Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stories from the Road -- The Metro

I lived in Silver Spring, MD, in 2004, during an internship with the Meteorological Development Laboratory (MDL). Sadly, I've only lived in four places during my lifetime (Tekamah, NE; Norman, OK; Silver Spring, MD; Huntsville, AL), and easily my favorite was the DC area. So many people, so many places, so much food, precious little time. The year went by in a flash, and I cherish each moment I had during my temporary stay.

It took maybe a day for me to realize that the best way to travel in DC was by public transportation. New York City has "the Subway", Chicago has "the L", and Washington, DC, has "the Metro". I love all three of them, in different ways. I love the Subway for its attitude, the L for its ease, and the Metro for its silence.

The MDL is located on the "Red Line". The Red Line goes right into the district, so basically any use of the Metro I had during the year involved the Red Line. I remember the stained orange-brown floors, the uncomfortable seat cushions, the smell of the streets, and the grim looks on everyone's faces. Sounds terrible, I know, but the Metro is a symbol for city routine. Thousands of people enter and depart, typically on their way to and from work, to the hard lives they face at home. The Metro was a place for the people to take a breath and to think about what lies ahead. Hearing people talking on the Metro is rare. Even when people travel in groups, dialogue is at a minimum. All that is heard is the whir of the Metro speeding up and slowing down, and the "ding dong" of the automatic alert system notifying the passengers of an approaching stop.

When people take public transportation for the first time, one of the problems creating apprehension is the dirt and grime of city wear and tear. The orange and brown stains of the burnt siena floors are actually a symbol of pride, a necessary part of the Metro experience. Looking out the windows of the Red Line, you can see the hard life of low-income city life passing by. The rust on the cars, the crumbling rocks on the local shops and chains, the sticky grime growing on the apartment buildings, the cornucopia of graffiti, and the hard faces of people eking out survival the best way they can. Everyone walks fast, drives with one hand on the car horn, and keeps on going, even with shoe laces untied.

The Red Line eventually goes underground and under the Washington Mall. My first time at the Washington Mall was late in 2003, when my mother and I were finished checking out apartments in the area. We stopped right in the mall area, and walked up a long set of stairs to see a big empty blue sky above us. Soon, we could see the sights DC is known for. The Capitol Building sat right in front of us, with the Smithsonian's beautiful buildings lining the streets on either side. We saw people running in all kinds of wardrobes, others reprimanding their carefree children, still others conversing above the roar of police motorcycles and bus engines. It was an experience I will not forget.

Mom and I made this trip each time she visited during the year. We walked along the Potomac to the Jefferson Memorial, up and down the Mall with the Washington Monument staring down at us wherever we went, through each of the Smithsonian museums, around the endlessly busy streets. We stood quietly for a long time at the Vietnam Memorial, walked slowly through the Korean Memorial, and looked for the "Nebraska" at the World War II Memorial.

Each time, we would take the Red Line to get there, and each time Mom would comment on how simple it was to reach such a destination. The simplicity is even more amazing given the complexities of the views, the suburbs, the inner city, and the people. So many lives of varying difficulty would come aboard the Metro, and take in the sound of that high-pitched breeze the train would make as it accelerated and decelerated to the next stop. Taking the Metro was one of the most memorable parts of these trips, despite the sights that awaited us each time.

Life is hard, and city life can be particularly so. The constant noise of cars, people, and business seemingly drown out the sanity of silence. The Metro was one way to put on the ear plugs. The grim looks on the people's faces were not negative. They were focused, intensely so, on a transitional serenity. The relative calm of the train as it took a person from one noise to another. The people's grim faces were not about the present, but instead its unfortunate brevity, for which they could simply sit and wait. The "ding dong" would be coming soon enough.