66 Eastbound has been our lead story for the last hour. Mike on the phone tells us that it takes an hour and a half to go what normally takes 10 minutes. Scram. Bail out. Traffic is going to saturate the secondary roads.
Traffic reporter Lisa Baden is on the air, extending to us WTOP radio listeners the lifeline D.C. craves to stay continually informed about area gridlock. We turn to her and her army of traffic watchers for wisdom and, occasionally, for entertainment. On this particular Monday morning, I-66 has slowed to a crawl.
During my half-hour commute, I, like many others, tune my trusty radio to WTOP, waiting for “traffic and weather together on the eights.” But while my fellow commuters are busy dodging the thick traffic on area roads, I’m busy dodging a clod of dog shit. You see, I walk to work.
There’s a car on fire if you’re on your way to Baltimore…
At 13th and U Streets NW, I need to make a detour. The fence surrounding a building under construction has swallowed the sidewalk I’m walking on, and it’s decision time. I can cross the street at the light, or I can head north for a block and continue my westward journey one street over. I don’t need to consult WTOP on this one, but I still have the earphones from my portable radio firmly lodged in my ears, tuned to the rapid-fire delivery of the next traffic update. In my mind, I transport myself all over the area: the Baltimore–Washington Parkway, John Hanson Highway, Braddock Road. It’s like a mobile National Geographic. I don’t even know where most of the roads are. And, in a way, I don’t care. What I relish is the thought of motorists, sitting alone in their steel and glass cages, seething because their fellow man has the audacity to want to drive on the same road—at the same time!—that they do.
270 accident just reported southbound at 28 in the main line…
Shaded by the broad reach of a maple tree, at 15th and V Streets I pass St. Augustine Church, its stained-glass windows fronting the street. The church reminds me of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers. St. Christopher was said to have carried Christ across a stream, but right now, not even he could help those people stuck on I-66. Trapped in their cars, blasted by conditioned air and pelted by lite rock, they can only dream that he’ll personally arrive to carry them across the Potomac as the backed-up Roosevelt Bridge never will.
Perhaps a fitting replacement for the failing St. Christopher would be a saint whose name is invoked every morning by commuters and traffic reporters alike: St. Barnabas. Not surprisingly, Barnabas was a martyr, and so are the commuters who brave his road. “The inner loop is backed up to St. Barnabas Road” crackles across the airwaves nearly every weekday morning. It serves as a preamble to a communal commuter benediction, a chorus to rally the troops in a futile prayer for a traffic-free morning.
Wreck on southbound B-W Parkway between 198 and 197…
Decision time: sun or shade? The mercury is rising faster today than on a normal spring morning, and I consider ducking under a tree canopy at Florida and 17th. The detour will add perhaps another 90 seconds to my commute. I think I can spare it.
Spinning my tuner up and down the radio dial, I relish the euphemistic titles that broadcasters give to constant traffic reports. There’s “Jam cams” (at least pretend to tell me you aren’t jammed up) and “Time-Saver Traffic” (good luck saving time when everyone else is taking that same “alternate” route). It’s like those paper-thin new condos sprouting up along clogged arteries with signs touting “Luxury Condos!” If you need to tell us that they’re luxurious, they’re obviously not. So as commuters crawl past these new developments in their cars—30 minutes late for their morning meetings—I smile, knowing that these folks have to endure some überperky news reader reporting the “on-time traffic.” Look, if you need to tell us that everything’s OK, it’s obviously not.
50 is wicked, all the way through Chantilly…
My legs get an extra stretch as I trek uphill on Champlain Street for the final two blocks of my walk. The sidewalks are clear, but a construction crew has claimed half of the road with its fence. Further up the street, double-parked cars are tormenting commuters searching for a parking space. It’s the kind of travail Dr. Gridlock writes about.
I love to read Dr. Gridlock, twice a week, every week. In fact, I’ve written to him myself, squabbling with drivers as if I were one of them. And yet I’m not—I noted in my letter that I read his column “for the entertainment value.” Not surprisingly, that line was omitted from the printed version. After all, how would serious motorists respond, knowing that a pedestrian was laughing at their expense, thrilled by their misadventures, and rooting against them daily?
Every day, there’s bad news for drivers, a new reason to curse, another crack in their theory that moving to the exurbs has provided them with a “better quality of life.” Through the daily monotony of reciting the usual suspects—66, 395, 495, 7, 50—traffic reporters do their best to offer help, to lend an ear, to keep order. They have no rage for the road because, like me, they’re not stuck on it. They’re above it, simply observing and commenting with the detached professionalism of a coroner busy at work. They throw in pseudo-empathy to soothe the masses, to be mobile St. Christophers, canonized for their omniscient guidance. But because of their excitement over something so frustrating, they are a source of great entertainment, better than any “drive-time” shock jock could ever be.
This is why I can’t get enough of traffic reports, which essentially are useless to a foot commuter like me. Other people’s traffic woes have become my morning coffee, the elixir that lifts my spirits. Their plight is my merriment. Those “eights” are my morning benchmarks, peppering my stroll with snippets of the frustrations of others. In terms of divine justice, the price of my schadenfreude may be steep, but I’m willing to take that gamble. After all, the worse the traffic is, the better I feel. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Wesley Bedrosian.