by Rebecca Fairley Raney
 
 
 

Going nowhere fast

Freeway is a misnomer for commuters' giant parking lot

What it won: First place, Writing -- commentary or column, humorous; Press Club of Southern California, 1990.

In the summer of 1989, the big issue in the suburbs east of Los Angeles was the two hours it took for a large number of residents to drive 30 miles to work in the city.

So, being the sprightly little newspaper that we were, we tried to give this experience a certain validation. We sent three teams to the city during peak rush hour on a hot morning in July. One group drove in a carpool. One reporter rode the bus. And I was assigned to drive alone.

I have to say, it was an awful lot of fun, and based on the letters from readers, they enjoyed it too. Of course, a story like this would be fun any time. But for me, it was part of a whole way of life. I was very young, and I was writing every kind of story for the first time.

As I recall, I entered this story in the category of feature writing, not in humorous commentary. But this is where the judges thought it belonged.

Going alone

The Daily Report/Progress Bulletin

Sunday, July 16, 1989

(EXCERPT)

It's 6:39 a.m., and the sun is bright over Ontario. I've got a steering wheel in one hand and a Coke in the other.

The Coke -- first thing in the morning -- is leaving a nasty film on my teeth, and I always wonder how healthy it is. But I'm drinking it anyway, and it won't be the only unhealthy thing I do today.

The traffic on the San Bernardino (10) Freeway is at a dead stop, and I'm about to become one more reason for it. I'm off to a rolling start: a snappy 16 mph at the Fourth Street on-ramp. The Coke's getting nastier every minute.

On the radio this morning, the big news is that Ronald Reagan fell off his horse while he was out shooting buffalo. Reagan's "private rodeo" -- that's what one of those catty radio guys called it. Oh, and it's going to be 110 degrees today.

It's 6:51 a.m., and we're passing the Montclair Plaza at an unprecedented 35 mph. The guys on the radio are calling phone booths in Canoga Park.

In Pomona, the metered on-ramps are a welcome, if not bizarre, sight. Somehow it seems really twisted to have to bar people from driving into this -- at least it does to someone stopped in the middle of four lanes of traffic.

But it's working. Traffic is thinning out. It's picking up. At Ganesha Avenue, we're hitting 55 for the first time. It's 7 a.m. I'm hearing the Ronald Reagan story for the fourth time.

We're safely over Kellogg Hill at a happy 65 mph, and suddenly there are again too many cars to fit on the freeway.

Inside the cars parked next to me, everyone is wearing the same face. Stoical -- that's the first word that comes to mind.

They're all looking straight ahead, like they're watching some compelling monster movie. A lot of them are drinking Cokes. The Big Gulp is really popular.

There's a certain rhythm here -- like dancing with someone who can't hear the beat. Twenty miles per hour to a dead stop. Up to 20 again, a steady roll, to a dead stop. Twenty. Dead stop. Twenty. Fifteen. Dead stop. Twenty.

And whatever you do, pay attention. Don't want too much space to get between me and the car in front of me. Somebody might want to get in front of me. No. Can't have it. Just one more car in front of me, at this point, will make all the difference in the world.

(CUT)

Now we're in Rosemead, where the carpool lane starts. There's a blue sign at the side that says, "Buslane users save up to 20 minutes daily."

They built the carpool lane and set up that sign right here, where the traffic's going to come to a dead stop no matter what.

They did it on purpose.

This is what happens when you put the designing of freeways into the hands of the government.

I'm satisfied with that conclusion, I really am, and I've no sooner reached it when I see a white car on the freeway with an "E" license plate -- a government car. There is one man in that car. One man. And he just cruised right into the carpool lane. I'm sitting here, stopped, watching him.

You know those cartoon characters, how when they get really mad, the purple color starts at their feet then climbs up till the tops of their heads pop off and spin around? Yes. That's it. That's the feeling.

I'm wondering now, because of that government official, what if everybody just blew it and decided they were going to use the carpool lane? Who is going to stop us? Who's going to enforce it? But for whatever reason, people respect it. I don't know why.

(CUT)

I'm also entertaining myself, at this point, by trying to translate the stuff off the backs of taco trucks. And I don't even speak Spanish.

And you know what? There goes the second E-plate car, navy blue, one man in it, hitting the carpool lane. He probably knows taxpayers can't read his license number when they're sitting at a dead stop.

On the radio, they're saying the air quality today is going to be unhealthful everywhere.

And now it's 8:06 a.m., and I am off the freeway. I am off the freeway.

At 8:14 a.m., my car keys have been handed over to a parking garage attendant whom I'd call the police on if he showed up in my neighborhood.

I am ready for work.

I am ready for blood.

I am ready for bed.

(END)

OTHER WINNING STORIES:

1. Paradise in Peril : The California real estate crash

2. Too Violent, Too Young: Life on the street

3. School statistics, and a personal breakthrough: The secrets behind test scores

4. Winning, as an alternative to starving: Political coverage, and a miracle baby

5. Yes, traffic is funny: Life outside the carpool lane

6. Turbulent Skies: The politics of medical helicopter service

7. Nailing down the building boom

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Mailing address: 112 Harvard Ave., #134, Claremont, CA 91711 ** E-mail: fairley.raney@gmail.com