March 2009


Last week I complained that there’s rain in the forecast during the week, but it only rains on the weekends. Well this week there was rain in the forecast for yesterday (and it rained), and there’s rain in the forecast for tomorrow (and I’m sure it will rain).

Because yesterday was such a rainy day, I encountered the usual rainy day inconveniences: My coat was soggy because I have a tiny umbrella (but my feet were not soggy because I finally got legitimate use out of my rain boots). The VRE was slow because the track was wet and/or slick. The metro was delayed, because it, too, is incapable of handling the rain. Metro stations were damp, which creates a severely unpleasant smell. The list could go on, but I’m never one to complain…

Anyhow, I never thought that the most trouble I would experience on a rainy day would be caused by the rainy day essential: the umbrella.

It started with an innocent laugh at the expense of a person on Virginia Ave. SW, near L’Enfant. I saw her from my cozy seat inside the train when it stopped at the L’Enfant station. Fortunately, it always takes a longer stop there so I got to witness a truly enjoyable morning debacle.

The woman was carrying a golf umbrella – really large and rounded on top. Her coat was definitely not getting soggy and I was a tiny bit jealous of her – until she got to the door of the office building she was so eagerly trying to enter. There was no awning over the doorway, so when she took her umbrella down to collapse it I knew she wanted to do it as quickly as possible and scoot inside for shelter.

As she was shaking it off and trying to collapse it, it turned inside out. I had a good laugh at this primarily because there was very little wind yesterday morning, so such a thing could only be explained by bad luck. Or karma. Even though I couldn’t see the anger on her face from where I was sitting, I could tell that her frustration was mounting, because she started to throw the umbrella to the ground only to pick it up and shake it off again.

56534_rihannaumbrellaThis repeated a few times – this small woman standing on the steps of her workplace, on the side of a busy street during morning rush hour, having a fight with an umbrella that was almost larger than her. At one point, in the height of her fury, she threw the umbrella to the ground, kicked it, then turned and stomped angrily into the building, leaving the disheveled, broken umbrella behind.

But she immediately came back out and started all over again. Eventually a nice woman stopped on her way in the building and tried to help tame the wild umbrella. Unfortunately, I never saw the end to this story because the train pulled away.  I like to imagine it went something like, “And they lived happily ever after.”

The umbrella saga continued as I walked through Union Station on my way to the metro. As I was quickly approaching a man walking far too slowly in front of me, I felt something hit my knee. Of course when I looked down I was not surprised to see it was his umbrella – another unnecessarily large one.

Although it was closed, he was holding it parallel to the ground. That’s right. He may as well have been walking with his arms extended straight out from side to side and kicking his legs out in front of him with every step he took. He was a walking hazard. My knees weren’t too badly injured, but I felt bad for any small child that came up too close behind him that day. I wanted to say to him, “You’re gonna take somebody’s eye out with that thing,” but I thought it might be too early for constructive criticism from a stranger.

His wasn’t the only gigantic umbrella I ran into in Union Station. On my waypatchesohoulihan home I had to run toward the Manassas track because I left work late. I had the wisdom of Patches O’Houlihan (of “Dodgeball” fame) and his 5 D’s running through my head: “Dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge. Dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.”

And that’s what I was doing until I ran into yet another huge umbrella held parallel to the ground by an unassuming older man. He was walking across the stream of traffic (think Frogger) at no more than a quarter of the speed everyone else was going. You took physics, you do the math.

He cleared my path but the umbrella’s tail end (the one with a point, not a handle) did not. It smacked me in the thigh and I let out an audible grunt of disgust as I looked over my shoulder to see if he was cursing me too. Indeed, he was.

It appeared, as I continued to run for my train, that when I hit the point of the umbrella, its handle hit him with equal or greater force. I mouthed a little “Eeek I’m sorry!” before I turned back around to re-focus my attention on catching the train.

I will not recount all the problems I had with umbrellas on the metro escalators, I will merely say that it did not look like this:

escalator-umbrellaI love this photo and it was published in the Washington Post the day of the giant snow storm earlier this month (or last month?). Anyway – when it was raining yesterday and I had my umbrella out while hiking the escalator out of Dupont metro, I ran into many issues while passing other people using umbrellas. Use your imagination. It was messy.

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“Tickets, Pleeease!” she shouts as she walks through the quiet, crowded train. “Please display your tickets!”

It’s such a loud, abrasive order from such a small person. The conductor on the 5:00 p.m. train out of Union Station is a small Puerto Rican woman, about five feet tall. She ties her hair in a tight bun just below her conductor’s cap. Her VRE coat and gloves are just a little too big. She might be wearing childrens’ sized shoes.

But her voice and that attitude are seven feet tall and consume the whole car. Her New York accent is infused with hints of Latina flare, and both combine to create a volume many could only dream of reaching.

I don’t think she’s actually angry all the time, but I shudder in fear everytime the car door opens and she parades down the aisle shouting “PLEASE display your tickets! Tickets PLEASE!” She always wakes me up from my ride-home nap. Some days I close my eyes and pretend to be asleep, in the hope that she looks at my ticket and walks by.

As she approaches each row, she looks for the tickets. Some people clip theirs to the seat in front of them, easily within her line of sight. Others clip their tickets to the lapel of their jackets or the top of their ID badge lanyards. Riders like me who are afraid of her just hold out their tickets for her to inspect.

If she comes to a row and can’t readily see a ticket, she gets impatient and says, “Ticket please!” Even if the man she’s talking to is sound asleep, “Sir! I need to see your ticket! Please have your ticket visible!”

Yesterday, I saw this scene:

Madam Conductor was standing on one side of the aisle, shouting to a man sitting on the other side:

“Ticket please!”

No response. The man continued to read the book sitting in his lap.

“Sir. Sir! Ticket please!”

Still no response. The man sitting in front of him was clearly afraid for both of their safety, so he turned around to nudge the man behind him. The man looked up from his book, then followed a pointing finger to Madam Conductor across the aisle. She looked at him with a glare of impatience and said again, “Sir, I need to see your ticket.”

He took his ticket from his jacket pocket to show her as he mouthed, “I’m deaf. Sorry.” He pointed to his ears and looked concerned that he might have just gotten in trouble.

Madam Conductor said thank you and moved on.

This is why everyone lives in fear of her. No one even knows her name, all her name tag says is “B.” I can only imagine what it stands for.

I’m afraid of her because some days she stares at my ticket longer than she does at everyone else’s. She examines it thoroughly and occasionally uses her mini flashlight for… well, probably to determine if my ticket is counterfeit.  But what I don’t get about this ritual is that I ride this train almost every single day. The same one. With the same conductor. And I sit in the same seat, visibly displaying the same legal, validated ticket.

I’m not sure why she singles me out, but I do know that I will never attempt to cross her path. Now that I have become familiar with this ticket-inspecting and shouting routine, I prepare myself for it before I get on the train in the evenings.

In the mornings, I find myself thanking the VRE staffing schedule for keeping her on the afternoon trains, so I am guranteed a peaceful morning ride. I get comfortable in my seat and fall asleep for the entire ride without displaying my ticket anywhere. Well, this used to be my morning routine, until one morning last week when I awoke from my slumber to the sound of Madam Conductor shouting to see tickets.

I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep that day, or any other day. And truthfully, it was like waking up with a nightmare as a small child – It just made me more afraid to ever go to sleep again.

I am ashamed of myself.

I’m usually a fast walker. Most of the time it’s not because I have somewhere to be in a hurry, I just don’t like being stuck in crowds or being forced to slow my pace by even slower people. And when I’m outside in the mornings, I usually walk fast to keep warm – not necessarily to get to work quicker.

Today when I got off the train at Union Station, I tried to walk fast (like usual) to the escalator to get into the station, so I could walk fast to the metro. But it didn’t work.

My legs would barely move, and when they did the rest of my body refused to follow. No – I wasn’t having a stroke or a heart attack and I don’t have any broken limbs or [seriously] pulled muscles. I’m just sore.

Let me tell you why I’m sore.

Yesterday was the debut of Sunday Fundays – a group of us got together and played kickball for a couple hours. It was a beautiful day and kickball was a great way to be outside with everyone. I even got a sunburn on my face. Hello, spring!

We all did pretty well; everyone got at least a base hit here and there, made plays in the outfield or spent some time on the pitcher’s mound. There were high-scoring innings, clutch double-plays and even a home run. I would say it was a great success.

Except now I’m sore from playing kickball. And I am ashamed of myself.

Even sitting at my desk at work right now, my rear end hurts every time I shift weight. I have to use my hands to pick up my leg in order to cross it over the other. I’ve been hobbling semi-crouched to the kitchen and back to refill my tea.

I am ashamed of myself. But I can’t wait to play again next weekend.

I started getting stressed in high school. It was a much tamer stress than the kind I experienced in college, and has snowballed into the stress that I have today. If something bothered me or was inconveniencing me, I dubbed it ‘inappropriate’. In high school, at the end of the day I would list the things that I found most inappropriate that day. The lists used to look something like this:

– AP Chemistry homework

– Surprise memorization tests in band

– Rebecca’s never-ending cute shoe collection (so jealous)

– People wearing costumes in the yearbook room

And to counteract that negativity, I usually followed the inappropriate things list by writing a list of things that were ‘happying’ me today. An average happy list looked like this:

– Didn’t get caught napping on the couch in English

– Passed off last week’s Pre-Calc homework for this week’s and got full credit

– Used my yearbook pass to go to two lunches

– It’s almost Friday

In college I didn’t really make lists, I just made my opinions verbal and responded to many comments from friends, classmates and yearbook staffers with a disgruntled, “That’s inappropriate.”

Staff Writer: “I can’t have my story in on time because I have homework to do and The Hills is on tonight.”
That’s inappropriate.

Prospective student on a tour: “What’s the girl to guy ratio here and where is the best place to pick up chicks?”
That’s inappropriate.

Anonymous: “You should come to the wheelbarrow races in my backyard this weekend.”
That’s inappropriate. And I’ll be there.

When I was working with middle schoolers last fall, everything was inappropriate. One scholar was a shining example of this, her name was Deja and I will never forget her. In a discussion about our upcoming trip to the National Portrait Gallery and its hall of presidents, Deja said in her fast-paced, sass-infused twang, “Is there a picture of President Bush there? Because if it is, I’mma take it down off the wall and stomp on it!” That is inappropriate.

Now that I have a real-person job and I commute with all kinds of adults, I have begun listing the inappropriate things I come across, because there are many. (For good measure, I still list things that are happying me too).

So, without further ado…

The things that I find most inappropriate this week:

1. Rolling briefcases (and suitcases, for that matter).
I understand the need for rolling suitcases in Union Station. I get it. You’re traveling. But walking perpendicularly through a steady stream of pedestrian traffic that just poured out of a commuter train is a terrible idea when you’re dragging 50 pounds of luggage on wheels behind you. When you stop to look at the arrivals and departures screen, yes your body is out of the way, but your suitcase is precariously occupying the four feet behind you. Commuters don’t look down in Union Station. It’s eat or be eaten. Run or be run over. And when a commuter is not looking down, he thinks he’s cleared the obstacle you’re creating, and then he trips over your suitcase. Inappropriate.

And briefcases on wheels. What in the world do you carry to work that you need 15 cubic feet of briefcase to hold it? Yes, mom, I know you have one for your giant laptop and we all thank you for avoiding mass transit with it (Mom drives to work). Just this morning in the metro station, I was on the escalator behind a woman who stopped on the right (thank you), put the collapsible handle on her enormous briefcase down, then picked it up and walked the rest of the way down the escalator. As I walked slightly behind her I was thinking how grateful I was for her adherence to escalator traffic rules. And then she stopped a the bottom of the escalator, took one step off, put her briefcase down, pulled the handle back up and then walked away, wheeling it behind her. Naturally the escalator dumped me off right into her during this ritual. Not only is this inappropriate, but the kicker is that the train was maybe 15 feet away. If she carried it down the escalator, couldn’t she carry it onto the train?

2. Overly enthusiastic metro drivers in the morning
I appreciate a metro driver who is audible and understandable over the speaker system. I also appreciate metro drivers who tell me why we’re stopped in a dark tunnel underground and when we will be moving. I sometimes even appreciate metro drivers thanking me for my patience, because sometimes I am being patient. But I did not appreciate the overzealous metro driver yesterday morning who shouted into his intercom like he was spinning hits at a New York Ave. night club. Even with my ipod ruining my eardrums, I could still hear him. It sounded like this:

“CUSTOMERRRSS!! THE NEXT STOP IS GALLERY PLACE CHINATOWN, YOUR TRANSFER POINT TO THE GREEEEEN AND YELLOOOOOW LIIIIIIINES!! THANK YOUR FOR RIDING METRO RAIL AND HAVE A GREAT DAY!”

It was awful. And inappropriate. I had to spend money on coffee and pastries on my way to work just to salvage the morning.

3. Rain in the forecast almost every day, but only raining on the weekend.
What gives?! I was at Shamrock Fest at RFK stadium Saturday and I knew it was going to rain. And it rained so much I thought I missed the memo to get on the Arc. But rain was in the forecast for Monday and Tuesday of this week too. I wore my rain boots to work expecting a torrential downpour or at least some puddles to jump, and the ground was barely wet. I find it inappropriate that a week day can be sunny and nearly 70 degrees, and I am barely outside. But a Saturday on which I have the privilege of spending hours outside listening to live music has to be soggy and cold. It’s just cruel.

With that out of my system, I can list a few things that are happying me so you don’t think I’m angry all the time.

Things that are happying me today:

1. I now have two newspaper guys. I always stop and chat with the Express distributor at Dupont metro because he is awesome and now knows my schedule. But until this week I routinely snubbed the Washington Examiner distributor, because I don’t usually read it. But now he is just as friendly and it’s like I have my own welcoming committee at the top of the escalator. It’s just a shame that I’m usually out of breath from walking up the steepest escalator in the metro system. (It might be the second steepest…but you get the point).

2. Chivalry is alive and well on the VRE. Gentlemen regularly let me on and off the train before them and they hold the stubborn heavy doors in the evening. For the record, they are nothing like Sugar Daddy.

3. Virginia Tech did not make it into the NCAA tournament (this is not happying me), but we are in the NIT and we’re playing at home tonight. It should be a fun one to watch with my fellow Hokies.

I hope that in the future I will have fewer and fewer things to add to the inappropriate list, but as long as I’m still commuting by planes, trains and automobiles every day, it’s unlikely.

I have a pretty serious confession to make.

This morning I avoided a co-worker on the metro.

I’m not particularly proud of it – in fact I felt pretty ridiculous doing it. I guess it would have been mildly acceptable if it was a co-worker I didn’t know very well. But it was actually one that I spend a good amount of time with. We chat in the mornings, take coffee breaks, congregate in the kitchen around 2:45 every afternoon, and occasionally make visits to each others’ cubes when work slows down.

Still, I spotted him coming toward me at Metro Center, and I avoided him. It was a pretty shameful scene, to tell the truth.

I walked to the far end of the platform like I usually do at Metro Center, because getting on the train there means you get dropped off right by the escalator at the Dupont Circle stop. I had just missed the train that left as I walked up, on account of the painfully slow group of people trudging along in front of me. After standing there peeved for about a minute, I saw a familiar head bob around the corner and continue in my direction.

Fearing the imminent “Fancy seeing you here!” conversation for the entire wait, through two stops on the metro, up the escalator and the walk to the office, I ducked my head. Yes, standing in the open space of an unusually empty platform, I put one hand on my earbud (I’m not entirely sure why) and turned my head downward and in the opposite direction and stared intently at the track. When I thought it might be safe, I cautiously looked up, then around me, slowly turning my ducked head until I spotted him again.

He hadn’t seen me and walked right by.

Because of the lack of distance between where we were standing, I knew there was a high probability that we would end up on the same car. So I made sure I got on first, turned left and walked as far as I could into the crowd. I found a seat – even better! – and slumped into it. As the crowd cleared a little at Farragut North, I confirmed my suspicion that we were riding in the same car and slumped further into my seat.

At the Dupont stop I did something very out of my character – I stayed in my seat until everyone around me had gotten up and off the train. Then I got up and stealthily sauntered onto the platform and toward the escalator. I immediately spotted him at the top of the escalator, knew I was in the clear, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Like I said, I am not proud of this behavior. But, to my credit, there were a good number of legitimate reasons for it. Observe:

1. My iPod had just switched to one of my favorite songs. What I hear on the way to work has the power to decide my mood for the rest of the day. If this song was going to keep my spirits up on this cloudy, rainy day, I wasn’t going to interrupt it. Not a chance.

2. I napped the whole way to Metro Center from Vienna, so I was still groggy and waking up. The already awkward conversation would have been much more painful if I was unable to carry it. Then he probably would have informed other co-workers that I was tired because of a late night of being young (I’m the youngest in the office and it tends to be the subject of jokes at my expense). This would have snowballed into many conversations with many people, and I would have had to end up admitting that I actually spent last night making my friend’s wedding invitations and watching TV in bed. With my cat. I would never have been invited to office happy hour again.

3. As much as I hate being a commuter zombie, I do love the silence sometimes. There’s a certain peacefulness about being in a crowded, small, smelly space but still drifting off into your own world. With the sounds drowned out by headphones and my eyes focused on some place else entirely, having a conversation would be a rude disruption of the peace.

4. I was really looking forward to stopping at Firehook this morning for coffee and a bagel (for under $4!). If my co-worker and I had started talking, we would have ridden the metro together, we would have hiked the escalator together, and we would have set out on the walk to the office together. If I had said that I intended to stop at Firehook, he would have stopped with me and waited until I fixed my coffee to perfection and got my bagel from the toaster. But I like the peace of making my breakfast stop on my own. I don’t want to have anyone distracting me from adding just the right amounts of half-and-half and Splenda to my coffee. A bad first cup of coffee for the day could be disastrous.

So you see, I had no choice but to avoid the co-worker on the metro. Because I did, the songs in my ear, my coffee and my bagel were perfect. My walk up 19th was perfect.

Quiet, solo, and perfect.

This morning was especially difficult. I don’t think my experience with daylight savings time could be considered “springing forward.” It was more like a meander, or a sluggish crawl.

By turning the clocks ahead yesterday, we should gain an hour of sunlight in the evenings, which will be nice for those of us who tend to be confined to public transportation until all the daylight has been sucked from the sky. But a side effect of daylight savings time that I hadn’t considered confronted me pretty abruptly this morning.

In my half-asleep rush around the house this morning, I managed to fix some toast, make a half PBJ sandwich for lunch, feed the cat and run out the door only two minutes later than usual. I was actually running. I ran out the garage door and when I got to the driveway I realized something was off.

It was still dark.

I stood in the middle of the driveway, still juggling all the things I grabbed on my way out, wondering if I had properly navigated the time change. I was starting to enjoy watching the sun come up at 6:30 on my morning trek into work.

I recovered, got in the car, sped off, and made it to the train station just in time. When I got to my usual seat and set my phone alarm so I would wake up before Union Station, I realized that there is at least one more plus to daylight savings.

It stayed dark the entire train ride – there was no sun in my eyes while I napped. This is probably the reason I hit snooze on my phone alarm (defeating its purpose entirely). As a result, I woke up with my mouth hanging wide open and my head slumped against the window when someone leaving the train kicked my left leg, which was strewn in the aisle.

Thank you, daylight savings time. I will have to better monitor my napping from now on.

The time has come to tell the story of the fateful day that changed my simple commuting life forever.

It started like every other day does. I woke up reluctantly after hitting snooze twice or so on each of three alarms, wandered into the shower with my eyes still closed, got clean, clothed and ready while cursing the concept of work with every bit of progress I made.

For some reason I woke up incredibly thirsty, so I had a glass of cran-something juice. It really hit the spot, so instead of filling my water bottle with 22 ounces of delicious tap water, I found a bottle of cranergy juice and filled up with it.

The next three minutes were fairly standard: Grab sandwich from fridge, put it in bag; make sure water bottle is closed, put it in bag; snag a pop-tart from the pantry, put it in bag; make sure you have work badge, Smartrip and train ticket, attach them to your body; bundle up, go.

By 6:30 I was in my car and in great shape to make the 6:47 train without speeding through residential areas and red lights, which was good because I was feeling slow. Not slow in the sense that I didn’t feel like going fast, but slow in the sense that I didn’t feel like I could. Sluggish might be the word.

So, as usual, I got to the train station by 6:44, got my ticket validated in the hateful little machine that always rejects my credit cards, and had a spare minute to wait for the train to arrive.

After securing my usual top-level seat and making room for my bag between my feet, I unbundled and situated my coat as the blanket that would make this morning’s train nap the most comfortable yet. Phone alarm set to wake me up two stops before Union Station, I skeptically drank a little cranergy, settled in and passed out.

It was one of those days on which I don’t actually wake up until I get off the train in DC – I just make it to the Manassas station in a sleepwalking-like trance and fall back asleep as soon as I get there.

So I slept, but restlessly. I woke up around the halfway point and transformed my coat from a blanket to a pillow. About five minutes later I woke up again with a feeling that I know very well.

I was getting warmer, my face was radiating heat and I started sweating. The train is always cold, so I knew it wasn’t the heat kicking into overdrive. I knew exactly what was about to happen, but I sat there nervously willing it to go away and realizing that I wasn’t awake enough to figure out how to deal with it.

When I didn’t think I could avoid it any more, I threw my coat on the floor, ran down the stairs to the main level and recalculated. I was in the third car from one end of the train, and the bathroom is in the last car.

Oh. No.

I turned left and made my way through two train cars, holding my stomach with one hand and using every seat I passed for support with the other. Meanwhile, the train was wobbling, like trains do.

Side to side. Fast. Slow. Fast again. Side to side.

This can’t be happening, I kept thinking.

I got to the bathroom and used all the strength I could muster to force the door open, but it wasn’t budging. The woman sitting in the seat closest to me, facing my direction, said, “Someone’s in there,” with much hesitation. I looked at her like she had just told me the Earth was going to stop spinning in about two seconds and there was nothing I could do about it. Essentially, she had.

Everyone behind her was looking at me – at least 30 people – afraid of what was coming next, while I stood there manhandling the door to the occupied bathroom, staring at this woman with a distressed, pale face.

I gave up, thinking This is it, here it comes, and ran to the train’s entry way (an area in the middle of the car, secluded by double doors from the rest of the car, with stairs down to the doors for boarding and deboarding on either side). Because it’s illegal to stand in this area while the train is moving, one of the conductors (there are usually three) promptly approached me to ask what exactly I was doing there.

Clutching my stomach and doubled-over in pain, I told him I thought I was going to be sick and that the bathroom 15 feet inside the car to my right had been occupied for at least ten minutes.

“Well there’s another bathroom at the other end of the train,” he said.

Great, thanks. He must have seen my look of disbelief.

“Do you think you could make it to that one?”

“No. And I ran through two cars like this and I’m pretty sure I scared everyone I passed,” I said. “There’s no way I can make it to the other end of the train.”

With this he turned and quickly ran into the next car. And I turned and quickly…

Well, I couldn’t wait any longer. I threw up the cranergy – because that’s all I’d had that morning – onto the steps in the train’s entrance. And just as I was recovering and finding the only clean spot on the top stair to sit down, he returned with a trash can. I just looked up and said, “I am so sorry, I couldn’t help it…”

At that very moment, the man who had been hogging the bathroom walked out. Of course.

I continued to apologize as the conductor helped me toward the bathroom. I washed my face in the sink, grabbed some paper towels, and went back to do a little clean-up of the crime scene. When the conductor came back I apologized again, and he said it was okay but that I needed to move because the train was about to make a stop and I was about to get trampled.

So I wandered back through two cars, twice straddling the connection between cars with my weak, shaking legs, and settled back into my seat. I picked up the water bottle full of cranergy and stared at it with all the hate-filled thoughts I could generate. And I reflected.

Had I really just thrown up on the train … on the way to work? I should check my pant legs, because I threw up pink and I’m wearing khaki. What if I had been on the metro? Thank God I wasn’t on the metro. How many other people on the train saw that? I hope no one is stepping in it. Why aren’t there books that tell you what to do in these situations? I hope it’s not the flu.

I got to work that morning and spent the rest of the day in shock and disbelief, and feeling terrible. The only thing that made me feel more sick was the thought that I was going to have to take the train home again that evening. So before I left work, I found a plastic bag in the kitchen and stashed it in my bag. Of course this is a good idea, why hadn’t I thought to carry a barf bag before?

Thankfully, I made it home that day without getting sick again.

I now carry a barf bag with me everywhere I go. No exceptions.

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