Sunday, January 27, 2013

My Life These Days, Part 1: The Metro

The alarm on my plugged-in-to-recharge iPod Touch sounds at 6:16 a.m. It's one of the basic alarm chimes Apple lets you choose from; you've probably heard it before. It's dark outside the windows and throughout the house. Our housemate and her beagle are asleep downstairs; her cat is either sleeping in my red collapsible laundry basket that she thinks is a bed for her, or curled up on the beige carpet in the hallway like a warm, black-and-white, sentient bath mat. My boyfriend's warm body is next to me in our cozy "bed cave" that we rigged up using an IKEA canopy bed, a top sheet (for the "roof"), three shower-curtain panels, and a constellation of LED twinkle lights zigzagging across the top. The LED stars are off now, of course. It feels as if the whole world except for me is safely ensconced in a deep, warm, snuggly, delicious sleep. Even people in China.

But I get up happily, because I'm about to ride the Metro to my new, for-now job in DC. 

I hustle; I've never been a "morning person," so I shower at night and my morning routine takes all of maybe seven minutes on a slow day. One week in, my new (for-now) routine still has a few kinks that I need to work out. Packing a lunch, for example. It just has not happened yet. Right now it's just: put in my contacts, brush my teeth, brush my hair, throw on my clothes, put on my coat, out the door. I listen to NPR for the whopping five-minute drive to the Franconia-Springfield Metro station's parking garage. Sometimes I hear Garrison Keillor read poetry on "The Writer's Almanac," and I endure his smug, ain't-I-quaint, I'm-from-Minnesota! voice because the poems are often good. Sometimes I hear early traffic reports that don't pertain to me. 

At the Metro station, I turn left into the lane where it says "7'2" Clearance." This early in the morning, my brain relies on arcane cues like this, responds to them without really stopping to think about them. (I don't think, for example: "Hmm, 7'2"... Conan O'Brien is 6'4" -- I bet he could reach up and touch the top." I just think, "Duhhh... 7'2" sign. Me go there.") Pre-dawn, pre-caffeine (because I can't bring a frappuccino onto the Metro), I'm still a little on auto-pilot. I park; I try to create a little mnemonic to help me remember where my car is: "5D... It's like 3D, only way better." Hey, whatever works. 

I'm bundled up in my "impervious" winter coat, the magical immune-to-cold one that's basically a navy-blue comforter with sleeves and a faux-fur-lined hood, that I've had since my freshman year of college, that's been with me through campus snowball fights with my then-crush out on "the quad," that later kept me warm while wandering alone around a random stray-dog-strewn neighborhood in Patagonian Chile while my boyfriend and his friend were helicoptering to Antarctica for the afternoon. It renders me shapeless and sexless, a puffy marshmallow man weaving through the crowds at my transfer points and on the street, un-flirted-with, un-checked-out, unbothered, left blissfully alone. 

I still haven't gotten fully into the swing of the urbane-Metro-commuter thing -- I'm not one of those people clicking along with a rapid staccato gait, barely registering the turnstiles and signs pointing out which color train to take, their heads filled with terribly important and surely all work-related thoughts, an instinctive flick of the wrist and they're somehow scanned through with some Metro Gold Card or iPhone-relayed bar code that only the true Metro commuters even know how to get. I have about three Metro cards in my coat pocket at a given time, a plastic SmarTrip card that I keep adding money onto, plus two of the white-paper kind with the pandas at the top and amounts like $2.50 or $1.13 on them, just enough to make it worth keeping them around for some mythical day when I'm not in a rush and think to consolidate them onto a single SmarTrip card. I've also got one or two old Metro cards tucked into a crevice of my wallet, also carrying a small but not insignificant amount of Metro-fare credit. 

Instead of clicking along, all indifferent city-suaveness, I cling to my SmarTrip card like I'm an American tourist and it's my passport to get me out of a Third World country in revolt. I brush it over the corresponding SmarTrip button on top of the turnstile, and always feel a bumpkin-ish mixture of relief and disbelief and privilege when it lets me through. Part of me still feels weird riding the Metro when I'm not going to a Smithsonian museum, or to monuments or the zoo with out-of-town aunts and uncles and cousins. Yes, I really am that suburban.

To get to my new job I shuffle among four different stations: Franconia-Springfield (at the end of the Blue Line) to the Pentagon (my transfer point to the Yellow Line), on to Gallery Place-Chinatown (my transfer point to the Red Line), then two Red Line stops to Union Station. Unless I luck out and catch the Yellow Express train, a special rush-hour service, in which case I get to skip stopping at the Pentagon but miss out on standing around with secretive-seeming folks in desert camouflage or military formalwear with gold insignias and chevrons on them that mean something I don't know. In other words, my Metro journey to work and back each day is far from fast or convenient. 

It's my favorite part of the day.

At stations, sometimes I read -- I always bring a book with me; I just finished Katie Roiphe's original and thought-provoking "In Praise of Messy Lives" book of essays -- or I mosey and sneak furtive glances at the other riders. Because Metro commuting is still such a novelty to me, I think things like, "If I weren't here right now -- if I'd left the house five minutes earlier or five minutes later -- I would never have seen that girl's pink bangs, or this other girl looking down at her smartphone, her face bathed in the screen's angelic aqua glow. I would never have seen this well-dressed dwarf woman wearing designer-looking business clothes that are perfectly scaled down to her size." I would never have seen this person, or that person. I would have lived my whole life never even knowing they existed. 

On the train, I jockey (nicely; I don't elbow anyone out of the way or anything) for a forward-facing seat -- I'm a huge fan of roller coasters, but, you know, I don't read on them -- then I slump and snuggle into my coat and dive into my book. I mean, that sounds corny -- diving into a book -- but that's what it feels like, opening a portal and disappearing for a while from the train. Reading on the way to work is a luxury that I am surely not taking for granted right now.

I look up a lot, though. I always look for the sunrise -- that band of smoldering red or milquetoasty pink at the bottom of the sky -- and it always strikes me as odd, to be witnessing something so majestic while on a Metro train to work with a bunch of strangers. I glance around to see who else is looking at it, perhaps watching the pink shimmers on the Potomac River as we cross over into DC -- and who is ignoring it, who has their heads bent down, ho-hum, been there and got a T-shirt, this news article on my iPhone or celebrity-gossip blurb in the free Washington Post Express is way more engrossing than the quotidian ascendance of the fiery celestial orb around which our entire world spins and which makes our existence possible. Yeah yeah yeah.

I have a few favorite things to look at. Early on in my trip, there's some ghetto water park. Coming home from work one day last week, I saw it covered with snow, the slides transformed into bobsledding chutes. There's Reagan-National airport, and the Alaskan Airlines plane with its Inuit icon on the tail, that always seems to be out on the tarmac when my train passes by in the morning. This is one thing I love about my new, admittedly arduous commute -- all around me is motion, action, people going places, planes and trains going places, trains to New York City, planes to Alaska. It gives me a sense of hope. It makes me feel like, "Hey, if I just had enough coin, I could get on a plane and go to the Great White North. They might have a free seat right now! I could go Into the Wild." It's so much more inspiring than driving past the Tysons Corner mall every day like I used to.

I reckon I've acquired a few Metro-savvy tics after a week of commuting this way. I instinctively flinch and move away, as politely as possible, from anyone who coughs. I don't stand up until the train has completely stopped moving, lest I lurch forward and stumble and wind up splayed across someone's lap or draped over the back of a seat Heimlich-maneuver-style. I've come up with mnemonics to remember which direction to go in on a particular line, too -- at the end of the day, I take the Red Line going toward the terminus of Shady Grove, which sounds like a pleasant place to retire to after a long day of work, a heavenly, hard-earned and sheltering shady grove.

And then, at the end of my morning journey, I arrive at the gorgeous, soaring, imperious, marmoreal, lofty-SAT-vocabulary-word-worthy Union Station. It's a Metro stop, it's a train station, it's a shopping mall, it's a food court, it's a virtual Town Square at which, so far, I have walked through a mini-maze of columns that light up as you pass through them (a promotional display by the Philips light-bulb company), and at which I have been inconvenienced by a large-scale but well-mannered pro-life protest composed mostly of white high-school students plus several gaggles of priests and nuns on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. 

On the day of the protest, the line for the escalator down to the Union Station Metro platform was clogged with young nuns -- I got to tell my boyfriend that I was home late not because of traffic, or a car accident... but because of nuns. I also dug the absurdity of seeing one of the high-school students, during my lunch break, nonchalantly carrying around a sign that said something like, "My Name Is Chris, And I Exist Because My Parents Chose Life." He was porting the sign around with it resting over his shoulder, as if it were a Lacrosse stick. It was one of those moments when I thought, "I bet if a bunch of aliens landed here right now, they would think we were pretty weird." 

It took a few days, but I now have my morning breakfast-and-a-book routine down: I get to Union Station and go straight for the "secret" Starbucks, a "portable" or makeshift cafe set up in front of where they're currently renovating the "real" Starbucks behind some canvas or sheets of plastic. (I've learned to outright avoid the more easy-to-spot, non-portable Starbucks that's right by where people are waiting for trains to NYC or New England or Pennsylvania, especially on a Friday.) I order a mocha frappuccino, and then I take maybe five steps to the always-empty raised wooden square that's a wide, flat bench with a "Thank you for not reclining" plaque-style sign in the center. 

I sit, and I don't recline, but I rest the backs of my calves against the edge so I'm sitting up but feel sort of lounge-y, kind of like I'm in an invisible EZ Boy. I pull out my iPod Touch and check my e-mail using the Starbucks wifi, which extends at least as far as this bench. I read my book, glancing up occasionally at the big fancy clock with its Roman numerals built onto the far wall above where I go out and into DC proper to walk to my job. The clock is flanked by marble statues of men in breeches who probably helped write the Constitution or something.

At about 8:20, I walk to work. Outside the station are idling taxi cabs and homeless men selling newspapers and homeless men not selling newspapers but sitting on stone steps or milling around, some of them trying out different tactics. There's a guy I see every morning, afternoon, and evening, who says, "Goodmorningma'amGodblessyouhaveagoodday, goodmorningsirGodblessyouhaveagoodday..." as he sits and holds an obvious cup for money to go into, but he doesn't overtly beg; he tries to make the whole endeavor as pleasant and almost cheerful as possible, doesn't give you a sad story or tell you what he might want to spend your loose change on. 

This is hard for me -- when I was under-employed and living in San Diego back in 2008, I made a point of making friends with the homeless people (almost all of them were men) who hung out on the streets I frequented. I knew their names, I knew their stories, I knew the degree to which each of them was crazy, or, to put it more kindly, out of step with conventional reality. On my birthday that year, a bunch of guys who always sat in a row outside the Scientology church downtown offered to give me twenty bucks to buy myself a cake. I hung out with several of them for hours at a time; I wrote stories about our times together. I could tell you so much about my homeless friends out there, but for now I'll just paste in this snippet from a much longer e-mail I sent to a friend back then:

There are lots of homeless people, yes, but many of them are friendly and eccentric and endearing, poignant reminders to be grateful if you have a job, a bed, a place to shower, respectability.
I sometimes think about the map of the city that was shown to us Clean & Safe "safety ambassador" applicants, little pins stuck in it designating "our" area--and then the man gesturing toward the outlying regions, where, ultimately, he wants to push the homeless people, into other people's territory, away from the eyes of tourists downtown. So sinister. I'm glad I won't play a part in his master plan.
At night I pass them in sleeping bags. Sometimes I'll recognize someone who, during the day, is garrulous, calling out strange or crude things, but at night, asleep, reduced to a basic humanity, he or she will seem angelic. When I pass a group of them sleeping, I walk quietly, as if I'm passing through a nursery of sleeping babies.
I'm digressing. I can't seem to stop talking about the homeless people here. I don't know why that is. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post on this blog, I once drove a homeless woman I saw wandering around near my old Fairfax apartment to not one but two shelters (they were both churches) in the middle of the night; she had an address, I took her there, it was full or open only to men, I forget which, and we had to find her another one nearby, and I seriously considered just letting her stay with me.

I don't have cash for all of them. Or, sometimes I do, but how often can I do that, stop and give each guy a couple bucks, or even just a dollar? 

This is the unconscionable thing I ask myself each time I pass them and scurry on to my office job. I know this is just the sensible thing to do (or not do), but I can't help feeling that I fail some crucial character test every time I do that. 

I try to at least acknowledge everyone who asks me for money, to look them in the eyes and give a sad, regretful, respectful smile and tell them, "I'm sorry..." when I'm hurrying to work or just plain don't have any cash on me. But one time, while rushing to the escalator leading down to the Metro platform, a man approached asking me to please help him, saying he was hungry. I played the part of the seen-it-all, hardened city person a little too well, even as I looked at him and told him "I'm sorry..." He stood and hollered after me, in a mournful and crazy and oddly childlike tone, "But I'm HONGRY!" I think he yelled at me because I was the only person in the crowd who had paid any attention to him.  

And OK, I failed another mini character test early on -- a cold morning, a Metro platform, waiting for the train. A middle-aged woman moved from where she was standing next to me to someplace farther away, maybe realizing she was waiting in the wrong place. As she left, a taupe-colored leather glove drifted to the ground like a heavy snowflake. I was sleepy, and I knew I should have done what I swear I would have done any other time -- pick it up, scamper after her, say, "Excuse me -- I think you dropped this!" and bask in her gratitude. But I just let it lie there. I don't know why. I felt the justifications rushing at me, "She might come back for it." (Yeah, right.) "It's just a glove, not a wallet or a cell phone." "Maybe she'll learn a lesson about hanging on more tightly to her belongings." (What?!) "Other people just stood around and watched it happen, too." (Yeah, great excuse -- there were probably also a lot of NAZIS who thought that.) 

So yeah, walking the couple of blocks -- down Massachusetts Avenue, then right on Capitol Street, as if those street names mean a damn thing to my suburban self other than that they are the roads I walk down to this particular gig -- to get from Union Station to my job is pretty much a homeless-people obstacle course. Or it's not, and I'm exaggerating for insensitive comedic effect, and there are really only three or four homeless people out there on a given day. 

On my short walk to the huge, ultra-secure building I work in, I see more sights that give me a little rush, a shot of cosmopolitan exoticism, a phrase I'm pretty sure I have already used on this blog but damn it, it's apt, so I'm using it again. I see vendor carts selling Obama T-shirts and hot dogs. I see a ramshackle van covered with hippie art and sprouting mini flags of the world that says something like "Jose's Peace Van." I pass a corner from which I can spot The Irish Times, which I assume is some sort of pub that serves pot pies and is full of "character." ...I just read a Google review that says: "Young Hill staffers and gruff Teamsters mingle at this Capitol Hill bar over cheap beer." Cool! There's also a picture of some fish and chips.

All of this happens before I even get to my building. 

See my next post, "My Life These Days, Part 2: The Job, or 'Job,' " for what happens after I go inside the building.

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