Reverently, an ode to the JFX

September 23, 2004|By KEVIN COWHERD

THE CHURCH bells remain silent, the masses take not to the streets with confetti and champagne when

The Word comes down: Construction finished on the JFX.

The great city yawns. Jaded commuters sneer.

Sure. Right. Whatever.

Who can blame them? Hellish rush-hour backups, orange cones as far as the eye can see,

Lane closures, ramps under repair since the Nixon administration ...

It's all they've ever known on this wretched stretch of highway.

And this: fists pounding on steering wheels in frustration, missed 9 a.m. meetings, muttered apologies to clients that begin: "That @#$%& JFX ..."

Foreheads throb, stomachs churn, bottles of Maalox are chugged with trembling hands.

The stress is killer, babe.

Then one day a shiny-faced bureaucrat steps to a podium, the TV lights wink on, and he says:

No, this time we really mean it. All phases of the Jones Falls Expressway project are complete.

Only then does it hit you.

Our long national nightmare is over.

You drop to your knees and raise your eyes to the heavens.

But the memories linger, haunting memories ...

Of traffic backed up to the Pepsi sign, to TV Hill, to New Hampshire for all we know

Of horns honking furiously, three lanes converging into two

Soccer moms and mild-mannered execs with Ivy League degrees jockeying for position and flipping each other off ...

Let me in, dammit!

On the shoulders, beefy men in hard hats and green safety vests; Marlboros dangling from wind-chapped lips

Wield jackhammers that scream; shovels that scrape

John Deere backhoes that dig into the earth, their gravel-filled buckets careening wildly inches from my windshield.

Always the thought on the JFX: I could die today.

If not by a runaway bucket, then in the narrow lanes of jersey walls that rise

Like gray cement canyons closing around you.

Through which traffic shoots at 50 mph, the new urban madness;

The running of the bulls at Pamplona, only with two-ton SUVs

Then one evening a maroon Honda Civic slows, engine trouble, and is promptly

Rear-ended by a brown Toyota 4-Runner driven by

A harried investment broker returning to the 'burbs, yakking with the wife on his cell

"Pepperoni or mushroom?" he barks. "No, no, I'll pick it up."

Then, dialing Papa John's in the dim light, his eyes leave the road ...

For an instant, really.

A millisecond.

The 4-Runner plows into the Civic; the sickening crunch of metal echoing everywhere and

Shattered glass tinkling across the highway.

On the radio, Detour Dave intones: You don't want to go anywhere near the JFX, folks.

There's a three-mile backup all the way to Fayette Street.

Best bet is Charles as an alternate route.

This traffic update brought to you by Geico.

Oh, the memories . . .

The rebuilt JFX is sleek, hip, shiny, smooth

A serpentine ribbon of funky, elevated roadway; I dig it.

The smell of freshly laid asphalt lingers in the air; that New Highway smell as

Seventy-thousand sets of tires glide over its shimmering surface daily

As smoothly as the Jetsons used to get around in their little flying saucers

Well, almost.

Some say of the JFX makeover: lipstick on a pig. But not me, brother.

It still charms me to my soul, $13 million makeover or no;

A visual candy-cane ...

Northbound, there's the Supermax, sterile and forbidding

Then that grotesque statue in front of Penn Station that should make

Every Baltimorean wear a bag over his head in shame.

The hairpin turns still exist, too, ready to test

Giggly debutantes buzzed on melon shooters, returning from a night at the downtown bars or

Beered-up college lacrosse dudes home for the weekend, who race each other north in daddy's Beemers

To the blue EZ storage building, loser buys

A nightcap at the Towson bars or wherever; a dozen Buffalo wings, too.

But enough about the Night Crawlers.

Today we celebrate the dawn of a new era when

Decent, God-fearing people can get in their cars in broad daylight and cruise

(OK, "cruise" being a relative term)

The JFX with not a bulldozer or road crew in sight.

Be honest.

Did you ever think you'd live to see this day?

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