Lessons from the Worst Commute of My Life

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One hour into my commute, I learned it had barely begun.

Strangely enough, I foresaw this in a dream.

In the dream, I was on I-5, headed south from downtown. For the first minute, it looked like I had the highway to myself. Then I saw the brake lights: traffic was completely stopped. I consulted my phone, looking for an alternate route, and saw something a lot like this:

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Every road, whether highway, byway, or surface road was dark red. There was no way for me to get home: the entire city was gridlocked.

Oddly, there was no snow in the dream, which then morphed to me having dinner with the Trump family. Their servants were squirting beverages into their mouths from squeeze bottles, because apparently they'd never had to learn to use drinking glasses. There were two trays of food on the table, and both were beef, so I was going hungry. It didn't bother them at all that they were snubbing their dinner guest: after all, they'd won the election without the help of liberal middle class professionals like me, so why even pretend to be polite?

Last night, I lived out the first part of that dream. School let out "early": 2:25 instead of 2:30. As soon as the buses left, the principal was on the intercom urging anyone with a long commute to get on the road immediately. I did a quick cleanup of my classroom, hit the bathroom, and was in my car by 2:50. The first few blocks were fine, but then I caught up with the traffic. It took me an hour just to get on I-5. Crawling along, I watched the traffic information sign (see above) change the estimate of my travel time to US 26 from 55 to 60 to 72 minutes. Finally reaching the onramp to 217, I sat in stopped traffic for half an hour before I realized the ramp was closed. That led me to drive under the ramp and take the next exit--Kruse Way--which actually got me on 217 within five minutes of realizing I wasn't going to get there the normal way. 217 was actually the easiest part of the commute--I think I was on it for about half an hour, driving conservatively, maneuvering my Subaru around spun-out vehicles once I began the climb up to 26, which was almost empty due to all the accidents on Sylvan Hill. I got off at Bethany, and was instantly back in the gridlock. There were no open surface roads: spun-out cars blocked Oak Hills, Bethany, 143rd, West Union. It was 8:15 when I finally pulled into the driveway: five hours and twenty-five minutes total commute time.

For all the frustration, there were moments of grace on the drive: ordinary citizens helping push cars off the road, helping drivers chain up, directing traffic, working their way through traffic jams to let drivers know what to expect. And there was my car itself. Two months ago, I got rid of my oil-leaking, previous-smoking-driver-smelling Hyundai Sonata and bought a new Subaru Outback. Last night, the wisdom of that purchase was proven again and again as the car's traction and safety features got me around accidents, up and down slippery hills, without a hitch.

But back to the commute: Portlanders love to complain about how badly this city handles snow. There are nowhere near enough plows or sanders, too few cars are equipped with traction devices, and drivers lack the skills to maneuver on slippery roads. All these factors combine into a perfect storm (pun intended) of traffic gridlock. It took me longer to drive the eighteen miles between Tualatin and Bethany than it usually does to drive from Portland to Medford.

Which is where the other part of my dream kicks in.

Donald Trump has been loading his cabinet with anti-secretaries, individuals who are on record as opposing the very existence of the departments they've been slated to head; and incompetents whose appearance makes them look like they should have the job (an African-American with no experience of public housing for HUD, an Indian-American with no training or experience in international relations for UN Ambassador). The U.S. government is about to turn into a snow day commute in Portland, with every white man for himself and everybody else ignored, neglected, or persecuted.

People who care about our country, who believe in working for the common good, in progressive policies, in expansion of human rights, in promoting the interests of the downtrodden and marginalized, are living in a horror show. The obscenely wealthy con artists who hoodwinked the Rust Belt into marginally pushing them into office will be pulling the rug out from under their voter base as soon as they've got the power to do it, and it feels like there's nothing we can do to avert the catastrophe. The political infrastructure just isn't there.

But remember the good news from the commute: as awful as it was, as frantic as some of us became (five hours without food, a bathroom, or ibuprofen), there were so many who stepped up to help. Seeing those suburban volunteers embrace their citizenship took the edge off my headache, my empty belly, and my full bladder. Don't get me wrong, I couldn't have been more relieved to pull into the driveway; but knowing those people are out there, in such large numbers, gives me hope in the depths of this political winter. If we can band together to help push stranded cars off the road, perhaps we can do the same for all the Americans about to be stranded by the political blizzard that will hit us on January 20.


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