Motoring (Article) (1973) – NY Times Book Review

My secret vice, Doctor, is that I drive a car. I realize that’s wrong of me, it’s ecologically improper and ethically unsound, but I can’t help it. It’s what I do outdoors. Despite everything from the Sierra Club and the energy crisis to radar traps and Nader’s Degraders (the ultimate automobile will be the Nadir 6) I just go on driving, trying my best to have a good time.

God knows I was given sufficient warning. My very first car, a 1949 Ford, had in the center of its grill a round chrome ball with a red 8 on it. I’ve been behind the automotive 8-ball ever since, with nobody to blame but myself.

After all, consider; an automobile in New York City is an absurdity to begin with, immoral to own, illegal to park and impossible to drive. A kooky but well-written guide book in card format called “Pan Am’s Insider’s New York” says, succinctly, “Not all motorists manage to survive in New York,” and suggests the visitor leave the damn thing home. Which is all well and good for visitors, but what if this Mordor-by-the-sea is home?

The only thing to do is to take the car someplace else, away from the city, out where the clean air can blow the tickets off. Besides which, driving a car where cars are sensible is fun. The only thing wrong with mass transit is that it’s mass transit; give me a clean-limbed car and an open road, and I’ll leave my worries behind.

But where the heck is the open road? Nowhere near New York, I can tell you that. My recommendation is to spend the first hour outward bound with your eyes closed; don’t worry, the trucks on both sides will keep you from going off the highway. Whether you travel north into New York State (a foreign country with which we have nothing in common except broken treaties), or northeast into Connecticut (a solemn warning and portent to Great Britain), or west into New Jersey (Dracula’s erector set), or east into Los Angeles (also known as Nassau County), the same horrible refuse pile must be somehow gotten through, usually on roads inadequate for the traffic.

Though most guidebooks are less explicit than “Pan Am’s Insider’s Guide” (in addition to the standard lists of restaurants and shops, and the standard walking tours, it tells you such things as where the hookers are and advises you to stay out of Harlem), they all acknowledge the ring of garbage around New York in one way or another. Exxon, for instance, which in its series of guidebooks (“Exxon Travel Club Illustrated Vacation Guides”) concentrates on 62 specific nationwide vacation areas in its six volumes, gives the city itself 30 pages but mentions nothing in the surrounding area closer than Asbury Park, 60 miles away on the Jersey shore. The “Mobil Travel Guides,” which cover the same territory more extensively and more accurately at the same per-volume price, do mention nearby places like Elizabeth, N.J. and Yonkers, but when you look closely what you’ll mostly find listed is the local Holiday Inn.

Which, in fact, is something of a flaw with both the Mobil and the Exxon series. If what you want is the nearest Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge and Red Coach Grill, neither guidebook will miss one of them, but if you’d like something a little different all of these guidebooks are pretty much hit and miss. Take, for instance, Lumberville, Pa. Now, you might not think there would be too much general motivation to go to Lumberville, Pa., but in fact it is part of a very pleasant scenic road along the Delaware River above New Hope, and there are two distinctive restaurants there, both well worth a visit. For good food and good service in a beautiful outdoor setting by a waterfall there’s the Cuttalossa Inn, and for dull food with great historical ambience there’s the Black Bass Hotel, which a book called “America’s Historic Inns and Taverns,” by Irvin Haas, tells me was built as a fort in the 1740’s and “is one of the oldest public buildings in continuous existence in the country.” The Haas book is a fascinating combination of history and architecture and is fun to read, but it isn’t a guidebook, and neither Mobil nor Exxon mentions either the Black Bass Hotel or the Cuttalossa Inn.

But if a restaurant makes it into an ordinary travel guide, the place is probably too standardized to be much more than a fueling stop anyway. Mobil and Exxon, by their emphasis on chain operations, are both contributing more than their share to the sameness and dullness that will eventually make driving about as much as brushing your teeth. Exxon, for instance, lists what it calls “en route hotels and motels” between their vacation areas, and every single one of them is a chain operation. If you stick with Exxon you’ll never discover, among other delights, the Fairfield Inn in Great Barrington, Mass., an inn in the old style, with huge well-cared-for rooms, lovely antique furnishings, and an atmosphere out of the 19th century. I found the place by accident because the glossy new local motel was full. The Mobil guide mentions it, but gives it only one star, and that’s just crazy. (The Holliday Inn up the road at Lenox gets two.) The same is true of the beautiful Andover Inn in Andover, Mass., one star from Mobil, no mention from Exxon. (The Andover Inn’s restaurant gets from Mobil a second star.)

As a matter of fact, I know a restaurant 70 miles from New York City where the food is the best I’ve had in the United States, where the setting is straight out of a thirties romantic comedy, where the husband and wife who run the place are charming, funny, literate and friendly, and where you can dawdle for hours with or without your host and hostess for companionship. Go ahead and look for it in a guidebook, but I’ll tell you it isn’t there. And I wouldn’t mention the name in print for a million dollars. “Alan wants to be recognized,” the wife said once of her chef-husband, “but not by the customers.” Right on.

You know what you get in guidebooks? The “Hagstrom Visitors’ Guide Welcome to New York,” an anthology of banalities anyway, tells us that there are 10,000 restaurants in Manhattan and lists what it calls “30 of the best,” including Jimmy’s, the Rainbow Room and Tavern on the Green. Now you know and I know that’s a compilation of some of the dullest food and worst service in the city.

Guidebooks, after all, bear the same relationship to life that the set of instructions bears to a complicated child’s toy; if all else fails, read the instructions. If hungry, tired, desperate and cranky, look in the guidebook.

And it would be nice if the guidebook, as well as being reasonably accurate, were fun to read. Like “Pan Am’s Insider’s Guide,” it describes, for instance, a “static-ridden, dubbed soundtrack that sounds as if it were recorded at a mugging.” Another guidebook that makes an entertaining read is “The USA: A Visitor’s Handbook,” which is meant primarily for the English-speaking foreign tourist and thus affords the sneaky pleasure of eavesdropping on a conversation about ourselves. “Americans,” the book says at one point, “regard New York with nervous awe.” I’ve never seen it said better.

The reason for having a well-written guidebook is so you’ll have something to do while stuck in that permanent traffic jam on the Long Island Expressway or Route 22. While the tractor-trailers grumble and snort, while the family-filled Datsuns honk, while the engine overheats and your nerves fray, you can curl up under the steering wheel with a good guidebook.



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