Earlier this week, the Washington, DC metro system shut down for 30 hours for safety inspections. The city, which relies heavily on public transport, went into shock. #Metromageddon was coined and government employees were allowed to work from home. I lived in DC for two years, and the episode got me thinking about my days riding the metro. I wrote these random notes one particularly cold February day in 2013 after returning home from my commute. I’ve found commuting has a similar feel whether in DC, Rome, or Chicago, so no matter where you live, if you have a metro system you can probably relate. Not really travel related, but I hope you enjoy!
Midweek On the Metro
It’s Wednesday at 5:24 PM in the nation’s capitol when I step onto the blue line train at Foggy Bottom. The metro is packed with both the pushing and the patient. We lurch away from the station, only to screech and halt seconds later at Farragut West. More pile in, briefcases and gym bags and thick winter jackets. By now it’s both uncomfortable and comical how tightly we’re packed. I can smell cough drops and try not to breathe deeply. It’s flu season. I can’t reach a handle or seat, but don’t worry about falling because my fellow passengers provide a snug wall. It’s eerily quiet inside the car, made more obvious each time we stop and the doors open to a scene of shouting, scrambling, overworked commuters and delay announcements amid rumbling tracks. My shoulders are hunched and hands clasped as we speed away again in silence, making space in a mass of sighs and tired eyes. Suddenly, a woman looks around at the crowded car and laughs out loud at the sight. A dialogue is opened.
“We’re all doing the best we can,” says a thin, pale, balding man in a suit with a red tie. He says it slowly, almost drawling, shaking his head. He looks like the type who laughs at his own jokes in the office and is happily mediocre at everything he does. “Just the best we can,” he repeats solemnly.
“They should call it the blue crush instead of orange crush!” exclaims a short, chubby man, bouncing with excitement at his joke. “No, it should be called the blue-orange crush!” says the balding man. Seriously? I look around. Another girl rolls her eyes at me. Thank god.
“This is ridiculous.” That was an uptight older woman with strong perfume. She whips out her blackberry and types furiously. A younger man in gym shorts doesn’t hide his smirk as she stumbles when the train makes a turn.
“Oh you just wait until the silver line!” There’s our balding friend again, apparently an authority on DC metro. “The tracks will overlap with this one so there will be even fewer blue trains. Now that will be a headache.” He’s speaking to the car in general. Laughing alone. A young, stylish girl looks up from examining her manicure to raise a perfectly plucked eyebrow at him as if to say, ‘not helpful—shut up.’
It works momentarily, and then a woman mentions she needs to get off at Metro Center. “The doors open on the right, “ the bald man offers. “Head that way now. I ride the metro every day,” (we figured), “and let me tell you, I know all the stops and all the doors. Plan accordingly my friend.” She gives him a tight smile and begins to sift through to the other side. Sure enough, we stop and the doors open on the right. The man is smiling and leaning against a pole, smug.
“Is it always like this?” a first time rider asks timidly.
“Oh this is normal,” he says. Now others chime in.
“Oh yes it’s always like this at rush hour!”
“Welcome to DC!”
“Girl this is nothing, you should have seen inauguration!”
Soon everyone has horror stories and advice and a strange sense of pride. The same passengers grumbling and shoving a minute ago are now smiling and leaning in to happily inform her of the joys of commuting.
“It’s part of the day, the bustle,” one says.
“It’s how you know it’s a great city,” says another.
“Look at all these hard working people,” says a third.
A young girl answers her phone, which the balding man informs us is technically against the rules. “Hello,” she says. “Yeah I’m on the metro,” the last word said with disdain. “I know it’s taking forever.”
And just like that the spell is broken. The deep sighs, rubbing of temples and bored eyes are back. But now I get it. It’s part of the act. A communal annoyance, a group complaint, a ‘we’re in this together for better or worse every morning and evening’ camaraderie that happens underground across the city. On the metro, just like with family, only those that love the most are allowed to be critical. A year in, I’m proud to be one of them.