Carpool Tunnel Syndrome
It was our typical 37 mile drive home from work. There I was… navigating the trusted Honda Accord through Coopersburg (trying very hard not get a speeding ticket) as the speed limit suddenly drops down to 35 mph from the usual 55 mph on RT 309, with my car pool buddies (and co-workers)!
My Vietnamese colleague Quan was describing the intricacies of a biasing circuit he was working on for a memory design (his specialty) when all of a sudden he goes “Guess what?? Jumbo shrimp on sale for 2.99/lbs. at Shoprite!” This was way before high speed internet and smart phones! In fact, he did not need any of these… he had all the available best deals in his head magically and like flipping through a Rolodex – he would just land on the right deal for the moment!
The other colleague Mike, a Virginia native and a fellow chip designer, says “My group went to that Indian Buffet place for lunch today! Their Baarfi is too good! Do you guys make Baarfi at home?” “I want to learn how to make Baarfi..” he said with a wink. I could tell he was relishing saying “Baarfi” over and over again. I played along “Sure Mike.. I love Baarfi too!”
Me .. “Guess what? Today Monica Lewinsky turned 28! It seemed like just yesterday she was crawling around on the floor in the Oval Office.” I was the true environmentalist in the car – ‘cos I was the one who was always recycling previous night’s jokes (from TV’s Late Night Comedy shows)!
Commuters R Us!
In 1990 when Uma started her Medical Residency in Philadelphia, we moved from Allentown to Lansdale so that it would be equidistant to both of our work locations. The plan at that time was that we would move back in 4 years after the completion of her Residency. Since then, a lot of things changed in our lives as well as the world around us – but my commute to Allentown remained essentially the same!
Allentown is in the Lehigh Valley along with its twin city of Bethlehem. Most people may not know that Allentown was the place where world’s first solid-state transistor (which paved the way to the computer and Internet revolution) was fabricated by Bell Labs Engineers Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen. Bethlehem used to be the home of Bethlehem Steel – which had a long history and provided steel for Golden Gate, George Washington and Verrazano Narrow bridges, Hoover Dam along with other major projects. Allentown was also made famous by Billy Joel with his song “Allentown” – which depicted (quite negatively) the life of the Lehigh Valley area after the demise of the steel industry in the area!
Lansdale area is essentially a northern suburb of Philadelphia with commuter trains to Philadelphia and several large pharmaceutical industries within short driving distances. Back when we moved there, it had a modest Indian community – but we still had to make weekly pilgrimages to Edison, New Jersey, for Indian groceries and restaurants. Now we have several large Indian grocery stores and restaurants (even a Hyderabadi one!) within a few miles from my house supported by the large Indian/Bangladeshi population in the area.
Earlier, I said that my commute remained essentially the same over the years. But, that is only partly true. Yes… the distance remained the same – a round trip of about 75 miles! But over the years a lot has changed along the way – corn fields turned into massive shopping centers with huge parking lots. I wish I had a time lapse video that showed the rapidly changing landscape: from countryside and cornfield to huge shopping centers with acres and acres of asphalt parking lots. Because of all this development, the total number of traffic lights that I now pass through quadrupled (compared to 1990) – thereby adding to the commute time.
In 1990 – George Bush (senior) was the president and gas was 75c a gallon and Saddam Hussein had grand plans to increase territory by annexing Kuwait. I used to work for AT&T Bell Labs and had a company cell phone that was as big and as heavy as a brick. In order to make calls, I had to pull out its antenna and balance with both hands!
During the early years of the commute, I used to listen to a lot of music – Hindi and Telugu songs as well as a variety of classical music on cassette tapes. Later I added talk radio to my repertoire. There was a financial adviser that I used to avidly listen to.. Once I even called his show and managed to get through. I explained my situation and asked him if I should buy a house (or rent) in Lansdale for a period of 4 years. He said that it did not make any sense to buy for such a short period of time! So… we went ahead and bought the house anyway! And lived in it for 14 years!
After a few years of driving alone, I came across others at work that happened to be doing the same commute. It made perfect sense to carpool with these guys. Over the years I carpooled with 5 other guys in different combinations. Two of them were Indian, one who grew up in Virginia, who it turns out lived only 2 blocks from my house and 2 Vietnamese guys. Even today, I still carpool with one of my co-workers. Carpooling worked out great for all of us. It saved a lot of money on gas (more on this later). At times we took turns to take a nap if we had worked late previous night and needed to catch up on sleep. Politics and religion are generally considered a no-no in carpools, but in our rides these came up all the time and since we were polar opposites on political topics – we’ve had some very fiery and spirited debates. It certainly helped liven up the boring commute!
Overall – carpooling worked because we were all very flexible. There were a couple of instances when halfway through our drive I thought that I had left the iron ON in my house – and that we needed to turn back or the house would burn down or another time when I had left the garage door open and I would be robbed of all my treasures if we didn’t turn back immediately! My friends were very understanding and turned back even if it meant an additional hour and half of commute that day! We were all fairly reasonable drivers and a testimony to that fact is that we never had any accidents or speeding tickets in these past 24 years (on the commute). Outside of the commute it’s a different story – and probably a subject for another blog and another day!
Talk radio was our constant companion and it was mostly local talk shows in the early days that covered about Philadelphia specific topics. Later these evolved into national syndicated talk shows mostly dominated by right wing personalities who knew just the “right” things to say to keep the masses fired up about “gun control”, “the war on Christmas”, “the liberal agenda” or “the corrupting influence of the Hollywood elites” etc.
I have driven through the presidencies of George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Obama. During these years the gas price ranged from 75c to $3.67 per gallon. In these 24 years my employers changed from AT&T Bell Labs to Lucent to Agere to LSI to Avago (plus a mini detour of 3 years to PMC Sierra – also in the Lehigh Valley area)! The drive itself is a vibrant mix of urban and rural landscapes. We drive by the usual box stores and fast food places – Walmart, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, BestBuy etc in Quakertown followed by lush greenery on both sides of Rt 309 for miles. Past Coopersburg, we drive by small roadside stands of home grown fruits and vegetables as well as “The Little Red Honey Stand”. This is a self-serve stand where there would be bottles of fresh honey along with a box to deposit the money in. Here’s a perfect example of honor system at it’s best!
In terms of numbers..
The other day on our drive home – I reminisced about my commuting experiences. What amazed me were the numbers! Yes… If we boiled it all down to just numbers – we are talking about 283518 miles driven for work. If there was a way to circumnavigate the Earth with my Honda Accord – I would have covered this more than 11 times with these 283518 miles! I could have easily driven to the moon and a third of the way back with these kind of miles! Want more such analogies? I could have driven 50 round trips from New York to LA!! I calculated that we had spent $17000 in gas for our commute (remember… even till late 2002 the gas price was less than one dollar per gallon). I estimated that I had spent 11172 hours on the road – which is about 465 days that was spent driving to and from Allentown!!
Much more than the numbers…
I ran into Quan the other day after several years. He is now retired and he has sharpened his skills about amazing deals to a whole different level. He told me about an airline credit card which actually “pays you to stay at the hotel in Paris after you get there on business class for free!!” In turn, I told him that I learned I can write off my hair loss and the resulting loss of self-esteem in my taxes! He has over 15 credit cards and got free money from all of them for limited period which he turned around and invested in CDs or even stock and made a lot of money! I always felt (and still feel) like a total beginner when it came to finance and other money matters compared to all of my car pool partners. I lost touch with Mike but recently found out that he is still in the area and works for a start-up chip company. I plan to look him up and re-connect with him. Over the years, I found that the car pool partners were also good sparring partners on all sorts of uncomfortable topics (usually during election times) – but we all got along quite well and remained good friends over these 24 years. Our families became good friends and we even had “Annual Carpool Family Picnics” for a few years and used to keep track of the progress of our kids through school and college. I have to locate Sanjay, Ravi and Mike and plan a “Reunion of the Carpool guys” along with Quan and Thien… like “Seinfeld” and “The Wonder Years” reunion shows! Might even do a road trip up and down Rt 309 for old time’s sake!