Sunday, October 6, 2019

highway patrol

For nearly twelve years, I took public transportation — specifically the Philadelphia Regional Rail line — to work and I was admittedly spoiled rotten by the convenience. I hate to drive, so letting someone else do the driving — while I read or slept or took pictures of people blatantly ignoring the policy of keeping bags off of seats —was perfect for me. I got a discounted rate on a monthly transit pass and my car sat in front of my house six days a week, only taking it from its curbside resting place to pick up dry cleaning on most Saturday mornings. Well, my daily train commute ended when I was unceremoniously separated from my center-city employer. After a long absence, I was thrust into the nerve-wracking, white-knuckle world of driving to work.

I started a new job in August 2019. My office is located just ten miles north east of Trenton, New Jersey, in a small community called Robbinsville. It is not in close proximity to any single mode of public transportation. So, I have no choice but to leave my house at ten after seven and navigate through unpredictable traffic to arrive at work for an 8:30 start of day. In the first week of my new employ, I tried several different routes, including a stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike that collects a six dollar toll in both directions. I finally settled on a course that costs a dollar in only one direction and takes me past the 6100-seat Arm and Hammer Park, home of the Trenton Thunder, a Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. I also see an alleged homeless guy, displaying a handwritten plea scrawled across a piece of corrugated cardboard, wandering in and out of the traffic waiting to make a left turn on to Route 29. He wears different clothes and a different baseball cap everyday, leading me to believe that he is no more homeless than I am.

I am actually getting used to driving. I have mentally broken down my commute into sections, checking my dashboard clock and figuring what kind of time I am making based on where I am at a particular time. Sometimes, I ignore the clock and just happily listen to the radio.

Then, of course, there are those times when the traffic comes to a grinding halt. It's these times that makes me hate driving. If I am stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for a period of time longer than a few minutes, I get anxious and antsy and frustrated. I hate inching along, closing up the gap between my car and the car just ahead, as though those few extra millimeters are accomplishing something. And, when the traffic snarl finally breaks and the pace resumes to regular speed, if I don't see a twisted hunk of sheared metal that used to be a car or a mass of bloody, mangled bodies littering the blacktop with severed limbs, I am genuinely disappointed. If traffic is stopped, there better be a goddamn good reason for it.

Damn this traffic jam!
Just this week, I was tooling south on Route 1, hitting my each of my regular milestones at the times that let me know I would be parking my car in front of my house at the usual time. Suddenly, just ahead, I could see the faint illumination of brake lights. As I approached and decelerated, the steady glow of brake lights increased as more and more cars were slowing and stopping across both lanes. I tensed up, my hands gripping the steering wheel tighter. I moved a tiny bit outside of my lane, trying to see if I could identify the cause of this slowdown, but I was too far back from the cause. So, I sat. Sat along with a crush of other folks who just wanted to get home in a reasonable amount of time. The knot of cars slowly... slowly... moved forward. After a few long minutes of crawling an inch at a time, I spotted the top of a large, electric sign parked in the far left lane. It was flashing a large, electric yellow arrow, obviously indicating that all traffic was to divert to the right traffic lane. This was quite a request. It was approximately 6 PM, the peak of the evening "rush hour" on a piece of highway that is heavily traveled by both cars and trucks. Big trucks. I could see exasperated drivers craning their necks as they jockeyed their vehicles out of the prohibited lane. I could see truck drivers leaning out of their cab windows checking their massive mirrors to see if they were clear to merge. After a few more long minutes, I finally reached the source of the obstruction.

There was a crew of a dozen or so workers, decked out in florescent vests and scrambling around like beavers all over the highway. They were installing shiny new pieces of the guard rail that divides the northbound traffic from the southbound traffic. AT 6 O'CLOCK IN THE EVENING! RUSH HOUR! Someone who works for the Department of Transportation must know that this is rush hour. Yet, it was determined that this was the optimum time to replace the guard rail. Was it decided during a road maintenance meeting that it was much better to disrupt the busiest traffic time of the day than to wait until a time when the road was relatively empty, when it wouldn't inconvenience too many people?

The next morning. I passed the part of the road —from the opposite direction —where the guard rail was replaced. It was beautiful — gleaming silver and expertly installed.*

I still hate driving.

* That there is what you call your "sarcasm."

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