I promise this won't be about how tough it was to commute in the Old Days.
Slogging down the unshoveled sidewalks of Georgetown, half hoping you fall so you can sue the pants off those people, sloshing through the chain of lakes that is K Street in our amphibious buses, whining the rubber off your tires when your car gets stuck two feet outside the garage and you are suddenly tired of being a canny, forbearing northern driver: You know it doesn't get any worse than this and never did.
Actually, I didn't know I was a commuter when I had my first job, with the Watertown Daily Times in Watertown, N.Y., six miles this side of the North Pole. When we went to rent a house, I owned a sky blue Willys Americar. It was the size of a dodgem car and had a rumble seat. The house was five miles out of town in a hamlet called Glen Park. We overlooked the Black River, which rushed furiously past between its granite shores.
It was a nice little house. But then I forgot I needed the car and sold it to my brother-in-law. Now I had no car, and there was no taxi or bus service handy. I still didn't realize that I was a commuter, so didn't worry.
All that fall a printer named Mert gave me a ride in because he went right past the house and I paid for his gas every now and then.
Finally there came a day when it wasn't fall anymore. We woke up and the bedroom window was solid white except for these little black beads that were traveling straight across the middle of it, some left to right, some right to left. After a period of consideration we reasoned that (1) it had snowed, (2) the road out front had been plowed and (3) the drifts were so high that what we were seeing were the tips of car aerials going by.Winter had arrived.
The Watertown Daily Times did not have Snow Days. That was all right. I had never heard of Snow Days anyway. We worked five weekdays, a half day Saturday and were expected to drop around on Sundays and holidays to show our enthusiasm. This was quite some time ago, you understand.
Today, in an age of rockets, helicopters and the Eastern Shuttle, when no one thinks twice about commuting between New York and Los Angeles, it all seems rather insignificant. But the naked fact was that it was 7:24 a.m. and I had to be at the office at 8 and the office was five miles away.
I climbed over the snow bank, sinking to my chest only once, and emerged on the white speedway. I put a thumb out, but nobody stopped. Finally I figured out that they didn't dare stop or even slow down because it was so slippery they'd never get going again. That was what happened to Mert.
And right then was when I got the idea of the day. Dead Man's Curve lay 200 yards down the road. To save the cost of a bridge, the highway stayed parallel to the insane thrashings of the Black River all the way into town. I walked to the curve, and there, spread out in a grand panorama, were 16 floundering cars. Some had slowed down and stalled. Some had run into the bank.
I picked the one in front, the car that had started it all by skidding broadside to block the lanes. "Wanna push?" I said. Did he ever. With a shove and six words of classic advice, I straightened him out. "Wanna ride?" he said. Did I ever.
He was, he said, a southerner who didn't know how to drive on ice. Maybe he could stop for me every day? Just for insurance?
I like southern drivers.