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Column: I never thought I’d say it — but I miss my commute

Cars packing the 101 Freeway head toward Downtown Los Angeles during the morning commute.
Once upon a time, morning commuters on the 101 Freeway head toward downtown Los Angeles.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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I never thought I’d say it, but I miss my commute.

And that sound you hear is the disbelieving laughter of everyone who knows me, particularly in a professional capacity. Two and a half years ago, when the Los Angeles Times moved from downtown to El Segundo, my commute trebled, and I did not go gentle into that dark gridlock. I morphed overnight from a blithe “I actually like to drive” spirit, who accepted traffic as just one of the prices you pay to live in Los Angeles, to an angry version of that consummate L.A. bore, the Personal Traffic Reporter.

Suddenly, everyone around me was forced to hear how long it had taken to get to work and/or how long it would take to get home. Routes were described in full and uninteresting detail, random incidents were recounted — the Mercedes that tried to cut into the exchange lane at the last minute, the motorcyclist buzzing down the shoulder — and my general outrage over freeway immobility caused by nothing more than just too many cars was made clear daily.

Honestly, I don’t understand why anyone I know is still talking to me.

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When COVID-19 required pretty much everyone to work from home, you would think I’d have felt relief. And I did. At first. But the human brain is a cantankerous critter and, after months of virtually no drive time, I miss my horrible commute. Not just the non-pandemic normalcy it symbolized but the actual thing itself. I realize how much I had come to count on its unique properties of connection and separation.

Like New York subways and London’s Underground, one’s endurance of a city’s most popular form of transport, however flawed, makes you a part of that city in a special way. If nothing else, it gives you a shared basis of complaint; other places have the weather, Los Angeles has the traffic.

And transit of any sort offers a rare opportunity to accomplish something while not actually doing much. Obviously, driving requires more attention than sitting on a bus, but I miss having time to think and sing and listen to audiobooks. To call my friends just because I was stuck in traffic, or work out ideas and even first drafts in my head, or simply let my mind wander.

More than anything, I miss the clear-cut transition of the commute, which cleanly divided work from home. Oh, sure, there was overlap — I have always worked a lot from home and dealt with domestic issues while at the office. But there was also this no man’s land of time, in which I wasn’t doing one or the other, I simply … was.

And my commute is not the only quotidian item on my growing pandemic-induced “things I never thought I would miss” list. As someone fortunate enough to have made it this far into the pandemic without real loss, I try to keep the things I have lost in perspective. My son’s college graduation was a tough milestone to miss (more for him than me, of course) and online school is not fun, at either the college or middle-school level. But for the most part, my losses — vacation plans, large family gatherings, outings with friends — are bearable in their necessity.

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It’s the things that I never expected to miss that hit me the hardest. My commute might top the list, but here are a few other items:

All that music every establishment thinks customers cannot live without
Once upon a time, it was called elevator music. Now it’s everywhere music. I cannot tell you the number of shopping trips that have been cut short, or at least interrupted with a brief escape to the parking lot, because I could not take another moment of the constant music. Only to find, half the time, the same strains were being piped out to the parking lot. Even if I liked the actual song, the incessant insistence that I hear it while buying leggings or mouthwash or really expensive Nikes for my kids drove me crazy.

And now I long for that endless random soundtrack. It’s there, in the few stores I still visit, and it is one of the things I look forward to — the possibility that Gerry Rafferty, Air Supply or the Go-Go’s will suddenly brighten my face-masked, socially distant sojourn to Target or Ralphs. Yes, yes, I could play these artists at home or into earbuds on my phone. But that’s not the point. The point is the surprise — “Oh, my God, I had forgotten that song.” Something I hope I remember once things get back to normal and I resume my bitter, age-betraying complaints.

Meetings
(Pause once again for the hysterical laughter of my co-workers.) Everyone complains about meetings — their length, their number and that guy who always has to bring food like he’s so much busier than everyone else.

But what I wouldn’t give to go to a meeting right now. To rise from the solitude of my keyboard and various screens and walk to a larger room, with a wide clean expanse of table surrounded by actual people, in all their eye-rolling, conversation-hogging/avoiding, sandwich-eating, “Is she asleep?” glory. I want to doodle once again as someone spends 20 minutes delivering two minutes’ worth of information, to laugh out loud when someone says something legitimately funny and to catch someone’s eye when the BS gets thick.

Mostly, I want to feel again the comfort of camaraderie and the electricity that zips around the room when someone says something interesting and everybody has an idea. After months in the glitchy loop of Zoom and my own spinning thoughts, a little boredom, a little BS seems a small price to pay.

School events
Look, I’m on my third kid and while she’s a wonder, the excitement generated by school performances, teacher meet-and-greets, science fairs, pancake breakfasts, carnivals, talent shows, silent auctions — and whatever else has been designed to bring me in closer contact with her ongoing education — has long since worn off. (Unless there are Rice Krispie treats involved; then I’m all in.)

But during my first (and please, God, last) virtual “Back to School Night,” when the choral director reminded everyone the chorus would not be singing at the pancake breakfast fundraiser because there would be no pancake breakfast fundraiser, my throat briefly, and unexpectedly, closed with grief. I’ve been forced to attend that damn pancake breakfast for years, and it has never been a high point in my social season. For one thing, it’s in September, and it’s always too hot in September for pancakes, even in the morning. And I don’t even like pancakes that much, especially when forced to eat them with plastic cutlery. And now? Now, the prospect of eating a whole stack of them from an imperfectly wiped school table while making small talk with other parents and trying to remember the name of that girl who just said hi to me ... it seems like heaven.

Surrendering my weekends to youth sports
For the past 12 years or so, we have had at least one child on a travel sports team. Which means, among other things, that whatever I don’t know about finding a Panera in the Inland Empire is not worth knowing. I have spent most of my Saturdays and many of my Sundays being scorched alongside a soccer field or stifled in some unair-conditioned gym. Up and down, over and through the state I have driven, my car reeking of soccer cleats and basketball shoes, as the precious hours of my weekend slipped away into a haze of gridlock, energy bars and conversations about bad reffing.

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But now? Now my youngest hasn’t been on a basketball court in months. Some teams are playing and coaches have called, but, as yet, it does not seem worth the risk. Overnight, our weekends became miraculously, then tediously and now frustratingly, our own. My daughter is in eighth grade, so there’s a chance I’m completely done with non-school-affiliated youth sports — and suddenly all those drives and parking lot lunches seem like the best times of my life.

Forcing everyone to clean up the house before guests arrive
With three busy kids and two working parents, one of whom has been known to use filing cabinets as end tables and another who swore an oath at 13 to never “ruin my own children’s lives by making them clean all the time,” our house has always had a “lived-in” look. In other words, it was such a mess that even the remote possibility of visitors would send us — OK, me — into a frenzy of tidying and forcing others to do the same. This did not promote familial harmony.

Now of course, what few visitors we rarely have go around the house to the backyard, where an alarming number of chairs are safely distanced. Ironically, apart from an exercise bike in the family room, the interior of our house has never looked better. Even with the two older kids sheltering at home. What else are we going to do with all this non-sports-surrendered time on the weekends but tidy? Now I have to strain to find anything to yell about — the kids are even using coasters!

So for anyone wondering how we’ll know that things are back to normal, I’ll tell you. When everyone is complaining about their commutes and the number of meetings their bosses call. When we are all back to trying to avoid our least favorite social engagements and yelling at our cohabitants to help clean up this place because the fill-in-the-blank are on their way, and we don’t want them to know we live in a pigsty.

Personally, I can’t wait.