Gridlocked

Cars parked on a shady street, next to a speed hump.

Ugh. He hated driving in the city. Well, that’s a little unfair, given he did it every day.

He preferred sitting in his own car to standing shoulder to shoulder to backpack to belly on a subway car. Even if the subway car moved and his car was sitting was in traffic.

He had his route, though. He’d leave his cul de sac. tour through the curvy roads of the subdivision, drive over the bridge and exit at the secret tunnel at E Street. From there it was a few short blocks to the parking garage. He paid dearly for his spot, but he was in control. He shifted his hours so he beat the outbound traffic. All in all, not a bad commute.

Today, though, he had to cross town. He was going to the hockey game and decided, perhaps foolishly, that he could park close to the arena. He wouldn’t need to go back and get his car. He would just need to fork out more city parking lot ransom. But he was calling the shots on his movements.

Until now, that is.

He wasn’t a speed walker, yet he felt confident that he could definitely get to his destination faster via sneaker. He was spending significantly more time with his foot on the brake than the gas. In fact, his forward progress was consisting of rolling a few inches after releasing the brake.

He had started the journey with his favorite rock bands from the 70’s blasting. He had turned off the joyous music and was only listening to the blasting of cool air from the vents. He was feeling no joy. He needed to cool off.

He started off with certainty that he would have a beer or two before the game. Now he wondered if he would get to his seat before players skated onto the ice. He tried looking out the window at the other commuters, to calm himself. Instead he saw a big white truck blocking one of the lanes. The truck wasn’t moving. There were do-gooders loading tables, trays and coolers after feeding the bums. And the bums were streaming across the street, zig zagging between the barely moving cars with styrofoam boxes. They weren’t actually gumming up the traffic any worse, but it looked like they could. That just added to his annoyance.

He was happy, if that is the right word, that he was in the left lane. He wasn’t going to let any of the cars stuck behind the white box truck into his lane. He was out of graciousness. Not without guilt, though. He didn’t try and justify his discourtesy. He was irritable and he owned it. Now he had to get around that truck for his right turn.

The congestion-causing truck made it easy for him to switch lanes. He zeroed in on the unmatched intersection. The north-south street was through, but the east-west didn’t quite match up.This caused additional traffic confusion. He slammed his hands on his steering wheel. He was likely to miss the opening faceoff.

Pedestrians streamed across the unmatched streets, barricading his turn. A trio of cyclists on those stupid city red rent-a-bikes crossed in front of him. They needed to watch where they’re going. There was almost a break in the walkers. He decided to try and thread his Camry through the crowd. If he made a move, maybe some of these idiots would stop walking and he could clear the intersection.

He stopped himself from cursing. His windows were up and nobody would hear him. No reason to uselessly swear.

His eyes darted from one side of the street to the other. Where was he going to park? Now was the time to curse. He thought for sure that there’d be easy parking. His phone rang. He looked down and saw his buddy’s name. He told the unanswered phone, “I’m on my fucking way, alright??” His buddy took the train, and he scanned for a place to put his stupid car.

Round and Round and Round

Detail from the fountain at Dupont Circle. It's beautiful when you see it up close.

My initial approach into D.C., was down Connecticut Ave. It included my first traffic circle. But Chevy Chase Circle was nothing like the Circle at DuPont.

At the bullseye of the circle is a huge marble column carved intricately with nymphs. The column is topped by what could definitely be a receiver dish to summon aliens from unknown quadrants of the galaxy. It also functions as a ginormous cistern from which water overflows and splashes into a big round basin below.

But I didn’t see that.

What I saw was a most confusing roundabout. We didn’t have roundabouts where I came from. We had entrance and exit ramps, traffic lights at cross streets and a very odd left turn pattern. Our streets were designed to efficiently move people to and from factories. Not to protect the capital.

Connecticut Avenue off the freeway starts as a typical suburban road and narrows to a tree lined boulevard with traffic lights timed to 30 mph and the signals inexplicably nestled near the trees on the sides of the streets. Where newcomers can’t see them and therefore blow through them.

After driving past old, ivy covered apartment buildings, the zoo and a ridge topping bridge, the road zigs past the Chinese embassy and zags by the Hinckley Hilton to deliver you at the top of the upper DuPont business district. I wrongly avoided the tunnel under the circle and found myself at the “entrance” of the labyrinth. Almost to my doom.

Rolling up to the top of the circle you can see  two rings for cars. The outside ring has access to all ten street openings. Each of these openings have both an entrance and an exit. The inside ring is the express route for Massachusetts Avenue. To round out the picture, there’s also an under the road tesseract wrinkle that allows a clever driver to skip a half dozen blocks at once. But I missed that.

Instead, I merged into the circle and drove all the way around. About four times. It was like a merry-go-round that I couldn’t get off. I wanted to stay on the street I started on, but I couldn’t find it. Not that street. Not that street. Not that street. Wait…was that it? I don’t know. Drive around again. Pass where I came in. Not that street. Not that street. Yikes, did that guy just cut me off? I’m only driving five miles per hour and people are lapping me as they drive off to their destinations. Me? Just making another round.

My window was rolled down, but there was no breeze. My sweaty hands slipped on the steering wheel. I think I knew where to get off this round. No matter what, I was getting off this ride. Made it. Out. As I felt my heartbeat get closer to normal I realized that I had steamed up my glasses with my own humid air.

After that, I did whatever I could to avoid that tangle of streets. I found a good, straight route along Florida Avenue that allowed me to skip the circle. Until that time I walked it.

I had been in DC for two years when I took a job at the DuPont Metro station. It was at the patriotically numbered 1776 building, east of the circle. I normally walked the quarter of the circle to my office until this day. I crossed both rings to traverse the circle itself. It was actually a decent-sized park, with outer and inner walkways, benches, steps, and people playing chess. I walked close to the fountain that was splashing water from the big dish on the top. The wind picked up some of the water as it dropped 15 feet and sprayed it outside the bounds of the sculpture.

I walked around the outside edge and for the first time saw the streets. How they came in and wrapped around and resumed on the other side of the circle. It wasn’t a puzzle at all. From up close it was exact and knowable and smart. It just needed a closer study to reveal itself to me.

 

Throw Me Something, Mister!

Cleaning up a bunch of beads after a Mardi Gras parade. Please note the public works trucks and personnel.

Say what you will about New Orleans, but our cousins in Louisiana can sure throw a parade. They are known to take over a street for the special occasion of it being a Sunday.

More importantly, not only can they take a street over, they know how to give it back. Amazing is the sight of the very end of the parade–the Krewe of Cleanup. It doesn’t take hours for a street to reopen, but minutes after the last float throws its last beads, cars are released and traffic goes back to it’s typical snarl.

It doesn’t work that way in D.C.

Foot and coach traffic have been diverted in anticipation of upcoming motorcades. A labyrinth of jersey walls, cones, snow fences and police vehicles have corralled pedestrians and vehicles for days and days. Scores of corners are overseen by uniformed police with weapons. Some sit in their cars. Others stand. Reflector-vested and gloved officers are standing in the middle of intersections overriding the red-yellow-green of the temporarily redundant traffic lights. Tanks and humvees line commuting corridors.

For fifty people here for two days.

Since those fifty people are the leaders of 50 different countries–countries like Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Austria, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi-Arabia, Singapore, Thailand, Czech Republic, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States of America, Vietnam, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden and Switzerland–that’s a lot of security. That means a lot of motorcycles and a lot of squad cars leading a lot of limos with a lot of little flags from a lot of different countries.

Still, these diplomatic parades are short. They pass by in a matter of seconds. There is no detritus of coins, cups, strands or flasks. There are no hundreds or thousands of revelers to move along. Heck, there are no revelers, just the anticipation of bad guys.

Streets are closed. Traffic is gridlocked. And there isn’t even a chance of getting a long string of beads for those inconvenienced. I hope they do something about those nukes.