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I originally wrote and posted the following story in 2008 but am re-posting it now after encountering the news piece by CBS News, Communities Fighting Back Against Congestion-Causing Traffic Apps. Yes, fiction comes to life nine years later!

Virtual Bonanza

"I was in here four years ago Bob, what on earth did you do?"

Chet was talking about the diner's jumping patronage. Just about every booth in the place was filled with people, more than a few with what appeared to be entire families. The grill bar was lined with an assortment of men and the occasional wary woman, some talking with their neighbor, others trying to avoid them. The clattering and general climate of a busy but well organized carnival gave the impression that the three or four waitresses shooting about were not quite enough.

Waving instructions and handing off checks to one of them, Bob stopped to give Chet the story.

"It's a miracle," he poured. "When you were here last, I was 6 months from closing up. I didn't even have regular help coming in on most days."

"What happened then?" Chet innocently demanded.

"GPS!"

Chet perked. "GPS? You mean like those Tom Toms in cars or something?"

"Exactly."

Chet took off his hat and scratched behind his ear. "I'm not followin' Bob."

"You know these GPS things right? The Tom Toms and so forth?". Bob coupled his hands to illustrate the profile of such a device.

"Why sure Bob, I just suggested as much didn't I? What's that got to do with this turn in business? People findin' ya easier?"

Bob laughed. "Christ Chet, nobody searches for this diner. Let me explain." He found a clear spot on the counter where a patron had just left. He fingered Chet to come closer, then took out a pen and piece of paper from his shirt pocket. Drawing a straight line, he directed Chet to follow. "This is Highway 34, right?"

"Sure, always has been." Chet said, unsure where this was all going.

"Okay, this is the turn onto Highway 92, the juncture, right?" He drew a half circle to represent the complex loop that had existed since the mid-60s.

"Sure is," Bob agreed.

"Okay, now when you're drivin from any point south a' here, and want to get to Exit 202, the one leading into the city center, would you agree that Highway 34 through the juncture is the fastest way to do it?" He drew a dotted line down his rendition of Highway 34, and around the loop, then off to the side.

"Why sure, that's what the highway's for. Gettin' there faster."

Bob waved his finger. "Exactly, that's what most people think, Chet. That's why business was about to go under the last time you were in here."

Chet smiled because he knew there was a surprise conclusion to this explanation, but he still wasn't quite following.

"It's the GPS Chet!". He took a deep breath to excitedly explain in more detail. "PEOPLE think it's faster to take 92 down to 202 to get to the city. The road is there, you're already driving on it, and most people just figure what for all intent and purposes is simple logic - drive into the juncture, then turn off on 202. People have been doing that for decades out of pure intuition."

He turned his piece paper long ways, took his pen back, then drew a dark X. "This 'X' represents the Greasy Fork. He drew it parallel to the line that represented Highway 92.

"People think Highway 92 is the fastest, but thanks to some slight computational thing-dingies in the way GPS calculates the fastest route between two places - or whatever -, I don't pretend to get it, it turns out that Exit 4 here onto MLK Boulevard is ACTUALLY faster than taking that damned highway through the juncture if you're goin' into the city."

He looked at Chet who was finally getting it.

"See, all the people driving around these parts for the first time are following what their GPS is tellin'em. And their GPS is tellin'em, get off Exit 4, go down MLK, and THEN go into the city - skipping that juncture. GPS tells people how to get places the fastest, see?"

He leaned down and finished his drawing to include MLK, which squarely intersected his X, or, the Greasy Fork. "They all drive past HERE Chet. This diner!"

Bob looked at his own drawing and triumphetly punched one hand into his own side and leaned on it. "GPS saved my business. It's like they built a damned highway right out front without actually building a damned highway!"

Chet shook his head, fascinated. "That's incredible Bob. I'm real happy for ya. When did you figure this all out?"

"For awhile I couldn't. People started just showin' up more and more. My supply orders were reaching new pricing tiers, and I just knew it wasn't natural. I really couldn't figure it out, though I wanted to believe that maybe word was getting out about my cookin' at the grill. I shoulda' known better than that, and eventually I did."

Chet laughed.

"I hardly noticed most of the people coming in here had these things in their cars. I'd never had made the connection weren't for the fact I got one myself from Monica."

Monica was Bob's wife of some 10 years. A little younger, a little more tech savvy, she was the great contemporary between them.

"I hooked it up and just let it talk out driving directions. I've been here 40 years, you know, Chet. I don't need help navigating these roads. But it was, you know, neat. And I liked Monica seeing me appreciate it."

"Yeah Bob, they are neat to listen to while you're driving."

"Sure," Bob nodded. "Eventually, I took me a trip downtown from the ranch house I keep over in Sumnter. You know which I'm talking about, right?"

Chet shifted his feet, nodding. "Yep,"

"Well, I'm driving along about to go through the juncture, just like always, just like everybody else still does - those without GPS I mean, and this thing starts telling me to get off at Exit 4. I'm like, what the fu-?, that doesn't make any sense. But you know, I decide to play along with it just for folly. I turn off at Exit 4 just like the voice tells me, then do just as it says to go down MLK."

"At that point it hit me. My own restaurant is sailing past me out my right window and bingo, I get it." He turned to face the bustling restaurant before them and raised his hands. "I got me some kinda virtual bonanza going on here."

"Holy crap," Chet remarks.

"Tell me about it buddy. You know what I lie awake at night worrying about these days? It isn't about making the payroll or paying Henson's bread people. You know what it is now?"

"Tell me," Chet egged on.

"Some god-damned egghead in some laboratory is going to tweak the software or fine tune the mathematical formula, or whatever, that makes all them GPS toys figure MLK from Exit 4 is faster. Because man, if they ever do that - ". Bob finished his explanation by throwing his hands up in some imagined defeat.

"I get your point." Bob said as he placed his hat back on. "Well good for you Bob. You deserve it after all these years."

They shook hands and Bob turned to address a frantic waitress begging for his attention.

Chet mosied up to the front counter and handed over his debit card to the cashier. He looked out to the crowded parking lot and just wondered at the luck of it all.

It wasn't until Chet reached his car, got in, and turned over his engine that he remembered why he had even thought to stop in at his old friend's diner after so many years in the first place. Snapping his seatbelt together, he stared at the GPS box on his dashboard.

"Lucky sonofabitch," Chet thought as he wheeled back and out toward home.

 
 
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