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Wednesday's hellish commute, described by many more than 140 characters

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 9:58 PM

They'll wear them with pride, these new numbers. Like battle scars or football injuries, they'll drag out these stats at cocktail parties for years to come: 7 hours, 10 hours and even an I-coulda-been-in-Daytona Beach-by-now 13 hours.

Hmm. It's a tossup, really. Would you rather drive 13 hours to get to your house, which has no milk, bread, toilet paper or power? Or to a beach in Florida? Maybe that next slog down Interstate 95 for spring break won't seem so daunting.

Then again, that wasn't the choice when Washington's workers got into their cars Wednesday evening and set out for home just as the snow began to fall.

The transformation of that commute into ice-slicked Hades (apparently it did freeze over) will be debated for days and weeks to come.

After all, this is Washington. And a thundersnow flake can't fall without a politicized take on things.

We were just a couple of hours into the never-ending rush hour when the tweeters and Facebook posters began laying blame. It was called "epic fail" or "mega fail," and everyone was at fault: the federal government, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and even President Obama were publicly flayed for their handling of the storm by commuters trapped in their cars, texting like mad.

There were taunts about Al Gore and global warming and the tea party and the sport-utility vehicles they all supposedly drive.

The gripes were read and re-tweeted until the grumbles turned into rants, a technology-fueled echo chamber of fury that transformed commuters from pithy commentators to bug-eyed screamers.

Our super-mega-Doppler-radar-laser satellites that do everything but give us meatballs from the sky told us things were going to get ugly. The media warned folks for days that it was coming. We didn't listen.

Thousands of us can telecommute, Skype, e-mail, videoconference and, most importantly, trade office gossip from home. But as the nor'easter bore down on us, we elected to get into our cars and head into work.

This is Washington. We are important people doing important things.

Weather? Weather doesn't stop the work we do. We are Washington, and our subcommittee secondary group organizational mission-statement workshop cannot be stopped by snow!

The government urges "nonessential" employees to stay home. Ha! Who you calling nonessential? Admitting that the work you perform is not a vital, integral part of the fate of the world when you work in Washington is akin to admitting that you're not fabulous in L.A. or tan in Florida.

And even if you are relatively centered about Earth's ability to keep turning without you at your desk, there are bosses who demand face time. With job security uncertain in these awful times, no one wants to be considered a slacker.

You can imagine that heinous boss, standing over his farm of cubicles, eenie-meenie-miney-moeing the empty chairs for his next big purge list. As one poster put it: "It's better to sit in a car for 13 hours than to be unemployed."

So we put on our snow boots and went to work. And when everyone said it was okay to go home, we did.

Then we lost our minds. People were spinning, cursing, screaming and stuck.

At one point, four or maybe five hours into the madness, a bunch of folks went kamikaze in Silver Spring, driving north on the southbound lanes of Route 29. Not a good idea.

Yet their craziness has become part of our commuting culture. The number of drivers in our area who admit road rage has doubled in the past five years, according to a Washington Post poll taken last year.

That makes sense given that a similar survey concluded that the average D.C. area commuter wastes about 70 hours a year trapped in a car.

In commuter lives, Wednesday night was like spending two months in a car.

But all that head-banging and primal screaming in your own vehicle is deeply unsatisfying when no one else hears it.

So here come our smartphones. And suddenly, dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people can hear the rants, too.

ABC's Jake Tapper ripped Gray for snow removal via Twitter, and suddenly, his 86,000 followers had someone to blame.

Twitter even seized up a few times Wednesday night, possibly because the volume of thumb-enabled fury was so intense.

It went on and on, the tweets getting meaner and nastier, amplifying the frustration that would otherwise amount to quiet muffles and the slight shaking of a car to the outside world.

Texting and driving wasn't an issue, I guess, since the "driving" part was minimal.

The technology was good for a few things. Parents called their children to say good night. Drivers checked the scores of games that began, were played and ended while they had inched ahead but a mile.

After a few hours of this, commuters grew tired, punchy, even giddy.

It was dark outside, otherworldly. The snowfall was so intense that it looked ethereal and theatrical, like laundry soap being cranked from a machine above. The traffic lights were bright, then they began to get pretty. One woman said the string of red lights became "a necklace off into the future."

Whoa. Coooool.

Eventually, people made it home. And when the sun came up Thursday morning and there was no more snow falling, and the roads were finally being cleared, many of them asked themselves, bleary-eyed, "Did that really happen?"

So they went to their computers to check out the wreckage of Wednesday night's chaos. Except for the hundreds of thousands who had no power. Time to get that iPhone and fire up the Twitter account again. Someone's got to be held accountable for these outages!

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