All I learned I learned on TriMet

As those who stalk me regularly on Twitter have surmised, I’ve been driving a lot lately. My lovely fiancee is experiencing a very complicated recovery from knee surgery, so I’ve been plying the highways and byways in our car so I could race home and, uh, do something important and life-saving if need be. As all seasoned commuters know, TriMet is great for many things, but short-notice balls-to-the-wall emergency travel is not a strength of the system. For example, you don’t see many riders who are moments from giving birth. And you won’t often see someone cradling their severed arm in container of ice, transferring twice on their way to the emergency room for reattachment surgery.

What TriMet IS good for, however, is hauling my butt to work and back, non-emergency style. And, while it has been a little bit quicker (but not as much as you might think) to drive back and forth to Forest Grove, the increase in speed has been entirely negated by the decrease in Awesome. My time in the car has reminded me of all the life lessons I’ve learned in the course of my daily mass transit commute. For example:

There is stunning diversity in the Kingdom of Commuters. All I ever see when I drive on the Sunset Highway are tense white people sending text messages to other drivers. Occasionally, an acrobatic mid-level manager type will be applying lipstick in the rearview mirror and handling their iPhone at the same time, but that’s pretty much it for variety. The MAX is a rolling United Nations, and I love that.

Tom Petty was right – the waiting is the hardest part. But, here’s the thing – once you master the waiting, you learn to just quit worrying about things over which you have no control. As the placards say, a MAX car weighs a zillion tons, and I have zero control over any given ounce of it. That train will arrive when it arrives. It is what it is. And as I’ve grown more and more accepting of that, I have grown more accepting of other things, like aging, the weather, and my inability to make Rick Perry work at a McDonald’s for a few weeks.

There is a particular pulse and rhythm to the world that drivers just don’t get. One of my favorite parts of the day is my walk to the transit center at the crack of dawn. I always pause for a moment on my front porch and just breathe in the day, checking temperature and wind and precipitation, and then I give thanks for another shot at it. On the days I drive I stumble to my car and crank that heater on, and I seal myself into the glass and steel cocoon and grip the wheel as I contemplate another battle for highway real estate. The temperature in the car is always the same. I love it on a spring day when the MAX doors open to let in passengers and this sweet fresh breeze accompanies them. I like sitting bundled with my fellow travelers in the winter, sharing that “holy shit it’s cold!” look with a slight frozen smile.

It’s impossible to judge somebody by how they look. Some of my favorite transit memories have to do with the pleasant surprise of watching a particularly threatening-looking rider with facial tattoos and and a scowl break into a soft smile as they give their seat up for an older rider. I ride almost 1500 miles a month, and I see those folks being kind much more often than I see otherwise.

You can’t read, or write, or tweet in your car. Legally, anyway. I think half of the books in the Multnomah County Library system are transported to work and back on TriMet every day. It’s a traveling book club. People have often commented on what I’m reading, and I’m guilty of occasionally haranguing a psychology student if I see them reading something that catches my eye.

Half the fun of getting there is getting there. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you can just slow down and enjoy the ride, if you can give up pretending as though you have some kind of control, if you can just settle in and get comfortable, grab your book or your laptop and let the time pass as it wants to pass, you’ll arrive in a much better frame of mind. And, you might get some interesting book recommendations along the way.

Story by official TriMet Diaries contributor Dr. Jeff Guardalabene, who also blogs at Follow @doctor_jeff on Twitter!

And make sure to check out Dr. Jeff’s Holiday Fare project, which aims to collect and deliver transit tickets to those in need this holiday season!

About Dr. Jeff

Dr. Jeff, in real life Dr. Jeff Guardalabene, is a Portland-area psychologist, who logs 300-plus miles on TriMet each week. He often live-tweets his commute to avoid intellectual stimulation. He lives with his wife and their five children and blogs about psychology issues at Follow @Doctor_Jeff on Twitter.
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