Thursday, June 30, 2011

Joining the Seemingly Endless Commute

I have recently become a big-city commuter. I live in the exurbs of Austin — in a land of cookie-cutter houses — and drive daily to the University of Texas campus to draw a paycheck working a dream job. I’m a lucky guy.

The prospect of this commute worried me. I am not good with traffic issues, generally. It makes me crazy when I am headed back to East Texas on I-35, and everything just stops for no apparent reason. The most frustrating aspect of those sudden stoppages is that one has no idea why it is taking place, or how long it will be before things loosen up. Sometimes it is caused solely because a DPS trooper has pulled someone over, so everybody is shifting to the left lane as law requires. Other times it is a grisly wreck, at which passersby feel compelled to gawk, slowing down in the process.

I had to give myself a Patience Pep Talk upon moving back to the Big City, which is a far cry from driving Behind the Pine Curtain. So far it has largely worked, though the new job and commute will be a test of my ability to keep my cool. I estimate that 90 percent of the profanity I use — and this is an area where the older I get the choosier I am about letting loose a blue streak — is while driving alone in traffic. Doltish drivers just set me off, though not in a road rage, gonna-get-in-a-fistfight way. I’m too old and small for that type of foolishness.

Thus I confine my imprecations to the car’s interior. Hand gestures are kept below the dashboard. But I must say, there are some goofy drivers on the road, texting and applying mascara at the same time, or popping open a tall boy while smoking a cigarette. At least I think it was a cigarette. I didn’t want to get too close.

Traffic patterns baffle me. I have learned that if I am pulling out of my driveway at 6:50 a.m., then I’m in the office by 7:30. If I leave at 7:00 instead, it could be close to 8 before I arrive. The opposite is true when headed home. If I leave at straight-up 5:00, I won’t be back in this 2011 version of Levittown — where I live — until 6:00. But if I wait until 5:30 or 5:45, the commute time is cut nearly in half.

I occasionally take the train, but discovered it actually means a longer commute — and I’m at the mercy of CapMetro’s schedule. That means I have to leave my house no later than 6:30 a.m. to make it to work by 8:00. Coming home, if I miss the 6:44 p.m. connection — which means I must leave the office by 5:30 to catch the express bus to the station — I would have a very expensive cab ride back to where my car sits baking in the sun. So, even though I’m a bleeding-heart liberal who drives a hybrid and sips red wine, this whole train thing doesn’t work daily for me.

The art of seizing the moment — when a tiny gap occurs to switch lanes and thus gain a few hundred feet momentum on MoPac — is absolutely critical to cutting a few minutes off the drive. Cell phones have made this quite easy, since about half the folks on the pavement are texting or talking during the tortoise-like advance north at rush hour. Thank goodness our fearless governor preserved the constitutional rights of drivers to put themselves and others at dire risk, when he vetoed a bill that would have banned texting while driving. Maybe next, Gov. Goodhair will allow drivers to brown-bag their beer when they hit the road, as in the not-so-good ol’ days.

I’m kidding, of course, though I do find it fascinating that the folks most interested in regulating women’s bodies and what goes on behind closed doors between consenting adults get all constitutionalist when it comes to banning behavior that could kill innocent folks — and in fact already has.

Sorry. I have a lot of time to think about such matters while commuting.

Finally, though I stay calm while stuck in Austin traffic, it is a different story when back in East Texas. I get impatient if I’m stuck at a signal for more than 30 seconds on Eastman Road in Longview. I can’t explain this shift in attitude. At least I have plenty of time to ruminate on the topic while stuck on the Hwy. 183 flyover in North Austin, looking down on an endless river of vehicles.

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