Friday, February 13, 2009


I had my first experience with a G.P.S. last week, and it was just as I suspected: I am too defiant to take directions from a robot. I was on my way to Long Island with two friends, showing off by calling the garage the night before and asking them please to have my car ready at nine on Saturday morning (so decadent). We went down the ramp and there she was. I hadn’t seen her in more than a month. One of my friends said that the Éclair looked out of place among the Lexuses and the Cadillacs: a burro among thoroughbreds.

The G.P.S. was in the back seat. A friend with a set of directions printed out from Mapquest was in the front passenger seat. We were going to Long Island, to go seal-watching on a boat out of Freeport. I would need directions once we got to Freeport, but I knew how to get to Long Island, and I wanted to take the scenic route. We were well on our way over the Brooklyn Bridge before Ms. G.P.S. got her bearings. Right away, she tried to push me around. I wanted to go west on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (which is counterintuitive when your ultimate destination is Long Island, but that’s the way it works), and she suggested that I turn left after getting off the bridge: I went right. “Recalculating,” she said. At the light, she suggested I turn right: I turned left. “Recalculating.” At the left onto the BQE, she very much wanted to jerk me off course and take me on a joyride through Brooklyn, but I wanted to drive along New York Harbor, past the Verrazano and out the Belt Parkway to the Southern State. “Recalculating.” We looked out at the ships in the harbor, and I felt such a yearning to be on a boat, and then remembered that that was exactly where I was going: on a boat trip—yes!

I had thought it would be fun to experiment with the G.P.S., but it was actually annoying to have this bossy presence in the car, like a fourth for bridge who misses the signals and screws up the bidding and drives everyone crazy. She tried to get me to get off the BQE right away (I don’t know what she had in mind—a trip to the Ikea in Red Hook?), and, under her influence, my friends began to doubt my decision to stay in the lane for the Verrazano, but I sped on. “Recalculating.” Then she tried to get me to take the exit for the Sunrise Highway, which probably would have worked, but why should I do it her way when there was nothing wrong with my way? “Recalculating.” The one time when I should have obeyed, at the exit for the Meadowbrook Parkway South, I was talking, or something, and didn’t get into the right lane on time. “Recalculating.” At that point, I obeyed the G.P.S. and made the first legal U-turn.

Off the main road, I obeyed both my printed instructions and the G.P.S. lady, eventually reaching the fleet of Captain Lou on Woodcleft, one of three prongs of land between long canals in Freeport. The seal-watching boat boarded at twelve-thirty, and we were an hour and a half early—time to drive around and check out the fish markets and grab a bowl of clam chowder and a crab-cake sandwich. I had learned about the seal-watching tours at the boat show, at a booth manned by the Riverhead Foundation, which rehabilitates injured seals and sea turtles. Seals come south from Maine and points north in the winter, and a colony of them return every year to the calm waters of Hempstead Bay, behind Jones Beach.

It was my birthday, and I kept remembering how on my seventh birthday, fifty years ago (gad), my father took us to the circus. It may have been the happiest day of my life up to that point. It was a three-ring circus, with elephants and lion tamers and a man on the flying trapeze, but my favorite thing was the seals. I loved how they gleamed and balanced big balls on their noses and slapped their flippers together to applaud themselves. In my fervor for the seals, I began to cry, and my mother said, “Oh for heaven’s sake, what are you crying about now.” (I cried a lot as a child.) “Nobody is watching the seals,” I sobbed. “I’m watching them,” she snapped. Somewhat pacified, I kept my eyes glued to the seals, in the far ring, while everyone but my mother watched the stupid horses or the clowns, or whatever.

Now here I was on a boat with two good friends (we left the G.P.S. in the car), and every one of the forty or so passengers was intent on watching seals. The first one appeared to starboard at two-o’clock: it was resting on the platform of a giant cone-shaped buoy. Others we spotted on the port side, at about eight-o’clock, their sleek black heads gleaming. These were harbor seals. Some were splashing, and one put on a special show, “porpoising,” as they call it: arcing through the air like a brief black meteor. Seals always look like they're having fun.

Back on land, we bought lemon sole and sea scallops at the fish market. We detoured briefly down Guy Lombardo Avenue, for old times’ sake. For the trip home, we did not reactivate the G.P.S.—even for me, it was too much of an exercise in defiance—instead feeling our way back to the Meadowbrook and then to the Southern State and the Belt. I got off at Cross Bay/Woodhaven and took my usual route home from Rockaway, via the L.I.E. and the Midtown Tunnel, back to the garage. It was all very satisfying. My only regret is that I didn’t bring home some baby octopus.


Susan T. said...

Oh, I love the seals and the circus story. I'm glad you got to see them again.

erieblue said...

I love the circus story.

Baby said...

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