I-4 log – 29 Dec 2013

This is a log of happenings on Interstate 4.  It is a unique highway which is cursed by many drivers in Central Florida.  While Californians raise their highways to royal status (e.g., Interstate 5 is referred to as “the five”, as if it were some kind of important personage), Floridians just call it eye-four.  This log will be updated from time to time and appear in this blog as it relates to the culture of central Florida.  What sparked this need to chronicle I-4 was listening to Janis Joplin while stuck in a traffic jam outside of Disney, and watching cars sheet flow over the shoulder to get on the 417 onramp.  That is a relatively new phenomenon never before witnessed.  But then I-4 has inspired bizarre and unusual behavior for years.

Back in 2012, Swing State Geography:  The I-4 Corridor shared facts about this roadbed that showed just how unique it was.  Yet it only touched upon a few highlights along the way.  This series which I call the I-4 Log will hope to elucidate some of the stories about the mythical road.  For example, the haunted part lies, not coincidentally, close to Cassadega.  Just last week, on a trip to Jacksonville, I saw for the very first time a cemetery on a hillside right next to the highway’s edge.  At the fenceline, there was a newly painted stucco section, and the gravestones rose right above that.  In this area, I-4 is rumored to have a ghost or two from an early cracker family that can be seen at night, walking along the side of the road.  Whether the highway paved over part of the cemetery, or the high-speed rumblings awakened the dead, remains to be investigated, perhaps for a future update.

In the 1980s and 1990s, living in Tampa, I actually kept an I-4 log book in the car.  Often some kind of incident was worth writing down; it ended up mostly as an inventory of objects encountered along the interstate.  Many of these objects fell off the back of pickup trucks that were directly ahead of me and I usually had no time to react.  Here are several:

Box of Boat Parts – Tracking about 300 feet ahead of me was a pickup truck, and suddenly a cardboard box tumbled off the rear bed onto the road, rolling and disintegrating as I came upon it.  A boat chair on a 2′ tall post, a light with wires flying off, and a couple other things were in the box.  I  drove right over them.  The chair made a very loud clunk sound.  later I looked at the front and saw a crack in the bumper from the chair hit.

Transmission:  In Lakeland, a road crosses over I-4, and off that road a ramp goes down the embankment and turns abruptly onto I-4, sort of like a driveway.  There is no acceleration lane because a railroad bridge abutment is immediately ahead.  At this entrance ramp, one late afternoon, I was behind another pickup truck with no gate that rolled down the ramp and accelerated quickly to merge into traffic.

As it did, a huge, greasy black transmission fell off of the back of the pickup truck onto the highway.  The pickup, much lighter now, sped away.  The ground shook when it hit and I heard the thud sound as I came upon it.  The transmission rolled about half a turn and stopped, and I swerved around it.

Bale of Hay:  This was not technically on I-4 but was on Malfunction Junction, the intersection of I-4 and I-275 in Tampa.  I was travelling south on I-275 heading underneath I-4, driving my parents’ 1972 Ford Torino station wagon.  This is a tank of a car, all steel with a 302 V-8 engine.  I still have dreams about it.  I was going about 50.

This was early on a Sunday morning and I was driving into work downtown.  Ahead of me about 6 car lengths was a rusty pickup truck that was stacked with bales of hay.  As the highway ducks under the I-4 bridge, it turns to the right and it slopes.  The pickup was just under the bridge when a bale of hay fell off the truck.  There was no possible reaction time so I plowed right into the bale.

The nose of a Torino actually comes to a point which sliced into the bale of hay, and it blew apart as I drove through it, leaving behind a huge, golden-tan cloud.  When I got into work I looked at the car.  There was not a scratch, and only a single hay straw stuck in the windshield wiper.  What stands out about this incident, even today, was that the hay gave no resistance whatsoever:  when the car hit the hay, it did not shudder or make any noise at all; it was like going through smoke.  Such was the power of the Torino against such a thing.

Those are but three of the items that stand out among pages and pages of things that occurred.  What inspired this effort was today’s strange driving behavior.  The ability to share this with others, and possibly build up a greater I-4 story cluster that speaks with intensity and specificity about Central Florida’s unique culture is the purpose of setting this down on screen.

This afternoon about 12:00 pm we were heading east and ran into the back of a traffic jam just past the 429.  The Mickey-eared power pole at the corner of Disney’s property is a more concrete landmark, and it is here that I-4 seems to clog up the most.  Along this stretch, a parallel road heading east carries cars up and onto another toll road, the 417.  This toll road is elevated about 10 feet above the surface of I-4.

Separating the two roads is a ditch and a grassy embankment.  I have sat, stopped on I-4, on this very spot many times.  But today something new happened.  Drivers in the right lane of I-4 turned off of the interstate, crossed the shoulder, went down into the ditch, and climbed up onto the parallel road, speeding away and out of the traffic jam.  At first, one person did it, and then others followed him.  And then, ahead about 500 feet, we saw another stream of cars doing the exact same thing.  And then, ahead of this stream, yet another stream of drivers were driving over the embankment.  It wasn’t one or two cars, it was dozens and dozens.  People, fed up with the traffic mess, had taken matters into their own hands.  And they were speeding away.

Here, at the end of 2013, there have been many little shadows thrown over the holiday season.  From my old friends:  self-hatred masked as vicious belligerence; deaths and desperate pleas for help.  In my greater circle, shadows also abound, and the world, while seemingly at peace, seems roiling underneath as if the poles are about to reverse.  When I see brazen self-interest spreading like wildfire, a sort of highway mob rule, if you will, I think that we as a society may be on the edge of something new and wild, as if the guardrails of rationality have weakened.

People here on vacation, trying to relax and enjoy some family time, are tormented by a solid, stopped-up traffic choked road full of millions of others who have come here to do the exact same thing.  We have reached threshold of pain and we cross it, seeking stress relief during a family vacation that was planned as stress relief in itself.

2009 and 2010 were years that really beat people up.  By 2011 and 2012, people had adjusted their expecations and gotten really cynical about the future; but this year things have changed.  For some, the world has gotten worse.  For those who were so swiftly unemployed and have become re-employed, the new working conditions are different.  One works much harder, for less than before.  One faces uncertainty every single day, a holdover from the white-knuckled years.  The stress has taken its deep toll on people and many have snapped under the strain.  A few pe0ple might be excused for thinking that it is time for “every man for himself.”

This little incident on Interstate 4 may be isolated, or it might be a symptom of a sea change.  People who have been patient and docile have taken a beating over the last several years; we have put up with  a great deal of mental and emotional abuse as we try to make the world better for our children.  In doing so, we stay grimly entrenched in the collective good; the shared social values and the rule of law over men.  But when one or two people snap, taking matters into their own hands, as seen on I-4 today, how quick many others follow.  These are dangerous times we live in, and one must be even more firm and correct relative to an inner moral compass than ever before.  We didn’t preserve our sanity through all of the wicked and sorrowful recent past, only to lose it all now.  We must hold on for a little longer, and rebuild moral capital for future generations.

Loving the ordinary

In this turn of the wheel, it seems things are poised for a change.  Everyone speaks of a “strong 2014” with big expectations.  We are tired of 2013, a year of dynamism and unpredictability, a year when abrupt change was accompanied by heart-wrenching deception.  2013 has been a year of great efforts, a year of new allegiances, and yet also a year of death and transition.  Anticipation for grandness and hugeness may be high, but might also want to be tempered with a love of the ordinary, a sense of the specialness of the small.

We tire of the deep uncertainty; we grasp at all opportunities, remembering the all-too-recent drought of them.  This grasping has led to a hand that is a bit overfull and wrestling with squirming, snapping opportunities like ferrets and snakes.  We keep them all, we do not give them away, we hoard them for later, but they must be consumed right now or they vanish with the wind.

In the meantime, the coming week or so is a pause for consideration of the ordinary.  Already there are two or three sketches of the kind of suburban rooftops and buildings that have evolved onto paintings and canvases and sketches.  If these can evolve further, and the suburban scenes of a fencepost, a fascia, a carport or a brick pier can be captured, then these ordinary scenes can be documented and perhaps turned into art.

For it seems like these little scenes may vanish in the wind, like opportunities.  The temptation to think big means that the small is vulnerable and weak.  We may be entering an era where the world is slowly shifting into a big gear.  If the period 2009-2011 was one when small was strong and large was weak, we may be seeing this slowly reverse itself in 2014.

The state, in its consolidation of power, has become strong from the federal down to the city level whereby an ordinary citizen has an unprecedented amount of oversight upon every move.  With such a huge, burgeoning population, America has responded with a huge, burgeoning regulatory regime as well.  Until we become comfortable with 300+ million people jostling for space, we seem to have conceded to a newer, much stricter set of rules to play by.  Large population, with a larger government to keep things under control.

As far as the private sector goes, big is back in vogue again, and the sunk costs of being big means that no one can compete.  Even new, small industries cry out for regulation, so they can prevent their competitors from clawing a position in the marketplace.  Take the new vaping industry, for example – e-cig manufacturers clamor for regulation so they can be “certified” as safe.  No longer is the public trusted to make its own choice, no matter how self-indulgent this choice is.

So, as usual, I seek comfort in the opposite and worship the ordinary, the overlooked, the unnamed, and the taken-for-granted.  I seek to elevate these things, perhaps bring them forth in some kind of light to make them into a statement about the here and now, a point in time that may be here but then will be gone.

An inventory of diminishment

So far, from a daily interaction in a new town planned meticulously to be the very very best of live-work-play, the following observations are made.

  • A boy about 2 1/2, crying, with his father crouched in front of him, noses  inches away, exhorting his son to “get over it'”, football-coach style.  Staying in the car, rather than getting out, going over, picking him up and hugging him (the son, not the father, who needed a kick) took just about all I had;
  • A pair of stoplights at Corrine and Bennett where dozens drive into this pretty new town, stoplights that are less than 100 feet apart, where pedestrians and frustrated drivers compete for time between multiple, ill-synchronized lights.  This, in an era when traffic engineering is supposed to be better than ever;
  • A woman passing right through a stoplight, nearly hitting a dog-walker, and not even looking up from her texting on the steering wheel;
  • Narrow streets choked with parked cars, because homeowners prefer to park on the street rather than use their elaborately planned alleys.
  • A woman, forced to wait while another driver parallel-parked, leaning on her horn, screaming and giving obscene gestures, red-faced and shaking with anger over the monstrous waste of her precious time;
  • A city policeman, soberly handing out tickets at various streetcorners to drivers who do not stop at stopsigns correctly, slowing the rhythm of traffic, oblivious to the other dozens of traffic infractions such as speeding that occur in this nice little town;
  • Little patches of grass that are not quite someone’s territory, but exist in the nether world  between shared parking lots and sidewalks, perenially covered with dog mess because owners do not feel the need to pick it up (since it is everyone’s yard, rather than someone’s yard);
  • Commercial buildings less than ten years old but looking a hundred, due to moisture intrusion that results from hasty and poor construction;
  • The same commercial buildings being pressure washed and painted, rather than repaired;
  • The same commercial buildings, empty, sucking life away from the sidewalks, with more and more empty storefronts every day;
  • Massive apartment construction at a time when the rental bubble has already burst, undoubtedly bringing the town its first slum.

After about six months, this inventory of diminishment is only partial.  These are the bits that stand out, among many more that occured.  Entering this new town, I find my demeanor changing, my face hardening a bit, my gaze becoming narrower to shift quickly away from the meanness, the impoverishment of soul, and the general malaise that seems to have gripped this new town.

Form, instead of bringing people together and making a civic unity, has had the opposite effect.  Either the type of people who choose this place tend to be a certain way; or living here drives people into this type of behavior.  It is a fascinating study on one level; discouraging on another.

Form, so important in the eyes of a few, has resulted in a fetish of style that eschews real authenticity.  The relentless bland stucco, cracking and fading in the sun, resembles more and more a seedy Caribbean town than a new American one.  The buildings resemble ones elsewhere that were built in an earlier era out of stone.  No stone, however, graces any part of this town.  The next closest kin, precast concrete, peppers a few structures; some good honest brick (veneer) appears on others.  Would that the architecture be a little more genuine, and have some kick to it, and at least the town would have something to react to.  As it is, the town looks like it was carved out of a giant antacid tablet.

Judge not, however, the town in its relative infancy, for it is less than ten years old, a pre-teen that is not to be stacked up against older places with more soul.  These times are especially hard for towns, not just because of social justice issues like wealth discrepancies; the pull of texting away from the concrete realm is overpowering; this town was built with way too many storefronts, just when retail space has become nearly obsolete.

The parks are occasionally utilized, usually for informal sports events.  The sidewalk cafe tables are occasionally occupied, especially at dinner.  The grocery store is occasionally busy with shoppers.  There are signs of life in the place.

With a difficult future for all cities ahead, our city must seek beauty and abundance in new places that were not dreamt of in the beforetimes.  New towns, with their special codes, rigorous community associations, and image-consciousness seem to be at a disadvantage in this competitive and cutthroat era of survival.  With all that is at stake, we wish them well and hope that some soul is birthed somewhere here soon, to combat the wicked, acidic  rancor that seems to be so much a part of this place.

As St. Augustine said, “take care of your body as if you are going to live forever; take care of your soul as if you are going to die tomorrow.”  The same might be applied to cities.  I hope that everyone who reads this adds a little goodwill into Baldwin Park, and gives it some soul, for this reason.