Can we talk about carpools? And you are thinking “boring, so boring” and want to turn the page. But please don’t. Allow me to explain, and at the end, you might very well agree that for the luckiest of people, “family” can exist not only for men and women who share the same DNA, but also for people who share a roundtrip ride to work every single work day, year end and year out.
Carpools of sorts existed in the early 20th century, but came to the forefront in the United States to fill a need for conservation in 1974, after the oil embargo, when President Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter was speaking at an energy-conservation meeting in New Brunswick when he said that the federal government intended to encourage car pools and other types of ride sharing in order to reduce gasoline consumption. He reminded those attending the meeting of the shortage of gasoline the previous year and he announced a “national task force on ride sharing,” to be led by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. He also announced a variety of steps that would encourage transportation conservation.
All these years later, you likely will agree on the advantages of carpooling: decreased local pollution, shared fuel and toll costs, reduced traffic congestion, less commuting stress, and so on. But my first work carpool experience into Manhattan taught me that even as a rider and not the driver, I was looking for something more.
I joined a morning carpool with three young men who clearly had been driving together for some time. I was the newcomer who always felt like the interloper. There was generally some conversation, but they rarely spoke to me, and even then only when I initiated the discussion. I was older than all of them, but I felt like the new kid on the block. And I simply could not engage them. This is not working for me, I thought, and when the time was right, about nine months down the road (forgive the pun!), I pulled out.
Lesson #1: be welcoming to the newcomer, even early in the morning.
Soon after, while hating public transportation, my “Aha” moment came: three of my colleagues at work also lived in Teaneck! And voila! We were a carpool. I generally was the driver; we arrived at a fair amount as we calculated how much each person would pay me per ride; we agreed on morning and evening departure times; and because the four of us shared the same professional world, there always was easy conversation. If someone needed to work late or begin the workday earlier than usual, we discussed that perhaps on that particular day, everyone would begin earlier or work later.
Lesson #2: be flexible and kind.
I drove that carpool for more than 26 years. Within a few months and the advantage of my large van, we added two more people to the mix. For many years, we were a team of six. As time passed, one gentleman returned to Israel, one beloved senior citizen retired, and new riders came and went as jobs and locations changed. Some drove with me for many years; others joined only for short stints with summer jobs. Many of our children were occasional passengers, and neighbors randomly caught a ride. My son-in-law joined periodically while doing a fellowship at NYU. Relatives sometimes met me in the parking lot for the ride to Teaneck, even though the carpooler was not in the car that day. And on a morning when the carpool was down to two people, we did not hesitate to stop at a Teaneck bus stop and pick up a total stranger so that we would have the minimum three passengers for the carpool lane. When I finally retired in March 2018, one of those original colleagues literally had shared the entire ride.
Now there were no celebrities in the car singing karaoke like James Corden’s carpool group. And we most assuredly were not as funny as the 1991 “Murphy Brown” episode titled “Driving Miss Crazy” (I do hope most of you watched that TV show; how it made me laugh!) where Murphy works on her will, Frank gets over a romantic relationship, Corky obsesses about a trivia question, Jim ponders something cute to say in an interview, and Miles almost gets everyone killed!
So why was this carpool special? First of all, we talked to each other — not because we had to, but because we wanted to. And when we didn’t want to talk, we didn’t. The car could be quiet, or we might listen to music — the group suffered in silence when I put in one of my country music CDs — or the news or some talk show. You learn a great deal about people when you spend a minimum of two hours of every workday in a car together. Conversations ran the gamut from serious to ridiculous. We shared work issues, family issues, world issues, child help, and presidential elections. We talked about vacations, business trips, raising children, jewelry, household expenses, high schools and colleges, theatre, movies, television, and we once debated which were the original colors of M&Ms and what was each person’s favorite color.
And when we weren’t in the car? We attended family weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, a bris, random celebrations. We shared painful losses, celebrated births, worried if someone was sick, savored an occasional Sabbath meal in one of our homes. When possible, we dropped off someone for an early morning doctor’s appointment and then continued on to work. Some of us ran together during a lunch hour to catch a once-a-year sample sale; one evening, all riders made a pit stop at Julio’s Fruit Store.
Lesson #3: you don’t have to be blood relatives to be family.
And we had some crazy adventures. Our longest trip home was a four-hour drive without coffee or danish or bathrooms but a great deal of talking and singing. Winter’s end brought melting icicles falling from the upper level of the George Washington Bridge. I had not listened initially to traffic and only discovered that the upper level of the bridge was closed when I found myself in standstill traffic on the East River Drive. Wherever I went — from the east side over to the west side — I moved at a snail’s pace. One person actually opened the car door and took a little walk on the highway, ultimately returning totally unscathed. Locating our car was not a problem; we had moved only a few feet during his stroll.
Lesson #4: Always listen to traffic reports before driving.
Then there was the time when a horse from the stables got loose and was running up the East River Drive. We had left work a bit early that evening, as I was meeting my family at a Teaneck restaurant for dinner before my son’s high school graduation. Within moments of seeing this large animal weaving frantically through and around the cars whose drivers, including me, were desperately trying to avoid it slamming into them, it was perfectly clear that I was going to be quite late for that family dinner. Recognizing that was the easy part; the difficult piece was getting my family to believe my crazy story.
And you know how the overpasses on the highway always post the height of that structure to avoid an oversized truck smacking into it? We were near Gracie Mansion on our way to work one morning when clearly a truck driver was not paying attention. The backup traffic was so bad that cars began to drive backwards in order to find the first available already passed exit. Hesitantly I began to follow, until police arrived on the scene and did us one better. They instructed us to actually turn our cars around and drive north on the south bound lane in order to reach an exit.
Lesson #5: Sometimes it’s fun to break the rules.
But I needed the comfort and support of my rider family most of all — but found myself alone in my car — on that fateful day of 9/11. I was going to have to leave the office early that afternoon, so the rest of the group went in a different car and I drove to work alone. After both towers fell and all bridges were closed, I struggled to absorb what had occurred, shared my horror with colleagues throughout the day, and did not attempt to drive home until a path was open. When one level of the bridge opened late in the day, I headed home, desperate for the comfort of my carpool. The approach to the GW Bridge was impossibly congested and the streets were overcrowded with people trying to hitch rides to New Jersey. If my carpool had been with me, I would not have hesitated to pick someone up. But fear was my only rider that day, and I remained completely alone.
As a happy retiree, I do not miss waking up at 5:40 a.m., the unpredictable traffic, the icy roads on a cold winter day, the accidents on the GW or the Cross Bronx Expressway, the snow storms, the occasional crazy drivers. I admit I also do not miss the woman who tried to negotiate the cost of her ride, the millennial who wanted the carpool to believe that texting was a far superior method of communication to actually talking on the telephone, or the rider who, without previous day’s warning, got into the car and announced that he had to be in the office for an earlier than usual meeting. He slept the entire ride while I stressed to get him there on time.
But I do miss the ease with which I shared life with those special men and women during two hours or more every workday for many, many years. The solution, of course, was easy: telephone conversations. And before covid, we would get together for lunch or dinner or a movie or a Sabbath meal. And celebrations still were shared and savored.
In 2020, we kept those phone conversations and text messages going. Hopefully our pre-covid interaction will continue once the pandemic is behind us. Of course it will; family members love being together.
Lesson #6: Count your blessings and remember that “family” comes in different DNA packages.
Tzivia Bieler and her late husband, Bruno, moved to Teaneck in January 1974. She retired three years ago as the executive office director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Retirement brings her pleasure, and more time to spend with children and grandchildren in United States and Israel.