Jon Fried • Jun 14, 2017
I first drove the Pulaski Skyway after moving to Hoboken in 1981. It was love at first sight. That eight-mile, erector-set serpent was the perfect opposite of the L.A. of my youth, the 60s L.A. with its new golden freeways, sleek and smooth as fresh cement. The rusting majesty of this hulking roadway rising double humped (and cat-eared) over the swamps and the truckyards exemplified all the grit and industrial truth a young, new-wave punk rocker could possibly want.
It was also terrifying. Before the repairs and redesign in 1984, I called it the Deathway. Lanes barely wide enough for a 1920s car snaked sharply around the bridge towers and worst of all, if you were heading west toward the airport, there was a spot shortly after the bridge where you had to switch from one set of westbound lanes to the other by way of a break in the highway divider only about 30 feet long. There were no turning lanes on either side, forcing you to swerve quickly into the speed lane you’d been paralleling. You had to hope the cars in the speed lane were ready for you as you gunned your engine and made the move.
There was also the history. I’d been told – and for years repeated – that the Skyway was FDR’s first WPA project, a repayment to Frank Hague, boss of Jersey City, for delivering 102% of the vote in the 1932 election. Not true: the bridge was completed before Roosevelt took office. But the real history is colorful enough, with Hague and the union people battling it out in classic Jersey fashion.
And of course there was General Pulaski himself and the revolution he helped win in the name of life, liberty and the pursuit of Hudson County.
I’ve been stuck on it twice.
The first time I was returning from the city on a weeknight at about 2 am (another story) when the engine died. There are no breakdown lanes on the Pulaski Skyway (although there was a center breakdown lane in the early days, available to both sides, which people would use to pass, earning it the nickname the Suicide Lane.) Luckily for me I was able to coast to a stop at a point where the road widened a bit for the dizzying mid-Skyway exit ramp to Newark.
The speed limit on the Skyway I believe was and is still 45 mph (though it’s never enforced – nowhere to pull anyone over!) but with road nearly empty at that hour cars were whizzing by at 80+. The road shook with every passing car. This was in the early days of cell phones and I didn’t have one. I would wait for a cop.
My Corolla stuck out just enough that anyone driving in the right lane would have to swerve to get around me. I decided to wait outside my car by the steel railing in case someone didn’t swerve in time.
After half an hour or so a car pulled over and stopped in front of mine. I walked over to his passenger side and the driver, an African-American man about my age (mid-thirties), asked if I wanted a lift. I said I didn’t really want to leave the car, and was hoping for a cop to come. Bad place to get stuck, he said. I didn’t have a cell? Too bad. And then he just kept chatting. He’d just gotten off work at the post office. Called his wife that day, ‘Honey did I leave my cell phone on the dresser?’ Now he was sorry he had. He knew this road. Not a lot of cops come by. And the drivers at this hour on a weeknight…I can’t remember what else he talked about but after a while I realized what he was doing. He was telling me about himself – he was married, employed, had a cell phone – because he had no intention of leaving me up there waiting for some help that might never arrive and so he was patiently earning my trust. After a while he offered again to take me down to a phone booth, where I could call AAA, and then bring me back up to my car. It would take five minutes at this hour. I said OK.
We drove down that ramp into Newark and in those days payphones weren’t hard to find. I called AAA and then he drove east on the Skyway, getting off at the other mid-Skyway ramp, the one that exits from the center, turned around, got back up on the Skyway and left me by my car.
I wish I’d written down his name. I could’ve found his manager and raved about him. Or found his number and bought him a beer. Or at least his address and written him a thank you.
Another half hour later a police car pulled over. I told them I’d called AAA. They laughed and said AAA would take hours. They’d call their guy who’d be there in a few minutes. In the meantime, I’d better get inside the car where it was safe.
I’d never been in the back of a squad car: hard plastic seat inside a metal cage. They were listening to some guys on the radio talking about the Knicks. Their guy was there in 20 minutes.
A couple of years later, I was on my way into the city and right in the middle of the Skyway, traffic came to complete halt. I don’t show my temper much but traffic can unleash some heartfelt obscenities, as my kids can attest. Today, it didn’t bother me. I shut the engine and got out of my car, tried to see what the trouble could be. Nothing in sight. If it was an accident, I hoped it wasn’t bad, that someone’s day hadn’t just taken a big turn for the worse.
Mostly I was delighted with the chance to commune with my favorite roadway in less terrifying circumstances. A huge hazy moon floated over Manhattan and a light breeze calmed the sticky air. Everyone sat in their air conditioned cars but I was happy to stand by the rusty railing again, gazing down at the slimy dark water below; the generating plant spewing a plume into the moonlight; the numbered and lettered streets of Bayonne in their grid, on their peninsula. Above me on the tops of the towers, red lights blinked. I looked south toward the Turnpike extension, a more modern arc that, unlike the Skyway, will never make it into the National Register of Historic Places. I remembered the smell of the trash dump fire that burned for years in Jersey City in the shadow of the Skyway.
I found myself singing a song I wrote with my wife years ago that went in part:
The sun hangs in the heavy sky
The moon rises orange and starts to sing
And turns into an onion ring.