Picture by Hernán Piñera, Flickr

I was an ordinary person once before, I yelled through the woven-Kevlar window net at the wide-eyed librarian. Some sound tried to escape her mouth, but it was muted into nothingness by the pounding exhaust note of the zoomies. Explaining myself was pointless but I had to keep trying, I told myself as I slotted easily through the remaining close-ratio gears and had already reached my peak speed halfway through the men’s room. It’s not my fault, I said to the windshield: traffic made me this way.

A long time ago, in another life perhaps, I was an urban engineer. My career had started innocently enough: my father, a huge influence on my life, swore repeatedly at inefficient traffic light timings. He would curse out the shockwaves rippling through stop-and-go traffic as millisecond gaps in reaction times turned into fifteen minutes late to visit Grandma’s house. One day, the whole world would be consumed by one unbroken gridlock, and people would die, he believed. Someone should do something, he said to me once. I did something, Dad.


When you talk to a normal person, it’s shocking just how little they know about the place they live. Every major city has miles of underground networks: conduits for cable and plumbing, long-abandoned subway tunnels, a sewer system. Usually the only time you find out about them is when a sinkhole erupts on the interstate and sends a single mom of two to the bowels of Hell in her Micra. Early on in my career, an urban planning mentor of mine, the great Jonathan Brookings, he of the Brookings Method, would raise my awareness of this subterranean city and its potential.

Naturally, I became obsessed, poring over every piece of written and photographic documentation I could find. I became the city’s foremost expert on its hidden tunnels. A lot of people would be satisfied with one obsession. But I had two.

The day had started like any other. I was late for an early morning meeting and ran out into my neo-bucolic suburban driveway, carrying a bagel in my mouth. I clambered over the welded-shut door of my Century Gran Sport and fastened the camlock of the six-point restraints. There was something about the diamond-pleated leather covering the Recaro carbon-fiber race seat that always relaxed my spine, but I was coming to think it might have been nerve damage from the tooth-loosening second- and third-order vibrations transmitted via the Buick’s solid motor mounts.

I had barely had a chance to heat up the thick Mickeys out back when I came across a traffic jam so obscene it offended every sensibility I had. There was only one thing to do. Between the race buckets laid a red button the size of a cheese danish, and I mashed it with my fist so hard the knuckles whitened.


“PULL TO THE SIDE OF THE ROAD IMMEDIATELY. URBAN ENGINEER COMING THROUGH. YOU HAVE TEN SECONDS TO COMPLY,” a robotic voice screeched. I punched it down a gear for emphasis, the high RPM bellow of my exhaust adding a sense of tangibility to my rush.

But nothing happened. Traffic simply refused to move for me. Where could they go? My predecessors had devised narrow hard shoulders with kinetic restraints to reduce the threat of wrong-way collisions. The vintage lanes were simply too narrow for the school-bus-sized sports utility vehicles in vogue in my era. Even the bicyclists were stuck, their bike lanes jammed solid with overstrained spandex and carbon fiber waiting in line for Starbucks. It was the dark nightmare that had been foretold by my father.


Maybe there were two things to do, I thought as the Gran Sport’s nose whipped sideways into a nearby field and barged into the concrete pipe entrance of a storm sewer. I would make my way to work through the subways, sewers and conduits of my mentor - the hidden city of dual wall corrugated HDPE drainage pipes and kilometer upon kilometer of once-secret access hallways.

When I hit the city library, I knew that I was close - wasn’t city hall just next door? My spatial memory paid off yet again - I let the big Buick’s big block eat, smashing through a lowest-bidder antiterrorism gate to enter a long-abandoned subway terminal beneath the city hall.


I strode into the meeting, my Nomex sport jacket flapping behind me. The Mayor was there, and he was impressed.

“Traffic is a zoo today. How did you get here so fast?” he asked, gobsmacked.

What else could I tell him? He only hired the best.

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