I rarely drive a car. I renewed my license at the DMV in Jamaica (a neighborhood deep in Queens where most of the borough’s courts and municipal buildings are located) only about a month before it expired. The picture on my Virginia license was still the shaggy-haired monstrosity that a bespectacled woman in Culpeper snapped just shy of my 16th birthday. I once went to the bank for some business that the managers would actually review and found that the old photo and a chicken-scratch signature that no longer resembled the one on the back of the card or the bank’s records were insufficient to prove that I was, in fact, Peter Amos, formerly of Orange, Va.
Anyway—old license or new, I only drive when I’m in Virginia and want to go to Food Lion or on the rare occasion that I rent a car. Even on those rare occasions that I rent a car, I make every effort—long detours, additional travel time, other inconveniences—to avoid driving toward Manhattan. The only way I enter or leave the city is by way of the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island and the Outerbridge or Goethals to New Jersey. I never—if I can avoid it by any measure, reasonable or otherwise—drive toward the skyline.
I do, however, occasionally ride in a car. A few friends drive and there are cabs and Ubers and Lyfts that I take every now and again that I find myself stuck somewhere remote, late at night, with little public transportation.
My wife and I have been in New York now for almost six years and I’m not often disoriented in the city. I rarely use maps except to recall the address of a restaurant or shop. It’s whether it’s between Washington and St. James or Washington and Waverly. Not where exactly Washington or St. James or Waverly is. Or how to get to Washington or St. James or Waverly. But on the way home from a late night deep in Astoria, in the back of a taxi, I spotted a truck parked on the curb and became suddenly and strangely confused.
Everyday, on a main commercial street in our neighborhood, I walk by a man who sells fruit from the back of a huge repurposed moving truck. Its sad, drab, anemic gray panels bleed orange with corrosion and buckle under bolts that are weathered, tightly screwed and pinching metal brittle from years of abuse. But the whole truck, save the cab, is spray-painted with neon designs that change constantly. It’s there—with purple bears holding hands or kaleidoscope pineapples exploding with color—everyday, rain or shine, weekday or weekend, holiday or not. The back door is covered with loops and curls and the words “FRUIT STAND” sprayed on in massive, exotic-looking letters.
The truck is as much a landmark in my memory as the train overpass down the block from its usual spot. Until I suddenly saw it from the back of a cab pulling off the Long Island Expressway into the strange network of sidewalk-less offramps and underpasses. There’s nowhere to walk on the highways so I don’t know the smooth concrete of their columns, turns of their buttonhooks, grades of their ramps or gray of their construction. A foreign city, lifted over the city I know by asphalt and heavy piles. We pulled up to a stoplight and I saw it on the curb, dark and unoccupied, wedged between a minivan and a blacked out cab. I immediately assumed we were on some back street of our neighborhood that I’d never seen. But the highway doesn’t come this close, does it? Where are the train overpasses? I don’t see any stores I recognize. After a minute or two of stoplights and sharp turns, merges and crossings, we joined the hullabaloo of Queens Boulevard, a spot I’d run past dozens of times, but further down than we typically left the expressway. Still, it only took the presence of that bizarre neon truck to throw my entire map of the city into confusion.
I saw the truck in the same spot every day and, when it appeared somewhere new, I more readily assumed the city had moved than the truck. How much of what I thought I knew was really just habit, markers and landmarks I’d learned to associate with cross-streets and geography? How stable was my conception of this city if moving one of those markers down the boulevard a mile and a half was enough to make my eyes wide and nose smudge the glass? I quickly come to believe that I know a thing, and those things are often gracious in permitting the assumption. But what I know is framed, completely limited and utterly defined, by the most incidental of factors.
I rarely drive a car. My city is totally different from that of a driver. Neither is complete.
Peter is a native of Orange County and the son of an English teacher and a librarian with freakishly eclectic musical tastes. He studied music in college and subsequently moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.