Living in a state where your alternate route needs an alternate route, one must not let a little highway congestion develop into a serious road condition which is easier said than done when studies show that we New Jerseyans sit in traffic for over thirty hours a year.
Nevertheless, we commuters cherish our alternate routes even when they, too, back up longer than the line at the convenience store when winning lottery amounts are up while all you want is a gallon of milk. Our alternate routes are so valued in fact that we are scarce to let anyone in on them. I was once at an early morning meeting that was supposed to start at eight. As people drifted in around eight-twenty, many looked at me and asked if I had hit the back-up on the highway. I shrugged my shoulders. “How did you get around it?” They asked. I plastered the dumbest expression I could muster on my face, shrugged again and shook my head because everyone knows that the less people know about an alternate route, the more effective the route.
And then, one morning, for no reason at all, I took my alternate route to work. There was no accident, no wet roadways, no gaper delays, no on-going construction, no police or fire activity. In fact, it was moderate to light traffic. But I exited nonetheless. When I arrived at work, it was really no sooner or later than when I usually arrived. And then, the next day, I did it again. Before I knew it, I was taking my alternate route to work more often than my main route.
Suddenly my commute was a calmer, gentler ride and I started noticing things.
A man in slippers walking his dog and I remembered Tammy, the beagle of my childhood. I remembered running with her in the back yard when she was only a puppy. I remembered when I was a senior in high school, gently placing her paralyzed body in a box, wrapped warm with the yellow blanket that she’d had for as long as I could remember, and carrying her into the vet’s office and saying good-bye.
Children waiting for a school bus – the younger ones with enthusiasm in their eyes, the older with sleep in theirs and I remembered picking little purple wildflowers for Miss Lalama, my second grade teacher with whom I was madly in love. I remembered waiting for the bus for the last time in high school.
A deer nibbling tender sprouts of grass at the edge of the woods and I remembered the woods that we kids once ruled. The trails, the forts, the make-believe hunting with pop guns. I remembered going back there later, after my parents had passed away, walking along that path I had known so well, disoriented by its overgrowth, etching it in my mind, knowing that, in all probability, I would never find my way back there again.
A woman in a robe holding a baby, both waving bye-bye to Daddy and all I wanted to do was turn the car around and give my wife and kids one more good-bye hug and kiss.
I also noticed how people behind you react when you actually go twenty-five in a twenty-five miles per hour zone. Try it sometime. See just how slow twenty-five can feel. People swerve across the white lines to see if they can pass, they veer into the shoulder to see if something in front of you is slowing you down. You can actually read their lips as they yell for you to speed up because no one really goes twenty-five miles an hour anymore.
And right before I was about to give in to the urge to go faster, I noticed a man in a suit sitting on the steps in front of his house, his briefcase on one side and a little boy on the other and I remembered mornings with my dad. I remembered him putting down his briefcase and picking me up, telling me to be a good boy and he was there with me, next to me and he told me that I was doing the best I could, and that being a father was like commuting to work: While traffic jams were inevitable, there were always ways around them.
By taking my alternate route more often than not, now I am slowing down, yet not losing any time. I am somehow gaining time, and more than that, I am getting some lost time back. Not a bad way to start a day.