Road Rage – A Love Story

VA Plate

I recently spent a week visiting my son James in Fairfax, Virginia. My wife was on a business trip in Atlanta and I had a bunch of air travel miles, so I figured I’d hang out with him for a bit. Fairfax is just under twenty miles west and just a little bit south of Washington, DC. It is inside of the massive, choking, Gordian knot of traffic that surrounds our nation’s capital.

I tried to do a little research to find out if this was the worst traffic in the country, but could not reach a definitive answer. Some surveys had the DC area as high as number one, while in some cases, it didn’t even make the top ten. Of course, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta made all of the lists, but there was a surprising mix after that.

I live in South Florida (Miami made a few lists) and realize that several factors impact the studies. For example, snowbirds increase the traffic down here both seasonally and drastically. Also, our demographics are a little different. A quarter of our drivers are over seventy, a quarter are under twenty and, at least a quarter are uninsured and/or undocumented. On the other hand, we have fewer weather-related or infrastructure problems here. Most of the roads are not that old and include reasonable traffic control devices.

I lived in Northern New Jersey for twenty-five of my driving years and spent at least a couple of them idling on the Garden State Parkway. The weekend brought no respite if you planned to visit the beach in the summer. I considered myself lucky. I rarely ventured into New York, but heard constant traffic reports on The FAN, the sports radio station I listened to while crawling in bumper-to-bumper commutes. The Major Deegan Expressway, the Kosciuszko Bridge, the Grand Concourse, and the Bruckner Expressway were all abstractions to me, like levels of hell.

I’ve had shorter stints during my travels of driving in LA, Boston, Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. All had their charms. Some have worse signage, some have worse maintenance, and some have worse drivers. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, I will try to give you a feel for some of the more special aspects of my brief experience driving around Washington.

Airports – My son lives fifteen minutes from Dulles Airport and works five minutes from there. This was a perfect situation since my plane landed at 3:55. In actuality, we landed at 3:30. Apparently as part of a scam to have more on-time flights, the airlines schedule their arrival times significantly later than necessary. This is assuming that our pilot did not find a wormhole or some sort of shortcut between Atlanta and DC. Of course, the early arrival necessitates waiting the remaining twenty-five minutes at baggage claim since the ground crews have not been informed of the aforementioned scam.

In any case, since I was using airline points and needed to fly on Southwest, I ended up taking a flight to Reagan National rather than Dulles, making my son testy before he even got into his car. Reagan National is much closer to the city and the daytime population center than any airport should be. I also further caused my son an extra circuit around the airport by mistake. He called to ask where I would be waiting for him. I looked and saw a statue of the Gipper himself at the place where the road splits for the two terminals. I told him to go to the left of Reagan. Unfortunately, I was standing behind the statue and oriented my directions accordingly. Since he was driving toward the statue, he naturally went to the left of Reagan (an obvious choice politically as well), rather than to Reagan’s left. When I saw him go the wrong way, I called him and admitted my error – The Great Communicator, indeed.

Scenery – At least there is plenty to look at while creeping along the roads in the nation’s capital. Almost immediately after leaving the airport, I commented on the unusual shape of a very large building to our left. “That’s the Pentagon, you idiot,” my son informed me. “Can’t you see the angles?”

I mutter something about TSA confiscating my protractor at security before moving on to look at Georgetown, the Potomac, and Arlington Cemetery. “What a completely batshit place to put an airport,” I think to myself.

License Plates – This may not mean much to most of you, but I am an avid puzzler. I spend a fair amount of time solving almost any logic problem, mystery, or puzzle. This is significant in Virginia in that vanity license plates are extremely inexpensive here. They cost only ten dollars per year. Most states charge five times that amount. As a result, a disproportionate number of license plates here are vanity plates. Many are quite obvious, and quite frankly uninteresting. However, many are clever and are a puzzler’s dream. It is fun to try to figure out the meaning or pronunciation of some of the plates. See if you can decipher some of these examples:

Expressing Anger… I95 SUKZ, RT1 SUX, H8 DMV


Police fun… WHAT COP, L8R OFCR


Political… NOBAMA

For those in front of, or behind you… OMG MOVE, DROP DED, OMG GO, LOL STFU

I’m not even sure what these were all about… MAXYPAD, GONADS, TRY WINE, LOST TAG, DOING OK, R8TED R

There is a subset of these plates that use some of the other graphics on the tag. For example, a University of Virginia alum can get a plate with a large V logo on the left side. Someone followed this with AGINA. Another plate has the words “Kids First” on the bottom of the tag. Someone placed EAT THE above it.

This one was my favorite and it took me a while to get… 370H55V. Send me a message via the blog or via facebook if you figure it out or need a hint.

The problem with these plates is that I cannot shut it off. The vast majority of them are not vanity plates rather just random collection of numbers and letters. Unfortunately, I can’t always tell and I wrack my brain still trying to decipher the puzzle. The result is that I am adding a significant amount of mental exhaustion to whatever the traffic already brings. By the third day, I was getting headaches before we even left the parking lot of James’ apartment.

Most of the other issues relating to the traffic were pretty standard. They have a lot of unnumbered exits and a lot of roads with multiple names, but nothing too troublesome. In my son’s area there are a disturbing number of intersecting roads with Ox in the name. These are hard to read while driving although less so at under ten miles per hour.

The strangest experience I had didn’t really involve either of us directly. James was driving his CRV in the left lane of a three-lane road. It was a beautiful day and most people, including us, had their windows open. The light was red and we were about five cars back from the intersection. He left nearly a full car length between us and the car in front of us.

Someone behind us gave their horn a short tap. I looked at James, who was doing what most young people do at a red light – he was looking at his phone. The honker hit their horn five more times in rapid succession. Immediately, the person in the middle lane to our right begins shouting expletives at the honker. Our car was about two feet in front of his and I was not about to turn and make eye contact.

At this point, James finally looks up and determines that the person behind him is in the process of crossing the three lanes of our road and must have wanted James to move up into the empty space so they could avoid blocking anyone. James mentioned that with the light being red, no one was going anywhere anyhow.

At this point, the honker, who turns out to be a woman driving the car behind us responds to the guy next to us. I am waiting for the bullets to start flying like in Miami. However, the woman is just explaining to the other driver what she was trying to do. She actually apologized to him, even though he was technically a disinterested party. The guy next to me pauses for a moment, seemingly as surprised as I am. At this point he apologizes to the woman that he had yelled at.

The light changes and everyone calmly moves on until the next traffic snarl. I never turned to look at either of the parties, but now turn to James and ask, “What is this place?” I think back several years to when Virginia had a tourism campaign espousing the catchphrase, ‘Virginia is for Lovers’. Could it be true? I considered writing a short story where the characters meet during an abortive road rage incident. Maybe their love can grow while attending an anger management class.

A few days later, James brought me back to the airport. Approaching the Reagan statue from the other side brought on another short debate about the semantics of ‘Reagan’s left’ vs. ‘to the left of Reagan’. I had a long day of travel ahead of me. My connecting flight between DC and Fort Lauderdale was in Indianapolis. Hmm, air traffic…now that’s something to write about.

© Copyright 2015 – Robert O’Connell. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert O’Connell with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Three covers

Time Warp


I recently visited my son James, in Northern Virginia, just West of Washington, DC. I arrived on a Thursday evening with plans to stay until the following Thursday morning. James is 22 and has been working at his first job out of college as an environmental engineer for about nine months. He had recently told me that he started playing basketball weekly with some co-workers. This is when I found out about my abject failure as a father.

By most rational standards, my son is quite accomplished. He is an outstanding musician who graduated from a challenging five-year academic program in four years as the star of his department. He gave the graduation address for the largest department in at one of the largest universities in the country. He moved far away from our South Florida residence and is comfortably living on his own. He really only has one significant deficiency. He never learned to play basketball.

To be fair to my legacy as a father, I did try to engage him in the basketball arts. We had a hoop on the side of our pool with a ball that was just the right size for him. He and his friends would use it often, but only for two things, dunking and goaltending. I just couldn’t get any of them to take any interest in shooting, or defense, or passing, or anything that wouldn’t show up on a poster.

My wife asked what the big deal is. I told her my hoops buddies from college didn’t even believe it when I told them. One of them, my friend Dwight, came down to Virginia from New Jersey to see us while I was up North. I bought James a basketball and a pair of appropriate sneakers (he had been using running shoes!). When Dwight arrived on Saturday morning, the three of us walked down to a local court to show him a few things. James told Dwight that his friends called him for a double dribble and he didn’t know what that meant. Dwight shook his head and glared at me with disgust.

My son is 22, Dwight is 55, and I am 56. I am going to intersperse this story with a description of what Dwight and I would have been doing at an age equivalent to my son’s. This would have been around 1980 when Dwight and I were finishing up our college time, and some thirty-three years ago.

There is a single court at the suburban apartment complex where James lives. It’s after ten o’clock in the morning, but the court is empty except for an older Asian woman doing some sort of exercise routine. While she does have a basketball and is actually shooting, there also is a small blanket on the court and some sort of strap and pulley system attached to the pole holding the basket and backboard.

Dwight and I strut to the courts in Irvington, NJ. He’s wearing a pair of Puma “Clyde’s” and I have the high-top Pony’s with the red stripe. There are four courts running eight games of half court. Several people are waiting to play. We head for the court with the best competition and simply say, “I got next.”

My son is beginning to realize the difference between basketball shoes and running shoes for quick stops and cuts. He said the running shoes gave him a few blisters. I point out that it might be the tiny hipster socks that he insists on wearing. I notice that the Asian woman has some sort of music player and is listening to a high-pitched woman singing in English with an accent. I’m guessing that she is Korean.

Almost everybody is wearing tube socks up to the knee and several of the players are wearing two pair. The double sock technique provided more padding so you could play with blisters, a much more common occurrence due to poorer early shoe technology and the fact that we would often play for four to six hours at a stretch. There is a boom box pumping out Earth, Wind, and Fire’s Fantasy. Wait for it…”As Oooooooone”.

James mentions that he isn’t sure when he is fouling and when he isn’t. Dwight and I look at each other…more head shaking. We explain to him that if he is touching someone who has the ball, he is committing a foul. He learns that positioning of the arms, legs, and body to alter your opponent’s path is the key to proper defense. “What if they don’t have the ball?” he asks. “Then, for the most part, you can bust his ass,” says Dwight. More music drifts over. Is that Scarborough Fair? In Korean?

Dwight and I are playing in a game. It’s close, so we are focused on winning since the winning team gets to keep the court. I cut to the basket and Dwight hits me with a pass, but I’m already moving away from the hoop. I pass the ball back up top to him and he glares at me with the ‘You should have shot that’ look. Kurtis Blow is on the radio and several of the spectators bob up and down in unison to “These are the Breaks”. No one sits down and no one takes a breather. Dwight finds an afro pick on the court. It has a Black Power fist for a handle. He picks it up, holds it over his head and says, “Anybody lose a pick?” Simultaneously, fifteen people reach for their back pocket. If it had been a fifty dollar bill, everyone would have just kept walking and muttered, “I know that shit ain’t mine.”

There’s something about basketball that warps reality. Dwight and I are in our mid-fifties. He is plagued by gout and I am morbidly obese. I sometimes get winded going from the couch to the refrigerator and yet out here, we don’t seem to be as affected by age or gravity. A kid comes by with a ball and immediately we ask him to join us for a game. This cannot be a good idea. The Asian woman is now sitting on her blanket in a lotus position. She starts to roll around like a break dancer in slow motion. The singer is now doing. ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’. I need a copy of her mix tape.

We lose a game and step off the court for a drink. Like most of the players, we have jugs of Kool-Aid or similar poison. Dwight is next to a guy drinking that new stuff. “Dude, that shit will kill you,” he says. The guy looks at the label of his Gatorade bottle and replies, “I don’t know, Bro. It’s supposed to replenish your salt that you sweat out. The pros drink it.” A Sister Sledge song comes on.

It’s remarkable how it all comes back. I tell my son that he is not as bad off as I thought, but he just needs to practice. The physical stuff is easy, but the mental part of the game takes time to learn. Moving to an open space, anticipating a pass, when to head fake, and when to drive the lane becomes natural after a while. What really amazed me was how quickly it came back. I haven’t played competitively in nearly two decades. Also, I was surprisingly able to move without dying. Of course, I was playing both the elderly and amateurs, but still. A woman with a toddler walked to the other end of the court. The Asian woman greeted the kid and it was obviously her grandmother. Then the woman lifted one leg and did a split on the backboard pole while hugging both the pole and her extended leg. Thank God we didn’t ask her to play.

A guy shows up wearing a Sixers Erving jersey. He turns out to be the anti-Dr. J. He can’t jump, and he won’t pass the ball. The worst thing is that every time he misses a shot, he calls ‘ball’, indicating that he was fouled. This is considered bad form in street ball. ‘Let’s Get Serious’ comes on the radio. Dude, listen to Jermaine Jackson.

I have the ball under the basket and try to use my body to leverage the kid who is on me. I’d like to get a better shot, but mostly want to show my son some of the techniques he can use with his body while not fouling. The kid moves back and I stumble to the ground. I pop right up mostly embarrassed, but also know that I bruised the muscle on my left side between two of my upper ribs. I also know from five to eight weeks to heal. Still, I keep playing while answering in the affirmative when asked if I’m all right. I know this sounds ridiculous, but now the Asian woman is doing some sort of a headstand. Her head is on the basketball and her body is straight up except for one leg which is against the pole parallel to the ground.

We play a while longer and then head to White Castle for a snack. Over a sack of burgers, we argue about strategy and talk about some of the odder characters. Mostly, we discuss how the young kids lack fundamentals and have no respect for the game.

The Asian woman collects her stuff and heads past us off the court. Up close, she is at least sixty. More power to her. We decide to pack it in and Dwight asks the kid how old he is. “Thirteen,” he replies. The kid thinks James is thirty (must be the beard) and thinks Dwight is twenty-five (I guess black don’t crack). I did not ask him to guess my age. There are no White Castles in this area, but it’s okay since Dwight can no longer take the onions.
The next day, Dwight headed back to New Jersey. We were both sore, but not as much as we expected and were generally unharmed. I guess the important thing is that I showed my kid enough to allow him to play with his friends without embarrassing himself. I guess there’s really not much more a father can do.

© Copyright 2015 – Robert O’Connell. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert O’Connell with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Kindle CoverCruise MOB CoverDressed cover


The Legend

Notre DameThree covers

There is a young man nervously sitting in a locker room with a Notre Dame banner on the wall. There is muffled cheering and the Notre Dame Fight Song playing in the background.

Tommy is huffing and puffing, trying to get ready for the big game.

Tommy: (To himself) C’mon Tommy…you can do this. (Huffing) You’ve been working toward this moment you’re whole life. (He gets up and paces in front of the locker. He stops suddenly, reacting to a voice from above.)

Ghost: (As a voice in a heavy brogue) Sure and begorrah, me laddie. Ye be waitin’ a long time for this.

Tommy: (Tommy looks around, a bit frightened) Who’s there?

Ghost: Take it easy, me boy.

Tommy: Who is that?

Ghost: It’s only me, Laddie…The ghost of Knute Rockne. I’m here to help ya get ready for the big game.

Tommy: (Shaking his head) What? Holy shit. I’m hearing voices.

Ghost: Relax, kiddo, yer not hallucinating. It’s really me, the old Rock. I’ve been visiting you boys on opening day fer many, many years.

Tommy: I don’t believe this!

Ghost: Oh, you can believe it all right, me boy. I just want to drop a bit o’ the old Irish wisdom on ye before ye take the field today.

Tommy: Wait a second. If you’re Knute Rockne, what’s with the Irish brogue? I thought Rockne was from Sweden or something.

Ghost: (Dropping accent) All right, you got me kid. The accent is actually for effect. I am the ghost of the Rock, but these kids today usually don’t know nothin’ about Notre Dame history. I was actually born in Norway, but moved to Chicago when I was five, so I actually sound more like Pat O’Brien, the guy who played me in the movie.

Tommy: Now, you’re really freaking me out. How many shots did I actually do last night?

Ghost: Oh, it’s not the hooch talkin’, Kid. I’m actually here to help you out.

Tommy: Help me do what…have a God damned nervous breakdown?

Ghost: Let me try an easy one to calm your nerves, Kid. I want you to go out there today and win one for the Gipper!

Tommy: Dude! The Gipper has been dead for ninety-five years!

Ghost: I gotta tell you Kid, I’m impressed with your knowledge of Irish History, but try to be fair…I myself have been dead for eighty-four years. Besides, that Gipper kid had potential. Had he lived, I would have figured him to be President someday.

Tommy: What? Don’t you get CNN up there…or wherever you are? I’m not sure you’re in the right place, Dude.

Ghost: Wait, Kid. Give me another chance. This one never fails…We’re going inside of ‘em, we’re going outside of ‘em — inside of ‘em! outside of ‘em! — and when we get them on the run once, we’re going to keep ‘em on the run. And we’re not going to pass unless their secondary comes up too close. But don’t forget, men — we’re gonna get ‘em on the run, we’re gonna go, go, go, go! — and we aren’t going to stop until we go over that goal line! And don’t forget, men — today is the day we’re gonna win. They can’t lick us — and that’s how it goes… The first platoon men — go in there and fight, fight, fight, fight, fight! What do you say, men…er, Tommy.

Tommy: I think my head is gonna explode! I’m never taking greenies before a game again. Rockne, ghost, whoever you are, get out of my brain. I’ve got to get out there and be ready to perform in just a couple of minutes.

Ghost: Maybe I had you all wrong, Kid. Maybe you don’t have what it takes. Why you’re even smaller than that Rudy kid. How the hell did you make the team, anyway?

Tommy: Team, what team? I’m not on the team. (Putting on his hat) I’m the mascot, you idiot! I’m supposed to be small. I’m playing a fucking leprechaun! I gotta lead the team onto the field.

Ghost: You don’t say. Did they move the locker room or something?

Tommy: (Reacts to theme song playing and crowd noise rising) Shit, my cue! I’m gonna be late! (Runs off the stage)

Ghost: (Fading out) Don’t forget, men — we’re gonna get ‘em on the run, we’re gonna go, go, go, go!

© Copyright 2015 – Robert O’Connell. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert O’Connell with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.