Sunday, January 06, 2008

Pretty big small talk

Usually the small talk from the drivers on my way home at night sticks to innocuous topics like who's left in the office at that hour or how drunk the pretty people are outside Marquee. This morning, it was basically the topic you'd least expect from idle chit-chat on the way to New Jersey.

"So," he said, "what do you think of Obama vs. Hillary?"

I laughed. I didn't have a chance to watch the debate at work and I dislike the political process in general, at least the way it's evolved in this day and age. During this primary process, the candidates on "the same side" have to spend months (or, it seems to be this time around, more than a year) bad-mouthing the same people who, in the end -- by November -- will be once again friends and allies.

Since maybe one out of every 20 drivers feels the need to talk beyond asking where I live and which exit to take, I'm not expecting a repeat of last night's brief -- and one-sided -- political discourse. Unless I have the same driver tonight.

It turned out to be an uneventful and quiet ride home after that. In 22 months at this job, I've had more than my share of weirdness on the relatively short drives home. A couple months into the job, the car I was in was hit head-on by a drunk driver who had crossed the line. The car was banged up pretty well, but we all walked away from the accident OK.

I've had a driver who alternated between going too slow and too fast and weaving between the lanes on four-lane River Road in Edgewater, even stopping at a traffic light at one point straddling the white line. That prompted a car that was behind us to call the police, who pulled us over about a block from my apartment. Another driver got a speeding ticket on River Road.

Recently, one driver was rear-ended by a semi as we were stuck in stop-and-go traffic in Weehawken because the outbound helix from the Lincoln Tunnel was closed and all cars were diverted to the local streets. Amazingly, there was no damage. Another driver ran over something on the helix -- he heard the thump and I felt it beneath my feet -- and then insisted on pulling over near the top of the helix (in the right travel lane) to inspect his car.

Also a few months into the job, I left work at 5 a.m. one day after a 16-inning Mets-Phillies marathon and had to be up by 7 for a ride to the airport. In checking my destination, my driver asked, "Lincoln Tunnel to Boulevard East?" which is accurate, if a little slower and not my preferred choice when going to Edgewater. But I didn't want to have to be too alert and give constant directions, so since he seemed to know the way enough, I said OK. Only as we approach the Boulevard East exit, he makes no move to take it, and by the time I alert him, it's too late, so we have to continue until two more exits to make the u-turn.

Then there was the guy who asked, as I settled in and buckled my seat belt, if we were to take the Lincoln Tunnel. I said that was correct, and he proceeded to head south on 9th Ave. and turn left on 14th St., instead of making the immediate right onto 15th, as every driver does to get to the Lincoln Tunnel. I figure that maybe he's new and is more comfortable taking 8th Ave. up to the tunnel. But after we continue east on 14th past 8th, I speak up. "Oh!" he said. "I thought you said the Holland Tunnel." Um, no dude, I didn't say anything. You said Lincoln and I confirmed it.

One Saturday night before the writers' strike, when Saturday Night Live was still live, I got out of work right at 2 a.m. and went down to the street to wait for my ride. We use the same car service as SNL, so sometimes on Saturdays we have a longer wait from 1-2 a.m. because of the high demand at 30 Rock. It was a busy night on 9th Ave., and while I waited with a co-worker, an SUV on the corner kept flashing its lights. Having never seen anything but a Town Car driven by the drivers at the company, we didn't think anything of it. Only after five or 10 minutes did the SUV pull away from the curb and pull up to us, a placard from the car service in the window with the number I was told was my ride. I got in and explained that I'd only ever seen Town Cars and had no reason to expect anything else. "Some of us have nicer cars," he said in a pissy tone.

At least he didn't talk on the drive; his iPod was blasting some Indian rock (or some other catchy far-away music) and when he asked me, somewhere on Route 3 in New Jersey, what exit was mine, he had to repeat himself until he turned down the volume.

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