When I lived in the metro Kansas City area some years back I had a 30-40 commute to work. My route to the office demanded I take a sort of highway/surface road hybrid: it provided two lanes in each direction and allowed a 50 miles per hour speed limit, but also contained a few stop lights at certain intersections.
In the beginning, I wanted to hit each light in its green mode so I could minimize my commute time and avoid the mild frustration of sitting behind a queue of cars waiting for a red light to change. Over time, however, I began to covet the occasional red light because I discovered how amusing it was to spy on my neighboring, fellow commuters.
On one occasion, I spotted a man shaving his face with what appeared to be an old-fashioned straight razor. I was amazed. Was it better or worse, I wondered, that he was going about his business in this context without shaving cream? Seconds later we were all on our way toward downtown again, and I’ll never know just how badly that poor fellow’s excursion into crazy multi-tasking turned out.
Another time I came to a stop and glanced in my rear-view mirror to discover a young female feverishly applying makeup to her lips, eyes and cheeks. She had clearly done this on many occasions and thus was both dexterous with her lipstick, rouge brush and eye-lining pen, and skilled at the timing involved. She anticipated with remarkable precision when the light was going to turn green and accordingly put her equipment down at just the right moment to resume driving. At the next light I realized she was even more facile than I’d originally perceived. She was managing her activities while also balancing a small dog on her lap and eating an Egg McMuffin besides.
At other times, of course, I witnessed more typical (but no less entertaining) behavior. Drivers rocking out to their radios or CD players, utilizing steering wheels and dashboards as percussion instruments, bellowing “Hotel California” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the top of their lungs; beleaguered parents shuttling their unruly and perhaps sleep-deprived children to day-care or school, wagging or pointing their fingers in anger, occasionally turning 180 degrees to face the offending offspring and raising their voices for special emphasis.
On one unseasonably warm September day such a car had its windows down and I heard portions of a mother’s furious remonstrations to her son. “Jack,” she began, “I am not in high school. YOU are in high school. I cannot and will not do your work for you. YOU have to do your work, or you are going to flunk out. Seriously. And then what?!? You’ll end up having to get some lousy job and living in KANSAS, for God’s sake!” (We lived on the Missouri side, mind you, and to most denizens of the Show-Me state this was regarded as a fate equivalent to being consigned to Dante’s third concentric circle of Hell. I imagine that if my daily commute began in, say, Overland Park, Kansas, rather than Lee’s Summit, Missouri, that conversation might have concluded with, “You’ll end up having to get some lousy job and living in MISSOURI, for God’s sake!”).
Now I drive about an hour each way, to and from my job at the University of Dayton School of Law. The portion of my commute closest to work is similar to the drive I took from Lee’s Summit to downtown Kansas City—occasional stretches at a relatively high (legal!) speed broken up by traffic lights at busy intersections. This morning I saw a woman next to me texting on her smart phone while we sat motionless at the red light. When it turned green I eased forward and shifted to the right lane as I had a right-hand turn coming up. The woman was now immediately behind me and clearly visible in my mirror. She was still texting as she hurtled forward at 45-50 miles per hour. Her eyes darted back and forth between the windshield in front of her and the phone perched in the vicinity of her steering wheel. I turned right to follow my route toward downtown and she followed, swerving slightly due to her divided attention. As we neared the next light I switched to the left-hand lane so that we would sit side-by-side for a few moments.
I rolled down my front passenger window and waved my arms to get her attention. Her eyes were plastered to her smart phone, perched on her steering wheel, and she tapped away with the thumbs of both hands. I waved some more and hollered over. She continued to type away. Finally I honked. Once. Twice. Three times. On the third honk she finally peered over and rolled her window down, clearly agitated at the crazy geezer in the old Ford sedan.
“What?!” she screamed in exasperation.
“Ma’am, please stop texting while you’re driving. It’s illegal and dangerous. You swerved out of your lane at the turn back there. If you really need more stimulation during your commute, I recommend you rock out to some music. It’s a bit safer and—I speak from experience—it can be fun.”
She frowned, dismissed me with a wave of her left hand, resumed texting, and drove on.
Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.