BY HARRY ANDERSON
June 24, 2015
For most of my life, I lived in big cities and drove crowded freeways with aplomb. In Los Angeles, I could maneuver my sensible, four-cylinder Volvo sedan on the insanely congested I-405 with the skill of a Maserati owner. I stuck to the inside lane of the I-10 and made it from my Santa Monica apartment to my job in downtown El Lay in half an hour. (That, sadly, is no longer possible, given today’s gridlock.)
After I moved to Dallas, I followed the advice of native-born Texans and stuck to the toll roads whenever possible. Drunks and the uninsured make the Lone Star State’s “free”-ways a free-for-all, I was warned. (Texans likes to brag about their low taxes, but they neglect to mention that they really soak you with tolls on their “un-free” ways.) On the toll roads you can go as fast as your Texas swagger desires, dodging in and out of Hummers, Lexuses, Escalades and Mercedes along the way. Scary but fun.
Since I moved to Whidbey Island six years ago, however, I have celebrated our delightful absence of freeways with loud hosannas. And today, whenever I must travel to America I feel my sphincter muscles tighten the moment I exit this beloved Rock on my way to the dreaded I-5.
The worst I have to deal with on our two-lane Highway 525 (which, for no discernible purpose, changes its name to Highway 20 mid-island) is getting behind a 40-foot RV driven by an 80-year-old Canadian doing a leisurely 45 miles per hour while I’m hoping to get from Coupeville to the Bayview Farmers Market before noon.
Actually there is one thing worse than that: Having my bumper hugged by a tourist couple in a rented convertible, fresh from a romantic, bed-and-breakfast sojourn, anxiously egging me to do the 75 miles per hour they need in order to make the Clinton ferry, which boards in 10 minutes. Thanks so much for visiting our beautiful island! Slow down and feel the bliss!
Those agonies are quickly forgotten, however, when confronted by the sheer terror a Rock dweller faces in mainland crowds, traffic and congestion. Earlier this month, my spouse and I attended a concert by Bette Midler—the Divine Miss M herself—at the Key Arena in Seattle. The performance was supposed to start at 8 p.m. Figuring that we ought to give ourselves lots of time, we left our mid-island home at 3 p.m. We sped down our island highway and caught the 4 p.m. ferry. Things ground to a halt on the (misnamed) Mukilteo Speedway. Traffic on the I-5 was surprisingly light for a weekday afternoon until we hit the University District: gridlock and exhaust fumes all the way to the well-named Mercer Mess.
We had been advised to park in one of the parking structures near Seattle Center. For a Rock dweller unused to anything other than the free lot next to the Red Apple, it was painful to pay $10 and spend 15 minutes to find an open space on the fourth level.
I must admit that it was exhilarating to be among the urban hoard flooding into the Key Arena, gawking at the overpriced Bette souvenirs, drinking a $7 beer and finding our seats among the sea of humanity. Being polite Rock dwellers, we took our seats 15 minutes before show time. How naively non-urban of us. Latecomers, undoubtedly rushing in from some Skyped meeting that ran late at their high-tech, six-figure jobs, were still streaming in at 8:15, and the show didn’t start until 8:20. By then the tiny amount of leg space was giving me cramps.
Miss M did not disappoint, however. We felt almost as young as we were when we saw her the first time in 1976. For two hours, we were transported out of the urban jungle to Bette’s unique corner of the universe. How good to know that some things really don’t change.
Then reality returned.
As soon as Bette sang the last, sweet, candle-lit note of “From a Distance,” all 15,000 of us jumped from our seats and rushed for our cars—desperate to be among the first to get the hell out of there. It made me ponder what God must actually think as she watches us “from a distance.”
Unfortunately, parked on the fourth level of the Mercer Garage, getting the hell out quickly was not part of the God’s plan. Lots of bad urban behavior ensued: cutting in line, horn-honking, middle-finger waving. Being Rock dwellers, we controlled ourselves with simple teeth-gnashing and mind visions of Ebey’s Landing, as the interminable line of cars half-inched forward.
It took 45 minutes to go one mile from the garage to the I-5 on-ramp. Then we began our anxiety ridden race to Mukilteo, praying that we’d make the last ferry. I kept a wary eye out for the state patrol as my spouse seriously exceeded the speed limit. For somebody from Whidbey, there is no dread worse than missing the last ferry and facing the long, dark-of-night drive north and back over Deception Pass.
We made it to the ferry dock just as cars were loading. I fumbled for the fare as we waited impatiently for a woman in a van in front of us to finish a long, loud conversation with the only fare-taker at that hour. We were next-to-last aboard, stuck on the upper deck incline, but we didn’t care. The minute our car’s engine was turned off, we both fell asleep.
Once back on Whidbey, we exhaled twice and then inhaled deeply. A nice, quiet drive on the deserted highway quickly brought us home. Ah, it felt so good to be safely back on the Rock.
Next time we may just download Bette’s CD and hope that HBO will eventually show the concert video.
Once upon a time, Harry Anderson made an honest living as a reporter, editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in central Whidbey, where he spends his time gardening and ruminating on things that interest him.
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