Behind the wheel

Behind the wheel

(Reed Saxon/associated Press)

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

We asked you to share your stories about driving in and around Washington. Here's the first one.

I travel Interstate 95 each day from Columbia to Hyattsville, and through the years, I have been in my share of traffic jams. I truly believe that traffic is a form of purgatory and when one's appointed time comes and he or she stands in judgment, some sins will be forgiven because of the horror we experience on earth while sitting in traffic.

I listen to the traffic reports each morning just to hear what possible misery awaits. Rarely, if ever, do I take an alternate route, as chances are there are countless others doing the same. Of course, I readily admit there is another reason why I listen: I used to do traffic reports years ago.

I wanted to be a radio or TV guy, and my first big job in broadcasting, all for $3.35 an hour, was for a company called Metro Traffic Control, which, at the time, was owned by a guy who made his real living by selling used cars.

I worked directly for a broadcaster named Larry Monk, who had a voice similar to Mister Ed's even though he was a wiry fellow standing only about 5-foot-6 (with an Adam's apple the size of Montana). I remember my first encounter with Larry.

"I'm here to see Larry Monk," I said to the short David Spade-like figure standing in front of me. My tone pretty much implied that I wanted this "peon" to go summon Big Larry, who I assumed was as tall as Lurch. "I am he," said Mr. Monk in an authoritative tone, which also indicated that it was no surprise that I did not recognize him.

Despite my arrogance, I started working that afternoon. At that time, Metro Traffic had no airborne patrols. Instead, we had a fleet of Chevy Vegas. My job was to drive the Beltway in my rundown Vega during the morning and afternoon rush hours as "Unit 12" and to report back while sitting in massive backups. Occasionally, I would be recorded (thus my big moment in broadcasting) -- "Larry, that accident is in the right lane, move to your left to get by. Unit 12, Metro Traffic Control."

After a few months, I was "promoted" inside to the studio and given a $1-an-hour raise to serve as Larry's engineer. To this day, Larry is one of the few people I have met who could stop in the middle of something frantic such as a traffic report, hit the mute button and yell "Somebody answer the phone!" and then go right back to reporting rubbernecking delays caused by a stranded "motorist." (I hate that term. Who, besides a traffic reporter, refers to drivers as motorists?)

Anyway, I worked for Metro Traffic for about two years when I decided that -- like traffic -- I was going nowhere fast and needed to make real money. Unit 12 lives on in memory only.

-- Thomas Ponton, Columbia


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