Commuter Science

(Fun-filled facts for following fascinating freeway fauna)

Last Friday, for the first time in eight years, I drove to work. Thinking back to eight years ago, I seem to remember it being an overrated experience.

It still is.

Understand – I didn’t choose to be driving to work. For eight years, I’ve been working from home, which is almost the best gig imaginable. The only thing better than working from home is just staying home, not working at all. But that’s a very elusive gig that doesn’t really pay well, unless you’re retired from Congress, or in the Federal Witness Protection Program, or both, which happens more often than you might think, but not nearly enough.

But the company that had been paying me to work from home discovered that I was doing a good job, and working without need of supervision, and turning out a marketable product that they were successfully selling, and all without health insurance or benefits or accrued holidays or vacation days or retirement plan contributions or perks or tax liabilities or office expenses.

So, of course, they had to let me go.

And there it is. Now, like everybody else, I get to commute.

But there’s a way to turn even that daily drudge into a learning experience! As you inch down the endless highway each morning … and each lunchtime … and each evening … week after week, week in and week out, month in and year out, decade after decade after decade, until you’re just a numbed, drab-colored puddle of ectoplasm that has no reas…

Sorry, I think I dozed off at the wheel for a moment.

Anyway, there’s a way to battle the boredom. It’s what we call Driver Spotting. It’s just like bird-watching, if birds were insanely self-absorbed and drove around in multi-ton vehicles, talking on cell phones while spilling hash browns and gargling Starbucks.

So let’s get started! Here’s a short, concise taxonomy of some common Driver organisms.

The Lane Dancers
Like many superior lifeforms, Lane Dancers are better than you and I. And so, when they want your lane, they take your lane. It’s very simple. They’re just more important, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Move out of their way. Or don’t. Prole.

The Mascara-y Monster
Many people use their home bathrooms to get ready for work. Not these ladies. Ever since some Detroit schmuck thought it would be a good idea to install flip-down lights and a mirror, the driver’s seat has now become an ad hoc beauty parlor. These pouting, lip-pursing ladies don’t care that they seem to be trying to soul-kiss the sun visor. Their only goal is to be photo-op ready, even if the next photo they’re in is a police accident report.

The Long March Lean-Left Lane Luge
These extra-spatial commuters want to use the center lane to prepare for a left turn, and that’s fine. The problem is, they start wanting it some 116 city blocks before they intend to actually turn. You see a very miniature version of them in your rear-view mirror, looming ever nearer, ever growing closer, closing in on their Eventual Left, and as they barrel forward, may the Heavens protect any fool who thinks they also have a Constitutional right to use the center lane.

Ma & Pa Bell
At first, you’re concerned, because you think the driver ahead of you has somehow managed to Super-Glue their hand to the left side of their head. But no … they’re just talking on their cellphone. I don’t know what they’re saying, or who they’re saying it to, or why they have to say it now, or how it can take so long to say it. Personally, my life’s not that interesting. Often, I can drive nearly an entire mile without having to call anyone and describe what I’m doing. To be honest, I have a sneaking suspicion that these cellphone people are in sinister league with other drivers – drivers in front of me, behind me, next to me. And they’re plotting. They’re all staging a coordinated campaign against me. They’re planning to hit me with a massive Irritation Bomb. Or turn left.

The Ecclesiastic
Okay, hang on to something. It will come as a shock to many drivers when I point out this discovery. But listen, ye, because I have a really fun surprise for you. (and ye) On the left side of the steering wheel is a stick. Seest thou it? Guesseth what? It’s attached to lights! Yea! Next week, we’ll talk about what those lights do! Here’s a hint: to everything, there is a season. Turn! Turn! Turn!

The Eternal Turner
And then, the week after that, we’ll talk about using that neat little stick to turn the lights off! Yes, I’m talking to ye! Because your turn signal has been blinking “left turn” since Hannibal double-parked Dumbo!

The American Dashboard Idol
Almost always a male, these guys. Slapping the steering wheel, pounding the faded polyurethane dash, air-guitaring to the 4-4 beat of some robotic rock tune. It’s never rap, or country, or jazz. It’s always some tune by some band named Ulcerous Lesion, or Baal’s Lunchbox, or Throb, with a lyric like “She walked too heavy and WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

The Exurb Troop Transporters
Soccer moms. Mama grizzlies. Over-zealous Catholics. Whatever. Through whatever means, these are distaff errand-monsters who have collected (or given birth to) some sixty-seven dozen chocolate-crazed children, shoehorned the entire invasion force into the family’s Suburban Assault Vehicle, and are heading for a take-no-prisoners play date at Skully’s Fun Park of Death and Pizza Buffet. From your viewpoint, all you see are bouncing tykes, as if Stephen King had hijacked a school bus, electrified the seats, and Quentin Tarantino had optioned the movie rights.

The U.N. Shuttle
You’ve seen these vehicles. In some aspects, they’re similar to the Exurb Transporters. Standard four- or six-passenger cars, but as you approach them from the rear, you can clearly see at least eleven dozen heads which, for some reason, always seem to be crowned with black hair. No one in the vehicle ever moves a muscle. There’s always some vaguely Catholic-looking ornament hanging from the rear-view mirror. The car looks to be worth about twenty bucks, but the cautious commuter never ventures out of the rightmost lane, and never teases the engine above 30 MPH.

Pollyanna Has Left The Building
These are drivers who, due to having been born with an extra optimism gene, seriously think they’re going to be allowed to turn left out of a parking lot, across several lanes of commuter traffic. For some reason, these “I’ll just quickly turn left here” optimists are usually women. It never crosses their mind to make a RIGHT turn, to go WITH the flow of traffic, and then make a calm, easy left-left U-turn somewhere down the road. And so they will sit there, and sit there, and sit there, until some pitying driver finally motions for them to sneak in front. At that point, Pollyanna has to play the same sneak-pity game for the next oncoming lane, and the next, and so on and so on, until people who’ve never met her hate her guts.

The Sweet Spot Squatters
At some point in Fairy Tale history, trolls figured out that, if they hung around bridges long enough, they would haul in some serious coin, not to mention body parts. (Later on, the IRS figured out a similar scheme) Our modern-day commuter trolls have learned that, if an intersection is already full of cars, there’s no need to patiently wait for the next traffic light cycle. “Better to just shove my vehicle into the intersection, too! Maybe then, when the light changes, I’ll be able to completely block traffic in ALL FOUR DIRECTIONS! Whee!”

The Warp Jumpers
These are those drivers who see that yellow traffic light, not as a clue to slow and wait, but rather as some kind of cosmic dare. That amber bulb triggers some kind of kamikaze impulse, causing the driver to punch in the afterburners, and to try and Han Solo their earth-bound vehicle through the intersection, often from several blocks back, before the lights rolls to red. Not surprisingly, this is often explained away as “a guy thing.”

The Hand Talkers
For some commuters, a larynx is not enough. They must also communicate with their arms and hands. From your perspective in the car behind them, they seem to be in dire need of an exorcism, or are possibly victims of some rare torso-based Tourette’s Disease. Since they must communicate or die, Hand Talkers usually commute in pairs. For some reason, they usually smoke, too, which is an excellent way to get an optional larynx.

Aesop’s Truants
Eight miles an hour. In traffic, or in the grocery checkout, or in the all-you-can-eat buffet. Eight miles an hour. In the bank line, in the toll-booth line, in the movie ticket line. Eight miles an hour. At the deli, at the doctor’s, at the dime store, at the doom of history. Eight miles an hour. ‘Nuff said.

Well, there you are! Now you’re ready. Happy spotting! The next time you head out for your morning commute, grab your binoculars and this handy guide, and enjoy the wildlife on America’s highways and byways!

And as you peer at other drivers with your binoculars, be sure to stare and point a lot. If you get the chance, throw some bird seed at their car. You’re sure to make lots of friends!