Friday, September 09, 2005

That Maryland must be some kind of place . . .

Every day I throw caution to the wind and travel the racetrack known as Rock Creek Parkway (RCP) -- twice. The Parkway in rush hour is a place to behold, four lanes of traffic either taking people home or to work. Either way, the Parkway makes it obvious why we call it rush hour. It seems everyone's either late for work or eager to get home.

Rock Creek Parkway is a pretty place, lots of trees, interesting bridges, people jogging or riding bicycles all of which has to be ignored in rush hour because the lanes are so narrow and so curvy in spots that if you take your eyes off the road for a second you're drifting over into the next lane which, of course, has an unforgiving SUV in it.

Of interest to the first time traveler on the Parkway are the traffic lights which must be obeyed and the traffic lights which must be ignored. Never fear, first time RCP traveler! If you stop, pause, or even just hesitate at the traffic lights which can be ignored our fellow racetrack drivers will provide subtle hints that you are in error. A traffic light which can be ignored (in the morning) is at the intersection of the Parkway Virginia Avenue near the Watergate that leads to Route 66. The light is there, it turns red, it must be ignored. How do you know? Well, one trip down the Parkway in the morning rush and one false step at the light which must be ignored and the chances are good that you'll never make that mistake again.

There's a traffic light outside the Kennedy Center that seems to have drivers fairly evenly divided about its status. It's not at an intersection and therefore appears to be solely for pedestrians. Hah! As if we cared about pedestrians! When this light turns red some drivers look for pedestrians (to avoid them of course, not to hit them) and, seeing none, continue as though it's definitely a light that can be ignored while others come to a stop (pedestrians or not) and risk the wrath of the first group.

It's interesting to see people's reactions when they're being beeped at by an irate driver at the light that can be ignored. Often, the beepee will look helplessly around for what it could be that they're doing wrong, never understanding and, usually, never budging until the light changes. Some will studiously ignore the beeping as if it couldn't possibly be aimed at them, some will raise both hands as if to say, 'I feel your pain but what can I do?' while the rest just whip out that magical finger and wave it all around in the hope the beeper gets a good look at it.

There's an interesting spot about halfway down the RCP where, in the afternoon, the Parkway divides, two lanes to the right, two to the left. At the dividing point I'm sometimes behind drivers for whom this division is a surprise. They'll be happily speeding along (and I mean speeding) and suddenly they're faced with this decision: left? Right? Right? Left? I've seen white-knuckled hands shaking the steering while the decision making process develops.

And then, also in the afternoons, there's the daily drama at that spot where the RCP becomes Beach Drive to the right and heads off to Connecticut Avenue to the left. Invariably, there's a long line of vehicles waiting to get onto Beach Drive. Most people not in that right lane will turn towards Connecticut Avenue. But there's always the few traveling in the moving lanes that want to get as close as possible to the separation point and then . . . cut in. We find out a lot about people at this point. First, we definitely know about those cutting in, right? But then there's the crowd in the line. Some of them will allow cutting in but others, damn it, have been sitting in that line forever and you're coming in front of me over my dead body, etc, etc. I'm afraid that may be the case one day. Just lately I've seen a couple of police cars staked out at that dividing point and pulling people over. I don't know if it's because of cutting in or out-of-date stickers or what but I hope it's because of cutting in.

I avoid all that excitement by taking the Cathedral Avenue exit and all its attendant potholes. The last stretch of Cathedral Avenue before reaching the traffic light at the intersection with Connecticut Avenue becomes two lanes. The light turns green and this is our equivalent of the starting flag at the Indy 500. Engines scream, smoke billows, the light turns green and we turn right -- sometimes on two wheels -- in a crazed attempt to reach the next light at the zoo (a good 100 yards away) before it turns red. On average the first four cars -- two per lane -- make it. I assume those that make it have smooth sailing up much of the avenue because of the synching of the traffic lights. I have to assume this because I usually get to the zoo just in time for the red light but that's OK, at least this way I get to examine the tourists as they cross in front of me. Hve you ever examined the tourists? Interesting group. But that's a topic for another day. This rant is about traffic.

We are now fanned out at the zoo light, four across waiting for that next starting flag to send us on our way to Maryland. Cleveland Park (and the checkered flag for some) is in the distant haze. A couple of hazards on Connecticut Avenue are on the edges but life on the edge I'm told, may be the riskiest but it's also the most exciting. If you're in the far right lane you run the risk of finding an illegally parked vehicle and possibly the police tow truck trying to get rid of it. This, of course, means you're going to attempt to move one lane over to avoid the parked car but run the risk of hitting someone in lane two -- quite possibly me because that's where I usually hide. People have missed my car by microns at 40 miles an hour in their nightly attempt to break the land speed record for the Cathedral Avenue to Chevy Chase race.

Go in the left hand lane and there's always the thrill of finding someone blissfully unaware of the lane setup so they're coming towards you also at 40 miles an hour. This situation produces the usual cacophany of horns but with a certain extra urgency as the cars close in on each other in this late afternoon game of chicken, Connecticut Avenue style. Driving in D.C. rush hour is not for the faint hearted or anyone over 60. It's bad enough out here without drivers having heart attacks. I gotta start taking public transportation.