Routes to happiness
I’m no stranger to the road.
With two working parents schlepping into the city or rural Virginia each week, I was used to hearing about traffic-clogged streets and stuffy Metro trains. I commuted to school in College Park — a time that feels both familiar and distant. Until I graduated and got my newspaper job, I thought a tedious daily commute was just part of life. We’re no strangers to Route 5 madness.
And that extends south, too. Since changing jobs this July, my 10-minute drive to work now stretches out to nearly an hour. I’m still local, but swapping suburbia for the ambiance of fields and farms. For eight hours, at least.
This daily drive is probably what I’ve been most anxious about — though to hear my brother-in-law tell it, I can’t call it a commute. Eric makes a trek north of Greenbelt each day, so I simply have “a drive.”
The man is tired. I’ll give him that one.
I know I’ve been spoiled by living and working in my community. Growing up with frequent stories of Dad trying to cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Mom escaping the city meant I never took my local job for granted. After my son arrived, especially, I appreciated how nice it was to be just down the street.
I’ve never been one to mind driving, though. I used to look forward — eh, is “forward” the right word? — to my college commute, because I felt sophisticated heading out with hot tea to get to (and sleep through?) an 8 a.m. class.
Have I ever told the story of the Beltway man on a warm winter day? The memory of driving down 495 on that bright afternoon is a favorite. I’d finished classes early and was heading home to enjoy the sunshine. From the corner of my eye, I spotted a nearby driver rolling down his window.
That’s not usually a good thing. I once had a milkshake chucked at my door close to exit 11 — no idea why — and, on a separate occasion, had another driver frantically gesturing alongside me. We were both doing at least 65.
Assuming that looking over meant inviting trouble, I tried to ignore him. But Spencer eventually cracked a window. Expecting to hear a string of expletives, it took me a second to process what the man was actually saying. “You have flatter!” . . . What? “You have. A flat. Tire!” he yelled.
A flat tire. On the Beltway. Some kind soul was trying to save our lives — on my birthday, no less — and I’d been doing my best to shut down that guardian angel.
In my defense, the milkshake incident kind of freaked me out.
On that February day, though, I saw a man in business attire stick his arm out the window. He extended and tilted it, fingers open so the breeze could run through them like warm water.
It was so unexpected: winter abruptly giving way to brilliant sunshine; a well-dressed man loosening up — literally — to savor it. Just months from college graduation, I’d been a mess worrying about “the future.” I saw that gesture as . . . hopeful. Simple, but hopeful.
Commuting made me feel like I was a part of something. Yes, it was stressful, watching the clock with nothing but brake lights ahead . . . but it made me responsible, too. And punctual. I learned that if you need to be there in an hour, give yourself two. It can’t hurt. And you can always kill time with coffee.
Ten years after graduation and I’m back to the daily grind. Spending two hours in the car each day feels familiar. I remember listening to Jimmy Eat World and the Killers as loud as I could passing Clinton, then Brandywine, then Waldorf. I drive the same car. With 120,000 additional miles on it, sure, but that old girl is still serving me — us — well.
Now two car seats fill up my second row, leaving little room for the candy wrappers and empty water bottles and errant umbrellas that want to collect there. My husband’s sunglasses seem to live on my dashboard. My trunk is permanently cramped with strollers and cases of diapers.
I figured I would dread this new drive — you know, alone with my thoughts and such — but, to my surprise, I’m already appreciating that “down time.” Friends told me I would. We’re trying to view our commutes as existing in a plane beyond the responsibilities of work and home. Leather-seated limbo, if you will.
Certainly it’s a chance to catch up on reading. Or listening, rather. I have three audio books checked out from the library right now: back-ups for my back-ups, in case one story gets dull or wraps up quickly. I typically finish a disc in a day, or nearly a book a week.
I try listening to the radio sometimes, too, but it feels a little strange. I’ve started to accept that I’m losing my grip on modern music and pop culture. Most songs and artists are unfamiliar, though I do have Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times” on repeat lately. He was in One Direction.
See? I know things. I might even have their CDs around somewhere.
Watch out, kids: Mama’s digging through her relics.
They’re probably in the backseat. Anyone want to try spelunking?