Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Then I Hit the Van Wyck

Got caught in a traffic jam last night.

Landed at JFK around 10:30, with carry-on luggage and my car in short-term parking. I was behind the wheel and zipping out the airport exit by 10:45. Then I hit the Van Wyck.

Suddenly, I was in heartbreaking, bone-crushing, soul-destroying traffic. It took me over an hour to travel the next 3 miles, and finally stumbled into bed after 1.

During that time I did a lot of listening. I listened to the new Yankee reliever, Damaso Marte, give up a walk-off grand slam. I listened to a Bill Bryson book on my iPod. I listened to Van Halen's Ain't Talkin' Bout Love on classic rock radio. I listened to some guy on NPR talk about Solzhenitsyn (it was NPR so the topic was the great dissident's criticism of America, not Russia). I listened, against my will, to the extremely loud Caribbean music blasting through the open windows of the car next to me. I listened to shadow traffic reports, all happily oblivious to the quagmire I was stuck in.

And I thought about traffic, and why it's so infuriating.

It's not just the time that it wastes. In fact, it is my experience that traffic is never quite as bad as it seems. I drive from my home in Rockland County, NY out to Long Island quite often, and hit my share of traffic. But very often I arrive at my destination, announce that the traffic was awful – and realize the trip only took 20 minutes longer than usual.

And it's not just the helplessness – though that is certainly a factor. The male of the species is an incorrigible problem-solver and very often, unless you really know your way around the back roads, there is nothing you can do about the problem of traffic except take it.

No, I think the main frustration of traffic is that there is no one to direct your fury at. If you're stuck in a slow line at a store, you can direct your fury at the cashier, chatting on her cell phone as she slowly rings up a customer - or the customer, who waits until everything is rung up to begin searching her pocketbook for a checkbook.

But traffic is a faceless enemy. Indeed, you often are the enemy. You and those other drivers who all decided to be at the same place at the same time. Or the enemy is construction, which you recognize as a necessary evil - plus you're unlikely to flip the bird at the hardhat with the jackhammer. Or the enemy is an accident - and surely the least charitable thought most of us have is that moment in traffic when you spy the emergency lights, possibly signalling the wreckage of someone's life, and can only think, "Yes! It's almost over!"

Wuss Drivers
At 12:37AM, with nothing better to do, I called my buddy Jordan's office number, and left a long voice-mail that roughly mirrors this post. Jordan is a sort of connoisseur of traffic. He studies it, he collects stories about it, he can plumb special depths of rage at it. I once commented that the grip marks on Jordan's steering wheel didn't come that way from the factory - he squeezed them out one day on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Jordan has a special theory about traffic. He believes most traffic is caused by what he calls Wuss Driving. Yes, an accident or construction or weather or tolls or congestion may be the spur, but if the road wasn't filled with Wuss Drivers, we would be able to power through these obstacles and defeat the traffic. He hasn't scientifically tested this thesis, to the best of my knowledge.

Anyway, I made it home eventually. Construction was the cause, though for a few hopeful siren-filled moments I thought there was a terrible accident. Maybe next time I'll avoid the Van Wyck.

Note: Seinfeld fans will recognize the title of this post comes from Elaine, describing her drive to JFK: "I never knew I could drive like that. I was going faster than I've ever gone before and yet, it all seemed to be happening in slow motion. I was seeing three and four moves ahead, weaving in and out of lanes like an Olympic skier on a gold meal run. I knew I was challenging the very laws of physics. At Queens Boulevard, I took the shoulder. At Jewel Avenue, I used the median. I had it. I was there...and then...I hit the Van Wyck. They say no one's ever beaten the Van Wyck, but gentlemen, I tell you this - I came as close as anyone ever has. And if it hadn't been for that five-car pile-up on Rockaway Boulevard, that numbskull would be on a plane for Seattle right now instead of looking for a parking space downstairs."

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