The Great Highway was impossibly long; stretching at least a hundred miles. The straight and narrow highway running the length of Ocean Beach in San Francisco was one of the earliest banes of my existence.
Most days after school I walked home or my grandmother picked me up. On rare occasions I would see my mother sitting in front of the school in our white Valiant, window down, plumes of smoke from her True Blue cigarette rising from the window as she waved.
I hated those days. I knew what was coming.
After a few pleasantries she would utter the dreaded words . . . “we have to go ‘unstick’ the car now.” I had no idea what unsticking the car meant, but I did know it involved a long drive up and down the Great Highway, back and forth until the car became unstuck.
Back in the days of reckless freedom, I sat in the front seat. I would buckle up with a loose lap belt, like what we have on planes today. The red vinyl upholstery was slippery and caused me to slide back and forth in my seat when we turned a corner. I breathed in the second hand smoke and watched the ashes fall from the cigarette into the full ashtray which was pulled out next to the radio. I had two windows on my side of the car; a big window was controlled by a handle I hand rolled, and a cute little triangular window which pushed outward. On a particularly warm day I could turn on the air conditioning, which in actuality was a third window located by my feet. It looked like a little metal box and had a knob which when turned, opened a little door. Not only would I get a breeze on my feet but I could watch the street go by under our car. It was oddly fascinating and Flintstone-esque.
Those things entertained me the 15 or so blocks from my school to the Great Highway. Then the unsticking and ensuing torture began. Up the Great Highway we went until we reached the Cliff House. Then we would turn around and drive all the way to the zoo, and then back again, and so forth.
This would go on at least an hour which felt like five. She drove. She smoked. We listened to the radio. She smoked some more as Carole King told me it was too late. I pondered how I could mend a broken heart along with the Bee Gees and I listened with jealousy as Melanie taunted me with her brand new roller skates. I prayed John Denver would come on so my mom could hear the words “Take me home.”
I ended up flopping over the bench into the back seat where I would read a Henry Huggins book until I fell asleep. Eventually the car would miraculously get ‘unstuck’ and we could go home.
Years passed before I learned there is no such thing as “unsticking”. Mom wasn’t on the straight and narrow even if the road was.