A note to fans of Little Golden America: as of issue No. 22, Admit Two adopted a PDF format, which means you will have to access individual back issues to get to further chapters of Ilf and Petrov's American adventure.
... Through the Eastern States
the Automobile Highway
THE PROUD towers of New York were behind us. Framed in stainless
steel, the facets of the Empire State Building shone in the morning murk-
iness hovering over the gigantic city. A thin mist enveloped the summits
of Radio City, Chrysler, Woolworth, and other skyscrapers, named and
unnamed. Now we were driving through a lively and unpretentious
Muddy water ran over the pavement, which was lined with parallel
strips. The green iron trestle of the elevated railway slit the street length-
wise at the height of the fifth story. The high-strung people of New York
raced in their automobiles on their sundry errands. A striped barber
pole flashed by; it was a revolving glass cylinder with green, red and
blue stripes. In a red brick house toasted sandwiches were sold. As a mat-
ter of fact, all the houses here were brick and all were red. What can one
like here, what can one learn to love here?
Like all the large cities of the world, New York is an appalling city.
Here millions of people bravely struggle for mere existence. There is too
much money in this city. Some people have too much while others have
too little. And it is this that casts a tragic light on all that happens in
We parted from the city for two months.
The route of the first day was clear. We were going to Schenectady
along U. S. Highway No. 9, through Poughkeepsie (it actually takes
twelve letters to write that word in English), the Hudson, and the cap-
ital of the state of New York, Albany.
The regimen of the journey was also clear. We had at our disposal
sixty days, and we had approximately ten thousand miles to cover in
that time. Even if we were to drive at the rate of two hundred and fifty
miles a day, we would cover that distance in forty days. We set aside
fifteen days for surveys, sightseeing, study, and so forth. All told, fifty-five
days. That left us with five days in reserve for unforeseen developments.
To this it should be added that a mile consists of one and six-tenths
The suitcase with our belongings was placed in the baggage rack lo-
cated under our back seat. In it were our shirts, handkerchiefs, and,
most important of all, letters of introduction—new letters of introduction
to cover the entire route. Again, the addressees were professors, people
of theater, poets, engineers, politicians, governors, and senators.
To the numerous letters received from Dos Passos was attached a long
list with the characteristics of each addressee, who he was, what was his
occupation, and in what way he cold be useful to us.
In brief, we had a lot of recommendational merchandise.
It is high time to keep our promise and write a separate chapter about
American roads. They deserve it. Maybe they deserve even more—a whole
This was not our first time on an automobile road. Yet, although since
then we have become used to munificent highway arrangements, our
first impression remains ineradicable. We drove over a white iron and
concrete plate, eleven inches thick. This ideally even surface, being slightly
rough, had a large coefficient of traction. Rain did not make it slippery.
We drove over it with the ease and noiselessness with which a drop of
rain runs down glass. Along its length the road was marked with white,
thick stripes. Four automobiles could travel down this road at once in
both directions. These roads, like the roads of ancient Rome, are built
practically for eternity.
Mrs. Adams looked at us appealingly from time to time, but we pre-
tended we did not understand her glances, although we really did. Mrs.
Adams wanted to drive faster. But at the time he sold us the machine,
the dealer recommended that the first few days it be drive no faster
than forty miles an hour. This is necessary so as not to damage the motor
before it has time to get under way. Mr. Adams glanced at the speedome-
ter and, seeing the beautiful thin arrow wavering close to the figure 50,
became anxious at once:
“No, no, Becky, it’s impossible! It’s impossible! The car is too stiff.
You must be very, very careful with it. Isn’t it so, gentlemen?”
Not understanding anything yet about the treatment of automobiles,
we merely nodded, without taking our eyes off the white stripes of the
Oh, that road! For who months it ran to meet us—concrete, asphalt,
or grained, made of gravel and permeated with heavy oil.
It is madness to think that it is possible to drive slowly down an
American federal highway. It is not enough to have the desire to be care-
ful. Side by side with your machine pass hundreds of other machines,
and thousand push from behind. You meet with tens of thousand pass-
ing by, and all of them drive for all they are worth, sweeping you along
with them in their satanic flight. All of America speeds somewhere, and
evidently never will stop. Steel dogs and birds gleam on the noses of its
Among the millions of automobiles flying from ocean to ocean, we,
too, were a grain of dust chased by a gasoline storm which has been
raging for ever so many years over America.
Our machine raced past rows of gasoline stations, each of which had
six, eight, or even ten red or yellow pumps. We stopped at one of these
to fill our tank.
From a small neat building, in the large glass show window of which
could be seen all kinds of automobile greases and cleaning powders, came
a man in a cap with a striped top and in striped overalls, the unbuttoned
upper part of which revealed a striped collar with a black leather bow
tie. Such is the style of mechanics—to wear leather ties. He placed a
rubber spigot into the opening of the tank, and the columnlike pump
began to count off automatically the number of gallons swallowed by our
automobile. Simultaneously, figures jumped out on the counting ma-
chine of the little column, indicating the cost of the gasoline. With each
new gallon the apparatus gave off a melodic ring. This ringing is mere
technical smartness. One can get along without it.
The tank was filled and we were ready to drive on, but the gentle-
man in the striped cap and leather necktie did not consider his task com-
pleted, although he had done everything that he was supposed to do. He
had sold us eleven gallons of gasoline, exactly as much as we had asked
for. But only then did the great American service begin.
The man from the gasoline station lifts the hood of the machine and
tests the level of oil in the motor with a calibrated metallic ruler. If it is
necessary to acc oil, he brings it at once in a handsome tin can or a tall
Then he tests the air pressure in the tires. We carried a pressure of
thirty-five pounds in the front tires and thirty in the rear. He will let out
extra air or add as much as is needed.
Then the striped gentleman turns his attention to the windshield. He
wipes it with a clean soft rag. If the pane is very dirty, he rubs it with a
All of this is done quickly but without any fuss. While this work is
going on, which does not cost the traveler a single cent, the man at the
gasoline station will tell you about the road and about the weather your
may expect to encounter on your route.
After everything is in order and it seems that nothing else could be
added in the way of service rendered to the automobile, the traveler, spoiled
by service, begins to imagine that the right front door of his machine does
not close tightly enough. Smiling his good wishes, the striped gentleman
pulls instruments from his rear pockets—and in two minutes the door
is in order.
Besides that, the traveler receives an excellent map of the state printed
by the oil companies that sell gasoline on the roads. There are road maps
published by Standard Oil, Shell, Socony, Conoco, and Esso. All these are
beautifully printed on excellent paper. They are easy to read and they
give absolutely accurate and the very latest information. It is impossible
to receive a map which would tell about the condition of the road the
year before. All the maps are up to date, and if there is any serious repair
work going on on on any of the roads it is indicated on the map. On the
reverse side are listed the hotels and tourist homes in which one may
spend the night. Even the sights along the road are enumerated.
All this service is given free of charge with the gasoline you purchase.
The same service is rendered even when you buy only two gallons of it.
Difference in treatment is unknown here. A dilapidated Chevrolet or a
shining Deusenberg that costs thousands of dollars, the wonder of the
automobile show of 1936, will find here the same impartial, rapid, and
In the farewell, the attendant of the gasoline station told us that he per-
sonally would drive the new machine not at the rate of forty miles an
hour but at thirty, and not only the first five hundred miles but the first
thousand. That would make the motor work ideally in the future. Mrs.
Adams was completely overwhelmed by this, and, smiling wryly, held
her speed at 28-29 miles.
We men, however, were occupied with calculations. How pleasant it is
to be busy when one really has no business to attend to! Our sedate, mouse-
colored Ford showed that it used one gallon of gasoline (three and a half
liters) every sixteen miles. In the state of New York gasoline costs sixteen
cents a gallon. That meant that a full tank of fourteen gallons, costing two
dollars and twenty-four cents, presented us with the possibility of driving
two hundred and twenty-four miles. After converting the miles into kilo-
meters, we discovered that an automobile journey is much less expensive
in the United States than in Europe.
This comforting arithmetic helped us endure the insults of the auto-
mobiles that passed us. There is something insulting in being passed. In
America the passion to pass each other is strongly developed and leads
to a greater number of collisions and all the other kinds of road mishaps
which in America bear the name of “accident.” Americans travel fast.
Every year they travel faster and faster. Every year the roads become better
and better, and the automobile motors more and more powerful. They
drive fast, daringly, and on the whole, not too carefully. At any rate,
dogs in America have a better understanding of what an automobile high-
way is than do the automobilists themselves. Wise American dogs never
run out on the highway and never race after an automobile with an
optimistic bark. They know what that leads to. They will be crushed—
and that’s all there is to it.
We stopped for lunch at a roadway restaurant with the sign “Dine and
Dance.” We were the only ones in a large, dim room which had a square
in the middle for dancing.
Out of small bowls we ate a brownish soup, accompanied by crackers,
small salty rusks which justified their name by their incredible crackling
when bitten. When we were attacking the large T-bone steaks—beefsteaks
of frozen meat with a T-shaped bone in the middle—the owner of the
restaurant and entertainment aggregate “Dine and Dance” drove up in
an old Ford. He began to drag out of his machine and into the hall
bundles of dried cornstalks to decorate the room with them. That evening
the youth of the district was to assemble and dance. It was all very pleasant
and peaceful—even patriarchal—yet we had driven only a hundred miles
away from New York. Only a hundred miles behind us was the noisiest
population in the world, while here was quiet, peace, heart-throbbing
bucolic flirtation during dances, cornstalks, even flowers.
At the very doors of the quiet restaurant lay the dun concrete of a first-
class highway. Again the wound in Mrs. Adams’s heart opened the mo-
ment she took the wheel thirty miles an hour—an not another mile!
A foreigner, even one who has no command of English, can drive out
on an American road without any apprehension. He will never get lost,
no matter how strange the country is to him. Even a child, even a deaf-
and-dumb person can freely make his way along these roads. They are
carefully numbered, and the numbers are met so frequently that it is im-
possible to make a mistake of direction.
Occasionally, two roads become one for a time. Then the roadway
post contains two numbers—the number of the federal road above that of
the state road. At times, five, seven, even ten roads come together. Then
the quantity of numbers grows, and with it the post on which they
are inscribed, so that the indicator begins to look like an ancient Indian
There is a great variety of different signposts on the road, but—remark-
able distinction!—not one among them is superfluous, not one might dis-
tract the attention of the driver. The signs are placed sufficiently low
above ground so that the driver may see them on his right without taking
his eyes off the road. They are never conditional and never require any
decoding. In America you will never find a mysterious blue triangle in a
red square, a sign over which you may rack your brain for hours.
Most of the road indicators are on round mirrored glasses which at
night reflect the glare of automobile lights. Thus, the sign shines of itself.
Black inscriptions against a yellow background (these are the most no-
ticable colors) warn: “Slow,” “School Zone,” “Stop Danger,” “Narrow
Bridge,” “Speed Limit 30 Miles,” Railroad Crossing,” or ‘Dip 30 Feet
Away”—and precisely thirty feet away there will be a rut. However,
such an inscription is met with as rarely as the dip itself. At each road
crossing stand poles with thick wooden arrows. On the arrows are
the names of cities and the mileage to them.
Noisily, and making a baying sound, heavy silver autotanks with milk
fled past us. They carry milk for New York’s seven million population.
They frighten you to death—these huge milk machines which suddenly
appear, approaching with the rapidity of a squall. The tanks are especially
grandiose at night when, surrounded by a chain of green and red lanterns,
they fly without a stop toward New York. Seven million people want
to drink milk, so it must be delivered on time.
Even more imposing are the trucks with special attachments which
transport at once three or four new automobiles. At a distance of approxi-
mately a thousand miles, delivery by truck costs less than by railroad—so,
again a storm descends upon us, this time gleaming with lacquer and
nickel. We close our eyes for a second against its unendurable glare, and
Roads are one of the most remarkable phenomena of American life—of
its life and not only of its technique. The United States had hundreds of
thousands of miles of so-called highways, roads of high quality, along
which regular automobile communication passes. Autobuses race on sched-
ule at the rate of sixty mile per hour, and transportation on them is twice
as cheap as by rail.
At any time of day, at any time of year, in the worst possible weather,
passenger autobuses race across America. When at night you see a heavy
and threatening machine flying across the waste spaces and the deserts, you
involuntarily remember the post diligences of Bret Harte run by desperate
An autobus travels down a grave highway. It turns large stones over
and sucks the small ones after itself. It cannot be late. Where are we? In
the state of new Mexico? Faster, faster! The young chauffeur steps on
the throttle, Carlsbad, Lordsburg Las Cruces! The machine fills with
noisy wind, and in the passengers, slumbering in their easy chairs, sud-
denly hear the great melody of the American continent.
America is located on a large automobile highway.
When we shut our eyes and try to resurrect in memory the country in
which we spent four months, we see before us not Washington with its
gardens, columns, and a full collection of monuments, not New York with
its skyscrapers, its poverty and its wealth, not San Francisco, with its steep
streets and suspension bridges, not hills, not factories, not canyons, but the
crossing of two roads and a gasoline station against the background of
telegraph wires and advertising billboards.