East of Elmgrove

Keep on Trucking

A reluctant commuter reflects on her state-spanning drive


I am driving. Again. Down Elmgrove, right on Angell, left on Taber, past Dunkin’, then a sharp turn onto 95 South to begin my morning commute to Kingston, where I work. Hello Providence skyline! Greetings Big Blue Bug! Who’s that greedy lawyer on the billboard? I’ve been making the trek for nearly six years, and it’s not any easier than it was when I started. Patience. I clutch the wheel with my sweaty palms – two hands, always – and I’m off, petrified, anxious, bored.

I grew up in a large city in the Midwest. Correction: I grew up in a small suburb in a large city in the Midwest. I never left Clayton, and neither did any of my friends. It felt odd to venture beyond my borders, and on the rare occasion when I did, all I could think about was going back home to familiar territory. I was like, “What’s a commuter?”

Work took me to New England, where I fit in nicely with the tribal practice of never leaving one’s town, neighborhood, block. I understood when Providence residents said they had never been to Burrillville, or that driving all the way to Newport was a burden that most certainly was not going to interrupt their Sunday. As a newspaper reporter, I drove all over Rhode Island for stories, but in my free time I rarely left the East Side, where I lived in an apartment on Gano. Driving to, say, Goosewing beach was about as far as I went.

Then I got a job at a university in Kingston. Go Rhody. At first, the commute wasn’t bad. It was different, like the job. New experiences refresh. I’d listen to Rhode Island Public Radio, so by the time I got to work I’d know plenty about the day’s horrors. After that, there was nowhere to go but up. I’d come into the office early and leave early to avoid rush-hour traffic.

But things changed, as they always do. I started working longer hours, and the newness faded. I stopped listening to news reports; too depressing. Not the best way to start the day. I turned to music, buying a truckload of CDs that were favorites in my youth: Joni Mitchell; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Eric Clapton; the Allman Brothers; Cat Stevens; Judy Collins; Bob Dylan; and Leonard Cohen. This brought me back to those alive andunfettered days with nary a worry in the world.

And then I hit my first major traffic jam. Left work a tad early when it started to snow. Turns out everyone else had the same idea. By the time I hit Route 4, the flurries had turned into a blizzard. I drove even slower than usual. Five minutes into the journey, the highway turned into a parking lot. Stuck. I tried to calm myself with music, and when that didn’t work, I remembered a nautical term from a feature story I wrote long ago about a dragger from Galilee who got up at four every morning to scour the ocean bottom: becalmed in a storm. Home three hours later, and I was a wreck. I was so frazzled I couldn’t speak.

The road is as unfriendly as ever. Fender-benders also cause monstrous delays. So do wild turkey crossings. Road rage is rampant. I’m a slow and cautious driver, which angers native Rhode Islanders, who like to tailgate: “Move over, hon,” they bark in their Buicks. Switching lanes is a challenge when a Mack truck is bearing down on you.

My alarm rings at 5:30 every morning and my first thought is, The Ride. Oh, what a lonesome ride. Nothing soothes the anxiety. It’s so tedious, so boring, that sometimes I can’t remember getting from point A to point B, from, say, Nibbles Woodaway on 95 to the Big Red Barn on Route 4. Who knows where the time goes? La la la. Whoa. Lord, you got me trapped on this highway. Foolish to be here in the first place.