Farid Emal Khan sat in traffic for the last time, but he did not know that.
This morning began as most days, except he rose earlier than usual. He showered, dressed in his ‘corporate casual’ outfit of a polo shirt and khaki pants, took the elevator to the first floor, crossed the street and ordered his usual, latte grande, extra whip, at the Starbucks. Then, he made his way back into his complex’s basement garage and climbed into his Honda Civic. As with his apartment, the interior shone spotless and smelled faintly of sandalwood. Before starting the engine, he took time to connect his Ipod to the stereo and power supply, position his cell phone on the dashboard holder, his latte in the cup holder, and stretch his legs and arms. Farid usually averaged 78 minutes driving to work, however, since he woke up five minutes earlier, he hoped to shave it down by at least that much. He did this from time to time to insure he traveled at the optimal hour; both for work, productivity, sleep, and commuting. Farid is an engineer and approached many of his challenges in life with method and order.
The engine started with a quiet purr; not bad for an 8-year-old car. He slid along the streets, making more green lights than red until the freeway entrance. The queue this morning seemed shorter, but vehicles closed in around him as he merged onto the artery. Like a blood cell the cars pulsed, rushing until red lights blossomed on the vehicles ahead then braking to a crawl. An opening would appear and they would dash forward to the rear end of the next cars. And so the morning went.
After awhile even the moments of speed disappeared and now Farid’s Honda oozed like a slug. Farid entered the familiar trance of negotiating heavy, slow-moving traffic. His mind wandered between sips of coffee, fast-forwarding through music, and musing over yesterday’s triumphs and tribulations. Eventually, he approached the Central Expressway Exit; his halfway point. He was pretty sure yesterday it took him longer to reach this marker, however he had forgotten to note the exact time. Now he glanced at the clock on the dashboard of his Honda Civic: 6:35 a.m. His car crawled another twenty feet before completely stopping. Farid glanced at the other drivers, a woman chatted into a mouth piece in her tiny green car next to him. On the other side, a burly-looking fellow tapped a tatoo onto his steering wheel; a small dog sat in his lap. Farid, idly wondered where this fellow worked that he could bring his dog? He sipped his drink. Tepid, milky coffee slid down his throat, cool from 43 minutes in the holder. He moved again, this time the slugs broke 30 mph before braking again; a good sign.
Such was his commute, day after day and week after week. At the end of work, Farid would repeat the experience, in reverse, and if anything, the trip took even more time. He had less flexibility coming home, as did the other drivers on the road. Some days he sat in the car, surrounded by other people alone in their cars for more than two hours. He hated his commute.
But he loved his home. Farid had bought the condominium with his brother nearly ten years ago. Together they put in new floors, updated the kitchen, and painted the walls with anything but white. His brother moved out years ago, following his job. The real estate market had plunged since then and sales were just now approaching what their original purchase price, so they couldn’t afford to sell. He didn’t work for the same company now, either.
A decade before Farid began as an engineer, fresh out of college, for PTR, another semiconductor company. PTR was bought and sold several times until one day, Farid’s name did not appear on the hiring list of the new company. He shrugged, brushed off his resume, and had another job in a few weeks. Unfortunately, the new job was a good 20 miles from his condominium. That was three years ago, or over thirty-nine thousand minutes or 650 hours spent in his small car getting to and from work.
When he finally arrived at work, he looked first for his favorite parking spot: it was taken. In fact, all the spots the near the building entrance were filled. Next he searched for a shaded site; he hated to return to an oven. There was one under the Eucalyptus tree but it was over the sewer grate. That didn’t bother him; it was only a problem in the winter storms when the water would back up and form a small pond. He pulled in his trusty Honda Civic and pulled the parking brake. Farid grabbed his brief case, packed his electronics, checked the car for garbage, and got out. The car signaled it was locked. But he heard an eerie echo, as if another car called from the depths of Tartarus.
Farid stopped, a cool morning breeze ruffled his black hair and the scent of freshly crushed eucalyptus leaves filled his senses. He paused, watching a blue bird fly down and peck at something in the green ivy next to his car. Two squirrels chased each other around the tree and over to the massive oak at the back of the parking lot. He breathed in deep. As a child in Afghanistan he spent too much time outside and now, as a successful engineer, he spent too much time inside. He wished his commute were easier and quicker. Then he could spend more time walking in the park near his condo and less of it looking at people in their cars.
Suddenly a gust of wind blew from the metal grate beneath his feet. The smell of rotting vegetation now mingled with the eucalyptus. A car door slammed and he turned his head.
Chris Brown, the head of IT, left his red Mini and waved at Farid. Farid nodded and headed into work. He had a full load on his desk; some he was eager to tackle and some he’d love to toss in the circular file.
That evening, Farid stayed later than he intended. He had found a flaw in a coworker’s assessment and had spent a good two hours drafting an email pointing out the error, how he had discovered it, and how to fix the problem with the minimum of fuss. That was the part of his work he loved. The sun still lit the tops of the trees when he headed back to his lonely, white Civic.
The soft green leaves decorated his windshield like a wallpaper pattern; he brushed them off. Then he put his ice-cold bottle of Geyser Spring Water in the cup holder, and a bag of pretzels next to it. He would have preferred crisp vegetables and a spicy dip; but that took planning, preparation, and shopping. Three things he abhorred. His family hinted it was time to get married, fortunately, his older brother announced his engagement a few months ago; taking the pressure off for now.
Farid, took off the parking brake, reversed the car out of his parking spot. In his mind, he debated heading straight for the freeway and risking a long tailback, or taking side roads to the next entrance, which also had a queue, just not as long. His thirst burned his throat, but he had a rule to not take a drink until he was safely on the freeway. And so, part of his mind lingered on the water, rather than on the traffic. As he approached the first traffic light, it turned green. Just six more lights before he made it to the onramp. The next light was green, and the one after that. In a miracle of miracles, Farid sped through six green lights. He turned right onto the freeway entrance and gasped; the cars moved ahead onto the freeway as if there was no traffic. Well, it was later than his usual hour. He did not recall a time when the traffic freed up so quickly at this time of day.
Farid merged into the slow lane, space seemed to open to the left of him, so he moved over. A huge gap came up between a tanker and a pickup, so he positioned his Honda between them. Now, they flew. He gazed down at his odometer, he cruised at 65 mph, and yet the freeway to the right was packed. In a moment of panic, he thought he had merged into the commuter lane and watched the signs. He passed a gardener’s truck with three men crammed along the front seat; they were driving in the lane to his left. Farid shrugged and sped home, arriving in his fastest time ever. It took him only 18 minutes to go 20 miles. He grinned as he pulled into the parking garage and carefully navigated the narrow spots.
Taking the elevator to his apartment, he walked in and smiled at the highly polished wood floor (he had done it himself) and the new teak coffee table. But tonight, he did not want to sit and watch more television. He crossed to the bedroom and changed into jeans and t-shirt and he put on his running shoes. Farid was not sure why he owned running shoes; he never ran. However, they were comfortable, and so he left his condominium and strolled over to the park.
Once in the golden hills, he thanked the gods for his short commute that day. As if in response, the wildlife put on a full display. He watched a family of quail scurry across the foot path, a coyote slink along a fence, hundreds of lizards dart to safety, and, most spectacularly, he watched a golden eagle and a hawk battle it out over a rabbit carcass.
When Farid returned to his apartment he opened the refrigerator, even though he knew what was there. Yogurt, cheese, some moldy zucchini, and an assortment of condiments. He really should shop more often. Tonight, a dish of Farid’s Stew, as his brother dubbed it, would have been perfect. He sighed, closed the appliance and went downstairs to one of the three restaurants he frequented.
The next morning began the same. Farid woke, showered, dressed, and grabbed a latte. He strolled back to the parking garage and pulled the Honda out into the daylight. If driving the streets to the freeway went smoothly, he did not notice. He did find it odd that the metering lights were not working, as he merged without tapping on the brakes at all. Only when he passed the Central Expressway exit, did he realize how fast he was driving. Looking down, the speedometer read 65 mph. Again, spaces appeared between cars, lanes seemed to be blocked off just for him, and tightly packed groups shifted over magically to let him by. He arrived at work in only 18 minutes from leaving the underground parking garage at his condo.
Farid’s return trip home, also delivered him in record breaking time. He celebrated by grocery shopping and mixing up a pot of Farid’s Stew; a concoction with lamb, squash, garbonzo beans, garlic, onions and lots of spices. He ate flat bread with his stew and then, instead of watching the news, he put on his running shoes again.
He stepped out into the twilight and on to the waving meadows of grass. People were out still, walking their dogs, jogging with white ear buds, or strolling slowly and chatting. Farid joined these latter folks and took in the fresh scent of the earth and the clumps of sage growing along the edge. A fox stole out from behind a bush and headed towards the back of one of the restaurants. Later, as he crested a hill, something whizzed near his head, chirping like a cheap digital watch; it was a bat. He stopped to watch the flying mammals dart and dive against the dark blue sky. After a while, he returned home. He thanked the gods again for his lucky commute that day.
Day in and day out, Farid’s magical commute remained the same. Over the years he learned that it would not work if there was another person in the car or if his commute destination changed. He saw the gift for what it was and made sure he spent part of each evening in a park, enjoying the outdoors and thanking the gods; no matter his health or the weather. With his new lifestyle, he lost a few pounds and became a better cook. A year after commuting magically, Farid began meeting up with another engineer who liked to walk her dog after work. She became the love of his life; another gift from the gods.
He often thought back to that day that changed his life and kept reflecting on the brief moment when he stood over the sewer grate in the parking lot with the eucalyptus trees, the wind, and the animals. He eventually took another job, closer to their home and the magic commute ended for good. One night he tried to explain his secret to his wife. He described the moment to her as a spiritual revelation. She looked at him, a bit skeptically and replied, “Perhaps, Farid, wishes sometimes do come true.”