Cover Story

Driven to Extremes

(Nicholas DeVore - Getty Images)
By Michael Leahy
Sunday, June 3, 2007

AT 7:25, ABOUT 15 MINUTES INTO HIS TWO-HOUR-PLUS WEEKNIGHT COMMUTE, Marc Turner reached for his ringing cellphone. On the other end of the line, the younger of his two daughters, 7-year-old Catherine, had a question.

"I'll be home soon, Cate," he answered. "What?" His daughter wanted a more precise pledge. "Yes, I'm coming home, Cate, but traffic is horrible. I think it's probably going to be longer than two hours. Yes, you can tell Mom that: longer. Two hours, I hope, but I don't know exactly. Are you helping make dinner, Cate? Are you going to help set the table, then, or do something else? Good. Yes, longer than two hours, Cate. Help everybody while you're waiting. Yes, longer, probably." By the third time he answered the question, he wondered whether Cate was doing his wife's bidding. "Yes, you can tell Mom. I'll be home as soon as I can."

Turner, a 43-year-old paralegal, had just left for home from his job in bustling Tysons Corner, about 100 miles northeast from his Charlottesville residence, where he lives with his wife, Julie, and their three children. At 7:28, after crawling on the Beltway for a while, his gray 1999 Saab sedan pulled onto Interstate 66 West. Turner groaned. Traffic crept along at 5 mph. "Doesn't look good," he said. "Could be really long tonight. The fortunate thing is I'm not really tired yet." Tuesday generally presented a much less draining commute for Turner than, say, a Thursday night, when he was usually worn down by the first three days of the workweek -- three round-trip commutes that consumed four to five hours daily.

By Thursday nights, running on fumes, he routinely avoided the evening commute entirely and stayed at a discount hotel near Tysons Corner to rest and recover. He usually had a drink on the concierge's floor, sometimes watched a film in his room, got an early night's sleep and readied himself for a normally busy Friday morning. Two years ago, when he took the job in Tysons Corner, he had secured his wife's blessing for Thursday night stay-overs, assuring her that he would have more to give to her and the children on weekends if he came home on Fridays refreshed. The rest of his workweek, Turner pointed out, offered almost no respite. Even on uneventful commuting nights, he seldom walked through the front door of his house until long after the kids had eaten and fallen asleep. As often as not, Julie was getting ready for bed herself, having only enough time to say hi and ask her husband hurried questions about household matters, such as what he had spent that day so that she could balance their checkbook. And then she was asleep, and he alone again.

That isolation had come to define his existence. Turner's solitariness mirrored the lives of countless other commuters who have spent large portions of their working lives alone in cars -- alone with their dreams and anxieties, alone with worries about whether they will make it to their jobs or to the next appointment on time, alone pondering the complaints of alienated family members pointing out that they are not around often enough, alone with their own festering resentments over why the people closest to them can't better understand their mounting fatigue and stress. Doctors report a booming business in treating the neck and back pain of tense commuters. Studies have indicated a correlation between long, congested commutes and such stress-related maladies as high blood pressure. Other research has concluded that long commutes result in increased social isolation and greater dissatisfaction with jobs and life in general. Gridlock is the least of the problems.

As he headed toward home that evening, Turner estimated that more than 20 percent of his waking hours were spent commuting. Often during his rides, he saw many of the same vehicles -- a Honda sedan with a personalized license plate here, a white business van there, an elegant black Bentley whose impassive driver sat ramrod straight. He regarded the strangers behind the steering wheels as comrades of sorts, all of them often caught in a hellish crawl.

The Tysons Corner drive paled in awfulness to the often three-hour-plus commutes Turner had endured years earlier, while working in downtown Washington. In those days, his wife had regularly asked him not when but if he would be coming home; the job and commute had forced him into hotels two or three nights a week. Turner left the Washington job and took a moderately lower-paying position in Charlottesville to be closer to his family. But the work there, a brief detour from law firm work, quickly made him miserable. Soon, he was searching again for a new job closer to the city. In 2005, he accepted his paralegal position in Tysons, where his salary dwarfed what was available at any paralegal job he had then heard about in the Charlottesville area. He told Julie that his schedule could be worse, reminding her of his many nights in Washington hotels.

But by last year, this point was no longer consolation for Julie, who thought that Turner's Tysons Corner commute had become symptomatic of a vast separation that she felt in their marriage. She was lonely, she told him. A 41-year-old associate professor at the University of Virginia Medical School, she had an intense schedule herself and very little energy and patience left over for a husband who had virtually no time for her on weeknights; she was generally managing their children's needs alone. The problems in their marriage, she told him, were "multi-factorial," which meant, among other things, that his work life was out of balance with his personal life. His commute had become, as she put it, "a chief separation issue."

During the fall and winter, she broached the possibility of divorce. He thought about it, too. But, ultimately, he wanted to save his marriage and keep his family together. So he had hatched a plan to do just that.

"Traffic is particularly bad tonight," Turner said on I-66, as he rode the brakes at 5 mph in the middle lane, alongside the City of Fairfax and the junction with Highway 50. "It usually starts opening up a little past here, but not tonight, for some reason."

A black SUV cut him off, swerving from left to right, its driver waving over his shoulder as if in apology or thanks. "You don't change lanes like that," Turner groused at the SUV driver. "What are you doing?"

Traffic stopped altogether. He took a deep breath and leaned back a bit on his heated leather seat, which felt good on a cool night like this one. The car also had satellite radio, a present a long while back from his family, who thought his commute could be more tolerable if he could listen commercial-free to any of 100-plus stations. But he usually kept the radio low nowadays. Aside from the classical music station, it was little more than Muzak for him. Even the appeal of Thursday night stay-overs had faded. "You get to feeling lonely," he said. "It's nice to feel a little pampered, but it gets to be no fun alone. You want somebody to share it with."

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