The week of November 23, 2014

Commuting in the era of the dot-com bubble

By Allen Weiner

It’s 6am on a typical weekday in Marin County circa 1995. The sky is turning from black to foggy Bay Area gray as I approach the Golden Gate Bridge in my 1992 Honda Accord. I look at the car’s clock and know I have 90 minutes (give or take) to go before I reach my destination—my office on Ridder Park Drive in San Jose. That amounts to 70 miles, as the crow flies, with the same travel time heading home later in the day.

Welcome to my life in Silicon Valley during the pre-dot-com bubble days of IPOs and over-the-top spending for services that turned to vapor in short order. My daily work routine included meet-and-greets at the vast array of ’90s tech icons: Yahoo, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, AltaVista (part of HP), PointCast, and others. I was among a large group of hopefuls who wanted to be immersed in what was then the epicenter of the tech world but lived in other parts of the Bay Area. Like most of my colleagues, I couldn’t afford the exorbitant home prices of such cities as Mountain View, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, and San Jose.

My particular situation was one of risk/reward. Within days of moving with my wife and 2-year-old daughter from a rented condo in San Francisco’s Marina District to a home in Mill Valley (just up the road from where Jerry Garcia used to hang out), I was presented with an offer I could not refuse, a job that paid me more than twice what I was earning at the time. But there was a catch: The job was in San Jose, more than 70 miles from our new home. It was the most difficult decision of my career, but it allowed me to eventually provide for my family.

From November 1994 to December 2001, I commuted three days per week on average from north of the iconic bridge that links San Francisco to Marin County to that emerging tech wonderland, Silicon Valley. Along the way, as I traveled the circumference of the globe 20 times, I fully spun the odometer of two cars and made the journeys with only one traffic ticket and one small fender bender. (In one of those “you have to see it to believe it” moments, I also was awarded a large chunk of the Golden Gate Bridge that fell from the top of its span and lodged itself into the radiator of my then-new Lexus RX 300. In disgust, after a costly repair, I tossed that serendipitous souvenir into the trash not thinking it might have some eBay value to some oddball collector.)

It’s been more than a decade since we closed up shop in Larkspur, Calif., and headed east and south. Since those days, the longest work commute I’ve had has been about seven minutes from our home in Austin to the Daily Dot office. For the most part, my work trip has been from living room to home office.

To answer that proverbial question posed in the 1968 Dionne Warwick hit, yes, I knew the way to San Jose.

But it’s difficult to forget those days of yesteryear. I can close my eyes and vividly remember the truly awful route that took me from here to there. The excursions were a mix of freeways and city streets. Yes, I said city streets. Getting from Marin County to San Jose offers myriad possibilities, but I selected the one that took me through the streets of San Francisco (sans Karl Malden and Michael Douglas) because it offered a somewhat direct route and kept me off of Highway 101, the Bay Area’s biggest parking lot.

As the dawn breaks, the 11-mile ride from my home to the Golden Gate Bridge was uneventful. The scene from the starboard side of my journey was a postcard-worthy view of the sunrise in San Francisco sometimes shrouded in fog, giving the vista a dreamy, ethereal look. To my port side was the more rugged landscape of the Marin Headlands and some of the more exclusive areas of San Francisco, such as Sea Cliff and the Presidio. It was a lovely vision, but was a daily reminder that my trip has barely begun.

And to answer that proverbial question posed in the 1968 Dionne Warwick hit, yes, I knew the way to San Jose.

My way down 19th Avenue in the city was a stop-and-go affair dotted with stoplights, gas stations, dogwalkers, sanitation workers, strip malls, and some of the city’s best Vietnamese restaurants. As I left San Francisco city limits, I made my way onto Highway 280, which would take me past such iconic landmarks as Sand Hill Road, the tech venture capital mecca; the Linear Accelerator on Stanford’s campus; and Apple’s worldwide HQ in Cupertino (well before its i-device heyday). After completing that scenic portion of the journey, I merged onto Highway 880, heading east to the Ridder Park Drive exit in San Jose. From takeoff to landing, 90 minutes on the low end, two or more hours on the high end.

Beyond the $3 toll to cross from Marin to San Francisco, there were other prices I had to pay. The anxiety that comes with facing an overwhelming commute can throttle productivity and create tension in family relationships. Being seemingly on the other side of the planet, it was rare that I was able to help with daily tasks like grocery shopping or picking our daughter up from school. If I am due acknowledgment for surviving my daily jaunt to the Valley, my wife is owed more than I can ever repay her.

The anxiety that comes with facing an overwhelming commute can throttle productivity and create tension in family relationships.

As a level set, keep in mind the grueling trek was missing two of today’s creature comforts that makes long commutes go more quickly: smartphones and satellite radio (or USB-connectable devices). I believe my first mobile phone (if you could call it that) was around 1998 and was a large brick that offered terrible reception and high monthly rates. As a business tool, it was worthless; as a paperweight to keep my breakfast from flying around the front seat, it worked like a charm. By the end of my saga circa 2001, I had a flip phone, but that did not help with the lack of cell signal, especially on 280. There were those commuter conspiracy theorists who believed some top secret governmental agency scrambled cell signals to protect all of the defense contract work done in the area.

When it comes to entertainment, I owe my sanity and ability to withstand my supersized journey to one man: Howard Stern. Prior to my commute, I had never listened to the King of All Media, and I haven’t listened to him once since my Bay Area days ended. Each day, like clockwork, as I passed the toll booths on the Golden Gate Bridge, Howard Stern and his sidekicks Robin Quivers, Baba Booey, Jackie the Jokeman, and Fred Norris would come on and numb my senses with an inimitable sense of humor that was a balm for my prolonged periods behind the wheel.

The story of my horrid commute to and from Silicon Valley is but a small trinket in a time capsule that preceded the loud thud called the dot-com bubble. I started the journey as a naive and eager tech analyst anxious to be part of a new industrial revolution. My journey gradually ended years later with sad symbolism when traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge was heavily scrutinized after 9/11. The vision of CHP officers peering inside cars as the made their way onto the span was enough to tell me the ride was over.

On days when my current seven-minute ride from home to office stretches to nine or 10 minutes due to a broken traffic light or Texas-sized rainstorm, I recall my Silicon Valley commute days of breakfast in the car and hearing Captain Jenks made yet another phony phone call. I smile with a sense of acknowledgement of a mission accomplished and am thankful for the opportunity to have been at the right place at the right time.

Just as I am now.

Photo via [email protected] [email protected]/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) | Remix by Rob Price