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
Off-color… TIG BITZ, BJSRGR8, CMYX4BJ, VIBE R8R
Police fun… WHAT COP, L8R OFCR
Nerdy… BLDLY GO, PI31415, MACH SPD, YODA I AM
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.
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