Tuesday, on my way home from work, I was surprised to see that the Halal meat store was gutted to the studs. Hmm, when did that happen? I wondered how long the building had stood like that, unnoticed though I pass it twice a day, five days a week. I looked at the other drivers stopped in traffic next to me. Not a single person was looking at anything other than the view out the windshield. I made a mental note to pay more attention to my surroundings on F Drive, the street on which I spend the majority of my commute.
The following morning, I stopped at the first red light on F Drive. Normally I’m irritated here and silently curse the numerous pedestrians that detain me at this particular intersection while they walk to and from the Wednesday farmers’ market. These confounded produce lovers are the reason I miss the green light at the next intersection and thus get stuck at every subsequent traffic light on F Drive. Grrrrr.
For the first time, I actually looked over at the farmers’ market while I was stopped. It was bustling and vibrant. The vendors’ booths were abundant with leafy greens of every variety, gem-colored root vegetables, and pears, oranges, and lemons. Shoppers, mostly elderly women, were filling their bags and carts. I watched the homeward-bound teeter along the crosswalk in front of me, their purchases bulging out of overfilled sacks. One woman who walked with a cane didn’t make it across the wide intersection before my light turned green. I felt sort of embarrassed about all the times prior that I became annoyed with others like her.
Predictably, I stopped at the next traffic light. There was a man standing on the sidewalk in front of the tire store. I couldn’t discern his age; maybe 25, maybe 45. He looked frazzled, mentally and physically. His unbuttoned military-style jacket was stained and threadbare. Underneath was a filthy T-shirt and baggy shorts. He was talking to himself, or to someone I couldn’t see. A few feet away stood a young woman who was bundled up in a knitted hat, puffer coat, and jeans tucked into UGG boots. Her hands were shoved deep into her coat pockets and her gaze was focused on something – or nothing – in the distance. I was curious if she was even aware of the troubled man gesticulating nearby.
Driving past some newish apartments, I saw what looked like a Buddhist altar to the left of the driveway entrance. The altar included gifts of citrus fruits. The bowl containing them was full and I wondered if it would still be when I drove home. The practitioner who assembled the gifts clearly wasn’t concerned about passersby taking them or the altar wouldn’t have been placed so close to the street – the mark of a wholehearted offering.
As I approached my office, there was a car making a U-turn in front of our building. I forced myself not to avoid eye contact as I typically might. The driver wore a skull cap and a glower; I smiled at him anyway. He smiled broadly and genuinely. It was such a contrast from his seemingly hard affect and I kinda dug it.
I drove home from work on autopilot again, eyes open, but not really seeing. I didn’t notice the altar and whether or not the citrus bowl was still full. I grew impatient with the amount of traffic, instead of taking the opportunities to observe my environment while waiting at intersections. I never looked at the other drivers in the cars stopped next to mine. I changed radio stations every few minutes, ever in search of a better song. In short, I did what I always do, a creature of habit.
I can't help laughing at my failure to stay mindful during my commute. Within a few hours of my morning drive, I had slipped comfortably back into my behind-the-wheel habits. I’ll try again. And fail again. I’ll notice things way after the fact (Hey! When did Samosa Garden become Dragon House?). Or not notice them at all. I’m Mrs. American-Commuter. (Don’t) see me at an intersection near you.