The Fictioning Horror Sale

From the Authors


Original Essays

Powell's Q&A

Tech Q&A

Kids' Q&A



Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Crosstown Traffic

The strangest thing about being on morning TV these days, in my opinion, is the strange "robo-cameras" that seem to have taken over.The strangest thing about being on morning TV these days, in my opinion, is the strange "robo-cameras" that seem to have taken over. There you are, sitting at some couch with an affable morning host, when these giant cameras, a bit like Daleks or some such (can I get some Doctor Who love out there?), come sweeping over, on their accord, fixing their mute, malevolent gaze upon you. Then, when you're done pitching your book in three minutes, the lights go up, and the cameras rotate silently to face the weather guy. I suppose these are cheaper in the long run than actual camera-men, and it's not like the filming is demanding or anything, but it's just... unsettling. Another strange thing is that, due to budget squeezes at many stations, hair and makeup is a thing of the past. Rooms marked "men" and "women" sit empty, their mirrors no longer reflecting the gaze of the procession of dog trainers, cookbook writers, and sundry guests who wake too early to appear too peppy to an uncertain audience.

Things got even stranger this morning in San Francisco when I showed up at one radio station, noticed a crowd buzzing in the hallway. Were they there to get a signed copy of the book? Alas, Jessica Simpson was in the house. Admittedly, that's one of those names that rather flummoxes me. It tugs at the corner of my memory — singer, actress, celebutante? — but I couldn't really identify one salient thing about her. And at the next radio stop, my successor on the hot seat was none other than Carol Channing, star of stage and screen, who still seems to be going quite strong in her... well, I'm not sure what decade. I somehow doubt Jessica Simpson will still be an item of interest many decades hence.I somehow doubt Jessica Simpson will still be an item of interest many decades hence.

Talk radio, whether it's the cordial single local NPR affiliate guy across from you or the genial folks at KFOG — and yes, of course they played Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic" — is where I feel most at home. There's an absolutely random quality to the call-in segments. Invariably, there's someone wondering why slower drivers refuse to vacate the faster left passing lane. A frightening number of callers seem to be on their cell phones, even as I'm describing what a bad idea that is. Some calls are truly strange — one guy wondering if the traffic flow changed with the tenor of news items that happened to be on the radio at the time, as if every driver on the road was listening to the same station. A surprising amount of truckers call in too, but I suppose talk radio must be a salvation for those long hauls.

I headed later to Google's Mountain View campus. To the uninitiated, this place was absolutely incredible. From the "expecting mother" parking spots near the entrance, to the volleyball games in the center court, to the Chinese language lunchtime study groups, to Sergey Brin just waltzing past me with a pair of cleats in hand as I entered, the place just seems like the best college you could ever go to, except you never have to leavethe place just seems like the best college you could ever go to, except you never have to leave. There did seem to be a bit of a Logan's Run vibe about the place, and I was wondering if at a certain age you arrived to find your parking place gone and your fingerprints erased from the system. But seriously — the place was really unlike anything I've ever experienced. As a New Yorker, I kept wondering, "Where was the edge?" Where were the booming car stereos, the smell of urine percolating from the subway steps, the people accosting you in the street? Would there be anything for me to rail against here, or I would just drift into a somnambulant perma-haze of strawberry smoothies, lunchtime volleyball, goofy sayings on whiteboards, and California sun?

I was a bit intimidated about speaking to a bunch of Google folks, to be honest, and I was hoping they wouldn't ask overly technical questions about "selfish routing" or network topologies or anything. But the large audience was incredibly warm and engaged, and the questions were smart but not obscurantist. One person even asked me to sign their speeding ticket.One person even asked me to sign their speeding ticket. He then paid me the highest compliment: He said he had gotten it while listening to me on NPR's Fresh Air. Probably no way to fashion an excuse to the police out of that one.

÷ ÷ ÷

Tom Vanderbilt writes about design, technology, science, and culture for Wired, Slate, the New York Times, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn and drives a 2001 Volvo V40.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do... Used Hardcover $5.95

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us)

One Response to "Crosstown Traffic"

    Eric Church August 15th, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    How many Dr. Who units do they move based on yer casual name-dropping?

Post a comment:

Get Your Gravatar

  1. Please note:
  2. All comments require moderation by staff.
  3. Comments submitted on weekends might take until Monday to appear.
PowellsBooks.Blog uses Gravatar to allow you to personalize the icon that appears beside your name when you post. If you don't have one already, get your Gravatar today!
  • back to top
Follow us on...

Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at