As I enter southern Jersey from Delaware on I-95 I start seeing the signs: Congestion Ahead, Exit 7a.
I ignore the warnings for 60 miles or so until I am literally in sight of 7a. I can see the exit and I can see the cars stopped ahead. It’s a parking lot.
I am about a quarter mile away. I have maybe 60 seconds to decide whether to get off or press on into the pileup.
I’m alone and unable to stop and consult the map so I do what I’ve been doing my entire life: I call my father.
“Dad, I’m at exit 7a on the Turnpike,” I say. “There’s heavy traffic. Can I get off here? What are my options?”
My father doesn’t miss a beat.
“Go ahead and get off. You can take I-295 to U.S. 1 and that will take you along the same path north.”
I’m now 30 seconds from the exit.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, once you are on Route 1 you can jump back on the Turnpike after crossing the Raritan River,” he says.
I’m now 15 seconds from the exit.
“Or you can take Route 130 and reconnect with Route 1 at Milltown and then get on the Turnpike. “
“Or just stay on Route 1 and it will take you past 78 to the Lincoln Tunnel.”
I get the picture. There are lots of options.
I get off at the exit.
As I climb the ramp I glance down at the traffic. The cars are caught in the maw of Sunday afternoon construction. It extends forward as far as the eye can see like a giant Amazonian centipede. I feel sorry for them.
My father is a human GPS for New Jersey. He knows the highways and byways and specializes in alternatives to the Turnpike and Parkway. He has a sense of spacial relationships lost on my generation.
Growing up in a small town in New Jersey you tend to know how to get to New York, or the Shore or Newark Airport, but not the towns in between.
And that’s even more true if you left for college and didn’t return. People always wonder how I can be from the state and have no understanding of its geography.
But I’m not alone. And anyway today we rely on iPhones. Often I don’t map out where I’m going until I get in the car and type in the address. I listen to Siri. She tells me what to do.
A number of years ago, before Siri, my father had surgery for Glaucoma. It was in Newark. I picked him up in the car and as I was driving out of the parking lot I realized I had no idea how to get home.
My father was sitting in the backseat. He told my mother to reach into the glove compartment where he had stashed pre-written instructions.
As it turned out, they weren’t necessary because even with bandages covering both eyes he began to give me directions. I needed to exit left on Bergen Street and turn left on South Orange Ave. He told me to pass about six streets until I got to Norfolk.
“Go straight across Norfolk until you get to Springfield Ave,” he said. “There’s a statute of Lincoln coming up at the corner of Market,” he commented. “It’s unusual because he’s sitting down.”
He told me to take a right on Market and head down toward the heart of d Newark at Broad Street. From there it was just a few more streets to McCarter Highway, which would carry us back to the suburbs.
Even blindfolded he could name the streets as we were passing them. And he added in color about the city, stories about the Courthouse and the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
He did this even though he hasn’t lived in Newark since he was three.
That’s something even Siri cannot do.
**Published by Ted Merz Oct 22, 2014**