2007-02-02 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

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Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky


The other morning my wife tapped me to drive her to an early appointment. It was in Lynbrook she said, not far, and I said sure, of course, anything for you dear. She said she had to be there by 8:30 a.m. Not a problem I thought. What does it take to drive through Rockaway? I could do it in 20 - 25 minutes without breaking a sweat.

So, we got up early and were out by 8:00 AM. It was a pretty cold day so, after grabbing a quick breakfast, I warmed up the car and we took off. It was a pleasant enough ride until we hit Beach 116 Street. I had forgotten how heavy traffic had started to become in that area. You used to be able to breeze right through, except maybe in the height of the summer with the beach traffic. But not anymore. At Newport Avenue the traffic feeding across Beach 116 Street into Beach Channel Drive was so backed up we had to sit through two red lights before I could drive across the street.

But we did it, at last, and then inched our way along Beach Channel until we got past the shopping area and could turn up to Rockaway Beach Boulevard. I was kicking myself at that point, figuring I should have stayed on the boulevard from the first instead of trying to avoid the heavy pedestrian traffic in the shopping area there. But hey, you can't predict these things, right? Besides we hadn't lost much time. The 8:30 a.m. appointment still looked good.

By the time we hit the Beach 70 Street area, though, we were backed up again. That's where all that new building's going on, you know, Arverne-by-the-Sea and all. The construction around the former Addabbo Health clinic building (which used to be a satellite Health Center of the Department of Health) seemed to be affecting traffic as we got there and suddenly we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic again. My wife, sitting beside me, was starting to get antsy but I said "Don't worry Brenda, we'll get there alright. This can't be too much of a back-up." She glared at me from the corner of her eye and fidgeted, visibly annoyed.

Well we were creeping forward only intermittently. I stuck my head out the window and tried to see up ahead. There were cars packed in tight as far as the eye could see. It was like being on the Long Island Expressway at rush hour . . . you know, the world's longest parking lot! Brenda was getting more and more unnerved, looking at her watch and muttering that I shouldn't have grabbed that breakfast before I left and why hadn't I gotten up earlier? "We'll get there," I said in my most reassuring tone, but I was starting to sweat it, too.

As we inched forward and the road curved, I couldn't see an end to the traffic up ahead. "Aw hell," I finally muttered, "you know what . . . we're outta here."

I'm pretty law-abiding most of the time but I was thinking of her appointment and that breakfast I shouldn't have eaten and so I suddenly pulled out of the line, swung the car round in the face of the oncoming traffic, and headed back the way we had come.

"What are you doing?" Brenda snapped at me.

"Sit tight," I said, "we'll get there yet." There was steel in my voice.

Back we drove past the line of cars that had been behind us, strung out like a stalled freight train, unaware of what lay ahead of them. The first place I came to, where I could turn off to grab the old Rockaway Freeway under the el, was closed. "Alright, Brenda," I said, "not to worry. We'll just go a little farther." Well we had to go a lot farther before we could make the necessary turn and then, when we finally came to the el, it was blocked off too! We couldn't turn onto the road that ran under it as I'd planned. "Oh, crud," I muttered, Brenda beside me, looking at her watch. "Here," I said, handing her my cell phone. "Better call them, tell them you're gonna be a little late." She took the phone and began punching in the numbers.

Meanwhile, I drove us to Beach Channel Drive. Alright, I figured, if we can't get through on Rockaway Beach Boulevard or the Freeway, at least there's still Beach Channel. That's what I thought, anyway. The Drive, when we turned onto it, was backed up just like the boulevard had been. "Did you get through to them yet," I rasped, glancing at the phone in Brenda's hands. "No," she said, "no one's picking up."

"Damn," I said as we came to a full stop behind another interminably long line of cars inching their way down what had once been a two-lane road but which had now been converted by the city's Department of Transportation into a single lane. The old lane that ran alongside the sidewalk to our right was marked out as a bike path. But there weren't any bikes on it and all the traffic was backed up in the single lane allotted to us. A few cars started cheating, passing us on the right, hurtling down the empty bike path as though it were the second car lane it used to be. By the time I had decided to break another law and do what they were doing it was too late. The lane to my right, the "bike path," was filled up, too.

"I got through," Brenda said in my ear, handing me back the phone. "They said they'll wait," she whispered, sounding relieved. But her throat was tight and her voice hoarse. Good, I thought glancing at the time on the cell phone screen. It was 8:45. We had been traveling for 45 minutes and hadn't even cleared the peninsula yet. As we finally saw Far Rockaway looming up ahead, the traffic seemed to ease. We had relatively light going when we hit Seagirt but it had taken us about an hour to traverse the peninsula from our home - a five mile run, that, under normal circumstances, shouldn't have exceeded twenty minutes. Just to put this in perspective, it takes about an hour to drive from New York City to Philadelphia. "It's all that construction" I told Brenda as she was sitting there, shaking her head, frustrated and annoyed. Well, at least we had had the cell phone!

Since that little trip of ours, the road we initially got stuck on, the one running past the old Addabbo health clinic, has been shut down outright and a detour set up to redirect traffic to the Rockaway Freeway or down to Beach Channel Drive. But the Freeway, of course, has long since been permanently shut down, where it runs behind the Hammels Houses, so you can't drive all the way through on it anymore, from one end of the peninsula to the other. And where you can still drive it, Transportation has converted the old two lane roadway into still another single lane so don't even think about trying to pass that slow moving vehicle ahead of you. There are only two roads left now to get around this peninsula . . . when they're not blocked off that is. And when they are? Well, you get what we experienced that morning: Gridlock!

It's something we're not used to here in Rockaway. It's what you'd expect in the highest density areas of Brooklyn - or Manhattan during peak hours.

With the new construction going on, with the permanent shut-down of parts of the Rockaway Freeway, with all the anticipated new residents moving in and each family likely to have an average of two cars. Well you get the picture. It won't be long before Flatbush Avenue looks inviting by comparison.

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