I have driven in blizzards in North America, New York City gridlock and even over sidewalks in Beijing in a desperate search for a toilet. But nothing prepared me for the experience of picking up my nephews, ages 8 and 6 from school on a rainy day.
My sister in law is taking an all day class and because my wife and I are a 10 minute walk from the school, the boys have been coming over to our house after school for the past week or so.
I have been deputized to meet the kids and walk home with them. The kids would prefer to ride. It would take three minutes instead of ten. But the weather has been good and the traffic situation around the school seems to be a little chaotic.
Today it was raining. It was torrential. And windy. So even I thought that driving would be appropriate. Recalling the traffic conditions around the school on a normal day, I considered my alternatives. Like Chuck Norris delivering a briefing before a clandestine suicide mission, I told my wife that I would leave 15 minutes early, find a juicy parking spot near the exit, and read a book until the kids came out. I didn’t say “Goodbye” when I left. I said, “I’m going in.”
But alas, fate was laughing at me. I arrived at the school and was horrified to find total gridlock in the area. The rain had not only produced flooded streets. The area was also inundated with SUVs and vans. People with the same plan as me (or more likely, just in the know) had arrived much earlier and seized every available parking space within a half mile radius of the school. And ‘available parking place’ had been very broadly defined to include sidewalks and lawns.
Each car’s engine was idling to permit operation of the defroster and wipers, enabling me to see the mother (or caregiver, but that’s another story) talking on her cell phone.
I finally found a parking spot, probably closer to home than to the school. And that’s when things got really interesting. The bell rings at three and at about five minutes to three, all of the mothers left their cars and rushed to the school exit. Unlike a normal school with a single building, this one is a campus and each classroom is a standalone module loosely connected to the others. The actual exit from the campus is through a wide walkway between the library and the auditorium.
For some reason, the weather conditions had generated a panic. The mothers who know their kid’s classroom go directly there to get them, armed with umbrellas, raincoats, sugar packed after school snacks and other life saving gear. Others, like me who didn’t know where the kids would be coming from, stood in the walkway. The result was something probably not too different than conditions on the stern of the Titanic, except not on a slant. And with cell phones.
I’ll admit that it was raining and blowing, but I didn’t understand the mood of desperation that suffused the crowd. Mothers carrying yellow rain slickers pushed through the crowd, frantically calling names. “Isaiah!” “Zeb!” “Joshua!” For a moment I thought it was a summoning of the Twelve Tribes. Umbrellas were used more for offense than defense. A pet dog, leash tied to a pole and seemingly forgotten, barked furiously, adding a sort of Last Days of Pompeii mood to the pervading sense of chaos and doom. A group of children, terrified at the thought of getting wet huddled under an awning, afraid to move until a teacher with a whistle began herding them out into the deluge. I found a reasonably sheltered spot and watched with amusement.
One difference I’ve noticed between children and adults is that children love it when things don’t go according to routine. Wet, windy chaos was a delightful change from a normal end of the school day. My nephews were thrilled. I was there with the car instead of on foot. To get to the car we had to walk down a different street. All these novelties were more important than the elements. They were totally oblivious to the conditions and went out of their way to avoid the shelter of my umbrella. They were totally soaked by the time we got to the car. “Drowned rats,” is the term my grandmother would have used. Adults were freaking, but they absolutely loved it.
The longest part of the trip was the drive home. Gridlock prevailed as normal traffic rules were replaced by the law of the jungle. People were driving on lawns, reversing at high speed and generally abandoning the concept of rational behaviour. My last vision as I rounded the corner and left the chaos was a silver Mercedes SUV angled across the street behind me. The driver’s window was open and a hand was raised through the opening. The hand clutched a cell phone, but the middle finger was extended.
We probably got just as wet as we would have if we had walked. And it would have taken less than a quarter of the time it took to drive.
But it wouldn’t have been as interesting.