invitation to constructive dialogue.

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