DRIVING MYSELF NUTS
I hate to drive, actually. In high school I failed my driver’s test three times, I caused two accidents, and I was the subject of one all points bulletin. Before moving to Maine last Christmas, I got behind the wheel as infrequently as possible. When I moved to Bangor, I found an apartment situated such that in the morning I could roll out of bed, stumble down the hill to Maine Times, and forget completely about my automobile. It was nice, especially on those mid-winter afternoons when the sky darkened with snow and the commuters in the office all began to fidget.
Now I’m 40 minutes away on Cape Jellison and I’m the one beginning to fidget. To be honest, though, the change has been welcome.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 2
The end of my first week’s commute. I leave the house this morning at 7:01 because I still want to be in the office before 8. Actually, I just want to beat my boss Jay, who always seems impressed if I’m sitting at my desk when he strolls in. “Bee-Dubya!” he’ll cry, pretending to be shocked that I made it in so early. So I fire up my red ’90 Honda Civic and take the straight shot: Route 1A north from Stockton Springs up the hill to Prospect, through Frankfort, Winterport, Hampden, and then into Bangor. I encounter two school buses, all blinking red lights and swiveling stop signs—my biggest nightmare. Time: 48 minutes.
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 6
I’ve never listened to so much NPR in my life. These folks have no sense of humor. And their flack in Afghanistan, reporting on some remote tribal wedding, described the local chieftain as both stoic and nervous-looking. I yell at my radio that this is im-poss-ible! Bob Edwards is not impressed. Time: a decent 35 minutes.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 9
It’s dark now when I drive home, and my new pet peeve is these people who need their high-beams on all the time. Can you honestly not see the road? I’m past Prospect now, where the speed limit ramps up to 55, where there’s a short stretch of woods, a passing lane and then a downhill skid to the intersection with Route 1. It’s on the downhill that the buck appears—I’m telling you, he just appears—and I jerk the wheel to the right praying to God he goes left. This time I’m lucky, and I wonder: If I’d had my high-beams on, would I have seen him earlier? The rest of the trip home, my insides are jelly. This is why I hate to drive.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 15
Jay insists I’m doing it all wrong. With his chest all puffed out, he says he can drive from Belfast in 37 minutes flat. He says if I take a left at Winterport, then a right, another right, a left and a right, I’ll end up on I-395, which’ll take me right into Bangor. You’ll gain at least 10 minutes, he says. So I try it and he’s right. But that’s the last time. I’ve begun to enjoy this commute—where the highway curves with the Penobscot near Frankfort, the changing colors of the blueberry barrens around Prospect, the rocky, avuncular presence of Mount Waldo. This is all new to me, and I’m not going to give it up for an extra 10 minutes.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 16
Jay insists that none of those things—the Penobscot, the barrens, the avuncular presence of Mount Waldo, if that’s how you honestly want to describe it—will be missed on his shortcut. I take the long way anyway. Time: a pigheaded 46 minutes.
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 20
I’m sleeping in now, having given up the idea of beating anyone to the office. It’s 7:45 when I pull out of the driveway. Going up the hill into Prospect, I shift into fifth gear and feel something pull. By the time I’m past Hampden, I’m on the side of the road. My car is dead. I call on my cell to get my Honda towed and an office mate driving in from Searsport picks me up and hauls me the rest of the way. Time: a frustrating 1 hour and 4 minutes.
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 28
It’s not just the scenery. I like the time. It would be one thing if there were traffic, the smell of exhaust, honking horns and lane changes. But there’s none of that on this stretch of Maine. Just a lot of trees and time to think. A literary friend of mine suggested that my time in the car would be an opportunity to “write,” so to speak: to gather up my thoughts in neat little bundles, ready for the time when I can sit down in front of a keyboard. It’s a nice idea. Mostly, though, I just listen to music. I’ve given up NPR altogether and today I’m listening to a revved-up bluegrass band called Split Lip Rayfield. I’m constantly picking up on new lyrics. Today it’s this one: “I had the chance to be someone I’ve never been before / Took his clothes and wallet and left him on the floor.” As I hear it I’m passing the pumpkin stand just outside of Hampden. Little things like this make my day. Time: 39 minutes.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 29
After work, I rush to my favorite Thai restaurant in Belfast to pick up green curry. Backtracking up Route 1 to Cape Jellison, I notice that everyone is flashing their lights at me. That’s when I notice that both my front headlights have gone out. Both! Luckily my high-beams still work. Tonight I have become everyone’s pet peeve.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 3
The end of my first month’s commute. It’s been more expensive than I expected—I’ve never spent so much time at the pump. And my car breaking down? A distributor problem. Cost me $500! The headlights were another $70. But as for the hours in my car, much to my surprise, I’ve really enjoyed them. For one, if I were to get home earlier in the evening, chances are I’d only watch “Entertainment Tonight.” And driving all the way back to Stockton Springs forces me to drink one or more fewer after-5 Blueberry Ales. Still, the time in my car has developed its own kind of depth and satisfaction. The narrative of my commute can be found in the black skid marks on the highway where I almost hit the buck. Or, until it rained last week, the muddy tracks off the side of the highway where I parked my dying Honda. Harder to track, of course, are the moments of Joyce-ian epiphany I’ve experienced chugging to and fro each day: brilliant pops of lightning that are inevitable when one spends enough time alone. Today’s epiphany? My car has rear-window defrost. I had no idea.
Maine Times, January 2002