As a non-commuter, I’ve always assumed that commuting to and from work or school was a kind of five-times-a-week penury, a semi-voluntary temporary confinement that people endured as a necessary but hated element of getting by. Stuck in traffic, rolling past the same landmarks ten times a week was brightened only by the opportunity to listen to a book on tape, learn a new language or song, talk (on hands-free consoles) to relatives — to “multi-task.”
Recently I learned from an acquaintance that his 90-minute daily commute from bedroom community to downtown financial center was anything but wasted time during which his life slowly dripped away, one burnt clutch at a time. His commute, he explained, is the one time of day when he can escape the drudgery of corporate striving, a respite from needy children and a hectoring wife. He can listen to sports talk radio, the oldies station, Howard Stern, and not be bothered.
Our cars are in many ways mobile cocoons. We’re ensconced inside the upholstered warmth, secluded from the rest of the world, even as the rest of the world crawls along the freeway beside us. We depart home, go to work, and try to get home again as quickly as possible — which is often not very quick at all. That time, that very significant proportion of our waking hours, our life, is spent behind a wheel, peering through reinforced glass, lost in thoughts of everything else we’d rather be doing.
Commuting, like most journeys, is about returning, not going. The trick, it seems, is to feel as though we’ve never left.