A recent article that ranked DC as having the worst commute in the nation made me remember when, for a whole year, I had the worst commute in DC, and thus the worst commute in America, and possibly the entire world. Shaw to Herndon, via two trains (the Green to the Orange) and then a Metrobus from the West Falls Church station for a last stretch that took me within five minutes of Dulles. Two hours each way, Monday through Friday.
I’d get out of bed at 7:40, often still slightly drunk, shower and dress in fifteen minutes, and be on a train at 8. I usually woke up around 8:15, somewhere between Mount Vernon Square and Archives. If I gained full consciousness before Gallery Place, I’d sprint out to catch the Red Line over to Metro Center, a shortcut that allowed me to skip the dogleg down to L’Enfant and over and up through Smithsonian and Federal Triangle, a savings of four stops and around ten minutes. Occasionally this shortcut backfired, if the Red Line was delayed or packed to capacity, and I’d be stranded in the Gallery Place station crowd, mentally tracking the progress of the train I should’ve stayed on, which inevitably led to mentally tracking the life I should’ve been living, an alternate existence that was short on details other than the fact that in that parallel dimension I was still in bed.
If there was an upside to this commute, it was that I was going from the city to the suburbs when most people were doing the opposite. After Foggy Bottom, the Orange Line was more or less empty, and I could recline on a double seat and sleep for twenty minutes. I was pretty good at waking up at my stop at the Falls Church station, though once in a while I’d wake up on an empty train in Vienna. At Falls Church, there was a huge bus transfer bay outside, where dozens of buses waited to take people places they didn’t really want to go. The bus I took went up I-66 for half an hour, which is a long time to sit on a city bus. On trains, people try their hardest to pretend no one else on the train exists, but on buses, they’re openly suspicious, clutching their belongings and looking at you through narrowed eyes. The roar of the bus engines on the Interstate were so loud that it drowned out your headphones, so for the last stretch I would read. I favored heavy books, the Russians or the French existentialists, anything that would make my misery seem trivial. By the time I got off the bus at a Herndon office park, it was 10 in the morning, and I’d traveled from the center of the city to a far exurb where people walked along the sidewalkless road carrying bulging trash bags.. My day hadn’t even started yet but I was already exhausted.
Almost everyone else in the office drove from DC, and once I made some office friends, I was invited to ride with them. I thought this would make my commute better, but it made it worse. On a train or even a bus, you’re just along for the ride, but in a car, the person in charge is sitting right there in the driver’s seat, letting too many people merge in, making terrible route choices (the GW Parkway?!), playing unforgivably bad music. And no matter what they do, you end up spending a long time in gridlock, inching along in a sea of cars. It’s such a cliché that you feel humilated by your own frustration. By the time Todd from Marketing tries to turn the carpool into an impromptu brainstorming session for the new ad campaign, you’re downright nostalgic for that bus commute, even the part where the worn shocks of the bus transmitted every bump and crack of the highway up through the hard plastic seat to jostle your coffee-swollen bladder.
The commute home was even worse, coming at the end of a long day at the office. A carful of irritated, tired people, impatient to get to happy hour so they could obliterate the memories of the workday. Sometimes we all agreed to work an hour or two longer, to avoid rush hour, but you had to work until 7:30 or 8 before the roads really cleared. By that time you were so mad that you were still at the office at 8 at night that the speed limit was more of a dare than a prohibition. One Monday night, our carpool got pulled over and the driver got a ticket for speeding – actually a ticket for reckless driving, since she was going more than thirty over the limit. She was already too mad about her life in general to get any madder about a ticket, which is probably why we were pulled over the very next night, on the very same stretch of I-66, and she got another reckless driving ticket for going more than thirty over. She lost her license, and I was able to go back to the two-hour train-and-bus commute, which was somehow an improvement. When I was fired from the job a few months later, my first thought was, “thank god I’ll never have to endure this commute again.” The next job I had paid about half the money, but the commute was ten minutes, and it was, no question, a net improvement.