An irritant, a peeve, and a relaxer

An irritant, a peeve, and a relaxer

When driving takes a heavy toll, redistricting runs amok, and bad art proves calming

The way the Turnpike used to look, pre-E-ZPass, and the sign that Jon Lazarus detests.
The way the Turnpike used to look, pre-E-ZPass, and the sign that Jon Lazarus detests.

Shorter days deserve shorter subjects.

Rather than tackle contentious, complex issues better suited to warmer weather (it’s easier getting hot under the collar), I’m going to concentrate on three lesser topics: an irritant, a peeve, and a relaxer. All seem appropriate to discuss as winter exerts its chilly grip on our psyches.

Notice I choose to address the irritant before the peeve and the relaxer. On my scale of relativity, an irritant registers higher than a kvetch and less than a cataclysm. But its virtue is that the itch can be scratched immediately. Feeling peeved puts me on the waspish side of things (the state of mind, not the ethnicity), and strikes me as excessively grinchy at this time of the year. So I’m pushing the peeve to the middle of this story, to box it in. I’ll save the relaxer for last because it provides an uplifting, Chanukah-friendly finish.

To recap, peevish is wedged in the center of the piece but is not its centerpiece, peckish is an entirely different matter, and puckish is not even on the radar. If that’s confusing and you’re wondering where this untamed wordplay is headed, I will now say dayenu (wrong season, right sentiment) and proceed beyond a kvetch to sketch the scenario dealing with the irritant.

It concerns the Garden State Parkway and its jarring transition (at least for this motorist) to a full E-ZPass system, where overhead gantries will record the licenses of non-transponder equipped vehicles like mine and bill me. I’m part of a significant but shrinking pool of motorists who’ve chosen not to subscribe to the existing service, but I will have no choice traveling forward. The New Jersey Highway Authority, which operates the Parkway and the Turnpike, has displayed, in my judgment, an exquisite lack of timing, sensitivity, and disequilibrium by deciding to cut back on booth attendants while raising tolls and phasing in total E-ZPass.

As a retiree who uses the roadway only occasionally, I’ve resisted signing up. and it’s been a costly decision. On average, I receive about two violations a year, at $52 apiece. (That’s $50 for my stubbornness and $2 for the toll). This invariably happens when I take a new entrance or exit for the first time and am confronted, all too late, by only E-ZPass or exact-change lanes, or I’ve missed the full-service booth way over on the right of the plaza and can’t cut through the gauntlet of cars to get there (more accurately, my wife doesn’t want me to try), or my brother-in-law visits from California, borrows the SUV, ignores my cautionaries, and racks up a violation.

These contretemps unfold innocently enough. I begin a journey with Gail seated beside me and a horizon filled with happy expectations. If I’m headed to an unfamiliar destination, the GPS is programmed, the gas tank filled, and the windows cleaned of schmutz. Accessing the Parkway is no problem. The interchange I use at East Orange always has at least one attended booth plus an exact-change machine with its coin-consuming gurgle.

It’s the downstream part that gets sticky. Gail and I arrive at an unfamiliar exit or entrance only to find we haven’t done our due diligence. Going to the Parkway website beforehand or using an app for that seems too much like homework for this analog couple in a digital world. We are confronted by a mini-plaza with only E-ZPass and an exact-change lane. What to do? My wife and I frantically search for coins, and invariably come up short. That’s because she’s a most considerate tipper and conscientious parking-meter feeder while I hoard every quarter that comes my way so I can fill gallon jars for each grandchild. It’s Hobson’s choice, but I elect to run the exact-change lane, although a sign ominously warns that the car will be photographed, and its owner sent to some sort of toll-cheating hell.

“House” by Henry Gasser, a midcentury regional watercolorist whose work is better but not quite as relaxing as Mr. Ross’s, according to Mr. Lazarus.

So far, I’ve had no repercussions from this occasional dodge. That’s probably due to the Parkway’s aging equipment where cameras don’t function and clogged coin machines fail to register transactions. It’s when I’m gridlocked by a solid wall of traffic and trapped in an E-ZPass lane where I feel helpless. Either I’m forced to go through the booth as a violator or stop the vehicle, get out, and make a public spectacle, inviting a fusillade of honking or digital displays from angry motorists. I’ve always opted for the former, virtually feeling the 50 bucks leave my wallet as the car crawls through the plaza, almost against its will.

That’s what makes me nervous about the transitional period of moving to total E-ZPass. The Parkway acts at glacial speed, except when it comes to raising tolls. The technology itself isn’t a Big-Brother issue with me. But I do worry about accruing more violations before the system is fully operative. I know my case is feeble. To think, an 80-year-old can’t remember to bring change or consult the Parkway’s website before a trip, or stubbornly refuses on principle to sign up for a service used successfully by hundreds of thousands of motorists.

I really don’t have any grown-up answers for my mindset. Do I protest too much? Most assuredly. When total E-ZPass arrives, instead of receiving the dreaded violation with its in-your-face picture of the rear license of my vehicle, I will receive a bill. I’m not sure if it will come by email or snail mail, or whether there’s a transaction fee attached. More will be revealed.

One final thought before exiting the irritant. This is decidedly a generalization, but toll-booth personnel seem friendlier the farther south you travel the Parkway. North Jersey toll-takers have perfected the art of the clenched-jaw thank-you when it’s given at all. The politesse seems more genuine in Pomona than it is in Paramus. Also, south Jersey personnel invariably wish you a good day and seem sincere about it. Nonetheless, I will miss all of them. The recently inaugurated total E-ZPass at the Lincoln Tunnel foreshadowed the Parkway’s future with eerie, empty toll booths but plenty of traffic still backed up.

Now, let’s move to the peeve. Mine centers on the mid-term elections in general and the razor-thin margin Republicans eked out in the House in particular. I’m pleased with the overall outcome (no red wave, Trump diminished), capped by Raphael Warnock’s emphatic win in Georgia to slightly pad the Democrats’ hold on the Senate. Krysten Sinema’s defection a few days later was troubling, but totally in character for Arizona’s queen of entitlement. She will continue, though, to vote with Democrats and keep her committee assignments.

I’m peeved over what might have been had not New York Democrats acted with so much overreach in redrawing the 2020 congressional map. Their blatant gerrymandering forced the state’s top court to accept a GOP challenge and order the districts recast by a special master. This essentially paved the way for Republicans to win five competitive races in a deeply blue state. Of course, the party’s scare tactics in the final weeks of the campaign about crime, wobbly prosecutors, and bail reform successfully capitalized on the public’s fears du jour.

New York City voters absorbed the first effects of the redistricting when they were forced to make a painful choice in the Democratic primary between Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, both committee chairs and respected veterans in their neighboring metropolitan districts, now merged into one. Ms. Maloney lost in a contest that caused dismay among supporters in both camps.

New Jersey Democrats also came in for their share of backlash. By protecting the seats of Representatives Mikie Sherrill and Josh Gottheimer in the 2020 remap, they redrew Representative Tom Malinowski’s district and made it easier for GOP challenger Tom Kean Jr. to unseat him, a reversal of the result when the two went head-to-head two years before. The sacrifice might have been in vain as both Ms. Sherrill and Mr. Gottheimer won by comfortable margins.

Bob Ross, whose goofy charm Mr. Lazarus finds relaxing.

I was affected by being squeezed out of Ms. Sherrill’s district and put into one represented by Donald Payne Jr. of Newark. My little suburban bulge into Mr. Payne’s bailiwick received no attention from him whatsoever during the campaign, and I expect little from him in the future.

Consider the arithmetic. The House of Representatives turns on 218 votes. The GOP wound up with 222 seats after the midterms, far fewer than predicted. If New York Republicans, and let’s be generous, had flipped only three seats, Democrats would be within heavy breathing distance of control of the lower chamber, something totally unexpected on election eve. As it is, they could still play a pivotal role in who emerges as the GOP speaker, since that ultimate invertebrate, Kevin McCarthy, faces internal dissension from the beyond-the-fringe right-wing of his party.

As of this writing, Democrats could successfully bargain with three or four key GOP members to leverage the choice of the next speaker, even though he or she will be a Republican. Is it too much schadenfreude to watch Mr. McCarthy twist in the wind and squirm every which way as he conducts a beg-a-thon for support? More will be revealed in what is sure to be a contentious, highly partisan session of the new House beginning next month.

And now to the relaxer. Many years ago, before I would leave for my shift as an editor at The Star-Ledger, I would watch a show called “The Joy of Painting” with Bob Ross. Mr. Ross would complete a picture in 30 minutes, usually of a scene in nature such as a mountain range, a waterfall (cabin or covered bridge thrown in), a bosky dell, a winterscape, or a shoreline. His colors were gaudy and applied with unconventional brushes and palate knives.

Mr. Ross’s essential charm sprang from what I would characterize as homespun haimish. After retiring from the Air Force, he vowed never to shout again and spoke to his viewers only in honey-coated, encouraging tones, exhorting them to take up his unique approach to painting with the constant refrain: “You can do it. You can do it.” And Mr. Ross did do it, for 31 series of shows until his death in 1995.

His physical presence was dominated by a frizzy head of hair that grew longer season by season. His studio props included a black backdrop, an easel back converted from an old ladder, a palette cut from a piece of plastic, and a bucket of paint thinner that he used to clean his brushes, or as he said, “beat the devil out of them.”

Mr. Ross never admitted to mistakes but referred to them as “happy accidents” as he blithely scraped off the offending strokes. He preached a love of nature and the critters therein, and sometimes kept a baby squirrel in his shirt pocket. He would never paint a lone tree because he said they needed friends. Same went for mountains. He called the canvas “your world, and you can do anything you want in it.”

I recently returned to watching the series after a 15-year hiatus. Mr. Ross seems cornier than ever, and his art definitely hasn’t improved with age. Yet he relaxes me in a way that the original Henry Gasser I have hanging in the dining room doesn’t when I gaze at it. Mr. Gasser, the late, respected regional watercolorist of New Jersey locations, may hang in museums, but I bet he never kept baby squirrels in his pocket.

After all, it’s my world.

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