When you tell Google Maps you want to avoid as many tolls as possible while leaving New York City, it takes you seriously.
Through Brooklyn, Manhattan, down a brick-paved street in Chinatown, across Little Italy, and finally through SoHo, where traffic to the Holland Tunnel and New Jersey slows to a crawl.
Someone behind you is laying on their horn though you can’t go anywhere because two taxis are trying to occupy the exact same spot in front of you and pedestrians and bicyclists are weaving between the cars and you can see the tunnel’s opening up ahead, you just can’t quite reach it.
And then you’re in, and you’re one of the millions of cells coursing through this artery of something so much bigger than yourself, until you pop out again in New Jersey, and smoke stacks belch above machinery and they don’t name the roads here and you wonder why, exactly, you thought driving to New York City was a good idea.
When my road finally rose away from Newark, rising into hills that turned to ridges with blue, mist-covered mountains in the distance, as a clean rain fell softly, I felt as though I had escaped.
I spent my weekend in Astoria with my three-years-younger brother, falling asleep to the roar of traffic muted through the window. And I, used now to quiet after a year and a half in western Pennsylvania, could have sat and watched the humanity pour past for hours.
(I would have loved my trip through the heart of the city if I wasn’t trying so hard not to kill anyone.)
In the small Mexican cafe I ate tacos in tiny, soft tortillas with lime and piled cilantro and tasted Jaumave, the summer nights in rural Mexico coming closer in the smells and the tastes.
And because I have, once, seen Times Square but have only read about Central Park, we spent our Saturday morning there, climbing dirty subway steps into a cloudy morning, crossing busy streets, wandering dirt paths onto asphalt paths and passing oh-so-many runners on our way.
The air felt cleaner but half a picture of a naked woman was ground into the dirt and it was a strange juxtaposition.
When we ate wraps outside his office, a pigeon cocked its head at us from feet away and a squirrel stood up to beg, ran up along the back of the bench and put one small paw on my brother’s shoulder before darting away again.
Touring was cut short when the rain began to fall and we ran the two blocks back to the subway and it was warm there, waiting for the rush of hot air that meant the train was come.
And then? Driving home Sunday night, peering through fog in the highland passes while rain fell and it was oh-so-dark, dropping slowly back down their sides toward home, I had to hit the brakes hard, again and again, for an Amish buggy appearing out of the night.
Three buggies, one family walking down the side of the road.
The only sound was my tires splashing on the wet asphalt and the steady plodding of horses hooves.
The contrast doesn’t get stronger.