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Carpooling: How one group has stayed `married'

The following was found on the Prince William Journal homepage at: http://www.jrnl.com/news/98/Aug/jrn1230898.html (link now broken)

Special to The Journal

Every business day in the quiet Northern Virginia suburbs, strangers pick up strangers - in parking lots, train stations and malls. Sometimes men pick up women, sometimes women pick up men, sometimes men pick up other men. Often, names aren't even exchanged.

Some people call this practice sleazy. Others call it slug lines.

``I call it casual carpooling," said Nick Ramfos, chief of alternative commute programs for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' Commuter Connection Program.

No one knows exactly how many commuters use slug lines to get to and from work but Ramfos said they contribute significantly to the overall commuting pattern in the region.

``Formally, we don't endorse the slug lines because of liability purposes," Ramfos said.

If slug lines are the one-night stands of commuting, then long-term carpools are the marriages.

When Larry Lunn, 54, and Tom Jasionowski, 54, started their carpool in 1972, bell-bottom trousers were in style and now, in 1998, they are back. Their carpool has seen six presidents in office. In more than 25 years, their carpool has survived disco, the Cold War and more than 350,000 miles of commuting between Fairfax, Va., and downtown Washington.

``We get on each other's nerves once in a while, but then so does your wife," Lunn said.

Each weekday morning, Lunn and Jasionowski ride together from Centreville, Va., to a meeting point in Fairfax near the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Interstate 66. There, they pick up Tom Roth, who joined the carpool about 20 years ago and Dennis Gorondy, who has been carpooling with them for three or four years. They rotate to a new driver each week.

So, how has this marriage survived?

Jasionowski said the carpool has an unofficial moratorium on discussions about work, ``just to maintain our sanity," he said. Jasionowski, Lunn, Roth and Gorondy - and most of the other people they included in the carpool throughout the years - work for the U.S. Department of Labor in the computer field.

``We talk about events of the weekend," Lunn said. ``One of the merits of the carpool is that we're all fairly apolitical."

During the decades of commuting, the carpool picked up various fourth and fifth passengers - including Lunn's brother and Jasionowski's son - some riding in for a few weeks, others for a few years.

Lunn said these extra passengers always had to adjust to the normally staid atmosphere. Roth may be reading the paper. Jasionowski may be stealing a few minutes of extra sleep. Lunn and Gorondy may be quietly discussing their weekend plans or last night's game.

Adjusting to the routine of this mobile marriage of men wasn't always easy, though.

``The new people don't have a feel for the new carpool so they can be disruptive," Lunn said. ``There were a couple of fairly chatty ones."

``There was one fellow who got on our nerves quite a bit," said Roth, polite enough not to reveal the passenger's name. ``He only carpooled with us for a year and a half," Roth said.

``I rode in the carpool for a while," said Dorothy Lunn, Larry Lunn's wife, who became the group's fifth wheel. ``It was very organized, very congenial, but very quiet for the most part. They were nice enough to let me ride with them, but I'm sure they were happy to go back to four people," she said.

Roth said the five-person carpool did not last very long. ``It was always a toss-up for who was going to ride in the back," he said.

The carpool also has used at least 15 cars - from an economical Dodge Dart to a sporty Jeep Cherokee.

``I've used six different cars, at least, in 20 years of driving," Roth said. ``There have been people who've ridden with us that have had some real clunkers where we've wondered if we were going to make it to work."

Roth admitted that during the 1970s, he occasionally had to use his 1966 Rambler when it was his turn to drive.

``I think we all had our individual feelings about the various cars, but I particularly disliked the 1970 Dodge Dart that one of the guys had. I didn't look forward to riding in that," Lunn said.

Lunn said he has owned at least five cars since starting the carpool. He said during all that time, when he and the other carpoolers bought new cars, they kept in mind the needs of the carpool as much as anything else.

``For the longest time, I had a full-size van, which everybody seemed to like," Jasionowski said. ``Everyone got a seat and got to stretch out a little."

Jasionowski said he had few complaints about anyone else's cars. As long as the air conditioning worked, he said, he had no problems.

Even the nicest cars can't prevent rush-hour disasters, however - accidents, ice, snow and sometimes even the unthinkable.

``We were riding together during the Air Florida crash and we got stuck in that," Roth said.

Dorothy Lunn, who also works for the Labor Department, said the blizzard of 1996 nearly coincided with the government shutdown the same year.

``That blizzard happened right at the end of our furlough," she said. ``One ran right into the other. There was no break between the furlough and the snowstorm."

``I think we sort of enjoyed the time away from work. As Dorothy put it, that was the only Christmas where we were ready two weeks in advance," Larry Lunn said.

Although all of the old-school carpoolers are now eligible, Larry Lunn is the one that plans to retire this month.

``We'll probably get another carpool rider, but it won't be the same because we've been together for so long," Roth said. ``He is going to be missed. There's just going to be an empty space in the carpool with no one to fill it."

``I expect that I'll miss that contact," said Lunn, who plans to sell his house and move out of the area with his wife next spring. But he, too, will be missed.

``I've known Larry since the early 1970s, and we have socialized together. We've gone on a few hunting trips together," Jasionowski said of his soon-to-retire commuting partner. But as this partnership may be losing one of its veterans, carpooling is still going strong in the area.

According to Ramfos, the Council of Governments estimates the Washington area has 2.2 million commuters, and 24 percent of those get to work by carpool.

``We're actually No. 1 in the nation," Ramfos said, ``Los Angeles is No. 2." There are many store owners in Old Town who are pet friendly. Dogs are invited in with their owners at places like Crown Books and many have treats on hand for their four-legged patrons.

At Old Town School For Dogs, where Mejia trains and grooms canines, he also provides a bus service for owners who can't transport their dogs to him for classes. ``People love their dogs and we are here to help them pamper their pets by providing services that will make it easier for them to do that," Mejia said.

``We open our appointment books in January and are all booked up by July," he said. ``Right now we have about three openings where people have cancelled but more than likely, they will be filled by this weekend. The price for pampering pets is a secondary issue for our customers who give their pets the best care possible."

For many of these animal lovers, pampering their pets doesn't stop with their pet's heartbeat. It continues into the afterlife of the pet with cared-for-plots at the cemetery.

``We have various size plots that range from $250 to $900," said Marjorie Hewitt, managing director of Aspin Hill Memorial Park & Wildlife Sanctuary in Rockville, Md., one of the many pet cemeteries in the region. ``Our caskets also vary in price and size from $95 to $540, the most expensive being an actual human casket made by Washington Wilbert Vault Co. in Laurel, Md. It is made of Fiberglas resin with white satin lining. Other type of caskets we offer are made of ponderosa pine, poplar wood and polyurethane, which is air and water tight."

Hewitt said these caskets are popular and added that some pet owners choose to be buried with their pet at the pet cemetery.

``There are approximately 40 owners buried with their pets," she said. ``Last summer was the last time we buried someone with his pet. We also periodically see families sprinkling human ashes over pet gravestones, probably a last request by the owner."

There are more than 50,000 rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, parrots, cats, dogs and horses buried in here, Hewitt said, and the purchase of a plot also includes the privilege of using a chapel on the premises for a vigil.

``It is much like a human funeral," Hewitt said. ``We have an old chapel where we set the [deceased] animal in an open casket. More often than not, pet owners will read a eulogy, say some prayers, and read some poems."

Pet pampering may seem extreme, but for animal owners, it's the price well paid.


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