February 2009

For almost two years now, the speedometer in my car has been malfunctioning. More often than not, roughly 90% of the time, it rests at zero. Sometimes, just for the fun of it I think, it fluctuates up and down from 20-ish to 70-ish and back again. You might ask why, if it’s been doing this for two years, I haven’t gotten it fixed. Well, among other reasons, because it’s entertaining. And I think it might actually be healthy.

When I’m in traffic – usually driving up 66 in the morning – I get tense. My heart beats faster, I grip the steering wheel with anger in my fists, and my cheeks get flushed with rage. Sometimes I shout, or calmly have conversations with the [horrible] drivers around me. I’ve been known to bang on my steering wheel or impatiently drum my fingers on the horn, although I’ve never actually honked at someone.

I get this way because it angers me to know that I could legally be going about 63 miles per hour, but the sheer volume of traffic has set me to a cruise of barely 40.

But on days when my speedometer doesn’t wake up for the morning drive, and it’s stuck at zero, there is a noticeable difference in my behavior. I just cruise along with traffic, occasionally change lanes when the one I’m in stops, but generally maintain a passive driving stance. Of course I know I’m not going 63 mph, because that only happens when gridlock doesn’t exist. But I have no idea how fast I actually am going, so there is no clout to my argument with the guy in the van in front of me who may or may not be going 5 below the speed limit.

I noticed this just this morning. When I finally parked at Vienna metro, I wasn’t angry. My forehead wasn’t hurting from keeping my brow furrowed for an hour. My cheeks weren’t sore from scowling. I wasn’t still yelling at my windshield.

Could my broken speedometer be the key to my health? I’m sure it’s already lowered my blood pressure.

Maybe, for gridlock drivers with a high risk for heart disease, there should be a dashboard button that turns off your speedometer. Imagine all the heart strain and stress wrinkles they would save. Perhaps it would mean they’re able to take fewer pills.  I think this button could save lives.

But I don’t need a button. My speedometer is saving my life without instigation, and I am grateful for it. And this is why I have yet to buy a new car.


Someone stepped on the back of my shoe today. I’ve been trying to understand it, but it just doesn’t make sense.

I walk fast. I even walk fast through my office – so much so that my boss makes fun of me and will surrender a walkway to me if we’re headed toward each other.

I walk fast when I’m 20 minutes early for my train. I don’t like it when slow people drag me down, so I try not to be that person to anybody else.

Yet as I was walking to the escalator in Union Station’s metro station today, someone stepped on the back of my shoe.

And again.

Now the left.

Then the right.

Then the right, again.

This used to be something funny to do to kids in elementary school. I’ve probably even done it to friends in college. I remember laughing in the face of a fellow third-grader when he tried to give me a ‘flat tire’ but I was wearing my brand new high-tops, so his attempt failed miserably. This was funny, in third grade.

But I turned around to see who the culprit was and it was a man, huffing and puffing behind me, bag falling off his shoulder, coat off the other one. A disheveled, out-of-breath man was giving me flat tires, without saying a word of acknowledgment or apology. As I took two more steps onto the escalator, I feared he might trip me while I was hiking up (I never stand on an escalator). So I turned around to ensure my safety, and he was still at the bottom, on the right side, letting the escalator carry him up.

If he was so concerned with getting where he was going that he had to repeatedly step on me like I wasn’t right in front of him, how did he have the time to leisurely ride the escalator?

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m invisible or if somehow I blend in with the metro station interior decor. In addition to previously being hip-checked by a priest, I have now been stepped on.

With my next paycheck, I’m buying a neon yellow jacket and reflector strips for my shoes. That should help.

As you may have read in Single Tracking, Part 1, metro’s orange line posed a very time-consuming commuting dilemma – called single-tracking – Thursday morning. Well that was just the morning ride into DC.

Let’s go to my co-orange line correspondent, Mark, for a brief description of what the issue really was, and how it continued:

“Right before leaving work, I learned that the cause of the extended commute was a derailed service car. Of course, said car had derailed again when headed back to storage in the afternoon, thus extending my commute home as well.

I returned home and drank beer.”

Thank you, Mark. [You can find the rest of Mark’s account of the a.m. O-Line fiasco in his comment on ST1]

Indeed, the very same car – a vacuum car being used for overnight track work – that derailed around 4:30 a.m. Thursday near the Court House station, derailed again while on its way back to the West Falls Church rail yard. 

But this single-tracking delay was much worse than the a.m. delay. If something is keeping you from getting to work against your will and there’s nothing you can do about it – oh well. It’s just work, and when you get there 45 minutes later than you usually do, the work will still be there. Your boss will still be there. Your cubicle will still be there.

But if there is something holding you against your will from getting away from work and enjoying the freedom of a Thursday evening, it’s a problem. The only thing that could possibly make the hold-up worse, was the driver. And he succeeded.

Whereas the driver in the morning was very nice, kept us continually informed and left the doors open so we could breathe real oxygen, the evening driver was his antithesis. I will say that the lack of oxygen may not have been his fault, since the majority of the time we were immobile, we were trapped in between stations. And I will give the driver the benefit of the doubt that this is probably an unsafe place to keep the doors open. However, while we were trapped there, not once did the man make an announcement. Not even the blatant lie, “Customers, we will be moving momentarily.” Nope.

We sat there in silence for nearly an hour – just three stops away from where I needed to be – with little to no idea what was going on. I rocked back and forth hoping the momentum I was creating would help the train move. I also assured the lady next to me that I was not crazy. I talked to my mom on the phone as she was driving past the East Falls Church metro station on 66, and she confirmed that yes, trains are backed up. Thanks.

I took out my Express to do the sudoku and crossword, but I didn’t have a pen or pencil. I started to get angry and irritated. And then the driver made his first announcement of the entire ride.

“Customers, we will be moving momentarily. Thank you for your patience.”

First of all, metro driver, I know you’re lying. I know you don’t think we’ll be moving momentarily, or you’ve probably just received word that we’ll be able to move in ten more minutes. Ten minutes is a lot more than ten moments.

Second, you don’t need to thank me for my patience. I’m no longer being patient, I just have no other choice. I did begin to imagine how I would escape, although I skipped over the minor detail of getting the doors to open. I looked at the fences on either side of the track, blocking the train from 66, and thought to myself that I could probably climb them, if I weren’t wearing a skirt.

Plan B – I’ll walk along the side of the track until I get to the next station. That’s reasonable, and my fare will be cheaper too. Then I’ll either call someone to pick me up from there or walk the rest of the way to my car at Vienna.

In between plans B and C, the man behind me started singing. Loudly, and in Spanish. All I could do was shake my head, because of all the noise that could have been consuming that silent car, it had to be a Spanish opera.

I started rocking back and forth again to get the train to use my momentum to move forward when all of a sudden we started creeping, ever so slowly. And the rest of the way to Vienna we crept slowly into the stations and even along stretches of open track. And when we finally got to Vienna, the train doors opened and out poured the fastest, most intense group of people I have ever witnessed. They were focused, heads down, bags in hand – running to the escalator then running up it, jumping over the turn stiles, taking no prisoners. 

The flow of fresh air in and out of my lungs was surprisingly satisfying. If I hadn’t been greeted with flowers in the morning, it would have been the highlight of my day – just breathing.

As a preface to the second part of my single-tracking story, I would like to point out that Doreen Gentzler actually reports the 6 pm and 11 pm news on channel 4. It must have been Barbara Harrison shouting doom out of the TV Thursday morning, however I am not convinced Doreen wasn’t filling in for Barb on that particular morning…

doreen-1-759822  6463393_120x90You can see that their similar appearances can be confusing, right? Especially at 6 am, right? Either way, they both have sweet promotional headshots.

Yesterday I learned a new phrase: “single-tracking.” I was watching channel 4 news while I was getting ready for the day – I like knowing what’s going on in the world before stepping out into it, rather than waiting to check headlines once I get to work. A lot can happen in those two hours, so I do both. So I was watching channel 4 news and while I’m perusing my closet for a sweater I hear Doreen Gentzler say in an urgent tone, “If you’re planning on using Metro’s orange line this morning, we have breaking news on a developing story that’s causing at least 40 minute delays in your commute.”

Excuse me?

A few months ago I waited for nearly 20 minutes at Metro Center for a red line train to take me to work, while trains in the other direction came and went and came and went. It turns out that a man had jumped in front of a train at the Shady Grove station (and survived), and that mishap was causing a ripple effect of delays. I didn’t find this out until I got to work and read the area’s headlines. If I had known, I would have walked the one-mile uphill hike from the Farragut West stop.

But the problem with delays on the orange line is that I can’t avoid them (unless I’m taking VRE, which I couldn’t do yesterday). So I sucked it up, said to myself, “shift happens,” and decided just to get on my way up 66 and deal with the metro when I get there.

The “40 minute” delays were apparently caused by a track malfunction near the Court House station, although later in the day I heard over the system in Metro Center that it was due to a train derailment – which I only heard that one time and have yet to confirm. When I parked at Vienna Metro, I prepared myself for the worst. And as I was walking like the commuting zombie that I am up the sidewalk toward the station, I was envisioning inauguration-style crowds and delays.


I turned the corner from the sidewalk onto the walkway that crosses 66, and out of the corner of my eye I saw color. Yes, color is in fact that much of a rarity in the morning that I would notice it and turn my head. It was a guy holding flowers, and when I did a double-take I realized it was Hugh (who has no reason to be at the metro at this time of the morning) with yellow lilies. What a great guy, and what a perfect day to have such a surprise.

Flowers in hand, I marched through the gates, down the escalator, and onto a crowded train where I managed to find a seat to wait out the “track malfunction”-induced delays. To my surprise and delight, the train moved within 5 minutes, which I took as a good sign. It wasn’t until Ballston that we started to linger at stations a little longer.

Then the driver made an announcement while we were holding at Clarendon.

“Attention customers, we will be holding here for a few minutes. We are currently single-tracking through the Court House station area, which means that trains in both directions are sharing a track at this time. We will hold here until it’s our turn to move through the single-tracking area. Thank you for your patience.”

Sigh. Alright, we wait. At least the train’s doors are open, there’s a little breeze flowing through the car, and by some miracle I am not sitting next to a person with noise pouring out of their earphones. And I have flowers.

“Customers, I’ve been told that some people are reporting two-hour delays right now. I think they’re mistaken – we should be moving through this single-tracking area within five minutes, not two hours. Again, thank you for your patience.”

Some sighs and some giggles populate the crowded air.

“Customers, that was just an estimate. I repeat, five minutes was just an estimate.”

Everyone laughs at this becuase we all know that every single one of us would have started to get irritated if we weren’t moving after exactly five minutes. And after no more than five minutes, as the doors closed the driver said, “Customers this train will be moving, we have the signal to move through the single-tracking area now. Thank you for your patience, customers, and I regret any inconvenience this has caused you this morning.”

We made it the rest of the way to Metro Center with little delay, however my total commuting time ended up totaling over two and a half hours. As I got off the trouble-ridden orange line and made a hard left toward my red train that would inch me slighlty closer to the office, a man turned and smiled to me. “You’re holding spring in your hands!” he said. I was glad that he was upbeat, despite having been trapped in the metro with the rest of us, and I was also glad that my yellow lilies weren’t just making me smile. I replied with, “I know, aren’t they beautiful?” as I nodded and walked away.

I strolled into work just after 9 a.m. (uncharacteristically but unavoidably late), thinking that it wasn’t so bad. Sure it took a long time and now I had to leave work later, but I kept thinking it could have been a lot worse. Doreen Gentzler had me fearing the apocolypse was coming, but only for people riding the orange line.

When I got to the elevators, one was propped open and Luis was inside with a bundle of wires spilling out of the elevator’s panel. I pushed the up button as someone joined me by the elevators, also waiting to go up.

“I guess we’re just using one today,” she said.

I smirked and replied, “Yes, I suppose the elevators are single-tracking today.”

“Ah, you must have been on the orange line this morning, huh?”

Yes. I certainly was.

I like to think I’m getting pretty good at multitasking. I can put my makeup on during a bumpy train ride, and eat breakfast while driving up 66 in rush hour. But I keep encountering multi-taskers that continually out-do me. Here are two examples that I witnessed this morning:

curlers1. Curler Woman. I saw her this morning driving in the HOV lane (with no passenger) and noticed from a brief glance through her window that her head seemed misshapen. Upon further inspection I realized her entire head was covered in curlers. Ingenious!

So she probably wakes up in the morning, takes a shower and rolls all her hair up into these curlers, and then hops in the car. This certainly seems like a time saver (and I’m always in need of those), but I’m not sure when she takes them out. Say she drives to a metro station and then takes the metro the rest of the way to work. Does she take the curlers out in the car in the metro parking lot? If so, I wish the people who make faces at me while I’m wrapping my whole head in a scarf could see how silly she probably looks. They would have less reason to laugh at me as they walk by.

But say she parks in the metro parking lot and her hair isn’t done curling yet. Does she ride the metro with her hair in a hot-roller orbit around her head? Does she walk into the office like that? Maybe she has a portable beautification kit she whips out before she gets out of the car that miraculously transforms her from hair-roller wearing housewife to walked-off-the-runway-into-the-office chic. I want that kit.

eyelashcurler2. Eye Make-up Perfectionist. I will admit that I am guilty of doing my make-up on the train. I will even admit to doing it on the metro on occasion. Okay, maybe I’ve even made a few applications in the car. But I believe that an eyelash curler is a weapon when you’re standing still on solid ground using it. They have hurt me many times.

So why would you attempt to use it while driving in stop-and-go traffic? It’s already one of the easiest times to cause a fender-bender, but Eye Makeup Perfectionist chooses to stare into her mirror instead of through the winshield while sporadically stepping on the gas, then the break, then the gas. At least when I use mine on the train, I’m only risking my health, eyesight and sanity, not anyone else’s.

Taking the VRE home on a Friday evening can be a very frustrating experience. When the train stops I secretly coach the people getting on the train to move faster. And when the train leaves the platform, it starts off so slow that I secretly coach it to move faster too. And when someone starts talking to me after I have just taken a very satisfying nap, the train could not possibly move fast enough.

The inside of the newer VRE cars is much like a double decker bus: on the first level there are rows of two-seaters on either side of the aisle. And if you are brave enough to venture up the dangerously narrow and windy stairs, you will be greeted with the reward of single seats on either side of the car. The aisle in the middle is open from the top to the bottom of the train, so if you drop your chapstik while sitting in the single seats, it will probably fall into the lap of someone on the first level.

On one trip home a man, who smelled distinctly of bourbon and added commentary to my phone conversation, fell asleep and then fell onto me, pushing me into the window. He was so large it took all my strength to push him upright again. Ever since that day, I consistently sit in the single seats on the second level. I enjoy the sense of privacy they provide.

One Friday evening a few weeks ago, my quiet, peaceful train experience was violated for the first time since bourbon man. I had been on the phone, but we were about two stops away from my stop and the service usually cuts out in that area (yes, a Verizon ‘dead zone’ that allegedly doesn’t exist). So I resigned the last 15 minutes of the ride to a slient time to read a magazine.

As I put my phone away to pull out the magazine, I noticed a man sitting several seats in front of me on the other side of the train waving at me, his grubby little fingers moving one at a time. I waved back, thinking that we’re heading toward Manassas, and maybe I’m supposed to know him, but I’m not sure so I don’t want to be mean. Everybody knows everybody somehow in Manassas. I can’t just ignore him. So I waved and very obviously focused my attention on my magazine.

“You have a very pretty smile,” I heard him say, well after I thought our exchange had ended.

I said ‘thanks’ and even more obviously buried my head in the magazine and turned so I was facing more toward the window than the aisle, hoping this would keep him from continuing the conversation.

“I’m so glad it’s Friday,” he continued. “I even left work early – I usually catch the later train, this is a treat.”

I responded with some uninteresting small talk about the train, doing my best to secure the conclusion of this conversation.

“Do you take the train all the way into the city?” He clearly wasn’t getting my hints. I responded with as little detail as possible explaining that, yes, I take the train to Union Station, which of course prompted his next question. “Oh really? Aren’t you too young to make that commute? Where do you work? What do you do?”

I was too groggy from the nap-phone-nap combination to come up with something clever like “I feed the fish at the national aquarium in the morning. It’s in the commerce building, maybe you’ve heard of it. But I spend most afternoons tight-rope walking between federal buildings. It’s kind of a hobby.”

So I told him the truth in probably the least detail I’ve told anyone since I got the job. “I manage the publication of a research journal.”

“That’s very neat. You can wear jeans to work? I’m dressed down today in my polo, but usually it’s a suit and tie.”

I tell him that I wear jeans to work almost every day, and that I was offered a higher-paying job that required a suit but turned it down (this is a lie, and I’m not sure whether he picked up the sarcasm). Meanwhile I’m wondering why he’s noticing and asking about my clothing.

“Well you look great in jeans. You’re lucky, some people can’t look good in jeans. You’re very pretty. You have a great smile.”

mr-six1Oh. Um. Thanks? I try to seem extremely unimpressed with this compliment, but what could I even say in response? I like your baldness? It goes great with those glasses you must have picked up in 1972? And the speech impediment that makes you sound like you’re gargling and talking simultaneously? And the fact that you’re kind of rocking back and forth while turned around to talk to me since you’re sitting several rows in front of me?

“Oh, thank you. That’s very nice of you,” I finally spit out, past the honesty I was trying to hold back. Don’t get me wrong, I love meeting new people and striking up conversations with strangers (despite what I was taught as a child). But this man looked to be about 60 years old, and he was clearly starting to hit on me.

We are on opposite sides of the car, speaking over the two-story open air and everyone in between and below us. There are people right in front of me and right behind him. The situation is awkward if not mortifying. I ride the train with most of these people almost every day. I hope they don’t think I’m a gold digger.

He asked me about what I usually do in my free time and what my plans for the night and the weekend were. I explained that I was very busy with family things and friends things, and I was very busy every night and every weekend and, come to think of it, pretty much every moment I’m not working I’m usually busy (this is a lie).

He told me that he just moved to the area from North Carolina, he is a retired Air Force vet, and is now working for a defense contractor in Crystal City. He doesn’t have many friends in the area, but he’s enjoying exploring Northern Virginia. He rented a cabin along Skyline Drive recently, he said, but spent the weekend there alone. He said it would have been nice to have some company. Silence.

“Okay, have a good weekend,” I said as I gathered my things and headed toward the stairs all in one eager motion while the train was approaching my stop.

“It was great talking to you. And if you ever want to grab a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, the offer is on the table.”


I kept walking as I muttered something resembling “Oh thanks okay bye…” wanting nothing more than to be out of his line of sight, off the train and in my car.

I was hilariously flustered. I called Jessie. She said “These things only happen to you, Lauren.” I don’t believe that, but I enjoyed that it made her laugh.

I stopped at Rebecca’s and told her and her mom and sister. Gasp – “He could be your sugar daddy!” Rebecca’s mom exclaimed. Rebecca’s reaction was the same as mine: “Gross.”

When I got home, I told my family, including Grandma and Uncle Michael. Grandma asked if I had inquired about the man’s net worth and the status of his health. Uncle Michael said I should have told him “Wine would be nice, but I’m not old enough to drink.”

Kanye and his gold diggaz

I wondered if he really was looking for a gold digger, and if so, he could have found her at a beauty salon with her baby Louis Vuitton under her underarm. I wondered if he would even know those were lyrics from a Kanye West song.

Thankfully, the most awkward conversation of my life was followed by sharing it with some of my favorite people. Seeing my grandma get a huge kick out of the story was worth it. But now I’m concerned that there is not a safe place left on the train. And I already sit where I do because of two unpleasant experiences with fellow passengers. I have pretty consistently avoided the train on Fridays since then, just in case he ever leaves work early.

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