When I arrived home from my first year of college, my mom ceremoniously opened the garage to reveal a brand new silver sedan within. My dad had recently insinuated he might be able to secure me a job with the county auditor, one I’d be required to drive to different neighborhoods every day. This kind of parental headhunting was unusual, given the prior two years of high school when I had worked two jobs, riding my red mountain bike to and from Dairy Queen and being dropped off at my real estate office job on weekends.
The car offered incredible freedom. In the mornings, I ferried my sibs to their camps and other activities. This was also how I came to take the afternoon shift for the traffic survey corps that summer. Nowhere else that I knew could a college student make $7/hour in my city in 1999. A full tank of gas would cost me around $30. After barely managing a C in college math, this was calculus I could understand.
At traffic survey orientation, a couple dozen high school and college students sat wearing cargo shorts, popping gum and looking disaffected in a sterile conference room. The supervisors laid out the expectations, told us the high penalty for abandoning our stations. They were not afraid to fire employees, they said. They had done it before, even in the middle of the season.
We were now a part of the county’s Traffic Survey Corps. Our job for the next three months was to essentially count how many cars passed through different intersections at appointed hours. The data was to be collected, presumably, to ensure stoplights were appropriately timed depending on traffic flow. We were to represent the department accordingly, mainly by showing up and doing the work.
After our orientation, my seasoned surveyor friends identified the supervisors to fear. “That guy over there?” my friend Colleen explained, “He will sneak up on you. He’ll park down the street and watch you from behind just to make sure you’re working.”
My friends took the morning shift so that they would be done by 1p and have the rest of the day to themselves. Plus, If you wore sunglasses, the supervisors couldn’t tell if you were sleeping, they confided.
Right away, I could tell the afternoon shifters were a much different lot than the morning crew. We would arrive at different traffic intersections around the county every day, to relieve the morning shift. The morning shift had coolers, sturdy lawn chairs and plenty of sunscreen. I had just completed my first year of college and it was clear to me that the morning shift were probably the same kids who didn’t mind 8 a.m. classes. They were probably the treasurers and secretaries of their sororities.
Whereas the afternoon shift were an ashtray full of cigarette butts, all still ashing from the night before.
My first shift was in a neighborhood I’d never been to. I used a county-provided paper map to find my intersection, because I was lazy and didn’t want to Mapquest directions and print them out the night before, as was the custom of navigation in 1999.
I parked in a tiny parking lot next to a bar with rotting shingles on the side, right next to where the morning shift were tossing the metal signs identifying their station “TRAFFIC SURVEY” into their trunks. They sped off just as the rains came.
“Are you here for the traffic survey?” asked a guy in a white sedan who had just rolled down his window.
“Yeah! What are we supposed to do?”
“I don’t know. Want to park next to me and we can just work in our cars for now?”
Our supervisor met us a few minutes later and advised we sit in the same car while the rain ensued. My new co-worker and I sat in my car, our mechanical tally boards resting on our laps, as we peered out the rain-soaked windshield and tried to count the cars passing through.
As sheets of rain pounded and the mechanical clicks of our boards filled the first hour, I couldn’t believe this was going to be my job for the next 10 weeks. Just counting and looking. Rinse and repeat.
Of course, no one yet had a cellphone. There was no distraction from what was before us, no social media apps to inspire FOMO of our friends’ enviable country club jobs. There was only this: six hours of conversation, minus a 30 minute break. Perhaps a car radio if you were really lucky.
My partner for that first day of surveying in the rain was a quirky boy, the kind who likely owned whole shelves of comic books, and he told me about a show on HBO called “The Sopranos.” I’d never heard of it before.
This would be a personal refrain for me in the traffic survey summer song Oh. I’ve never heard of that before. But now I had, thanks to the afternoon shifters.
Because where the afternoon shifters were not particularly dedicated to providing accurate counts for any intersection at any time on any day, they were fiercely devoted to making sure there was as much mischief occurring during the afternoon shift as possible.
We changed partners every day. I preferred working with the quirky guy--he always kept the conversation tame. In contrast, supervisors and other co-workers alike spoke at length and regularly about sexual romps. I didn’t know a hostile work environment was one in which one was constantly subjected to unwanted stories of sexcapades. I just thought I needed to buck up and ignore it. Sometimes I brought headphones and listened to a book on CD.
I also learned countless card games I no longer remember how to play, but still recall fondly how we could conceal a full deck of cards while masquerading as someone looking up at the intersection and pressing the car tally rhythmically.
One day, on the very grounds of a church in my own neighborhood I had grown up passing almost daily, one of my partners rolled a joint and smoked it for a solid hour. I had taken this particular partner to my high school prom just a year before. Now we were co-workers and he was smoking an illegal substance on company time. On church grounds.
By August, nothing surprised me.
Geographically, I learned that neighborhoods changed one street at a time. I learned that in some of the poshest neighborhoods, people felt comfortable asking what a traffic survey was and whether or not we had any questions they could answer. It seemed everyone had seen the traffic survey corps. No one seemed to know what we did, what our method was, who we were. For the most part, on most of those accounts, neither did we.
By the end of summer, we were all sunburned irrevocably on the fronts of our bodies. The backs of our legs belied the oddly pale people we had been in June. Ones who hadn’t yet spent hours baking--for some of us in more ways than one.
I never went back to the traffic survey; one summer was enough for me. I’m glad I got in while the getting was good, though, since the traffic survey corps. no longer exists. A better way of calculating traffic patterns had already been developed that didn’t depend so entirely on erroneous college student reporting, but our county held on to that vestigial system for as long as it could. Unfortunately for the county, I don’t think the data collected in 1999 was very accurate. Fortunately for us, though, it paid really well.
In fact, I believe I am still earning dividends on the experience that taught me how to abide boredom. The ability to endure--monotony, hot temperatures, the close company of unsavory characters with bad taste in country music-- is something I lament my own children may never experience to this degree. The ability to just be in one place, without a digital feed of reminders of what is happening elsewhere, is a luxury I took for granted. While cars passed me all day, motoring toward destinations unknown, I was sitting still and counting--counting the vehicles and the hours and the paychecks that would advance me toward the end of summer when my supposedly real life would begin. But the realest life I can imagine is one that has to consult a map regularly, to find the good in people whose company you don’t get to choose, to cultivate an awareness of what is happening around you.
Except for the part about your dad leasing the car for you. That is not real life. At least it hasn’t been mine for twenty years.