The morning radio said the weather was rainy, and that traffic on the main roadways was heavier than usual, conditions were messy, caution was needed.
The report had been right, I found out when I crested the peak of my long driveway and started coasting down toward the road. The leaves that had fallen early, dragged off their branches by a fall snowstorm rather than biological imperative, made the pavement so slick that my bike fishtailed at just a feathering of the brakes. And at the junction of driveway and road, I looked up the hill and saw a car coming, close enough that I had to balance for a moment to let it pass — then, unbelievably, another car was coming from the other way and I had to put a foot down.
When I was a kid, still too young to go to school, listening to the traffic report was one of my favorite parts of the day. My father, who was a steelworker at the time, would get up before sunrise. Together in the kitchen, so often not talking at all that I believe we must have found in the amiable silence some important connection, we’d listen to the traffic report as if to a doctor telling us whether we would live or not. My father had to drive through Gary, Indiana, to the mill on the shore of Lake Michigan, to the blast furnace there where he worked, and to make sure he got there on time he’d often have to adjust his route according to what the traffic report said. The guy giving the report was in a helicopter. We could hear the blades chopping the air, and everything the guy said sounded urgent but not panicked, as if his copter was under heavy fire but he was staying cool. There was a sense of larger things at stake, a never-spoken idea that the task of merely getting to work just might have been chancier and more arduous and more requiring of the stoic reserve the underclass depended on than working with molten metal.
The rain had stopped falling, but the yellow line where I wanted to sweep across the descent to get onto Fairview Street was still going to be slick. I disdain the way that any braking at all takes the swoop out of that turn, so I let the bike run and, when I got to the painted lines, I stood the bike up straight and crossed, then kicked over into the lean, a maneuver that always takes me so close to the curb I nearly brush it with my sidewalls. One day, for sure, I will. My momentum carried me past the Transfiguration Monastery without pedaling. For years I sort of knew what “transfigure” meant without exactly knowing, then one morning after I rode to work I looked it up. It means, “to turn into something more beautiful or elevated.”
Just after I went through the road’s intersection with Sixth to start heading back down the hill, there was a van stopped in my lane. The driver was leaned over and, through the passenger window, having an argument with his wife or girlfriend. I passed on the driver’s side, going into the other lane, fallen rain hissing off the road as my tires caught it and flung it against the inside of the fenders. There was a mist against my face now, but no drops, no stinging pings of rain.
At Iron Street I noticed that the guy at the corner had been busy laying his stock of winter firewood, and that he was expecting a bad one this year: The stacks already reached above my head. He’s proved as reliable as an almanac. On the street that once was the home of the girl who got strangled in the park last year, a Raritan Valley Disposal truck was stopped. The open rear of the compacter was shaped like the underbite of a vicious dog, and into its jutting lip streamed liquefied refuse, smelly but surprisingly clear. I accelerated to try to keep the stench from soaking into my clothes. I was going fast when I passed the park where the girl was strangled, then the child-care center that abuts the park, two things that make me unreasonably melancholy when I think of them in succession. But today, with their characteristic comic dignity, two mallards were crossing the street in front of me, on their way to Furnace Dam, and the short rest of the way to work I thought, instead, of them and other ducks I’d seen.
The weather had been rainy. Congestion on the one main roadway had been heavier than usual. There was messiness all around, and, indeed, in many ways my ride to work had reminded me that caution was needed. But the morning’s trip also reminded me that things as small as a commute to work and as large as a life could be transfigured by a bicycle. That’s today’s traffic report.
Originally published in The Selection, November 10, 2011