After a jack-rabbit start and a quick right turn at 6:30 p.m. on a weekday, I am shooting down Waterside Drive into Rock Creek Park, windows open on an autumn night, the air getting cooler the deeper I go into the park. And it occurs to me that for the first time in weeks I am actually moving, even reaching the speed limit. The road ahead is unobstructed; no frozen river of red taillights is just around the bend.
A few minutes before my burst of speed, I had been in a hover zone, the far right lane eastbound of Massachusetts Avenue, waiting for the rush hour pattern to change. For hours Rock Creek Park had been one-way, spewing out commuters in two lanes. And with a bit of luck and careful timing on my part, I had managed to arrive at the gaping maw of the park just moments before the equilibrium shifted from Rush Hour to Real Life traffic patterns.
There is no more thrilling or terrify- ing experience than to be the first one into the park after such a seismic shift. Hellllloooooo. Does everyone down there know that the surf is now going out and coming in? At every turn, there is the threat that a distracted commuter with a lazy wristwatch or a broken dashboard clock is still hunkered down in the lane that I now occupy. But the risks are small compared with the exhilaration. I am accelerating. Where are my Ray-Bans?
Driving in Washington requires you to take advantage of these windows of opportunity, to be poised to strike at the precise minute that a traffic shift occurs, the way time travelers wait for the exact moment to hurl themselves into the small crease in the universe that allows them to fly across centuries. In the evening, when 15th Street NW suddenly becomes a one-way sluice north toward Adams Morgan -- or when the National Park Service officer moves the roadblock just below Glen Echo, and the Clara Barton Parkway becomes one lovely eastbound express lane to Georgetown -- you are amply rewarded for your calculations.
But you have to be on the winning side of such transactions. Trust me: You do not want to be on the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge heading into the city at the end of morning rush hour, when the slow-moving hulk of heavy equipment is grinding toward you, rearranging concrete barriers and shoving away your lane, as if someone had taken a concrete rug and pulled it out from under you.
Sadly, the opportunities for flying through these cracks in traffic are rarer and rarer. The simple act of driving has been replaced by psyching out, navigating, back-channeling and negotiating. The predictable, reliable route home or to the office has vanished. Road work, accidents, protests, parades, terror alerts and mysterious tie-ups with no obvious source force a commuter to have a Plan B, C and D. Maybe it was a fender bender at 1 p.m., a FedEx truck double-parked at 2 p.m., a low-level dignitary in a motorcade at 3 p.m., and the aftershock lingers until 7 p.m. on any street in the vicinity or even far beyond.
Once, long before cruise control, if you could maintain exactly 32 mph heading north on Connecticut Avenue, you could start at Dupont Circle at rush hour and catch every green light until you reached Chevy Chase Circle. And once, long before FedEx Field, you could leave the house at noon, drive through normal city traffic on Florida Avenue to Benning Road to RFK Stadium and be in your seat for kickoff.
Once, the city was a balance of linearity and circularity, of self-determination and compromise. You would put your foot to the accelerator as you flew down 16th Street or Massachusetts or Rhode Island avenues, but you would inevitably meet your neighbor at a circle, where negotiations would begin. A little yielding, a little understanding and you were on your way again.
Now traffic has lost its linearity. Did it happen when the Beltway cinched the city too tight, like the waistband on a pair of pants I should have retired three years ago? The great reverberating ring of Interstate 495 sends tremors through all the roads that lead to it and from it. Dulles Toll Road traffic knots around Beltway traffic, which knots around Tysons Corner traffic; the standstill on Interstate 270 begets the standstill on the Spur, which begets the standstill on the Beltway. The Budweiser truck double-parked at 16th and K causes the box to be blocked at 21st and K, which turns Whitehurst Freeway traffic to stone, which slows the traffic trying to turn onto Interstate 66 or forge ahead to Key Bridge and the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which is clogged because of the Tysons backup on the Beltway. I don't even want to think about what is happening on the Wilson Bridge.
No matter that we leave before dawn, we depart after HOV, we start off 20 minutes early or 40 minutes late, we take the back way or the express lane, we plan with the precision of a moon landing. As the curtain is being raised, the ball is being snapped, the child is scoring his only goal of the season, just around the bend we all meet again, at a standstill.
The writer is editor of The Post's Food section.