It's early, very early in the morning, the sky is looking like concrete, Rte. 50 is clogged with commuters, and the Wacky Witch is on the radio, shepperding them all to work.
It's 7:30 a.m. and she's at her base station, relaying traffic conditions to Royal Crown and Teddy Bear and Maryland Granddaddy - "how you be doing out there?" - as they stream down the highway outside her window and ask, 'Is this the Wacky Witch?"
You bet it is. She's there every morning and if she misses a couple of days, she's like a junkie without a fix. Two days without the radio and she feels "grumbly," she says. "I have to put up with myself for a change, there's something missing."
The CB was her son's idea, in the beginning, but now he complains because she burns the dinner sometimes when the radio turns her attention from the stove to what's cooking on Channel 19.
No matter. Sometimes she leaves work early to catch them all on the flip side, the trip home, and then it's hello again to Loose Goose and Southern Comfort, CB Widow and Little Stallion. "Good Morning, Racquet Swinger! Top of the morning, Red Roller Skate - you're early. Watch it, Lone Star, there's a four wheeler stuck in the the hammer lane on the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge."
It's been five cups of instant coffee and now she's waiting for the Green Machine, whose passing means it's 8:40 a.m. and time for her to leave. Then, as Teri Barron, she heads for K Street and the secretary's job and then - but there goes the Green Machine, it's time for KACG9150 to sign off and the Wacky Witch is down for the morning.
In the suburbs, a world that can make a metaphysical marathon out of getting to know a neighbor, the Citizens Band radio is carving communities out of the time it takes to get from one place to another.
For many of those feeling isolated on a quarter-acre lot or in a high-rise apartment building, the CB has become what a neightborhood used to be - a conduit for the daily communal flow of life.
It is a way to meet people and make a date, to find emergency blook donors or an honest repairman. Those who meet on the air can find each other in the flesh at CB socials called coffee breaks and for one Arlington couple it was the means by which they exchanged their marriage vows. In the random, chaotic glimpse it gives into other people's lives, the CB has become the kind of social barometer that a front porch used to be on a hot summer night.
In the morning, at night, in darkness and the distance, the voices crackle constanty. From their cars and in their homes, they broadcast an ever changing urgent chatter. The CB has it all, has it live - the flash of a family quarrel, the announcement of a suddenly success, the keening of a sudded grief.
At night for a number of people, it has replaced radio and television as the favored form of entertainment. As the Afternoon Delight will tell you, on CB radio, there are no returns.
There are, however, a lot of people listening.
The Afternoon Delights is out there, A.D., fierce and friendly, earth mother to the lonely hearts. So is Shalimer, cool elegant and mysterious, and after midnight, the Zipper Ripper, breathing desire onto the airwaves. And all three handles belong to the same person.
The Lone Ranger is out there too, a single parent with two young children and a job with computers in the State Department. He decided to get his radio after his divorce. It was a way of meeting people on the way to wherever it was he was going.
It was a big commitment, he says, drilling that hole in the roof of his car., invading the sanctity of his station wagon. But now, the Lone Ranger is one of the most popular voices on Channel 19, everyone breaks for the man who chose his handle because it's a way of saying he's alone.
The Golden Dream is no longer there. For a while, she cruised the highway in a sexy voive, describing her long blone hair and her big blue eyes until a trucker "laid an eyeball on her" as they say, and, as they also said, she turned out to be "pretty heavy duty." The word went out and the Dream disappeared, but the woman she belonged to is probably still out there, operating under a defferent fantasy.
And that, says the Afternoon Delight, is the wonderful thing about CB radio, the way it gleans intimacy from the airways without forcing a person to let go of any more anonymity than she cares to.
"You know how it is" she says only now she is talking as Patti Silverman, who lives in an Arlington High-rise and works in a Silver Spring flosist shop and who, as A.D., the Afternoon Delight, can tell 100 people on her way to work the news of her newborn grandchild.
A.D. knows how it is. "People are afraid of getting to know each other anymore," she said. "You never know who's living next to you. But with C.B., you can be anonymous as hell, but everybody knows you. You find out about their kids and their life styles and how their wife is feeling that day - you can work with somebody for years and never know that much about them."
A.D. knows the channels and the voices to be heard there the way other people know street corners and the people who hang out on them.
During the day, on the way to work, there is Channel 19, the traffic channel, a great broad stream that surges up from the far reaches of the suburbs to "Watergate City," Washington, D.C. Stalled cars and traffic jams are the primary topics of concern but they don't exclude others far more interesting.
There was the time, for instance, channel habitues recall, when an Arlington woman ("definitely married, definitely older") was having an affair with a much younger man. It was a daytime affair, the assignations arranged for those times when her husbwas out looking for a job. They would meet on Channel 19 and tell each other, in code, of course, which of the less frequented channels they were flipping to in order to describe in detail the agenda for the next rendezvous.
At least, they thought it was in code. "Course, it didn't take long for everybody to figure out what they were up to," A.D. said. "Everybody just flipped right along the with them." Lunch hours were soon being arranged for the time when the couple was most frequently on the air, and businessmen, they say, would descend to their parking lots in order to get better reception of the latest chapter of what everyone was calling "the soap opera."
At night, the less frequented channels come alive, each keyed to a different stretch of highway or suburb, each with its own cliques, stock characters, running quarrels and hyped-up personas.
Channel 13, A.D. says, takes in South Arlington, and she describes it as "blue-collar, hard-drinking and dirty-mouthed." It used to be the "trash station," she says, where threats were issued, gauntlets thrown down, insults raised almost to the level of an art form. Now the roofers, plumbers and trashmen hang out on it and it is home as well to the Italian Dancer, a certified public accountant with a passion for folk dancing.
Channel 14, she says, "is more tolerant," the place to find Big Ben the bus driver and Studebaker Hawk, not a mechanic but a "car specialist." On Channel 27 there are families and the voices talk about the best place to get a car repaired and the price of the new CB equipment.
And everywhere are the old and the invalid - Sonny, who crashes through cerebral palsy and a speeach impediment to get on the air, and the Gray Ghost, aged, and talking of the past as if it were the present.
"There are a lot of lonely people out there," says the Afternoon Delight. "Sometimes, it can really get you down."
Yes, says the Lone Ranger, who is also known as Phil Nicols, it was loneliness in part that brought him to the airwaves out of the confines of a broken marriage and the daily shuttle from work to home.
It was a year ago that he decided on CB as "a wy to meet people. Otherwise it's really hard. You go to work every day and you never have a chance. You're in your car, isolated, looking at all the other cars as your enemy. Then you start breaking for people and it turns out they're just like you."
But it was months, he said, before he felt comfortable enough to do anything but listen, before he could declare any allegiance to this strange world with its naive sense of the flamboyant and the imititation truckers talk. For a while, he said, it was hard to understand anybody - some of the voices, he said, were so caught up in the terse macho of the CB code that it was almost impossible to come up with a translation.
Now, he says, people ask him all the time "how I get people to talk to me so much." Life, it seems, can be just as much a search for recognition and popularity on the air as it is just about anywhere else, and the potential for failure is equally high.
"It can be pretty hard," said the Lone Ranger. "You finally screw up your courage and say, 'Break 19 for a 10-36 (a call for the time and the CB equivalent of 'is anybody out there"') and if no one answers, it could be pretty crushing."
Instead, the Lone Ranger likes to meet the women he talks to at a coffee break, a kind of CB social that takes place regularly at local bars, bringing together the people who talk to each other daily on a particular stretch of highway. There's the Channel 20 crowd and the 1-395 crowd and a dozen other groupings ever more specialized or cliquish.But the most popular of all is the Channel 19 break, the Great White Way of the broadcast crowd.
At a recent break at the Country Classic, a bar right off Rte. 50, the Channel 19 crowd gathers, old-timers and newcomers, and two men in three-piece suits looking strangely out of place and looking, says the one who is married and won't give his name, for a tantalizing voice who said she'd be there that night.
They can't find her, so they sit and nurse their drinks and scan the crowd, while the country band plays and the Wacky Witch takes a visitor through, reeling off dozens of handles that she keeps on file cards in her apartment.
Later that night, much later, the channels dry up like riverbeds in a drought and only faraway fragments can be heard, snatches of conversation. There are times when the fragments are enough, one voice repeating endlessly in the darkness, " . . . Out there . . . out there . . . is anybody out there? . . . Talk to me . . . talk . . ."