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12 October 2009 @ 11:47 am
The DC Metro: What my $9.00 a Day Buys Me, Part 2  
So my daily commute starts at about 6:30 when takayla drives me to the Vienna/Fairfax station. It's an endpoint on the Orange Line. Traffic on I66 is insane, and while it normally takes about 10-15 minutes, during the morning commute, even at the ungodly hours of 6:30am, it can take up to 45 minutes.

Once I get there, I go past the throngs of people to get to the platform in "train lotto." Here's the usual scenarios I face:

  • No trains. About 50% of the time, there are no trains at either track, or there are trains, but they are dark, closed, and empty. If there is a crowd so dense, it looks like a huge pack of cigarettes, I will assume there hasn't been a train for some time. I go all the way to the end of the platform, because 75% of the commuters are so lazy, they pretty much just stop walking where the elevators and escalators end.
  • One open train. I try and run to the end of the platform, again, because sometimes there's actual seats still available. But sometimes the door closes without warning, so it's kind of like a gamble of how far I can get before the chimes go, and I rush in the next open door.
  • Two open trains. I try and take the less dense one to get a seat, unless I am running late because of traffic.

Because it's an end station, and people are too lazy to walk to the end of the platform, I almost always get a seat if walk to the end of the platform. I think only about 2-3 days a month do I have to stand until we get to Metro center. I wonder about all those other people in the first few cars, always packed in, looking vacant or miserable. If they just walked their lazy ass about 3-4 car lengths, they could have a seat.

My ride in consists of mostly "G-men," or government workers. Most are middle-aged or older, in suits and professional attire. The women are frumpy and carry tote bags. The men usually have leather satchels, and the younger men have backpacks. Some carry what I call "pull-toys," which are suitcases on wheels with a telescoping handle. Most of these pull-toys are small black square lumps, but a few are large sports bags and backpacks. Some are an actual hand cart with boxes strapped down with bungee cords, and I wonder about these people who have to carry so many files with them on public transport that it requires two milk crates. The "pull-toy" people are fraught with very irresponsible people who absently drag them behind them, slamming them into doorways, pillars, and people's shins. I have been injured several times because of these idiots, and there are high on my shit list of clueless fuckwits.

Not all are G-men, but even the ones that aren't are still unremarkable in most cases. Your average cross section of commuters, peppered with a lot of military uniforms because of all the Defense Department related work around here. I find the daily commute symbolic of their work like a people version of manila envelopes stuffed in a huge filing cabinet. A few people have a bunch of luggage, because they are getting off at National Airport or Union Station. These people block the doors and aisles with their belongings. Sometimes, especially in the summer, you get tourists.

Tourists are the worst thing to have during a rush hour, ever. DC is a huge tourist destination, so tourists all year are not uncommon, but during the times when school's out, it becomes a bigger problem. First, most tourists have probably never been to a city before. They don't know the etiquette like getting out of the way, or not walking side by side in causeway-blocking family rows. Some gather and block turnstiles, and some meander, looking up and not forward, making unpredictable curving paths like a small puppy who wandered into highway traffic. Some have baby strollers that steer like Mack trucks, and most seem to be completely befuddled, if not downright indignant, that people are THAT close to them and that everyone is in a hurry. I never know what to say. On one hand, they have every right to use the same system, and it's not their fault they don't know how overcrowded the systems is. Most guidebooks show the system in a pristine state from the 1980s. And in fact, not much has changed since the 1980s. Even the paper fare cards with magnetic strips are still in use. But at Vienna (and I am sure other stations), there are now "SmarTrips Only" lanes to speed things up, which won't because there's always someone trying to find out where to put their paper card. I have seen them try and stick the cards into the seams of the metal panels of the SmarTrip readers in desperation, despite a huge sign above them that says "SmarTrip Lane Only." Tourists are like hair clogs in a sewer system, entangling everything around them.

My ride in is fairly uneventful. By the time we get to East Falls Chruch, even the cars at the ends of the platform are packed like sardines. I often have someone's stomach, ass, or genitals in my face. I have smelled more cooch than a friendly hound dog. Often, I am forced to stare downwards, and look at the collection of feet.

I don't understand how anyone could be a foot fetishist. Not that a good foot job isn't exciting, but in reality, feet are ugly. Some worse than others. When I first rode the Metro to work back in the late 1980s, women wore sneakers which they then exchanged out for dress shoes when they got to work. This makes a lot of sense, because then your dress shoes won't get scuffed up along the way and they will last longer since a majority of your walking in the day would probably be on the Metro. But somewhere between those days and when I started riding again in 2005, most women got lazy. They just wear flip-flops, like the kind you wear at the beach or to help prevent foot fungus in the locker room showers. I find these women also have hair still wet from the shower, too. Metro used to have warnings about such footwear and escalators (and sometimes I still see warning posters that show a pile of chewed up shoes and a crocodile), but I guess no one cares. My personal problem is I don't like looking at their feet. More than half of them are not taken care of very well; chipped nails, peeling skin, cracked calluses, and in some cases, an infection, bunion, corn, or scab. Most don't take care of their nail polish and so the remnants are peeling like the fingernail polish of a 5-year-old. I guess it's because these people don't look down very often, so "out of sight, out of mind," prevails. I personally wouldn't expose my feet to the grime of a subway system, either. It's why I wear shoes. These girls aren't just doing it for the summer heat, either, because I see them wear them in the winter. I have seen toes bluish white with cold. It would be like 28 degrees out there, they would be shivering in a bundled winter coat and scarf, and they would *still* wear their flip flops just so they don't have to take the extra 30 seconds to tie up shoes. Are you stupid, girl?

I can't close my eyes, because then I would fall asleep and miss my stop. Sometimes I have to pay very close attention to how many stops I passed because the conductor often won't tell you (or he mumbles over a broken speaker system) and sometimes the car is so crowded, you can't see out of the windows (and some of the windows are so scuffed up now, it's like looking through a frosted beer mug). The underground stations are dimly-lit, and each stop looks almost exactly the same as any other. The signs with the station named are not lit, they are on dark brown pylons or wall placards, and often there are too few of them so your car has to be right in front of one just to see it. Sometimes I get distracted and lose count, so I have to rely on other skills. Most have to do with minute details of each stop that only years of experience can lift to the surface. I divide the ride into three sections, "above ground," which is Vianna to East Falls Chrush, "Virginia," which ends after Rossyln, and "DC" which leads me to Metro Center. The last third is where I start to perk up and get ready. How I can tell stops by subtle clues:

- Rossyln: A massive amount of people get off, especially people with luggage going to Reagan National Airport. Also, it's the only stop with railings indicating stairs going down. Then more people get on. There's three more stops to Metro Center.
- Foggy Bottom: They have a set of lights there using LED panels which gives off a weird light blue glow unlike the flicker of their usual dull yellow florescence. Two more stops until Metro center.
- Metro Center: oddly enough, the largest station has so little actual signage, the very lack of signs is an indication I am there. Tons of people get off, and a few people get on.

If I measure the length of the car right at Vienna, I can usually manage to get off where the escalators go up, but sometimes the car stops randomly in that station or I didn't get to the end of the platform at Vienna before the doors threatened to close. A majority of the train cars stops past the escalators, which means that we have a long walk to the escalators, through the crowd going the other way, and then we're bottle-necked at a narrow precipice between the escalators. Then we have to make a U-turn where people are trying to get both off and on the train and get on the escalators in a 4-way exchange about two meters square. There is usually a dense knot of people here. It's worse then the escalators are all stopped (or one is walled off for repairs), and some people are coming down the same escalators we are trying to go up (along with the delay of people walking up the stairs as opposed to riding them). It's a fucking mess at that junction.

I don't mind stairs, really. In fact, to make things even faster, I am one of those people who walk up or down a moving escalator to get to the end even FASTER. The "left lane" of the 2-person-wide escalators is usually for us speedy folk, but sometimes someone (usually a tourist) has no idea about this lane and will stand there, clogging it all up. The WORST are people who, when they get to the end of the escalator, just stop walking and look around. This causes a instant pileup which, if they don't get out of the way within a few seconds, will FORCE people to push them out of the way because the escalator won't stop delivering people just because there's an obstacle at the end.

So them I go up to the Red Line, and wait for a train to Silver Spring or Glenmont. Most of the time, there's no train. Sometimes, the train is there, and I have to run against the tide of people getting off at another choke point between the escalator exit and wall along with a ton of other people running to make the train. That's always fun.

The Red Line is packed to the walls when it arrives, but once the train gets past Union Station, it's pretty thinned out, and I almost never have to stand. I have sometimes been in cars all by myself past Brookland/CUA. The Red Line going out of DC in the morning is pretty dismal. First, it is above ground after Union Station, and we go through some of the worst run-down areas in DC. Mostly warehouses and industrial areas with a lot of abandoned and vacant lots and properties strewn with trash and graffiti, we run parallel to the railroad tracks almost all the way. Part of the ride is elevated, and there's one small tunnel that goes under a run down neighborhood, but most of it is flat.

The riders are very different. They are mostly low-income workers. They have the kinds of jobs that require uniforms like hospital staff, security guards, parking lot attendants, and fast food places. There are also a lot of urban unemployed, although depending on when I get on the Red Line, sometimes there are students from ages of about 5 to about late teens. Most wear private school uniforms, but unlike the stereotype, these kids are pretty urban and feral. They can be loud, obnoxious, foul-mouthed, and rude. I haven't ever been directly bothered by them, I guess a huge guy like me scares them a little, but I have seen them harass others. Their biggest adult targets seem to be people wearing Islamic dress, where they are called "ninjas" or "Arabs." They are mercilessly cruel to one another, too. Even though most of it is just trash-talking, I have seen a few kids get involved in huge brawls that draw blood by beatings alone. I saw one gang of girls pile up on this other girl, and at the next stop, they tore off her winter jacket and backpack and run off at Fort Totten. None of them could have been over 12.

Most of those kids get off at Rhode Island Avenue, where I see Metro buses with their school listed on the marquee, and the rest are gone by Fort Totten. Then it's me and the blue collar folks, sometimes peppered with a few homeless people and drug dealers. When I first started riding the Red Line in 2005, I saw a lot of scary stuff. I saw people carrying guns. I saw open drug deals (usually pot or crack). I saw a few people I suspected had stolen luggage at Union Station going though it, looking for anything valuable. For safety's sake, I pretended I didn't see them. Some attempted to sell me pot. I got rid of most of them by whispering, "Dude... be cool, be cool. I am being watched." But to be honest, I haven't had to do that in almost 4 years now. In fact, I haven't seen more than a smattering of suspicious folk, and I see more transit police walking about.

I get off at Silver Spring. I almost always get the car length right, and get off right in front of a set of escalators that take me down to the street. It used to be that I'd cross the bus stops there, but when they closed that area off to make way for the new "Silver Spring Transit Center," or SSTC for short. Currently, it's just a huge dirt hole in the ground where they have been pushing dirt around for most of this year. I am told they start blasting later this month to put down pilings. This complex is supposed to be a huge concentration of Metro, MARC, and other local transit. But the building of this ugly complex (I have seen the plans, it's barely more handsome than your average parking garage) has added a block-long detour to my walk downtown. When they finish building it (and who knows when that will be, this was supposed to be DONE in 2007, but they didn't even start digging until 2009), I don't even know if it will be a shortcut. The details of what the inside will look like are impossible to find, and I am not even sure if anyone actually knows beyond a few bus ramps. Originally, two office towers were supposed to be on either side, but they didn't get any takers for office space, so it's a lot flatter that the original design.

The detour takes us around the old bus terminals, past a few homeless peddlers, and to the corner of two huge roads. At this corner is the main headquarters of the Discovery Channel, a giant white building with satellite dishes and a big blue marble in the logo that is supposed to resemble the Earth, I think, but it has just random squiggles instead of correct continents. So maybe the people from the Discovery Channel are from a different planet, I don't know. You know, for a "science channel," they sure have a LOT of limos and rich people coming in and out of their gates. I can see their front entrance from my office (their office park is shaped like a stylized Mandelbrot fractal) and watch what looks like the Russian mafia or CIA come and go all day. I guess they make a lot of money.

I cross a very dangerous 4-way intersection (with 7 roads) which (thankfully) they put in crossing guards during the heavier rush hour times when the SSTC project started. I can't tell you how many cabbies and bus drivers ignore pedestrians. I have witnessed the aftermaths of 5 traffic fatalities, and some of them very obviously fatal, given the amount of blood and meaty pieces left behind. Of course, a lot of pedestrians are pretty fucking clueless as well. The crossing guards have helped, but they are ignored so much, that they finally put a cop at two of the busiest intersections. Not that the cop does much by lean on his motorcycle and chat with local security goons. The MAJORITY of problems are people on cell phones; both pedestrians and drivers alike. Looking one way, going against traffic in the other, and yammering away. I have seen crossing guards nearly get run over by bus drivers on cell phones. Morons.

The area where my work is used to be pretty calm and uninteresting. The building has its own parking garage, and it's behind two other garages. But when the STCC started digging dirt, they rerouted the entire bus system to all the side streets, and it's a disaster. Now our front door is right next to a bunch of bus stops, so people try and go into our lobby to stay out of the rain and whatnot. We have a security guard half the time to keep the lobby clear, but he's only there HALF the time. I can't wait until the STCC is done.

Anyway, through a lobby, up an elevator, and I am at work. Over the years, I have managed to migrate my desk to a window, so I can look out at downtown Silver Spring, where I can see their little office park, restaurant row, and of course, the looming Discovery Building.

The trip back is mostly the reverse of what I described. I don't see private school kids, but when we get to Union Station, the Red Line goes from half full to packed, because I arrive when MARC commuters arrive. At Metro Center, in order to get a seat, I go to the very front of the Orange Line train platform, but the G-men crowd is so dense, I'd say I have to stand half the time anyway. When I get off at Vienna, I have to walk the entire length of the platform to get to a narrow set of escalators, where often I have to wait several minutes in line just to get off the platform. It's like leaving a rock concert or something.

When takayla picks me up, I am usually completely spent and exhausted. The commute from home to work takes anywhere from 1-2 hours, depending on broken trains, unusually large crowds, or just general Metro slowness. My average Metro travel time used to be about 50 minutes, but over the years, this had grown to about 90 minutes. Given the traffic on I66, this means my total commute time is about 2 hours on average each way, which is 4 hours total for the day. If I drove and parked in Silver Spring, it would take about half that time.