Last week Cold City had a spate of severe weather, including a tornado warning, heavy flooding rain, and 1” hail that hit one afternoon right as the rush hour was at its apex. I was home, editing an essay for Mr. Gordo and nursing a cold, when the sky turned dark and flashes of lightening illuminated the sky. I unplugged the computer and switched on the news, and as the orange, reds, and purples of the weather map floated over the television screen, the storm sirens started sounding outside all over the city, the long warbling I used to associate almost exclusively with dance remixes. Within moments, the weatherman, in shirt sleeves to indicate the serious nature of the weather event, ticked off communities where sirens were going off, and the ones where people should watch the sky for the telltale greenish hue of a tornado and the other places where people should be headed towards the basement.
I have heard them before, the sirens, but this strange crooning notice of impending danger, either from air-to-ground lightening or tornados, always hits me in the pit of the stomach. It is an unpleasant and disorienting experience. Where I’m from, there are no sirens to warn of earthquakes, just the sickening rumble and first roll, with a split second thought that hopefully it is just a minor temblor, and not “the big one.” In any event, the tornadic activity hit south of my particular voisinage, but after the excitement of looming disaster, I was spent for the day, exhausted by the threat of imminent peril and suddenly feverish. I spoke on the phone with The Voice, and then La Vicks, and subsequently went to bed.
I have been feeling the first weeks of school, not the least of which is the curiously ambivalent pleasure of having really smart students. On one hand, it is gratifying to face eager, knowledgeable faces each session, their reading neatly marked, chirping and conversating like there’s no tomorrow. On the other, it means one can never, ever relax. The students are constantly pushing you, and in response, you must be simple, chic, and elegant. Sometimes it feels like one is putting out intellectual fires all the time, and it is only the first weeks of class. These performative pressures slowly release, three times a week, as I head out into the cornfields and into the setting sun, en route back to Cold City.
For, you see, Prestigious Lil’ College (PLC) is located deep in the hinterlands of Amerique profonde, and, perhaps stupidly, I decided to commute three times a week rather than relocate to haimische Shtetl land. I didn’t want to sublet, I didn’t want to give up my urban life, or what passes for an urban life, I didn’t want to move. So, one of the reasons I am knackered, in addition to the glorious challenge of active teaching, is that three times a week I am in the car for two hours, negotiating the drive to and fro from PLC.
It is not what I would describe as relaxing driving. While not necessarily akin to the BQE at rush hour, it is nonetheless demanding driving with particular rhythms and beats: urban, suburban, and rural. Keeping track and adjusting sometimes makes me feel as if I’m doing a Dance Dance Revolution marathon. If I am heading from home into the country, it starts off in the heart of the city, stopping for a coffee, joining the interstate and slowly passing the numerous construction projects that define warm weather here, as our extreme winters preclude major building projects for six months of the year. It doesn’t help that in general Cold Place drivers are horrible, for a variety of sundry reasons that mean defensive driving is the order of the day. But in the city itself, there is not much one can do other than go with the flow and hope no one decides to merge into your lane at the last minute sans flicker or a glance in their blind spot, unfortunately a rather common occurrence.
As the city gives out onto the suburban apron, the speed limit increases and one faces a changing traffic pattern, with more trucks and SUVs and busses. A generation ago, the suburbs around Cold City were fairly close in proximity. Now they stretch almost 25 miles outside of the urban core, endless pitched roofs and soulless big box shopping centers, apartment complexes with obsequious names like Deer Park and Oak Park and Elm Grove, gargantuan interstate-side fuel complexes, with huge canopies sheltering 25 pumps, and ubiquitous Vanagons careening down the highway coming up your ass at 20 miles over the speed limit. A hot play date, apparently.
Finally, the suburbs give up the ghost and one is in the country, passing cows and appaloosas and fields marked by signs indicating the type of seed grown, dodging slow pokes and huge eighteen wheelers on a two-lane highway. The speed limit here is high, and one tends to go even more than that, so pulling off the highway, one feels windblown, dissonant. And you still have seven miles on a country lane to PLC. Arriving at the sylvan precincts of the college, parking, one almost cannot believe that one has made the journey only to do something else. The journey itself feels like quite the accomplishment.
I am not the only faculty member living in Cold City and schlepping down. And I have broached a discussion with some other faculty to commute together, which would save on both gas and driving anxiety, but I have not gotten it together yet to organize such a venture. Where this constant movement to and fro will get sticky is during our impending winter, when travel times are elongated and conditions can dramatically deteriorate. And like Margo Channing, one must make every show. On the particular stretch of interstate I travel to PLC, it is not unknown during winter weather to be down to 25 mph with hazard lights on, if not already spun out in a ditch. (Memory: Prancilla coming back from PLC on the cellphone, during a snow storm: Prance— "What are these crazy people doing in a ditch?" Me— "Girl, get off the phone now please!")
I will need to secure a warm transitory bed chez PLC before that time comes. Until then, I am in motion, most of the time when I wish I could have a nap instead of a drive. However, pulling up chez moi always feels right, the energy and comfort of the city, the ziggurats of Mammon heralding my arrival back into corn-fed Sodom and Gomorrah, the deliciously anonymous city. I’ve played the country châtelaine before, and that time is over, for now.