With the exception of a very few months in 2000, when I worked from home, my working career has had the daily bookends of a commute. It was as short as a mile, when I had an office in the little downtown section of our St. Louis suburb, and as long as 15 miles, when we lived in Houston and commuted from a northwest suburb to our jobs in downtown.
A commute of a mile is like a haiku, short and over before it began. A commute of 15 miles in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Houston was like driving Homer’s Odyssey twice a day, complete with sirens, a Cyclops, and—once—a martial dispute that ended up as a shoot-out on the freeway. And like the Odyssey, we spent so much time and effort trying to find a way—any way—home.
For our first six years in St. Louis, my commute was about a mile and a half, until we moved to our current home, some six miles from my office. Most commuting traffic in St. Louis moves east and west, except for our belt around the city. I commute north and south, traveling north on a boulevard which is sometimes congested at intersections and stoplights but which usually takes about 15 minutes, and I travel through several extended wooded suburbs. My southward commute home is on a parallel road, a two-lane journey that cuts through what is one of the wealthiest parts of St. Louis, and indeed the entire state of Missouri. I know why they call wealthy parts of cities “leafy.”
Why take different ways in the morning and evening? In the morning, the four-lane boulevard misses all the traffic associated with two fairly large high schools on the two-lane road. In the evening, the schools have (usually) let out, and a lot of traffic is flowing on the four-lane boulevard. Think of it as tackling T.S. Eliot in the morning, and choosing to read Emily Dickinson instead in the evening.
When I worked for St. Louis Public Schools from 2003 to 2004, my commute to downtown was 16 miles, via the main east-west interstate highway in the region. Congested it was indeed, but nothing like that Odyssey we had in Houston. There was nothing leafy about the drive; it was concrete almost start to finish.
Becoming aware of the poetry I’m finding at work, I’ve discovered recently that the poetry extends to the commute. I look for it in that first mile of car dealerships, grocery stores and other suburban establishments, and then I turn to the right and travel two miles through what’s known as the region’s “horse country”—the village of Huntleigh, population 780 and about the same number of horses, the suburb of landed estates that at one time was western developed edge of the region.
Huntleigh becomes Frontenac, a larger suburb with smaller lot sizes but still a lot of wealth. And then Frontenac gives way to Creve Coeur, yet another wealthy suburb. These names suggest medieval chivalry, aristocratic fox hunts, and the poetry of the 18th century—formal, upper-class, proper, and yet disguising smoldering emotions behind the names.
Finally I reach the campus where I work, some 800 acres of parking lots, office buildings and large stretches of woods. It is the Age of Reason here, but the woods (and the trails you can walk through the woods) lead you right into the Romantics.
I suppose it’s no surprise that I find poetry at work; my day seems surrounded by it. If you commute to work, what poetry do you find?
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