I guess it’s the highway…
by Alex White
[This essay was originally published on commoditycreature.substack.com]
How did I get here from there?
That experience of leaving the house and it’s like you are suddenly at work. You took this route to work so many times that it’s like second nature to you. Walking out of your front door is like walking into a wormhole that takes you to your workplace.
I’ve wondered how I’ve gotten here from there a lot lately. “There” being several moments in my life that have shaped where I am at today. From going to college to being hospitalized and put on pills, to losing my health insurance, and getting a job to pay for said pills (many thanks to H for getting me that job). It all feels jammed together even though it happened over nine years.
I work at a vet clinic doing night cleaning, and it’s a 45-minute commute. This gives me a solid hour and a half to contemplate my mortality and the frailty of my body that’s zooming through a concrete jungle at (literal) break-neck speeds each day I work. This commute is somewhat of an improvement from my first job time-wise, where I shared a car with my mom. I would drop her off at work, which took an hour, then drive 30 minutes to my work, and wait an hour for the shop to open up—making a 12 hour day with a 4-hour commute.
(I find it a little funny that I ended up getting a job as millions are losing theirs. It was also weird to lose health insurance now from timing out of my parent’s coverage. Every time I looked up “losing health insurance” it brought up articles around the massive job loss because health insurance is tied to jobs for so many.)
I’ve been wondering how to make the best out of the entire commute. There is the underlying fear for my life to contend with. Driving past Suncor both ways, I can’t help but consider the destruction to the surrounding, mostly Latino community. And I am subject to a perpetual barrage of unwanted sound coming from the highway. So I thought, hey maybe I’ll write an article about all of that nonsense, as a way to cope.
I want to talk about the anxiety I experience around driving, and some of the reasons it’s there. Colorado is rated the fifth-worst driving state. Bad roads, bad traffic, expensive gas. I’ve seen too many dashcam videos of car wrecks, and I’ve seen how it’s mostly random freak accidents. I am trying to come to the point of acceptance about it, let go and let God see my blinkers as they say. I need to Accept the Drive. I need to Accept the Work.
Trying to keep pace with the sea of drivers that surround me, I usually end up with bone white knuckles. When people race past me at speeds that don’t kindly agree with statistics, I wonder if they have a death wish, or if they don’t give it a second thought. Speeding is quite the adrenaline rush, and maybe they are addicted to the feeling.
The only thing that makes the commute enjoyable is listening to music.
One significant difference between the commute I had and the one I am currently on is that I am now on the highway a lot. The previous one took back roads mostly and never reached speeds above 45mph. This slow pace made it easier to listen to music. I assume it was safer too.
Now the sounds of the highway mostly drown out any music I have on unless I play it at eardrum-shattering levels. I also keep the windows down the whole way. You might say, “Alex, why don’t you roll up your windows?” And I say it’s because the car doesn’t have AC. On some days, when I’m feeling curious about the levels of heat that a body can tolerate, I’ll roll the windows up and enjoy the sweet sounds with sweat dripping down my face.
I will also adjust the windows based on a complicated mix of factors that include but are not limited to, how warm I feel, how much I want to listen to music, how loud the surrounding cars are, how heavy the rain is, and if someone is smoking in the car in front of me. Lately, the raging fires have played a role in my decision. I usually end up fiddling with the newfangled electric windows the whole way through.
The radio station that I always pick is KUVO, a local radio station that mostly plays jazz. My favorite shows are the Thursday night Jazz Oddessy with Dele Johnson and the Latin Soul Party on Friday night. The Latin Soul Party was voted best radio show 2020 by Westword magazine.
To cope with the irritation of not being able to hear the excellent music that they play, I imagine that I am listening to a jazz show with noise show elements. You have to take what you get and make the best out of it, Dontcha know. (Sorry I’ve been rewatching Fargo).
One of the most profound moments during my ten years of therapy was when a fellow group member talked about how it’s like they want to be sad (angry, depressed, annoyed). It’s like they are addicted to the feeling and don’t want to let it go. My favorite scene in Honey Boy is when Shia LaBeouf is in rehab talking to his therapist, and he says, “The only thing my father gave me that was of any value is pain…. And you want to take that away?”
I frequently fantasize about moving to Amsterdam, gorging on psilocybin, and riding a bike everywhere. Those fantasies are usually interrupted by a Jeep driving past.
Each car seems to have a unique sound on the road based on the design of the vehicle. The boxy structure of the Jeep and the Toyota Tundra have the most annoying, grating sound of them all. I can’t say why. My instinctual reaction is disgust and anger. I make a grimacing face each time I hear them approaching.
Sometimes an 18 wheeler with a diesel engine low on oil will whine by. Depending on what I’m listening to the high pitched squeal is either a compliment or an annoyance.
All of the scattered debris that I see has invaded my dreams. During one particularly disturbing dream, I was at a beach, and Louis CK was saying something offensive. My dog jumped up and bit him on the tongue. I panicked and ripped the dog away, but it kept its jaws clamped down and ripped part of his tongue off. It revealed tendrils that looked like the edge of those blown out tires you see on the shoulder of the road. That has stuck with me, and I think about it each time I see one of those tires. Or exposed steel on barriers or unfinished construction.
On some cars that drive by, it sounds like they forgot to take off their winter tires. There is also the wind that rushes by the windows. It’s almost like thunder. Like someone is taking a large sheet of metal and making it wobble back and forth.
Motorcycles probably have the most pleasing vehicle sound. If they creep by, that is. Sometimes they come out of nowhere sounding like a revved-up spinner firecracker, buzzing by like a hornet. It usually scares the shit out of me! But if they creep by, boy oh boy, that’s nice. Nothin’ but pure engine.
I don’t know if I am a judgemental person, or if the highway brings it out of me. Almost any minor annoyance from another driver has me muttering, “fuck you fucker” under my breath. Thankfully my mindfulness practice usually kicks in during this, and I breathe in their pain and send out compassion. Glaring compassion.
On two separate occasions, jet flyovers happened during my trip—a little overhead spice. One was on the Rockies opening day. They had the fireworks going too, but I was too far away to hear them. The second time was seemingly random, though the closer I get to work, the closer I get to one of Colorados Air Force bases. It kind of surprised me; I didn’t know what it was at first until I looked up. Anyway, hell yeah, baby! USA USA USA!
Sometimes the sound I hear depends on how well the highway is maintained or constructed. Sometimes it’s bumpy, and it sounds like a congo solo. POCK POCK POCK POCK POCK. Other times it is smooth sailing. Like a wave washing ashore. Sometimes it rapidly alternates between the two.
Some of the signs get to be annoying. A person can only handle so much repetition. I react angrily to the signs because, well, because it’s something else to get angry about! I think about how the signs and messages they put up must have gone through several meetings, and I just get upset that that is the best they could come up with. Not that I could come up with anything better, but I don’t get paid to!
“Buckle up buttercup” Now, if I wasn’t as woke as I am, my masculinity might be challenged by that sign, and I might unbuckle right then and there just to show that sign what’s what.
“Express lane – Yes/ Speeding – No” I will speed if I want, thank you very much, especially if I’m paying for it!
“Wearing a mask is mandatory in public places.” Fuck you, die!
“Click it or ticket – Back seat too!” Why do you gotta go ruin one of the great marketing slogans of the 21st century with that tagline? Come on.
“Back to School Sale!” Yikes….
The beer billboards are excellent. Pretty. Though I find it funny that the sales pitch of the light beers offers me a break from the gluttony of the other beers- it has lower calories!- while simultaneously, well, offering me a beer.
The signs, the fireworks, the flyovers, are only some of the fun distractions of the road. Sometimes there are pretty flashy lights. The sun will capture shattered glass spread across the lanes in a beautiful way—sculptural reimaginings of steel and glass. Oh, wait a minute, I’m describing the wrecks I see.
Excuse me for being morbid, but I welcome the slow down from the crashes. It’s a break from the wind. I can enjoy my music again. I hope everyone is okay! The brilliant orange and the fountain flash from the roadside flares are welcome varieties.
Sometimes the screaming sound of the tires on the pavement from my car will alert me to the fact that I’m going 80mph. Like they are yelling at me to slow down.
So much anger. I am kind of angry about writing this, trying to make something meaningful out of my commute. I worry about how these thoughts will crystallize from writing this, and each drive will consist of me going over each part of the article, including this one. But I would just be annoyed about not writing it. So I’m doomed to think about it either way so I might as well have this article to show for it. Maybe I’ll forget about it and get taken away by the music, and the smorgasbord of sounds that come with rolled down windows.
I like that some people can tell what kind of engine you’re runnin’ just from the sound. That’s a neat niche. No other use than, huh, that’s neat. I have been watching a lot of vice grip garage. Gives me a warm cozy nostalgia. It reminds me of when I lived next to B, who was, and I assume still is, a good mechanic. I would bug B a lot. I would look on as B worked on a dirt bike or truck. Pretending to learn something.
The absolute worst part of my commute is driving by Suncor on the way home. When I make the turn on I-270 and see that flame burning, I know it’s time to roll up my windows. I am grateful that it’s dark out by that time; it makes rolling up the windows more tolerable. The smell from the refinery is unbearable. I have memories going back to my youth of driving by that place and being outright disturbed by the pungent stench.
It looks like our own little statue of liberty—Canada’s answer to France. There is no liberty for the people living in the neighborhood, though. Federal regulators have deemed the air unsafe to breathe around there since 2008. It is the most polluted zip code in the entire country. The latest failure from the plant was on 8/13/20. And it’s only one of many times there has been a failure where yellow plumes of smoke began rising from its stacks. Suncor has tried to hide its roll in the pollution of the neighborhood. It’s a symbol of environmental racism that I’ve driven past so many times. I am only one of the 350,000 cars that drive by that section of I-270 and I-25 each day.
The highway by Suncor is the worst part of the drive, too; all of the trucks that drive on it must degrade the road quicker. I hydroplaned there once, and it scared the shit out of me.
Last time I had contact with B was one of the many times Suncor was billowing a yellow plume of smoke. B was posting about it and highlighting how it was almost like it was a deliberate attack on the surrounding community. I don’t know if B was talking about the environmental racism of the refinery, or what. I just know B was distraught. Having to live with the absolute chaos, and having little to no control over the situation is terrifying.
So yeah, I’m mad—about the commute, about environmental racism, and all the noise. I am mad about being seemingly stuck in a future that I didn’t want. I didn’t want to be a part of the “grind” or the “hustle.” I would wager a bet that most people don’t. I chose to go to school for music to escape that life. I would get into a military band and spend my life playing and teaching music.
More and more throughout college, the reality of life intruded on me, and that dream fell apart. I still held on (and still do if I am honest) to the desire to be free from being a modern serf—a wage slave. I suppose I should count myself lucky that I’m not an actual slave. Being as slavery is more prevalent and profitable today than it ever has been.
With what lot I’ve got, I’ve wanted to maximize my enjoyment. Through some bizarre calculus, I’ve decided not getting a job, staying home, making art, and desperately trying to sell that art is my best life. I decided to ride on my immense privilege for as long as I could. Once again, though, reality intrudes. Losing health insurance, relying on my grandpa’s car, and making art that doesn’t sell has highlighted the precarious situation that I am in.
From what I can see, any hope of a “respectable future” is out the window. And I am already in a privileged spot. Maybe that has to do with raised expectations; the “You can do anything if you put your mind to it” school of thought. It could be that the material/structural conditions make traditional markers of success like a home, health insurance, a car, next to impossible to attain. I’m sorry, I just don’t see trading half of what life I have to meaningless work as a reasonable trade-off for my “own” shelter and to be an upstanding member of the community as worth it.
I am too lazy and selfish, I guess. It’s my way or the highway, though, and I’ve been on the highway an awful lot lately.
Alex White is an interdisciplinary artist from Colorado who draws his creativity from music, painting, poetry, photography, and film. Alex has read at Jazzetry, and Punketry, which are poetry gatherings accompanied by improv music. One of Alex’s most memorable performances was at the Fox Theater during “Howl: An Allen Ginsberg Birthday”. He’s contributed to the community by painting a mural for the CU College of Music, and painting a rain barrel for the Boulder Barrel Project which sought to bring awareness to water conservation. He’s performed with The Boulder Laptop Orchestra, The Boulder Symphony, the Thornton Community Band and improv punk group Black Market Translation.
@commoditycreature / commoditycreature.substack.com