Traffic (and Weather Together)

Ron Singer

Lector cave! [“Reader, beware!”]

The reader who anticipates a salacious account of drug trafficking—private tiger zoos, graphic torture scenes, barbecued rivals’ hearts—is hereby warned: this story is about traffic-traffic. Not that drug deaths do not merit our attention. In 2014, there were 50% more of them than traffic fatalities. Of course, as Churchill said, statistics are like a drunk with a lamp post: used more for support than illumination. If we had an accurate count of the deaths caused by narco-trafficking (cocaine, heroin) and omitted domestic sources (meth labs, prescription opioids), the numbers might be more equal. But then again, if there were no seat belts, airbags, or speed limits…

Even so, readers anticipating the grisly will not go hungry. Who has not heard stories about “the jaws of death” and mangled bodies in closed caskets? As an avid consumer of quarter-hourly traffic reports on news radio, I am aware that, in recent years, the phrase “normally heavy volume” seems to have been replaced by “a collision (crash) at … .”

By now, readers who are not brain dead may have guessed my dark secret: I am a commuter. The venue for my commutes—ten per week, 500 per year—is the New York metropolitan area. Where you happen to reside may determine your degree of sympathy. Let’s say you live somewhere within the radius formed by the city and the Woodbridge cloverleaf, or someplace comparable in Westchester, Long Island, Connecticut, or the ‘burbs of another metropolis. In that case, my commute will certainly register on your sympathy meter. But let’s say you’re a Manhattan apartment dweller committed to mass transit. Not only will your sympathy barely move the needle, but you are probably self-righteous about the damage people like me do to the environment. This brings us to the weather report.

Have you ever wondered why so many news stations report traffic before the weather? My answer is that they are just doing “first things first.” For someone like me, stuck in two hellacious daily snarls, the suggestion of an alternate route can be salvation. Whether my hell that day was caused, in part, by a downpour, by “icy conditions,” or by sun glare is secondary. And what about mudslides in California or heat waves or forest fires in You-Name-It? My reaction to that kind of weather news is, frankly, schadenfreude. If you sit in twice-daily traffic cement, I’m sure you know the feeling.

Not that we suburban liberals don’t give a shit about the environment! (Although, lately, the rise in gas prices has had a constipating effect on our liberal pieties—and even on our antipathy to the murderous Russian kleptocrat’s invasion of his neighbor, the ultimate cause of $5 per gallon.)

Just the other day, my wife and I were groaning about these matters over dinner, the cost of which had risen about 40% in three months. We were having linguine ($2.49) with broccoli rabe ($3.99).

“Suppose you were President, dear,” she said.” What would you do?” I almost choked on a stalk.

“Are you kidding?” I replied. “I’d take a long nap and dream of quitting.”

“Seriously,” she said, expertly twirling the strands of her pasta with a fork and spoon. (After thirty-one years of marriage, her small muscle control still amazes me.) “Do you think we should move back to the city?”

Since the nest emptied a decade ago (when the second of our two fledglings left), this has been a constant topic of conversation. But the question is so evenly balanced it can never be answered. So I offered an anodyne response that would let me eat in peace.

“Maybe, if interest rates go back down, we can think about selling the place.” We finished dinner, loaded the dishwasher, then retreated to the den and to our evening reading: I, the paper; she, a book.

Of course, the next morning, a warm Thursday in mid-June, as I battled the sun glare on I-78, the question of selling the house appeared in a different light. I sighed at the recurrence of the question. Do you agree that routine kills the spirit? (BTW, did you know that the Woodbridge was the first cloverleaf interchange in the U.S.? I suppose I should be proud of knowing that factoid. Like a lot of New Jerseyans, I happen to be a history buff.)

Returning to the present, that morning, my luck ran out. Just as I was turning onto Truck Route 1/9, the last leg before the Holland Tunnel, I heard a thud on the passenger side of my SUV (a 2020 top-of-the-line Japanese model, the brand of which I refuse to divulge until they pay me).

Since I was only moving at seven or eight miles per hour, I put my turn signal on and shoehorned my way over to the shoulder. To my surprise, waiting for me was the vehicle that had hit me and, presumably, its law-abiding driver. This vehicle was a battered, red ten-year-old sedan, also Japanese, but a cheaper brand than mine. The man standing beside the car was short, thin, brown-complected, about thirty-five, and possibly of Latino origin. (I am fifty-two, five-ten, and of Scots-Irish and Russian-Jewish origin.) He wore a conciliatory grin (or, in the vernacular, a “shit-eating” one). He held his wallet in his hand, presumably to exchange insurance information. I reached into my car and grabbed my policy from the driver’s side door pocket.

“No, no, Mister,” he said in a Latino-inflected tenor. “No insurance, please. And no police.” He glanced up the highway in the direction we had come (south), presumably to see if any police vehicles were heading our way. “I will pay you for the damage.” And, with that, he extended his hand, which contained about five twenties.

The offer triggered three quick thoughts: he’s an illegal immigrant; he has no license; he’s an illegal immigrant without a license. Then, I noticed that his eyes were bloodshot, which triggered a further conjecture: “This guy’s stoned!” My liberal sensibilities immediately changed to, “Or just tired. Maybe, he was on his way home from working the night shift. Maybe, he has three jobs.”

Only then did I walk around the front of my vehicle to inspect the damage. There was hardly any: a shallow four-by-six inch dent I could easily pound out with the mallet from my tool kit. With a sense of relief, and with, I confess, my wife’s spirit looking over my shoulder, I invented a happy ending for the episode.

“Put away your money, friend!” I said, gesturing to the dent and gently pushing his hand away. Then, I had recourse to a slangy sports metaphor: “No harm, no foul.” Did he understand that? At any rate, looking relieved and grateful, he put the twenties back in his wallet. I initiated a handshake, and we went our way.

Since I always allow at least an hour for each commute, which would take half that long in normal traffic (i.e., 1972 traffic), I was not even late for work. My field is residential property management. The office is in the Hudson Square neighborhood and, as it happens, not far from several news radio stations.

That morning, I performed my usual duties—writing memos and emails, returning phone calls—and soon, it was time for lunch. Several of us often bagged it. On nice days like this, we would eat together on the backless stone benches on the treeless plaza in front of the building. One source of my pleasure that day was the nice tuna-and-egg salad sandwich I had prepared the night before. But my main enjoyment came from chirping out an account of the fender dent-er. I was careful not to exaggerate the damage or to recount my act of good Samaritan-ism in a way that was either boastful or falsely modest. My colleagues seemed duly impressed.

The afternoon and evening commutes passed without further incident. Traffic was normal (horrible), and I drove even more carefully than usual.

Over dinner that night (broiled pork chops, parsley potatoes, and sautéed cabbage and onions), I told the story of the dent again. My wife, who, as usual, had cooked (since her office is just a ten-minute walk from the house), listened with a bemused expression. When I reached the end of the anecdote—my refusal of the twenties—her comment surprised me: “So, dear, I guess that means we won’t be selling the house any time soon.” I’m not sure how to take that.


About the Author

Ron Singer’s 20th book, Norman’s Cousin & Other Stories (Unsolicited Press), is scheduled for publication in February 2023, completing a trio from Unsolicited Press. The first two were The Promised End (2019) and Gravy (2020). Singer is currently working on Copper: A Memoir by Festus S.O. Nkwema (1937-2022), the fourth book in a series about African politics. The first three were Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with African Pro-Democracy Leaders (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press, 2015); The Real Presence (Adelaide Books, 2021); and the recently completed Pierre Tshombe, or The Making of an Insurrectionist.