53. Things I Can Submit: My Comments

Dear VDOT,

I write to you as both a commuter and a resident who will be affected by the proposed changes to I-66.

I live in a complex of garden-style condominiums just behind a sound wall near exit 60. It is a lovely place for a home. Like so many of my neighbors, I chose Northern Virginia for my work and family because of the rich quality of life here. Proximity to the cultural and professional opportunities of a thriving metropolitan area is only part of the allure. The parkland, woods, protected watersheds, and trails are the real gems of the region.

Northern Virginia has done a superb job of maintaining green corridors throughout its various counties and districts, even as the population has ballooned. This makes owning a business and raising a family here an especially welcome prospect, and it is what differentiates us from the development monstrosities that litter the landscape of many of our suburban and urban counterparts.

It is admirable that our regional transportation agencies are working so diligently to respond to the needs of our expanding region. I-66 is the favored bugbear of locals, and it is understandable that this is where attention is currently focused. However, when it comes to projects like this, it’s been shown time and again that individual vehicle use increases as roads grow. For this reason, I am surprised that widening I-66 for more vehicle traffic is even being discussed. There is ample evidence that drivers will only shift to bike or public transportation options when driving becomes more arduous than the alternative. More lanes = more cars, longer commutes, and a miserable ride for everyone.

Alleviating the congestion here requires creative and integrated solutions. It is good to see bus routes included in this conversation. Expanded bus/train/metro service is a necessary but insufficient condition for sustainability. Truthfully, the most appropriate options for Northern Virginia are walkable, mixed-use office and residential developments with a variety of interconnected transport options.

That said, I understand that expanding I-66 is a likely outcome. The medium-term time horizon of many of our region’s residents and commuters all but guarantees this. Sadly, too many of my neighbors think only of easing their own commutes or protecting their own property values rather than ensuring a livable home for our grandchildren. I have spent enough time in cities like Dallas and Los Angeles to see the disastrous, ugly, and unlivable results of such shortsighted transportation “management.”

I would like my son’s children to inherit a place more inviting than a gordion knot of mega-roads choked with cars. As a homeowner who wants to sustain this livable community many generations into the future, I ask you to consider the following concerns as you proceed:

  1. Please do everything in your power to maintain the wetlands, mature trees, and other uncultivated greenery that abuts I-66 outside the sound walls. If any of this must be cut back for construction access, I urge you protect the land from development or structural change, and work to restore the greenery when the project is complete.
  2.  

  3. Please refrain from bumping the walls further into our neighborhoods and parkland. The current border of the freeway already pushes up against countless homes and green spaces. Moving those sound walls further out would be devastating. Construction noise notwithstanding, the long-term impact of that lost acreage would destroy the livability of this neighborhood as well as many others. Here alone, an entire community comprised of hundreds residents would face a stripped concrete surface for decades to come, perhaps longer. The blight this would invite is a chilling prospect. Maintaining the narrow but delicate band of greenery that buffers our neighborhoods from the freeway is critical. Please do everything possible to secure the walls in their current locations.
     

  4. If the bike path being discussed comes to fruition, please treat it as the transportation route it is rather than as a “trail.” Again, the limited greenery on the outside of the sound wall is already threatened. A bike path is essentially another road of barren concrete. The nearby streets and the inside of I-66 are already designed for wheels. They can be adapted for bike lanes with much less damage to the mature trees, wetlands, brush, and wildlife habitats that flourish in the current I-66 buffers. Please keep road elements together in the plans, and keep our green spaces lush.

Thank you for considering these comments and concerns. You have my great appreciation for all you do for our region.

Most Sincerely,
A Cautiously Optimistic Neighbor

47. Things I Can Celebrate: A New Morning

Tomorrow begins the new schedule. It’s my first official day on the campus just a few miles from my house.

The office waiting there is a loaner crammed with British academic journals belonging to a professor on sabbatical. Two other advisors will share the space with me on alternating days. The phone will remain our Oxford colleague’s line, and the computer being delivered this week lacks monitor and a printer connection.

My fellow advisors and I should receive an actual office assignment in January. That said, the building itself is so old, its cinderblocks and scarred linoleum are next up on the university’s demolition list. We might be in our “permanent” space for all of a year before the wrecking ball arrives. Then we’ll squat somewhere else on campus for the duration of the construction.

What fool would give up five days a week in an office all her own in a new building with reliable technology, functional windows, and a full kitchen just a few steps down the hall?

The fool who prizes time far more than space.

This is the same calculation that led me to withdraw my offer on a 2-bedroom, 2.5-bath, end-unit townhouse with a yard and a ridiculously affordable mortgage payment. That fantastic find was perfect except for its zip code. Another 10 miles west beyond the town where my son was in school, where we had begun building a life, might add another 30 minutes to a commute that was already taking 45. And that’s just one way.

The people who loved me helped me count just how many days of my precious life I’d be signing over to the VDOT highway system. Every minute in my car or on the metro is one minute away from my kiddo. Or away from my pace, my dance, my words, my breath. The true cost of all that space and grass was my relationship with everything I love.

That’s just a tad too pricey for me.

Instead I bought the condo within two miles of the metro and a few blocks of Bug’s school. I pay more money for less space. It’s been two years since I signed, and regret has yet to find my address.

Tonight, Bug buzzes through the house long past his bedtime. He’s laying towels to the dog’s crate as red carpet and lining the walls with nightlights. He piles extra pillows in under her blanket. Her food bowl and toys make their way into the room, creating a dining nook in one corner and a play zone in the other. He flips the blinds closed and clicks off all the other lamps. Shutting us in, he names my bedroom Noodle’s “Royal Palace,” and there in the shadowed light, he performs his karate kata for the recumbent queen while I intone an ancient ode.

On any weeknight before this, I would snap and fret. Get moving, Mister. Bedtime. Now. Because every minute awake is a minute less sleep, and that adds up to another morning late for work.

But tonight, I remember what waits for me tomorrow. Then I remember again when we’re brushing teeth. And again when I sit here to write. Each time, the realization cools and soothes, like air, like the grip of cramped wings unfurling from my shoulders.

Each time like the first time.

Tomorrow, enthroned on a busted office chair in my palace of mold, I will be exactly where I belong. The journey there has taken 5 years of muscle topped with at least as many months of luck. Doesn’t this happen on long rides? You see only when you’re well on your way that the landscape is changing right under your feet, and now you can map out a shortcut.

The race to the metro to grab a parking spot before they fill, to grab a seat on the train before the guy behind me does, to power the two blocks to the building before the clock strikes nine. . . That race is on hold. Tomorrow will be an easy shot to my son’s school where I can visit him in the cafeteria at lunchtime if I get the urge. Where I can arrive well before the closing bell to ferry my young prince home.

Tomorrow is the gift of inversion. Instead of giving myself to the clock, the minutes offer themselves to me.

This means the night is ours for wandering.

And the morning is mine for setting the pace.

I Race the Bus

The bus couldn’t care less. Its giant red backside shrinks into the distance. I bend and downshift, pumping in a crescendo of power.
 
I know what might be waiting at the corner.
 
Brake lights burn on. At the street’s edge, a cluster of bodies draped in satchels and overcoats jostles forward. This is my chance. The mirror that my Mister gave me catches the hint of a silver shape closing in on my left. I dart right instead, hopping up onto the sidewalk and weaving around behind the embarking passengers. A ramp opens in the curb and I re-enter the fray.
 
I’m in front now. Only three downhill blocks separate both bus and me from the stoplight where we’ll turn towards the metro. A line of cars crowds into the tiny oval of my mirror. Every commuter is trying to pass the fat, red city bus, and every attempt is frustrated by the cyclist who materializes in the intended lane. Now the driver joins the crowd of vehicles trying to pass me. I squeeze to the right as far as I can but with a line of impatient commuters crowding his other side, he can’t thread the needle. It’s no use anyway. Another knot of passengers waits at the bottom of the hill. The driver gives up and falls back to slow for them. Theirs is the final stop before the metro station.
 
It’s my last chance.
 
I stop pedaling and drift back into the middle of the right lane. My left hand is out. The surge of cars refuses to flag. Every driver is highly motivated to ignore me. We share a sense of urgency if not community. Each of us has somewhere to be now. Dentist, office, yoga, court. We weave. We push. The rules are posted but only loosely applied. Every vehicle, stoplight, pedestrian, and orange cone is an obstacle. The road is a chess board on crack. All pieces are in motion simultaneously and at least half of them are lethal.
 
I inch closer to the white line with my hand still out. Now, I am upright in the saddle and I swivel my head. Rush hour drivers are as tactical as tank commanders. The illusion of ignorance is as critical a defense as steel skin and rolled up windows. My mirror is too small for the precision required by this foray. Eye contact is necessary. People-ness occasionally triggers a breach.
 
One driver slows. No gesture or head nod accompanies the pause. It is a matter of seconds before she takes up the slack. I lean into the gap. It is exactly what I need and it was not required, so I wave and smile. Seven cars line up ahead in the turn lane. This is maybe an eight-car light and I’m going about the speed of a tenth. Before I have a chance to get my bearings, the green arrow flashes us into motion. I stand up on the pedals, gather breath, and push. The sun blinds me. I plow straight east and then turn hard, blowing through just before the light shows yellow. One car makes it through behind me, nipping at my heels. Then another. I glance in my mirror. I see red.
 
Just before the high school, a growl rattles my middle. My rival overtakes me. The crimson behemoth passes on my left. I turn off through a neighborhood shortcut and catch a last glimpse of brake lights as the bus hisses up to yet another intersection. A narrow band of bike trail carries me down under the cool concrete bridge where the drivers up above must wait to turn into the station. I-66 echoes against the bike’s metal frame and throbs into my damp skin.
 
I emerge, squinting into the bustling metro hub just as the bus rounds the corner. The horseshoe by the station entrance teems with taxis and pedestrians. The bus creeps through on its way to a shelter on the far side. At the bike rack, I jump off and wrestle with spiraling steel, rusted combination numbers, spokes and rubber. Across the macadam, commuters push open the doors. I unclick my chin strap and snap on my smarttrip lanyard. Our feet land on the same sidewalk at the same moment.
 
It’s a draw.
 
The man with the giant grin who passes out free newspapers beams at me. “How was the ride?” He calls.
 
I brush sweat from my forehead and holler back. “Victorious!”
 

Stretch

Under the blanket, the smell is rank. Is it him or me? My son’s hair is a chrysanthemum explosion too close to the earth. He pushes into my body, twisting the sheet and blanket away from my folded knees. Morning breath and cool autumn air snake in around my neck.
 
He bathed last night and now the faint scent of berry shampoo joins the mix. In the tub, he stretched himself to his full length. His head was submerged over ears, up to jaw, past hairline. My boy became a naked mask, bald and brown, hovering just above the surface of the water. “Put your hand under me, Mommy,” he said. I did, floating it down below his back and in the open space under his calves.
 
“You’re levitating,” I said. “Is it magic?”
 
“It’s a trick. I push my head against one end and my feet against the other. It lifts me up.”
 
If he’d pointed his toes, he wouldn’t fit. My son is this tall. I said it aloud but he mouthed, “I can’t hear you.” I dipped my hands under the water and cleaned his ears. I pressed the soapy cloth into neck creases that are quickly disappearing.
 
Now, we linger in bed longer than usual. We have time to talk about nothing. He rides the school bus for the first time today. My boss agreed to let me have a late day once a week, a 9:30-6:30 sort of day, as much for my kid as for my working students prefer after-hours meetings. The bus comes late around here. Usually my kiddo is already deep into some before-school activity and I’m parked at my desk when the other neighborhood children are lining up on the street with their backpacks.
 
When we finally untangle ourselves from the blanket, I pad into the kitchen to throw together banana-oat waffles while Bug assembles a lego spider truck. Steam rises from the waffle iron. Warm syrup. A dog walk. A long shower. I never could have imagined such weekday luxury. I drag my bike out the door and we bump to the curb where a mass of families is assembled. Is it possible this many kids from Bug’s school live in our neighborhood? My son’s smoothed white hair falls down around his eyes and he slows, wiping it back, surveying the crowd.
 
We meet Ray and Rose and Marianne. Bug presses himself close to my side and whispers something. I bend down. “There’s BK from my class.” He points. The gesture is tiny but certain. A mom with a daughter in Bug’s grade walks up to us and introduces herself. “You’re new here,” she says. A dad carries a baby girl on his shoulders while his son charges ahead. The crowd surges closer to the street as the bus rounds the bend. It hisses to a stop and blinks in dumb excitement, doors grunting open. The driver is a big man in a Redskins jersey.
 
One boy on the sidewalk screams and sobs. His backpack slips from his shoulders. His mother discharges him into the grip of an older brother who tries to cover the little boy’s mouth. Big brother gives up and simply frog-marches the shrieking child up the steps. The bus swallows them whole. Parents cluck and shake their heads. The kids all wait at a safe distance until the show is over then they press forward in pairs and trios to climb aboard.
 
Bug gives me one last appraising glance up from under his curtain of hair. He does not smile. He disappears inside, his blonde head now just a shadow passing through the crowd. I click on my helmet and wave. He takes a seat, scoots to the window, and turns away from me. He is already talking to his neighbor. The doors thump close. I throw my leg over the saddle and push off towards the metro as the bus wheezes off, carrying my son away.
 

4:50 pm, Pink Floyd

Tulips bend to paint a corner of Washington
Circle with candy tongues
tied, twisted police tape slaps at a strutting
breeze, a whir of wheels, skin and spandex sheathing
viscera pulsing femur tibia and tucked wing of
earthbound flight. A checkered cap tops
the pile on a table by an escalator
ringing like a miscalibrated telephone, unheeded
warning every third or fifth body rushing
up to open air, no one turning. Back
after back in suit jacket, wilting and shedding
finally revealing damp shoulder, furred forearm
freed from cuff. Lime-green
chrome and finned convertible
on oversized whitewalls takes the corner,
watering eyes and turning heads.

Delayed train, detour, an extra mile
on foot west, sundog flares against the curved city
bus merging with a hiss. I thought I knew
the way, thought I’d thought of every
contingency but I never imagined him
in the everything
grazing the tips of my fingers, him
in the everything holding me fast

To these teeming streets. Nothing to compare
to this belay. No metaphor, no halo
of light, no vapor trail threading sky
is anything like the music
making me skate an inch
at least above the skin of the planet
and so it should come as no surprise
(except that’s exactly what it does) to find
I learn to fly
the instant I give up
trying.
 

Deposed

It is almost 6:30 pm. Congestion on 66 West backs it up all the way to Falls Church. After a grind of a day, a co-worker saves me a metro trip by letting me hitch a ride back towards home. My car waits near the station, a stack of overdue library books in the trunk alongside a bag of clothes destined for Goodwill. Somehow I will have to make room for the giant sack of special Active Maturity dog food I hope Target has on the shelf because PetSmart is in the wrong direction. The dog’s bowl has been empty for nearly two days.

In an hour, friends will be gathering for Team Trivia at the bar. As for dinner? The leftover apple banging around in my backpack will have to suffice. As we sit in stop-and-go traffic solving the problems of the world, my phone rings.

Noisy air when I pick it up. Then, “Mommy?”

“Hey, buddy. What’s up?”

“Can I stay with you tonight?” His sing-y, plead-y voice spills into the car. Sweetness bomb. My friend rocks from the blow.

Continue reading “Deposed”

Happy 100 Days: 37

Happy News of the Day: The Powers that Be approved the promotion! This was my official first day as Director of PhD Student Services. The real fun begins tomorrow when I cruise the main campus schmoozing with folks in the know about future projects. Onward and upward!
 
So-So News of the Day: For all his sweet talk, the sexy condo is out of my league. The seller’s broker came back today with word that a $6000 special assessment for new staircases has to be included in the purchase price. The gal who owns it was supposed to have been making monthly payments but has not paid a single penny. The bank will not approve the short sale without the buyer taking on the assessment. That would be me, except that it won’t be me. Also? The condo fees were listed incorrectly. They are actually $117 higher per month than advertised. A chunk of change that size can choke you in a year or three, never mind a few decades.
 
I would have to live on credit cards and ramen for the next 10 years to afford it. So, today, I bid this dream a sad farewell. Goodbye, bamboo floors! Au revoir, living room dance space! So long, staggering mortgage and second job!
 
It’s not quite a heartbreak. A little heart-squeeze, perhaps? The regret is mixed with a dollop of sweet relief. It’s nice to be able to imagine a Christmas with gifts again.
 
I met my agent at another cute little place this afternoon. The price is right and it’s a decent location but the traffic NOISE NOISE NOISE is unbearable. Tomorrow, we head out west again to another property which would require a commute. It is not quite as burdensome as many of the places in my price range, though, and the neighborhood is close to several of Bug’s and my favorite parks, shopping, and rec centers. Also, it is 1140 square feet with fireplace and a fenced back patio. We’re still talking condo-ville in a car-clogged area, so I’ll have to see if the property itself is enough of an oasis to make up for the shark-infested surroundings.
 
Rain and snow are churning just beyond tonight’s clouds. Once the slop starts to fall tomorrow afternoon, I will have the perfect opportunity to see just how much road-time those two hundred square feet are worth.