Monday, October 13, 2008

Columbus Day

Working on a federal holiday is almost worth it due to light traffic and half-empty Metro cars.



Ah, but I typed too soon …

How could I forget what happens on the ride home during a federal holiday: TOURISTS! Clogging up the doorways with their strollers, standing on the left side of the escalators just passin' the time, rockin' their Newseum windbreakers.

And, the coup de grace, the woman with her nasty sandaled feet on the seat I'm aiming for. Sorry, bystander, this isn't your disgusting living room—you'll move those stubby, naked digits.

Flopping hard into the seat and slamming my bag underneath wakes her up a bit.

Tourists. Make me miss my by-the-numbers federal employees every time.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Note to All Metro-Riding Mothers

If you are shepherding a gaggle of pre-pubescents through the Metro, and the subway system is experiencing difficulties and has just gotten back underway, and there are two relatively empty trains waiting behind the current one in the station, do not, do not, do NOT, jam yourself and all of your little brats into an already stuffed-to-the-doors car. There is not enough room, and all you will do is make it that much more difficult for people to get on and off at the next, oh, TEN stops. And whatever you do, do not, do not, do NOT attempt to HOLD THE DOORS OPEN! We, your fellow civilized and in knowledge of the rules passengers, will rise up in protest and attempt to remove you from the train with extreme prejudice.

But now that you are on my car, forcing the big guy next to me to put his butt right in my face, I will tell you that I'll gladly get up and wait for the next nice, cool, empty train to arrive in a grand total of 58 seconds.

Oh, wait, I can't.

Because I can't get past you!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tourists, Both Foreign and Domestic

Just for the record: Tourists are tourists, and when foreign tourists are in foreign lands, they’re going to act like tourists. I’m tired of Americans taking the worst rap.

I’m on my way home today when my yellow line train pulls in at Reagan National Airport. Typically this is a low-volume stop during rush hour, so I’m surprised when a large group starts bustling into the car. And then one of the worst phrases you can hear while sitting on a train: “I’ll stand in the doorway and hold the doors.” No, no, no. This is simply not done. I am not entertained. You guys are not doing a good job at blending into your surroundings.

Thankfully the dozen or so tourists bearing gigantic bags are able to trundle on without a door-closing fiasco. By their language, this is a group of Germans, and by the George Mason University sweatshirt worn by their (American) leader, they’re students.

Just so you know, standard procedure on the Metro is to move toward the center of the car if it’s crowded; your oh-so-friendly driver will remind you of this throughout the trip, just in case you forgot. These kids, obviously, don’t know the rule, because they flop their mass of huge bags right down in the doorway, clogging it up completely despite a wide-open car around them. I shake my head.

This is going to be trouble.

As the train moves on down the line and into D.C., rush-hour travelers shuffle into the car, slowly picking their way through this unforeseen obstacle course. To my fellow American subway riders’ credit, they remain civil to a man, offering up little more than a polite “excuse me” (good luck finding similar results in NYC). You’d think a clogged train and veritable assault of eye rolls would be universal for “move your crap out of the doorway,” but these kids either aren’t paying attention or don’t care. More than anything I blame the GMU student, who definitely should know better but only gives one half-hearted attempt at getting the Germans to move before they all get off with me at Gallery Place (I’m clipped by a rolling bag and almost go down, but I’m grateful to just be off the train).

I don’t relate this annoying little tale to rip on Europeans. Far from it. They had just gotten into the country—probably a little jet-lagged—and were obviously excited to begin their academic adventure in the United States. Good for them. Welcome. I hope you discover what America is really like, not what you read in the newspapers.

No, I mention it simply to point out that Americans aren’t the only ones who have trouble assimilating into a foreign culture in a moment’s notice. It's just plain difficult, no matter where you come from. With the dollar as weak as it is, I’m sure I’ll encounter more such examples in the next several months (oh, heaven help me this summer).

Of course, if Michelle Obama becomes our First Lady in November, she’ll solve everything. She’s so very proud of our country now for the first time in her so very deprived life, after all.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Do I Look Unemployed?

I spent one of the strangest 30 seconds of my life in Target the other day.

I have the day off from work, so I'm in the store shortly after noon (when most other people are working). I'm browsing through the TV-on-DVD section when this guy comes over to me and says, "Can I ask you a question?"

First thought: He thinks I'm a store employee. That's not possible, though, because even if you're color blind like me you know a guy in a brown jacket and black skull cap isn't the same as a worker in a bright red polo.

Second thought: He must be looking for something and is desperate for help. I get that; I've done the same before when a store employee isn't readily available. Sure, I'll do what I can for this guy.

Well, both thoughts are wrong.

As soon as I mumble a "yes" to his question, he starts telling me about how he works for a new company "down the road" and would I be interested in full- or part-time work? Um, no.

"No, sorry, not interested," I tell him.

"Are you sure? We have part-time positions available," he says.

"No, really, but thanks."

He's still not giving up: "What do you do?"

"I'm a journalist. This is just my day off." And I don't care what you're selling, there's no way it's better than my gig.

The guy finally moves off to prey on some other poor unsuspecting shopper. The whole thing was rather creepy, the way he's slinking around the store preying on people he thinks don't have jobs; I've never heard of job recruiting in the TV aisle at Target, and I've certainly never had anything like this happen to me before. I'm so taken aback it's not until I get to the car that I kick myself for not finding out what the job actually was.

I wonder about it for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Last First Step

Today I took the first step on the last leg of a long journey, cracking open Terry Goodkind’s “Confessor” to read his 11th and final entry in the brilliant and fabulously successful Sword of Truth series.

I finished the previous novel, “Phantom,” earlier this year; it’s been about six months since I’ve read anything from Goodkind. In that time, his books and his characters sorta slipped out of my mind and soul—which I needed. Rarely have I been enraptured with novels like I’ve been with these works. Not wanting to encounter anything out of context in “Confessor,” though, I went back and reread “Phantom” this past month, and it was a much-needed refresher. Many of the important smaller details were buried under the often devastating major events in that novel (I thought, for example, the novel ended on a certain scene when there’s actually a whole other chapter afterward).

But this past week as I drew to the close of “Phantom,” that old fire started blazing anew, somewhere down where my heart meets my soul. Originally I’d planned to read “Confessor” while I’m off work during Christmas week, but now I’m wondering if the book will last that long. As I mentioned earlier this year, Goodkind’s characters have a way of sticking with me—I can envision some long days and nights of reading in my very near future.

I’m actually shocked this last novel is only 600 pages; with everything yet to be decided, I don’t know how Goodkind can possibly wrap even most of it up in those few leaves. I don’t know when I’ve ever wanted more to read the last page of a novel; that temptation will only grow stronger in the coming days, I’m sure.

I mention this here because, obviously, I’ll be reading “Confessor” on the Metro. I pondered just leaving it for home since its considerable heft makes for uncomfortable positioning on a subway train, but there’s no way I could do it; no matter what else I’d bring with me, I’d only be thinking about “Confessor” anyway, so why waste my time in denial?

So forgive me if you see me on the train and I don’t notice you. I’m a little preoccupied.

If you read Goodkind’s work, you’ll understand.


On a side note: For years I’ve listened to music while reading. It helps me focus, blocking out all other outside noises. This is especially true on the subway, since there’s always a chance for idle conversation nearby. Sometimes I get lucky and the music I’m listening to meshes perfectly with the text. Examples that come to mind right away are J.R.R. Tolkien and Led Zeppelin; and William Gibson and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and PJ Harvey.

For the longest time, though, I had a hard time finding music that fit with Goodkind. His images and impact are so powerful, I didn’t want the wrong albums associated with the books. Some happy accidents have occurred by necessity on Metro, though, and has led me to trust in the following albums to get me through a Goodkind-laden subway trip: AFI’s “Decemberunderground” (for its primal and all-encompassing rage), Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” and “Neon Bible” (for their ethereal otherworldliness), the Dropkick Murphys’ “The Warrior’s Code” (for its sheer power and Celtic influences, both evocative of Goodkind), and Johnny Cash’s “American V: A Hundred Highways,” for its stark beauty, pure faith, bittersweet love, and utter, unafraid strength in the face of death.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Help! I Need Somebody …

In general, riding the Metro is every man, woman, child, and elbow for themselves. EXCEPT … when a fellow traveler is in some form of distress.

It’s amazing to watch. Everybody with their heads down, eyes focused on reading material, earbuds implanted, not talking, minding their own business and expecting everyone else to do the same. And then somebody will ask for help, and help is always granted.

Typically it’s some poor tourist with one foot on the platform, one foot inside the train, door chimes chiming, asking in a shaky voice: “What line is this?” or “Is this going to Metro Center?” or “Can I get to the Smithsonian on this train?” Somebody will ALWAYS help—almost always in a nice way, too. I have yet to see someone left stranded in that doorway netherworld, and not just because I help whenever I can. Usually somebody else on the train will beat me to the punch. It’s refreshing, really, to know my fellow Washingtonians aren’t quite as scowly as they appear.

That courtesy extends beyond simple directions, though; I was reminded of this the other day on my way to work. While waiting for my Yellow Line on the lower platform at Gallery Place, the Green pulls up and announces: “This train will be holding here momentarily for a sick customer.” My first thought, I admit: “Oh, great,” because normally “sick customer” = “something more serious is going on, we just don’t want to tell you what” = “MAJOR delay.”

This time, though, the description is apt. Just a few seconds after the announcement, I’m pulled from the pages of my book by two guys saying “excuse me” with urgency. Their backs are to me, but as they approach it becomes readily apparent they have a young man under the armpits and are dragging his rather limp body away from the train and across the platform toward a nearby bench, two motherly figures in tow.

From what I overhear, seems the kid just passed out straight away while approaching the station. These two guys acted so fast, they have the fainter out of the train and on the bench before Metro personnel even arrive at the car (other riders point the first responder toward the bench). Dressed in their suits, they’re obviously on their way to work and, I’m sure, didn’t think this is how their morning would start. But they jumped in and helped immediately. The women, too; at first I think they’re related to the kid, but as the Metro guy comes over, all four of them start to fade into the crowd, their job done.

One of the women hangs around long enough to provide a brief description of what happened to the Metro employee. Then she looks back at the kid, now flat on his back on the bench but seeming to come around, and says: “You feel better, and God bless you.”

No ma’am, God bless you—and your three fellow Good Samaritans—for giving me a little bit of hope for the human race on a Monday morning.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

'Peace Like a River'

Don’t get me wrong: I couldn’t survive my daily Metro trip without something to read. But there are certain times when reading a book on the subway is downright difficult—and it has nothing to do with the people around me.

Sometimes I just don’t want to put it down. I’ll be on my way to work and hit a critical, climactic point in the narrative and I just want to ride right on past King Street to the end of the line, wait for the train to turn around, and keep going, round and round.

Sometimes I’ll come across a passage that hits me hard, right where I’m most vulnerable. I’m not one for crying over popular culture (or weeping in general), but there are those moments where what I’m watching or reading reminds me of something that’s occurred or could occur in my own life, and that’s what gets to me—my real life reflected in the work. The mark of great writing. So there I am, sitting in the train, with a lump in my throat fighting off tears. The Metro is not a place for such behavior, especially sitting by yourself. That’s the stuff of freak legend.

And sometimes I’ll come to the end of a book on the train, but still have a few stops to go. That’s a disorienting situation, I can assure you, coming up for air from a particularly engrossing text only to wonder: now what do I do?

Today, all three of those things happened to me as I finished the final few chapters of Leif Enger’s remarkable 2001 novel, “Peace Like a River.”

“Peace Like a River” is the “To Kill a Mockingbird” for a new generation, and, no, I do not use that comparison lightly. Like “Mockingbird,” the novel is a first-person narrative from the perspective of a pre-adolescent child as he begins to navigate the dangerous waters of morality, loyalty, love, manhood, and, most important, his belief in God.

To say much more would be to ruin what should be an enrapturing experience as you devour these easy flowing pages. On a personal level, it touched me deeply in multiple areas, most notably my own visual disability and my seeming lifelong struggle with one simple God-related question: “Don’t you ever doubt it?”

I finished “Peace Like a River” on my way home today, somewhere around Cleveland Park—meaning several more stops until I reached my final destination. Now what was I to do? I stuck an Entertainment Weekly in my bag this morning before I left the house preparing for this very instance, but the final pages of this wondrous manuscript gripped me too tightly to deal with such fleeting subject matter as the Holiday Movie Preview.

So I turned to what often helps me in such times of spiritual and emotional portent: the music of U2. More specifically, “The Joshua Tree.” I didn’t think it possible for “Where the Streets Have No Name” to take on any more meaning for me than it already has, but “Peace Like a River” puts this song into even deeper context. I dove in, closed my eyes, leaned my head back against the hard wall of the train, and prayed as I have these many years: for God to continue to make Himself real to me, as He has so many times before when I’ve asked (even as I so stubbornly forget or become desensitized to His answers). I prayed for Him to help me answer that question, to remove my doubt—or at least keep chipping away at it. When the song ended, I did the only other thing I could think of: went back and reread some of Enger’s closing passages, trying to lock those words and images into my brain.

Yep. Today the freak on the Metro was me.