Tuesday, May 26, 2009

“I’m a ro-o-o-o-o-o-oad runner Honey!”

With those words Bo Diddley launched a rock and roll song that became an anthem for a youthful generation of muscle car owners who would later become hapless commuters. During many of my many, many years of work, I was a “roadrunner”; one of those nameless, faceless drivers who twice each day choke the roads with tons of stalled metal. For those of you who don’t know, a “roadrunner” is defined as ground dwelling cuckoo bird, native to the desert southwestern U.S., and famous for its ability to run at 15 to 18 miles per hour. What is not commonly known is that this scrawny rascal eats poisonous snakes, spiders, scorpions and just about anything else that it can catch. It can be a seriously mean little dude if it wants to be. Therefore, the term “roadrunner” aptly describes both the practice and the attitude of the average long distance commuter, stuck in a vehicle and in traffic for multiple hours each day.

Humans are an adaptive species and so it is with human “roadrunners”. Being in the same place at the same time as countless others, unwritten rules of the road develop for those with IQ’s higher than chimpanzees. Thus, just as NASCAR drivers drive at 160 miles per hour just a few feet apart, so goes morning commute at a steady 60 until all reach the point of gridlock. A driver who wishes to survive the experience had better develop a sense about who to trust and who not to trust. In my experience, trust is developed from predictability. The regulars who get into their correct lanes and fall into line are trustworthy while the maniac in the black ‘Beemer’ screaming into the cell phone and failing to notice stopped traffic ahead is a danger to all. The guy who slows to let the truck into line is trustworthy while the kid in the annoying ‘rice burner’ who just went from lane one to lane three and back again to gain two car lengths is an accident looking for a victim. Even if you’re not a ‘regular’, I’m sure that you get the picture. Having freed myself from that daily insanity, I had mercifully forgotten about my fellow “roadrunners”, who know the rules and our arch nemeses, ‘the clueless’. That was until Memorial Day.

It was a coincidence that I was travelling on Monday, Memorial Day afternoon. They were all familiar roads, but suddenly the predictable had become some sort of twisted video game with me feeling like a target. Strange things were going on and it reminded me of an episode of “The Twilight Zone”. Traffic on the rural Interstate highway was reduced to 55 miles per hour and both lanes were backing up. Up ahead, one of those strange looking foreign minivans was in the passing lane beside a double tractor-trailer as the truck struggled up a long hill. The driver of the van seemed completely oblivious to the line of cars behind his rolling roadblock. Miles later when the truck had slowed enough to lose his sidecar, irritated drivers began to speed up and pass the unyielding van on the right. Because traffic was heavy, passing on the right often resulted in a near collision with a slow moving car in the right lane. I purposely hung back to observe and avoid the chaos until I could safely pass on the right. It was no surprise to me to see a New Jersey license plate on the van.

I escaped for just a short distance before again being blocked by another side-by-side combination. This time it was two more foreign cars; a station wagon from Virginia and a sub-compact from Maryland. Both cars tootled along at a gut-busting 58, their drivers apparently blind to the rapidly building lines behind them. Many years on the road had also educated me that people who drive “the world’s safest car” had probably been required to do so by law enforcement in the interest of public safety. At this point, I thought about my friend Jayha from North Carolina and her BIG Ford truck. I could practically hear her screaming out the window, “Y’all best get your li’l battery-powered, tin can, sorry pieces of shyt outta’ my way ‘for I lock up this big som-bitch and roll OVER your asses!” She’d do it too. Not just scream at them, I mean she’d DO it! You gotta’ love that southern spirit.

The normally routine one hour trip stretched into an hour and a half nightmare that mixed people who had never really learned how to drive, and people who should never have been allowed to drive, with people who had a lot of miles to cover and just wanted to get on with it. Many years ago I used to fantasize that I had a secret button on the knob of the four-speed shift of my muscle car. One push of that button would instantly vaporize the slow-moving Volkswagen beetle at the head of the line of traffic on my side of that double yellow line. I would have paid a lot of money to have that button on Monday, and I’ll bet others would have flung tens and twenties at me as they passed each smoking hole in the pavement.

After arriving home, I began to reflect upon the experience. I wondered who those strange people were and why they couldn’t grasp basic concepts such as “keep right except to pass”. Then it dawned on me that these people weren’t “roadrunners”. Holiday weekends bring to the roads hoards of people who simply don’t ordinarily drive on rural highways. They either take public transportation, live in the city where they pull from their streets onto a twelve-lane parking lot that travels at 15 miles an hour, or they just rarely drive at all. That would certainly explain driving slowly in the passing lane and not being aware of horns and lights behind them. When you spend hours travelling slowly among clueless people, I guess that you just become…clueless. There is certain logic to it. Deep down, I still believe that there is a secret training school in New Jersey where they select pathetically power-hungry people and teach them how get in their desperately underpowered little boxes and gather on the Interstate highways during busy traffic times. After training, these people receive the title of ‘DSC’, which stands for Designated Speed Controller, and launch themselves onto the roads on a self-proclaimed righteous mission to congest America’s highways. The good news is that they are once again buried deeply back into their own little worlds and probably feel smug for having exerted their authority. The roads are again property of the “roadrunners”. At least until the smart “roadrunners” go into hiding on July 3.

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