On the Metro

The first time I visited D.C. two springs ago, I attended a Capitol Steps production – a group of performing satirists who “put the mock in democracy.” One of their most memorable songs for me has resonated on an entirely closer level now that I’m living here.
These are the lyrics, sung to the melancholy tune of “In the Ghetto” by Elvis Presley. Go ahead and just pull out some background instrumental karaoke music and sing along.
On a cold and gray December morn
Commuters in DC look so forlorn
In the Metro (In the Metro)

And a tourist asks
“Will the red line take me to the blue?”
Do I look like a freakin’ map to you…
Of the Metro?

People, don’t you understand?
Tourists need a helping hand
Or they’ll ride on Metro rails all day
Will their memory of DC
Be nothing but the smell of pee?
Comin’ from a guy who sits and works on his crochet…

And a woman sighs
‘Cause when the train’s packed full she starts to dread
Guys treatin’ her butt like its Wonder Bread
On the Metro (On the Metro)

And so she tells those guys
“Hey, watch out, don’t invade my space!”
But half of them are already to second base
On the Metro (On the Metro)

Then one day in desperation
She says she’ll drive today
She hits the road in her car
Traffic sucks, so she doesn’t get far

Before she starts to cry
And when the train goes by, she knows she’s wrong
And she misses the chimes as they go “bing-bong”
Doors closing…
On the Metro (On the Metro)

Comical, yes, but also a little too accurate. When my family and I moved me in, we were the ignorant, obnoxious tourists. Seriously, even somber-faced D.C.ers look more approachable than this multicolored labyrinth of dots and lines.
Once we kind of figured the basic stops out, I still managed to wait on the wrong side of the rail at least twice in that first week. When I visited my friend last spring, anticipating my time now, I announced to her as we utilized this vast, overwhelming transportation system that I was going to engage someone in conversation every time I took the Metro.
     “Jessica, don’t do that,” she rebuked. She had already toughened up to the atmosphere of the city. “People don’t want to talk to you.”
I’m just this kind Southern girl that wants to make someone’s day a little brighter or make a new friend. What’s wrong with that? Looking around, though, I could see her point. Very few people were talking, most absorbed in their own piece of personal technology.
     “Well, I’m not putting headphones in. I’ll at least be available.”
Now that I’m here, I have broken my resolution a lot. It’s much easier to be a part of the masses, reaching for my Kindle and diving into a world of pleasure reading rather than awkwardly sitting next to a stranger. It didn’t take long for me to modify my policy. If said stranger does not have any distraction – no phone, music, reading – then I won’t either. We will sit together, and perhaps I will break the ice with an awkward question about what stop he or she is headed to next. I’ve already managed to have a few conversations, two of which happened to be Italian speakers. In the Capitol, of all places, it was a treat to revert to the lovely language of Italiano. (Even if I say things incorrectly, mi manca la lingua!…) Public transport is so connected to travel for me in not just through the varied regions of Italy, but also in Brussels, Budapest and London (a Babel of modern cities) that I am still caught off-guard when three seats over I understand full conversations without any effort. It felt good to diversify the language make-up one morning on the D.C. Metro.
So, since that first week, I’ve wisened up a bit. Once I got a little too confident, trying to multi-task and still know when to get off. As the familiar “Bing bong door closing” sounded, I realized that I should have disembarked with the flood of people now moving to their next train. Obviously, I don’t have Metro-riding down to an art yet, but I can at least get to work on time.
After the convenience and liberty of a car, it’s hard to appreciate public transportation. I am grateful – I certainly wouldn’t want to be driving here either – but… the Metro is still such a pain. I have now endured a month of some of D.C.’s coldest, grayest mornings in weather history. No one is happy standing in dank, 18 degree tunnels. Delays are more consistent than a predictable schedule, so it’s necessary to leave plenty of margin time. Because my work is outside of the city, I am a salmon swimming upstream, heading out of the city while other enter; the good part about this is that I always have a seat, and no one can sneak to second base, as the Capitol Steps song mentioned. God help you if you are part of the mass flood of commuters headed the opposite direction. 

I have only experienced this circus experience once. After a ten minute wait, you try to stuff yourself into an overflowing train. There literally is no room. I am not exaggerating. These trains are more filled than Jew trains in the Holocaust. Helplessly, you hear the inevitable “Doors closing.” So you wait another ten minutes, becoming even more grateful for the time-distracting Kindle. You stand a little too close to the edge of the platform, staking out your next spot and silently communicating to all potential competitors that you will be on that next train. When it arrives, you win a spot, but you pay for it in personal space. It’s nonexistent.  The whole train is comparable to a tightly-sealed can of compressed sardines;  you don’t care, though. At least you’re getting where you need to go.
When I encountered this for the first time, I counted six people whom I was in physical contact with at one time. You all just stand there holding your breath and trying not to make eye contact. The doors bing-bong open to my Rosslyn stop.  I fall out of the train, regaining space and balance. I climb the world’s third longest escalator, what is becoming  the majority of my exercise for the day, swipe out with that handy SmarTrip card and begin my journey home. Until tomorrow, Metro.  
Descending the Rosslyn Metro Escalator

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