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  • Waiting for a ride


It’s now my third week of working at home, so needless to say, there’s  not a lot of commuting going on.  Once a week, early Sunday morning I drive into the city to spend some time in my office, checking mail, tidying up, doing a few housekeeping chores, and remembering that I do actually have a job.  And thankfully, still a paycheck.  May it continue.

My Sunday commutes have been startling and dramatic.  Pre-Corona, the 80 Freeway between Vallejo and San Francisco is a commuting hell.  Heavy traffic usually at top speeds of 40 on a good day.  The 35 mile trip typically takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours each way.  Since I drive carpool, I (and my passengers) get a break, usually coasting along at about 50 and being able to breeze past the toll lanes.

The last three Sundays have been amazingly different  Cars are few and far between and there are even stretches of the freeway where I see no cars in front of me or behind me.  I feel like I’m in one of those futuristic post-apocalyptic movies.   Except this is now.SF Corona Streets Freeway near Emeryville

This is the 80 freeway where it divides and enters the toll plaza area going into San Francisco.  Cash lanes are closed, since there are no toll-takers  Cash only drivers without Fast Track drive on through and are sent a bill in the mail.

SF Corona Streets Toll Booths Bay Bridge

Approaching Toll Plaza before Bay Bridge into San Francisco.

Bay Bridge Toll Lanes (pre Corona)Here are the toll lanes pre-Corona.

The city’s streets and sidewalks are quiet and empty, many buildings boarded up.  I drove on Post Street past Union Square where Tiffany’s, Saks, and Williams Sonoma are all hidden behind boarded windows.


lCorona Streets Union Square    Corona Streets William Sonoma on Post Street

Returning home was an easy 40 minute drive.  The clear skies, the hillsides abloom with golden California poppies were a welcome sight after the grim city streets.

April begins this week with another month of covid-19, closed cities and empty freeways.  But with hope, too, for solutions and the return to health and our lives.  Good people are working all over the globe to make it happen, and we will get there.

California Poppies





What’s In a Hand? (signal)

Most of us don’t use hand signals when we’re driving – we rely on our signal lights. Well, most of us. There are some drivers out there who love switching lanes without signalling. Maybe it adds to the thrill of freeway commuting for them.

But even if you conscientiously use your signal lights, there are still times when you need to use your hands to communicate with another driver. Like when your lights are not working, or when you really want to emphasize what your intention is, or when you want to acknowledge a courtesy. You know – saying “thank you”.

I encounter this situation every day when I drive carpool. Leaving San Francisco in the evening for the harrowing commute home, I have to enter the Bay Bridge from the car pool on-ramp into a lane of fast-moving traffic.  I always turn on my signal, check my mirror, and usually turn my head for look.  Most drivers let me in, and I acknowledge the courtesy with a wave and mouth a ‘thank you’.  I wonder why more drivers don’t say thanks – if its because they don’t know how or if they are uncomfortable engaging.   This link has some good tips on how to do it:  SAYING THANKS AT THE WHEEL   

And then there are drivers who are just aggressive and don’t care.  They won’t let you in and they would never say thank you.  Sometimes those drivers can provoke other sorts of hand signals, which starts getting into the area of road rage.  Tempting as it is, do not go there.  It can be dangerous.  Some years ago a truck aggressively pulled in front of me on a treacherous part of a single-lane roadway.  I was furious and made a rude hand signal.  To my shock, the guy (a big guy) stopped his truck, which blocked my progress on the one-lane road and started to get out.  I backed up – fast – and he got back in the truck and went on his way.  Scary.

My favorite hand signal came recently from a motorcycle driver.  Annoying as motorcycles can be, they are vulnerable out there on the freeways and those riders are seriously flirting with death every minute. We need to watch out for them as much as we can.  I always pull over a bit when they’re coming up alongside me, and on one commute last month, I did just that as a biker passed me.  He extended his left arm and I thought he was signaling a turn in front of me, but that was not what he meant.   I later learned that he was making a ‘biker’s wave”.  His arm smoothly extended to the left, the bike slightly tilted, and his gloved hand gave a slight downward shake.   I loved it.

I often think of this small gesture when I’m out there running late on a crowded freeway with hundreds of cars and people – all of us separate and yet together with the pressures and stresses of our lives.  It’s a reminder,  that sometimes that small wave, that bit of a nod can make all the difference.  A reminder that after all, we are all just trying to get there.

Motorcycle hand signal


Awkward or embarrassing moments can happen to anyone, anywhere, but there is a special kind of awkwardness and discomfort that can occur in the close intimacy of a casual carpool ride.  First off, you’re probably riding with 2 or 3 strangers, so being as candid as you might be with someone you know can be uncomfortable.  And what can you do, anyway?  You’re pretty much stuck with each other out there on the freeway until you reach your destination.  Bad body odor is a fairly common situation, and one where the driver has to decide whether or not to acknowledge the odor by rolling down a window or cranking up the air in the car.  Or doing nothing.  Awkward either way.  On a recent Friday evening commute I had a full car – 3 passengers and myself and once we all got settled and underway, I realized there was a really, really bad smell coming from the guy sitting in the passenger seat next to me.   And it wasn’t going away.  I finally had to lower my window a bit and let the air circulate.  Eventually we all became conditioned to the smell and soldiered on.

When I drive, I like to listen to KCBS Radio – every 10 minutes they update the traffic which can be most helpful, and I like their news and commentary.  Unfortunately, they also have a lot of commercials.  One early morning, I took off with three male passengers.  All three were big guys, which makes no difference to the episode, but  there was a very definite male presence in the car.  As we drove along, a  series of commercials began,  for solar panels, restaurants, auto glass, and then one for erectile disfunction.   A lengthy commercial, it went on and on, describing symptoms, treatment, outcome, in more detail than I would ever want to know.   Awkward?  Yeah, you bet.  Maybe the 3 guys were oblivious to what we were all listening to, but I was quite uncomfortable.  I finally turned the volume down.



Once as a passenger I experienced an odd, somewhat awkward moment.  I was in the back seat, and was filing my nails.  The driver and passenger in the front seat seemed to know each other and were chatting away.  The usual ongoing cacophony of traffic buzzed around us.  Suddenly, the driver turned around and angrily hollered at me, “whatever that noise is you’re making, stop it!!”  I could only assume she meant the barely audible sound of the fingernail file and of course immediately stopped, feeling mortified and embarrassed.   That’s one way to deal with an en route annoyance!

My most awkward and weird ride as a passenger was in a snazzy two seater Kharmann Ghia convertible.  Beautiful car.  The driver was a 60ish guy, also snazzy looking and pleasant enough.  After a few words, we settled down to a quiet commute.  About halfway through the ride, he turned to me and said, “I would enjoy making a stop before we get to the city, if you’re interested.”  The implication was clear, and, initially, frightening.  Although, once I declined, he was most polite and not another word was said.  When we finally arrived in the city, Getting There had never been more welcome.















Lane Envy, or not?

I drive 35 miles to work a couple of times a week and take public transport the other 3 days (ferry, bus, BART). I don’t usually come out ahead time-wise one way or the other,unless it’s Friday light (getting rarer and rarer), or I drive in early Saturday morning. Making the 35 mile trek takes me about an hour and half, any way I do it. The advantage of taking public transport is that it is almost always consistent – leaves at the same time, arrives at the same time. And of course there are the environmental considerations. Dealing with traffic is always a gamble – there have been commutes that have taken me nearly 3 hours to go the 35 miles, and once in a lovely while I can make it in about an hour. But I’m always looking for ways to shave off some time and get there earlier when I drive. I often pick up riders and enjoy what advantages remain of using the carpool lane. I must admit to occasionally jumping into the carpool lane as a single driver to move past gridlock, and once fairly recently I did just that and wound up in the arms of the highway patrol. An expensive and humiliating experience I will not repeat. More about that in another blog.

I am not a habitual lane changer, although I do pass those 10 and 12-wheeler truck monsters who are always out there. But I’ve noticed as I meander along with the pack, usually at about 20 mph or less, that other lanes seem to be moving faster. I’ve switched to those lanes, and move ahead a bit speedier and then once again find myself falling back to the same sluggish pace, enviously eyeing an adjacent lane zipping by me. Makes me wonder if I’m just unlucky, just not picking the right lane, and I envy the drivers who always seem to be getting it right.

A Stanford University professor did a study using computer simulations to study drivers perceptions of freeway traffic, and concluded that one lane moving faster than another is an illusion. And that we all move pretty much at the same speed. Stanford Article

I decided to test the theory the last time I was in heavy slow moving traffic. I spotted a black van in an adjacent lane that appeared to be in a faster-moving lane and kept my eye on it to see if was indeed moving ahead. To my delight, MY lane began to pick up speed and as I passed the black van I felt a smug satisfaction in being the car in the fast lane. How sweet it was. I’d finally got it right! But only temporarily. The black van and his comrades soon passed me and I lost track of them as I navigated the sluggish stop and go commuter traffic. I felt depressed and discouraged to know I could never win at the fast lane game. But as we all trundled along to the toll plaza lanes near the end of my journey, there, two lanes over, was the black van again. Ha! He hadn’t gone faster at all. Maybe Stanford had it right. Perhaps one lane is pretty much like another. But I think we can all definitely agree that commuting in bay area traffic does indeed put us all in the same lane – the over-crowded, over-priced and unsustainable lane.

Number 2 – Where Are You?

We long-distance commuters, we know about schedules – about getting up pre-dawn, numbly going through the shower/make-up/shaving/dressing/feed the cats/ grab a yogurt routine.  About leaving the house in time to make the ferry, the BART or if we’re really crazy, the freeway (unless of course, we are carpoolers, then not quite so crazy).  And finally about making that critical connection once we’re in the City, often onto a MUNI bus.

Much of the time this all works.  But when it doesn’t, when one piece of the schedule is disrupted (the alarm doesn’t go off, the car won’t start, you can’t find the keys, it’s a disastrous hair or wardrobe day) then things start to fall apart quickly.

This morning was such a day, although everything began smoothly with a lovely ferry ride from Vallejo.  Even though we arrived at the SF Ferry building about 4 minutes later than usual, I was able to jog quickly over to my bus stop with 3 minutes to spare before the #2 bus left.

That’s where the troubles began.  The #2 bus wouldn’t start.  So I took another bus which at least gets me in the right direction and to a transfer point where I have the option of catching the next #2 bus (they run about every 20 minutes) or getting a #3 bus. Both buses take me right to my office door.  At the transfer point, there was a large wearily impatient crowd already waiting.  After about 15 minutes that next #2 bus arrived, and we all piled on.  One of the passengers was a large elderly lady with a large walker, so the driver had to operate the lift to help her into the bus.  By now I was running about 20 minutes late.

The bus was packed, since many of the passengers had been waiting for the original #2 bus which never came.  We sat – and stood – and waited to go.  And the bus didn’t move.  The driver couldn’t get the front doors closed because the lift for the walker wouldn’t retract .  And as he struggled and became more frustrated, the back doors joined the fray and refused to open.  He finally told us we would all have to get off the bus, that he couldn’t operate it with a broken door.  Tempers flared as people attempted to leave the bus by the open front door, which was now partially blocked by the lady and her large walker.  Other passengers pounded on the closed back door, demanding that it be opened.  The driver got angry and the lady with the walker hollered at all of us that it wasn’t her fault, and we finally all got off the bus.  Just in time for (hurray – for some of us) a #3 bus.

About half the crowd eagerly got on the #3 just as our driver got off to see what was going on with the stalled #2 bus.  She spent about 10 minutes talking to the other driver about the door problem, seemingly oblivious to her passengers, while, once more, we impatiently waited.

Finally, our driver returned and as we waited for her to leave, the #2 bus with the broken door took off with the remaining passengers.  Apparently the door problem was resolved.  No explanations given.

I arrived at work one hour late.  So much for schedules.

Commuting Around (and around, and around)


Another warm, dry September  morning and only 3 riders waiting at the Carpool Line in Vallejo.  A comfy new suv pulls up and we were on our way!  I’m in the back seat with an Asian fellow, crisp striped shirt, nifty shoulder bag.  The passenger in the front seat is immersed in her iphone.  The first sign that this might be an out-of-the-ordinary ride is when we do not exit onto the 80 freeway, but cross it, heading away from our commute route.  After about a mile my back seat companion said, “Are we going a different way to San Francisco?”

“Oh, I’m just going to avoid the traffic from the brush fire” (see link above) the driver said.  She’s a 60-ish lady, stylish in designer jeans and sweater.  She exited from the freeway we were on into a Vallejo neighborhood I had never seen before and wound around the residential streets until we emerged – nearly where we started from, somewhere above the 80 freeway, which we could see was indeed gridlocked.  A Channel 4 news van passed us as the driver took off again, heading away from the congested 80 and said she was going to Walnut Creek. The Asian gentlemen and I looked at each other with concern.  (This would have been an extremely out-of-the-way commute to San Francisco). At that point we became aware of a thumping noise somewhere in the car and the driver looked worriedly around.

“Something on roof!”, my companion exclaimed.  The driver immediately pulled to the side of the freeway, cars hurtling by at high speed.  She slid out, dangerously close to the traffic, went around to the back of the van, and threw open the rear door.  Glass crashed and the smell of wine floated into the suv.  “Well, there goes a $250 bottle of wine”, she said and slammed the door shut.  Apparently a bottle of wine had been left on the roof of the van.  Tension grew.

At this point I realized this might be a weird, if not dangerous ride and wondered about asking to be let out somewhere.  Too late.  Off we went towards Walnut Creek.  There is a freeway that exits before Walnut Creek (Highway 4) and returns to the 80 freeway, and I suggested she take that.  Mr. Asian pulled out his smart phone which began speaking to us all with directions on how to do just that.  To my relief, that’s what we did. Relief filled the car.  Asian nodded off, front seat lady resumed her iphone activities, and I perused my latest Christmas catalog (this one from the Art Institute of Chicago).  As the City came into view, glowing in the golden California morning light, a great tune by the Mamas and the Papas “California Dreaming” came on the radio.

Another commute and just another day pooling around.

Exposed in L.A.

I flew to Los Angeles last week, into the Burbank airport, for a long overdue visit to Pasadena, where we’d lived for 7 years. Before Pasadena, we’d been bay area residents for over 20 years, and as the plane began to descend I remembered the ‘culture shock’ I felt as a Northern California transplant in L.A. But it wasn’t long before I adjusted and came to enjoy life in L.A.

The biggest adjustment was freeway driving. As a former San Francisco resident, I rarely ventured out on the bay area freeways; my house and job were both in the city, a short drive from each other. So tackling the 6 and 8-lane southern California freeways was panic attack time. I learned how to do it by focusing on the cars right in front of me – looking ahead at the sea of thousands of cars was too overwhelming. After a couple of years I knew those freeways by heart – the 405, the 110, the 134.

I didn’t appreciate how comfortable I’d become driving down there until we moved back here and became commuters on the 80 and its tributaries (the 580, the 780, the 680, etc.). You’d think that in a smaller setting, like the bay area, the freeway system would be simpler, but not so. I found the driving to be more congested, the drivers (and the general freeway atmosphere) to be angrier, the entrances and exits confusing. But I adjusted, more or less – no choice, right?

And then a strange thing happened – I went back to L.A. not longer after the move, for a weekend visit, rented a car at the airport, and took off down the 134 freeway. And I completely relaxed. A smile popped onto my face and I realized I was having a great time driving on a freeway! I later described it as “being part of a harmonious, fluid community, moving together like a well choreographed ballet”. It was amazing and wonderful.

“It’s the exposure”, my husband said, when we talked about this. “The warm air and comfortable climate means fewer layers of clothing. People are more exposed and open to each other.”

I considered this as I hopped into a Prime Time shuttle at the Burbank airport last week. When we pulled onto the 134 freeway headed toward Pasadena, I instantly felt the same warm relaxed feeling, even as a passenger. The driver was relaxed, the lanes of traffic were moving in harmony, the smile popped up and I felt like I was home again. In spite of the weekday rush hour traffic moving alongside us, there were no jams, no lane changers angrily and frantically accelerating from one lane to the other, no tailgaters looming behind each other at top speed.

Yes, it was warm, almost 90 degrees and as I took off my Northern California jacket I remembered what my husband had said about exposure. I looked around at the other drivers and they were wearing short sleeves or sleeveless tops in light, balmy colors. Many of them, I’m sure had shorts on. I felt dark, overdressed and underexposed.

The next day I took to the freeway in our car (my husband had driven down from SF the day before) with much anticipation. Even though it was very warm I grabbed a jacket out of habit. I wore a short sleeved t-shirt and loose cotton trousers. More than exposed, I felt naked! But once on the 110 freeway, going into downtown L.A., the harmony took over. And I became part of the L.A. freeway symphony – flowing, merging, skin to skin, car to car, in a great collective unconscious bonding. Exposed and loving it.