Until recently, I assumed my tombstone would include the note, “He once quoted a dead woman.”
Which I did, innocently if idiotically, back in 2007. Long story, too long to explain here. And that was a very hard-to-write correction.
But, anyway, I now have a replacement epitaph: “He interviewed a highway.”
MoPac Boulevard pretty much moped through its first four decades without comment, letting ever-increasing numbers of cars and trucks roll all over it at decreasing average speeds. Yes, like a lot of us, MoPac slowed down as it moved into middle age, and it got a little bit cranky.
No, more than cranky, MoPac got a little bit evil. Then, over the past couple of years, as what was supposed to be a two-year toll lane expansion trudged into a third and then a maddening fourth year of narrowed and sometimes closed lanes, pure evil. But don’t take it from me.
The road, thanks to the wonders of Twitter and the intermediary efforts of a “handler,” has been pretty much impossible to shut up. In the 14 months since the @EvilMopacATX Twitter account opened, the boulevard alternatively known as Loop 1 has tweeted about 4,800 times. That’s more than 10 times a day. Of course, MoPac never sleeps, though sometimes it moves so slowly it’s hard to tell.
Things got ugly immediately.
“Greetings, Austin. I’m MOPAC traffic,” the thoroughfare said in its first tweet on Feb. 22, 2016. “How am I looking today? p.s. I hate you.”
It then appended a p.p.s. that could be quoted in a family newspaper only if it happened to be published exclusively for the Manson Family. Things have more or less continued in that scurrilous vein since. The account is a combination of gloating about soul-sapping traffic (usually accompanied by a Google traffic map showing the highway dead red), pop culture musings and quips, and the occasional semi-serious policy comment. What has emerged is a clever, diabolical persona: MoPac laughs at your troubles, I tell you, it laughs!
For instance, on April 20 Evil MoPac published vintage video of hippies exiting a Volkswagen bus, one of them dopily falling out of the van to the pavement. “It’s 4/20,” the road informed us. “The one day I can’t take credit for all the slow driving.”
Earlier this month, the same day the anthropomorphic highway posted a guest column in Austin Monthly, Evil MoPac tweeted a picture of two smiling flight attendants. “Seriously, don’t waste your money on a United flight. You can have a horrific travel experience right here on MoPac.”
The wit and wiseacre-dom, as of late April, has drawn more than 3,500 followers. Sadly, I must admit that Evil MoPac has more Twitter followers than your longtime American-Statesman transportation reporter. Perhaps because he’s never quoted a dead woman.
What hasn’t happened, however, is revelation of the handler’s identity. We don’t know, if I may drop the pretense for a moment, who Evil MoPac is (though I have confirmed he is a he — more on that in a minute). Speculation has been rampant in transportation circles, and in newsrooms, since shortly after the account set up shop. The Twitter account’s avatar is a Google map of MoPac, and the background photo is a massive traffic jam on what appears to be on a road 20-lanes wide.
I had a theory for quite a while that the man behind the malevolence was an insider at the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (whom I definitely will not name here), someone poking fun at the agency’s own troubles getting the toll lane project done. But over time, as Evil MoPac’s needle got ever sharper, I decided that institutional loyalty rendered my speculation inaccurate. As I worked on this column, I discovered that there are a number of suspects sitting in this newsroom, at least according to other people sitting in this newsroom.
Some Statesman denizens, I was told, had pored over Evil MoPac’s tweets like Elizabethan scholars, comparing the style and syntax to known writers. Whatever. Perhaps Statesman sportswriter Danny Davis wrote “Hamlet” and “Twelfth Night” as well, but I doubt it.
So I went to the source, direct messaging Evil MoPac on Twitter. We struck up quite a correspondence over the next few days, and I even convinced him to send the Statesman the nonrevelatory photos accompanying this story.
I asked Evil MoPac if he is male, or female? “Comfortably metro,” came the reply. But in another message, he confirmed he is a he. He also confessed that his handler was over 20 and under 60 “but likes it when people tell him he looks ‘late 20s.’” Which I suppose is a clue, or perhaps misdirection. But the photos lend credence to at least this much description.
I asked if I personally know his alter ego. “No,” he said, “you don’t know my handler. (But if you did, I’d still say no.)” So, no help there.
Would I recognize the alter ego if I saw him on the street or at a transportation meeting? Evil MoPac ignored the question, instead launching into a short riff on the Statesman-newsroom theory, suspiciously throwing out a suspect here whose name doesn’t normally appear in the paper or on the website. Hmmm …
We know, both from the Twitter account and from my dialogue with the highway, that Evil MoPac loves Jon Bon Jovi, “America’s #1 rock and roll messiah in a super positive, non-creepy way.” And the photo features a Jimmy Buffett lyric. So there’s that.
Why did it, and he, open the Twitter account last year?
“For my handler: pent up human frustration at the preposterous lane closure at Enfield (Road) in February 2016, as well as the overall plodding pace of the project,” he wrote. “For me: white-hot, unmitigated narcissism.”
Actually, the Enfield lane closure started in April 2016. Yes, even it was delayed.
I asked Evil MoPac if there are people in this world, such as a spouse or a buddy, who know the handler’s identity.
“A select few (under 10) know who he is,” Evil MoPac said. “A much smaller subset care.”
The key issue for people who have to drive on Evil MoPac is the delay in opening a toll lane in each direction from near Town Lake to Parmer Lane. The mobility authority opened the northbound lane from north of Far West Boulevard to Parmer in October, but it remains unknown when the rest will come online. Presumably when it does, MoPac will become a little less evil. Or maybe a lot less, if the new lanes and their fluctuating tolls loosen traffic as much as the mobility authority maintains they will.
Evil MoPac’s reaction to this possible taming of his baser instincts, what I referred to as the pending completion of the toll lanes?
“I’m horrified at the possibility that the lanes will eventually open, but amused in equal measure that you’re using the word ‘pending,’” he said. “My ‘open by 2023’ jab started as a joke and will probably end up as a prophecy.”