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 fashion 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.
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 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 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 pick-up truck 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 and you continue. You continue just as soon as you back up and almost hit the guy who’s on your tail. Honk. 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, what with those wide gaps and uneven surfaces. Kinda neat though. A few blocks later you pass “Arch Parking.” Much closer, much cleaner, much unadvertised. Son of a…. To the west, the streets rise sharply 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. History.
Much silent contemplation going on, much tilting of heads, much encouraging the beloved other to lean in and absorb body heat along with the picture, to inhale scent, artificial and real, and to smile inwardly. Incredible minds came together as one here, and they have not left. The sight of the approaching Japanese couple remind you that there’s a word, but what is it? Tomashii. The soul of the artist lives in his art. You see that so quickly it dazzles.
Concrete steps drop to the river’s edge, wide steps that remind you of amphitheater seating from Roman Tunisia, which is probably because of all the backsides keeping them warm, bolstering the illusion. Front-sides are tuned into the river below. Like a dying midnight campfire, waves command attention. You and the other front-sides watch and listen. You listen with eyes closed. One sound for buffeting concrete, another for wood. The depths of the water were fathomed centuries ago, but the force of the current, to your simple mind, is unfathomable. Paddlewheels and barges. Swaying riverboats await 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 entertains a handful of standing, jacket-clad pedestrians with metal, heavy and melodic. You passed them on the way. A touch of legato here, a sweep arpeggio there, the music rides the breeze. Your stride has been in sync. And like the Grand Canyon and the Pyramids, this Gateway Arch is not captured by any photograph. You look up and ask: How? You’ve asked the same question about the Parthenon. Architects have kept secrets for thousands of years. Architects and Metallurgists. You would too. It takes eyes better than yours to fix on the row of windows at the apex. Those tiny dots fading and returning. 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 coming from the PA. A recorded speech, over and over. 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 late stage? 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. Single step. Something. You estimate from memory: thirty minutes each way, to the minute, exactly, give or take.
After you climb up to the blue level, it’s been twenty minutes, but you didn’t tourist your way back. You look around. You looked around the whole way there, but you do it again. Cameras are trained on your every move but you pretend otherwise. Out of your left jacket pocket comes the OTF, one of your favorites. Out of the right, the one you can’t talk about. You don’t forget the butterfly contraption in your back pocket. Better sit in your vehicle, you decide, to unload the defenses in your shoes. Hey, you never know.
You’re back. Eventually you’re 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 picking things up off the ground. Everyone in front of you puts items in a plastic tub to be sent on rollers through the X-ray machine. Jackets are inspected manually. Your turn.
“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? It takes a second to sort it out in your brain. It can’t be happening. With a long line behind you, you begin stuffing or 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 into the coat draped over your other unfree arm. Instead of simply dropping all that necessary nonsense 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 force those items into tight little pocket openings—-slits, really–of your jacket without losing half of it. Why? No one will ever know why. After your walk through the metal detector arch, you collect your stuff and set up shop off to the side. You unload and inventory everything, tediously appointing 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. Do it now while security people watch you on a monitor in a room somewhere, or never find those things again. Just like at the airport.
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 to say other than duh, you’d say it, but you can’t so he’s lucky and it’s not his fault anyway and let’s move on. You are told they just sold the last ticket of the day a few minutes ago.
You exit through the glass doors and begin dragging your defeated feet up the ramp. Defeated. You stop. You walk back down to the glass doors. You see a lady walking through the metal-detector gateway, and you see all kinds of 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. You should let it go but you don’t. 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. HAW 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 more–but the words melt into an amusingly-indiscernible current of downstream rantage. You walk off, satisfied he’s going to choose the lady-of-concern and the sirens and bells over you and your camera and a hop over the rail. You feel better. You couldn’t have seen that face from way up there anyway. Why did you do that? He will never know.