A few hours before boarding a flight at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., I visited the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, a place just aching with glamour, sleek and chilly as the decade that Reagan ran.
I came of age in the '80s, a simpler, meaner time, when the Russians were evil and telling kids to "Just Say No" was considered a social program. I would have gone to the Reagan Library and waxed nostalgic over asymmetrical bangs and ketchup as a vegetable, except that the Reagan Library isn't in Washington. I thought it was, just because you expect everything in Washington to be named after dead presidents, and though Reagan isn't quite in the "out" basket yet, the reasoning seems to be that he will be soon enough, so let the memorializing begin.
Here in Florida you don't expect everything to be named after dead presidents. We are much cooler than that. Our place names are cute, clever or pretty, names like Hypoluxo and Barefoot Bay. My favorites are things like Withlahoochee, Hoo Hoo Park and Oklawaha. They are fun to say and have the bonus of sound like bathing-suit parts: "I told her off and she kicked me right in the Okahumpkas!" If any state could get away with calling a town Hootchie-Cootchie, it would be us and we should make use of that leverage: "You get on Whambam Boulevard, and that will take you right into Chickaboom City."
Considering that, plus the fact that Ronald Reagan already has several locations named after himself that he probably can't recall, it came as a great surprise that our state legislature recently decided to rename the entire length of the Florida Turnpike after the ex-president. Larry the Local News Junkie called me up and told me this, and in the telling he got into a wonderful soap-box snit. "Ronald Reagan? The guy who put us into a trillion dollars' worth of debt? Did he mention AIDS once in his entire term? I'm not paying to drive on Ronald Reagan Road. I'm not a Republican." He sounded like Sally Brown yelling at Linus after the Great Pumpkin failed to appear in the Pumpkin Patch, but you no more interrupt Larry than you would stop John Phillip Sousa in mid-"Stars and Stripes" and say, "Whatever, anyway, know any cha-chas?"
Typically, I would be right there helping him squeeze the rhetorical udders until the milk of self-righteousness was up to our knees. I had forgotten all about Ronald Reagan and don't care to have the memories of the right-wing's sugardaddy, who creepily called his wife "Mommy" long before he fell ill, dredged up every time I want to drive to Miami. But in truth, a craggy stretch of gray road that costs too much, meandering through a state full of geezers going south at a rapid clip, couldn't have a more appropriate name than Reagan Run. Like putting pants on when company comes over, it may not be pleasant, but you can't argue the suitability.
In fact, there are only a few ways it could be more on the money: if the state ran up an enormous deficit just to make the road look good but didn't actually improve it; if the people who drove Mercedes' got to ride for free; if the mileage signs said "I forget" where the numbers ought to be, it would work out perfectly. As a highway, "Reagan" is a past history, not a present discomfort. And with the old cowboy now deep in the heart of Alzheimer's country and a lot of people wondering how long he'd been there before he left office, it's the perfect name for a road in a state where most cars seem to be piloted by nothing more than a fishing hat.
I don't actually get to say any of this, though. Larry is still talking. (I suppose I should be grateful he hasn't put the dog on the phone.) "The '80s were so full of attitude, they made us all mean and greedy," he says. He fails to recall that we were both mean before the '80s and if either of us was greedy we could afford richer friends and wouldn't be having this little chat.
And yet in a weird way he's right. As a product of the soul-free, superficial Reagan years, the substance of what's in that name doesn't matter to me. But the lack of style appalls. Why are public areas often named after some politician no one could identify in a lineup that included just them and four house cats? Why not give the turnpike a useful name like "Nightmare Alley," which would warn tourists of what they're getting into on our roads, which get renamed and landscaped instead of being made safer and make us all want to kill each other while we're on them. The '80s are over; a little less style and a lot more substance on the roads is really something we could use.
Or if they have to name it after a conservative ex-president, why not return to the concept of those snickering Florida city names and call it Bush Boulevard? A road by any other name would be just as rough. But at least it would be funny.
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