An Encounter with the Unextraordinary: A Long Drive Home

Sitting in traffic isn’t an enjoyable activity. As a man who commutes everyday, I’d say the level of discomfort usually falls somewhere between a visit to the dentist and a boloball to the testicles. Normally, I leave my house at 7am every morning to make it into the office at about 8:40am. It’s a long way to go and traffic is dependably thick going from highway to subway all the way into the downtown core.

According to an article in the National Post outlining the negative health effects of a long commute, the average Torontonian spends about 80 minutes a day doing what I spend about 3 hours doing. I’ve heard a few of the commuters throw around the word “torture” when they describe their daily trip to work. They aren’t kidding. A survey from early this year revealed that about 5% of Americans would divorce their spouse if it meant they could work from home. Although, it seems like a bit of a ridiculous question to me. You can’t have it all.

I never drive all the way into work, but last Thursday we had a “team-building” barbeque at the department head’s house in the east end of the city. Public transportation wasn’t an option so I borrowed my grandmother’s car. We met there at 10am so the drive in was painless. The drive home, however, was far more interesting.

If you saw this maroon-coloured Ford, you could immediately guess who it belonged to. Before you even got in, you could see the scratch marks from many attempts to find the car-door lock with the key (this car came before the dawn of electronic locks). These aren’t the quickly corrected, narrowly spaced, short key marks that you might make if you’ve had a few drinks. No, this car clearly belongs to an 84 year old arthritic woman who, on a regular basis, drags her key halfway across the driver’s window before she realizes it’s not in the keyhole.

The smell was unmistakable – that elderly aroma – like mothballs that have just spent a full day being broiled under the sun on one of the warmest days in July. I didn’t mind it so much.

As I rolled out of their small side street with the windows down and the radio blaring, I carefully tried to follow my directions backwards to the northbound Don Valley Parkway at the height of rush hour traffic. Needless to say, I missed a turn and got lost. After about 10 minutes and a few more wrong turns, I ended up on the westbound Gardiner Expressway headed straight into the densest traffic spot in downtown Toronto in a car without air conditioning.

At this point, most would start to panic. Sure, I could have turned around but I had to go west once I got farther north anyways. I thought I’d stick it out, hoping that maybe the 427 (which the Gardiner turns into) would be moving better than the Don Valley Parkway. By the time I got there, it didn’t matter.

As soon as traffic hit a standstill, I turned up the radio and I pulled the shoulder strap of my seatbelt back over my head. I loosened up. It wasn’t because I all of a sudden thought “there’s no sense in getting upset about this” – thinking that would have just made me upset. It was simpler than that. I had never driven on that stretch of road before. All the things I had seen before I suddenly saw from a totally different angle. It somehow seemed new again.

On either side of this elevated highway, tall buildings stretched high into the sky creating a valley of crafted steel and glass. Enormous cranes that had stopped working for the day were dwarfed alongside these mega condos. On the north side, there was a maze of buildings that sprawled across the landscape that could only be seen through the gaps between skyscrapers alongside the highway. On the south side, the irregular shapes of the glass buildings were the only feature on an empty skyline that ran along the lake. The heavy sun hung just over the tops of these buildings and its light reflected unevenly off the glass towards the slow moving traffic. The day’s heat had coloured the evening sky with shades of purple and red. It was still pretty hot – like sweaty ankles hot. Yeah, on the really hot days I tend to use sweat from the areas of the body that NEVER sweat as my own personal thermometer since, you know, Grandma’s car doesn’t have one.  The tall shadows were more than a welcome relief.

It was a strange sensation. Too often I’m too busy – either venting my frustration by screaming obscenities (at no-one in particular) or imagining myself caving in the hood of the car that just cut me off  – to really appreciate where I am. It’s tough to understand, I realize. Why would anyone care to stop and smell the roses when every past experience has proved they smell like a pile of shit? That’s just the reality of the commute. For whatever reason though, this time was different.

Eventually the highway opened up, and the tall buildings shrank down in the distance. I hit another standstill a little father up which left me with a pleasant tan on (only) my left forearm. By the time I got to my Grandma’s I looked like I had gotten into a water balloon fight in her front seat. This unusually pleasant trip took me an extra 45 minutes. I wouldn’t say there’s nowhere else I would have rather been during that long drive home…I just didn’t have anywhere better to be.

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An Encounter with the Unextraordinary: A Long Drive Home