Westbound, soon to cross the Mississippi River. For several minutes you’ve been watching it from whichever angle the road wants to present it to you. Should you? Go up there? You’ve seen the other stuff. Most of it, anyway: the Golden Gate, Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, the giant baseball bat in downtown Louisville, the Grand Canyon, and of course the geyser thingy that ejaculates in a way you can set your watch by. The Time’s-Running-Out list still has a blank square next to Gateway Arch, though. It’s early in the day. It’s decided then. You cross the widest drainage ditch in the country, where all water between the Rockies and the Appalachians goes. Sort of. Not counting the Rio Grande.
You cruise off the interstate at a convenient-looking downtown exit. The Arch stays in sight, just to the south. After a few stoplights, you see a happy sign that says “Gateway Arch” with an arrow pointing left. At the next block, you see an Arch-arrow pointing up, or straight, you’re pretty sure. You look up anyway and there it is, the top of the Arch, so that arrow’s ambiguous. The lower parts of the Arch, however, are to your left, so you figure you will be led back around to it, possibly to bypass the road construction in progress. No different than any other downtown. And there you see it at the next light: “Gateway Arch” and an arrow pointing left. Done. A block later: Gateway Arch! And an arrow pointing again to the left. You turn and are driving from whence you came. You pass the Arch, look imploringly for that next sign. Maybe you missed it, so you make the same circuit, see the same sets of signs, end up doing the same thing, expecting a different result.
By the fourth time around you try something new, get yourself caught in a line of vehicles going nowhere. Are they empty? Have you parked on the street without even knowing? No. Heads bob, brake lights are tapped. And then you see the sign: “Park Here.” Ok. That’s doable. You’re in line. Somehow. You wait your turn. You pay the nice lady collecting money at the entrance and proceed. The yellow “BEST NOT BE NO HIGHER THAN THIS” gate-arm seems to pass through the roof of your ¾-ton pick-up like a ghost. You’re on level one. The purple level. You drive to the end and have to make a tight turn up a ramp. The concrete ceiling—you just know—is going to scrape the hell out of your truck’s roof at this angle. The radio antenna bends ninety-degrees and makes all the noises it looks like it should. Your roof is unmolested—how, you don’t know—but it is and you continue. You continue just as soon as you back up and almost hit the guy who’s on your tail. Your corner is too tight to negotiate without drilling one of the parked cars ahead of you. It requires a second try. You are on the orange level, where there are no empty slots. At the end of the row, you make another one of those crazy-tight turns and cringe as you wait for the concrete overhead to key your paint like a psycho girlfriend. But it doesn’t and what’s more, there’s an empty slot right in front of you! But back up because now you see the sign that says “COMPACT CARS ONLY.” On the blue level, four stories up, parking spots are everywhere. Laughing.
Down the stairs and down the stairs, and then onto the cobblestone walk. You call them hobblestones. They deserve it, too, what with those wide gaps and uneven surfaces. A few blocks later you pass “Arch Parking.” Much closer, much cleaner, much unadvertised. Son of a…. To the west, the streets rise steeply Godward, but just for a couple of blocks. It’s Louis, not Francisco. Chilly for this far into the spring, but a pretty day to all but the unhappy. You see pretty people. A preponderance of them from across the Pacific for some couldn’t-venture-a-guess reason. Even without the Grand Draw playing tricks with light in the sky, you notice the area has a singular feel to it.
Much silent contemplation, much encouraging the significant magnificent other to lean in and absorb body heat, to inhale scent and to smile inwardly. Not much angling for attention in a place where it is given so freely. The world’s incredible minds came together as one here, and they have not left yet. You see that so quickly it dazzles.
Wide steps drop to the river’s edge, and a myriad of backsides warm the uppermost one. There is something about waves. Watching them. There is something about current, about paddlewheels and barges. Masterly-crafted riverboats rock like cradles and wait for passengers. A horse, carriage, and driver hold steady in their riverfront allotment for the next fare, both the horse and driver able to hear the local-history speech in their dreams by now, you suspect. A few blocks away, from a grassy knoll where the season has finally laid down its first patina of green, a cover band blends heavy, melodic metal. The rhythm rides the breeze, but not in an overdone fashion. And like the Grand Canyon and the Pyramids, this Gateway Arch is not captured by any photograph. It has to be seen in person. You ask: How? Dear God, how? You tell yourself that a person’s eyes have to be in decent shape to see the row of windows at the apex. Those tiny dots. Time to go up there.
A ramp leads underground from either one of the Arch’s bases. The line is long and scarcely moving. You wonder what the deal is. In time you notice a voice repetitively reading a speech over a PA. You move a foot and a half more. People are entering the underground facility through glass doors some dozen yards ahead. The speech, that same giddy male voice that you’re sure was behind “You’ve got mail,” begins its cycle again. It was just so much background noise until now. You start to pick out words. You hear “search,” and “contents.” What? You hear “pockets.” Why did none of this occur to you until this stage of the game? What a target for terrorists. Next to the Statue of Liberty, above you stands what has to be second on the list. You twist your way out of line and begin that longest journey with a single step. You estimate from memory about thirty minutes each way.
After you climb up to the orange level, it’s been twenty, but you didn’t tourist your way back. You look around. You looked around all the way there, but you do it again. Out of your left jacket pocket comes the OTF, one of your favorites. Out of the right, the one you can’t talk about. By gawd don’t forget the gravity-fueled butterfly contraption in your back pocket. Better sit in your truck, you decide, to unload the defenses in your shoes.
You are far enough along in line that you hear every loudspeaker word. Remove your jacket. Remove all items from your pockets, it says, including cell phones and all other electronic devices. Remove all jewelry including watches. Remove your belt. You will be ready. You will make it go smoothly for your part. You have in one hand: folding money, change, your camera, your wallet—from which you’ve removed your driver’s license and the pass you have for national monuments. You are holding your comb, sunglasses, brochures, a package of tissues, your cell phone and recharge cable. Your jacket is in your other hand. Damn. Forgot the belt. You balance stuff but stuff falls anyway. You get the belt off with one hand and commence to picking things up off the ground. Everyone in front of you is putting their items in a plastic tub to be sent on rollers through the X-ray machine. Jackets are inspected manually. Your time has come.
“I’m going to make things easy on you,” the national park version of a TSA agent says. “Put everything in your coat pockets and we’ll run it through the machine all at once.”
Wa…huh? This can’t be happening. With a long line behind you, you begin trying to stuff brochures and combs and wallets and cameras and driver’s licenses and park passes and dollars and change and sunglasses and tissues and—considering you can’t fucking talk—electronic writing boards and pens and speaking devices and extra batteries (for just in case) into the coat draped over your other unfree arm. Instead of simply dropping all that into the plastic tub like every other person in line has done all day and will do the rest of the day, you’re trying to get those items into tight little pocket openings—slits for Chrissakes—of your jacket without losing half of it. Why? No one will ever know why. After the walk through the bells-and-sirens-see-you-naked-maybe metal detector arch, you collect your stuff and set up shop where, off to the side, you unload and inventory everything, tediously finding the correct pocket where each piece of junk is to go so you won’t lose it—your pants pockets, shirt pockets, jacket pockets, wallet sleeves. You know how it is. Do it now on camera, or never find it again later.
The line to buy a ticket to the top of the Arch? Five minutes or so. You’ve made it this far, you can handle five more minutes. You ask for a ticket to the top. You are asked in return if you would like a riverboat ticket and a movie ticket. (There’s a theater in the underground area and they show a movie about Lewis and Clark, you think.) You say no, just one ticket to go to the top of the Arch. You are asked, “Today?” You nod in a way that says if you could think of something clever and biting you’d say it but you can’t so he’s lucky and let’s move on. You are told they just sold the last ticket of the day a few minutes ago.
You pass through the glass doors and begin dragging up the ramp. You stop. You walk back down to the glass doors. You see a lady walking through the see-people-naked-maybe metal-detector gateway, and you see all kinds of colored lights flashing. Or lights of color flashing. You watch the federale–he who chose you for gratuitous torment–you watch that guy send her back through, and you whip out your camera and start snapping shots of the event because that’s why you came back. TSA guy sees you, says something to lady-of-concern, something to the effect of move and you’ll be strip-searched, and makes an upstream thrust right towards you. He comes out through the in-door. A leap over the railing separates the two of you. Ha ha. His face looks mirror-rehearsed, but it ain’t. He is angry angry. He says you can’t take pictures of that. He says more–lots–but the words melt into a liquidy, amusingly-indiscernible current of downstream rantage. You walk off, knowing he’s going to choose the lady-of-concern and the sirens and bells, choose her over you and your camera and a hop over the rail. But you, in just a small, though somehow significant, way, have gotten back some of your change. You couldn’t have seen that face from way up there.