May 2009


If you ride the metro frequently, you might have noticed that the drivers added an announcement to their repertoire last week. I haven’t been roaming through my metro rides with ear phones in, instead I’ve been trying valiantly to concentrate on reading. This is why I noticed, and was briefly annoyed at, the new metro announcements that the four seats in the center of the cars are reserved for senior citizens, the disabled, and others in need. One driver on the orange line made the statement every time she stopped.

But it is so necessary. I complain about the common rules that people break that inconvenience me (like standing on the left side of the escalator or taking up multiple seats with a jacket or a small child). But it is very disheartening to see an elderly, small, slow-moving woman who had to be over 80 years old, get pushed around a crowded metro and never be offered a place to sit. That is, until I got up from my seat, shoved through the crowd of people surrounding it, and personally escorted her back to the seat I’d left empty. But it should never be that hard.

I suggest you read the Washington Post story here.

The WashPost’s story brings up a point: What if people don’t offer seats to fellow riders for fear of offending them? Well, I was standing smooshed between many many arm pits one evening, and as usual I was making a concerted effort to read, when all of a sudden the young man sitting in the seat beneath my handrail looked up to me and said, “Ma’am, would you like my seat?”

I won’t say I was offended, because I’m always a fan of chivalry, but do I really look like a ma’am? Or someone who really needs to sit down? Eesh. And this ‘young man’ was much larger than me and had to have been between 18 and 20 years old. Does that age difference qualify me to be his elder? I’m definitely not a ma’am yet… Either way, I politely declined the seat while recalling a similar instance of “Am I really that old?”

It involved a young scholar of mine last fall whose name was Alan. He was precious: short and plump, very quiet, but could never hold in his huge, sheepish grin whenever he was enjoying a class activity or outing. All of the kids called me “Miss Lauren,” except for Alan who never addressed me by name until the day before he left the conference when he confessed, “I’m sorry Miss, I just don’t like calling adults by their first names…”

Oh, Alan. If you only knew how non-adult I actually am.

Was awesome.

Yesterday I finally finished Light in August by William Faulkner.  It was, as expected, a really entertaining read. And it was, as expected, really difficult to read on the metro.

Faulkner writes in circles in this novel, connecting every character by either omniscient narration or a chance encounter in the plot. And I’m very thankful for that because it saved my understanding of the whole book. Though it was easy to zone out while being jostled on the metro and reading the seemingly never-ending sentences and the jumps between story tellers, there seemed to always be a second chance to understand what was going on — sometimes on the next page, sometimes three chapters later, but usually from another character’s point of view. Repetition was one of Faulkner’s key themes in this book, and one of the few reasons I was able to read it in transit.

The story, and its many stories within, was entertaining and truly unexpected (for me, at least). The characters struggled with race tensions in the post-Civil War South, with the meager life of small, rural towns, and with their unknown histories (the main character was an orphan) and looming futures. I am certain I didn’t get all of the literary nuances out of it that I could have, but when you’re reading for the sake of reading, you get what you want out of a book.

And when your reading is interrupted every other paragraph by a train launching you into the large man to your left, or the child behind you pulling your hair, or the “doors closing” announcment repeating on loop, you get what you can out of a book.

Light in August is now #2 on my list of books I would recommend everyone read at some point. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (and pretty much anything else by Kerouac, especially Tristessa and The Subterraneans) is #1. So read them. But none of them are what I would consider metro reads, they’re more for rainy Saturdays in the recliner or long plane rides or backseat car trips or quiet lunch breaks from work.

namesakeUp next is The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. It is Lahiri’s second book, her first was Interpreter of Maladies, a Pulitzer Prize-winning compilation of short stories that I have not read but could make the Metro Reads list soon. I started reading The Namesake this morning on the way to work, and already my eyes and my brain are much more at ease than they were with Light in August. Fifteen pages in I already want to know where the characters are going to go and what they’re going to do.

I have a feeling the writing and underlying themes in this book are going to be somewhat reminiscent of one of my other favorite authors, Amy Tan. Most people know Tan for The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter’s Daughter, but my favorite is The Kitchen God’s Wife (it actually made me cry) — and they all have themes of immigrant culture blending with American culture and the differences that span the generations of the family that immigrated and those born in America. Lahiri seems to have a similar focus, but from the perspective of a native of Calcutta with strong ties to her Indian culture.

I found The Namesake on a shelf in the library with a sign that said “Book Club Favorites.” I wonder if this means that it’s going to pluck my female heart strings like the one Jodi Picoult book I read (My Sister’s Keeper — real tear jerker). Hopefully I’ll let you know before I have to renew my library books again (oops!).

Sarah K – we must discuss!

I had a professor in college, in one of my English classes, who was Mexican and spoke with a thick accent and a very strong lisp. He was a short, somewhat rotund man, who had received a threat from his doctor that it was time to watch his diet and exercise. This became the subject of much of his mid-lecture fodder. He had a permanent smile which was more of a wily, calculating grin, and it was often accompanied by twiddling thumbs. He was always up to something.

Whenever possible, he used the word “monkeys” to refer to just about anything. He used it in place of “words” or “documents” or any other plural noun. “Monkeys” frequently referred to us, his students. He even made a series of videos –using photo booth– starring stuffed monkeys and posted them on Facebook (yes, I am his Facebook friend). Clearly his class was one of my favorites.

Since he was tight on funds and claimed to want to be “one with the students,” he rode the Blacksburg Transit (BT) –the public bus that was ‘free’ to students and faculty– to and from campus. It was the kind of bus with a yellow cord you had to pull if you wanted it to make a stop, and when you pulled that cord it said, “Bing! Stop requested.” My professor found this muy entertaining. As the bus approached certain stops it would say, “Now approaching Burruss Hall. Ask your driver for transfer information;” “Now approaching University Mall/Math Emporium;” and my favorite, “Now approaching Patrick Henry Drive time check.” Ah, home.

My absent-minded professor was so amused by this that he rode the bus for many entire routes and recorded all of its announcements. Then he did what anyone else would have done with his new wealth of sound bytes. He made a remix.

Yes, he remixed together some of his favorite BT announcements, to the tune of techno beats, complete with his own original voice overs. And then he played it for us in class with the overwhelming pride of a new father.

This morning on the metro, the “Stand clear, doors closing” announcement repeated for the entire trip between two stops. Over and over and over. And over. Without pause. And it reminded me of the BT Remix, and I thought of how happy Carlos would be if he rode the metro for any length of time.

Perhaps, in his honor, I will make a DC Metro remix. Stay tuned…

I love Virginia.

I was born and raised in Virginia, went to school in Virginia (go Hokies!), and have managed to move only 25 miles from my hometown. In Virginia.

670px-Flag_of_Virginia.svg

I love that it is one of four states in the country officially designated as a commonwealth — Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are the others. The designation as a commonwealth has no impact constitutionally, it’s simply a testament to the history of the state’s founding. The four commonwealth states named themselves such because they were built upon the idea of government based on the common consent of the people, breaking away from their original founding as Royal Colonies under the governance of Great Britain. Sounds like democracy.

So, history lesson in mind, let me please reiterate — I love the Commonwealth of Virginia.

And I especially love the metro rides home in the evenings. As the train approaches Rosslyn, some enthusiastic drivers say, “This is Rosslyn, the first stop in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” And if you look out the left side of the train leaving Rosslyn, toward Vienna, there’s a “Welcome to Virginia” sign on the wall. Complete with a cardinal (the state bird, duh).

It makes me happy every time.

But in the same vain, I sometimes enjoy hearing, “This is Foggy Bottom/George Washington University, the first stop in your nation’s capital,” on the way to work in the morning. It always reminds me of last fall when I was a faculty advisor for a youth leadership conference. The opening session involved a short video that proclaimed, “Feel the power of this city – your nation’s capital!”

Cheesy, yes. But it always got the kids really excited (or really homesick).

It’s refreshing, because no matter how displeased we are with our government, DC is still the most powerful 63 square miles of city in the world. And that’s exciting to kids, students, tourists, wide-eyed new inhabitants, and even people who are occasionally fed up with the area and its transit system.

Virginia_signStill, nothing beats being welcomed back to the commonwealth at the end of the day.

As much as I complain about the metro and its often unpleasant stench, unpredictability and unhappy patrons, I realize that it could be so much worse.

It’s not even crowded all the time. At certain times it is heavily traveled, that’s for sure.  The platforms are crowded, the trains, the parking lots, the fare card lines…

Sure, I’ve almost been pushed onto the tracks by an arrant briefcase or stroller. One crowded train (during public school winter break) taught me that I may be average height for a 22 year old female, but I am also average height for a middle-aged man’s armpit. It seems they’re everywhere I go on a train, every time I have to stand and it’s even a tad crowded — I end up in an armpit.  Delightful.

But it is not this crowded:

Hilarious.

And quite a shame.

I firmly believe — even if it’s not true please let me hold on to this belief — that the DC metro area will never get this crowded. I don’t believe the metro will ever be so crowded that it must employ people to stuff us onto public transportation like I stuff clothes into suitcases — however it will fit, worry about the wrinkles later…

Here’s hoping.

(Thanks to Jason for the link)

Since I have yet to fully commit myself to the middle-aged woman I’m already becoming (at 22!), I have been holding off on joining a book club. That’s right, I’ve been wanting very badly recently to join a book club and read amazing books and discuss them with amazing people. But since I’m still (a year later) reveling in freedom from college schedules, strict reading lists and regimented assignments, I have chosen to continue reading what I want, when I want. For now, at least.

But I’ve been reading quite steadily, and almost exclusively while I’m on the metro or waiting for the metro or even walking to the metro. (Yes, mom, I know that sounds dangerous. And it is.) Because I’m enjoying it so much, I’ve decided to share.

What this means for you, my faithful readers, is that I’m starting a segment on this blog about what I’m reading on the metro right now. One post here and there about what book I’m starting, what I just finished, or what’s on deck should suffice.

Without further ado:

gatsbyI recently read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and fell head over heels for it. You see, while most of you dutifully read it in high school as an assignment for English class, I managed to wriggle through the Gatsby tests and papers by perusing SparkNotes. When I was packing up my room to move about a month ago, I found my copy of the novel — it was pristine, in mint condition. It was clear I had opened it no more than twice.

I felt bad about this, and knowing that it’s revered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American novels, I resolved to read it. It took me one work-week of metro rides, and it was the perfect metro read. So intriguing and smoothly written that you get wrapped up in it, but not so confusing and complicated that you forget what’s going on if you put it down after only 20 pages or get distracted by briefcases swinging into your face and umbrellas poking you in the side.

Being that I am not a literary expert, and you have probably all read and analyzed it to death, I will stop my formal review here and simply say this: If you never read it, or faked reading it, or only read the SparkNotes, or didn’t like it or didn’t get it the first time — read it again. It’s like a mini redemption for being a slacker for a few weeks in 10th grade English. It feels good.

aug1Now I’m reading Light in August by William Faulkner — a book that was also on some high school reading lists (I’m seeing a pattern here…). But in Mrs. Bartlett’s 11th grade honors English, we read things that Mrs. Bartlett wanted us to read instead of what every other class was reading. So we attempted Faulkner with The Sound and the Fury, which was so extremely written in his signature stream-of-consciousness, that we were instructed to put sticky notes on a page every time he changed from narrating from one character’s perspective to another’s. There were many stickies and mass confusion.

So when I started Light in August, I was suspecting it might not be a metro read. So far I’m about a quarter of the way through it and it is awesome. I do have to read and re-read pages when the metro distracts me or when I accidentally fall asleep mid-sentence, but I have a hard time putting it down when it’s time to get off the train.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Early last week we saw wonderful summer-like weather in the DC area. Monday and Tuesday temperatures reached the mid-90s, my shoulders turned light pink, and the hope that April showers had finally given way to May flowers ran rampant. That is, until something else ran rampant. Ahem, I mean “rampant.”

An apparent almost-pandemic, then definitely pandemic, then a maybe-not-a-pandemic strain of swine flu took over the human race and wiped out populations in mass, including all of Mexico. Oh wait. That’s not true. Some people caught a bad flu, one U.S. citizen died of the bad flu, schools shut down due to students with suspicious symptoms, and Joe Biden encouraged everyone via the Today Show, to avoid public transportation. Thankfully I was watching the Today Show when Biden shared his words of wisdom and doom, which was approximately 15 minutes before I got on the metro.

Amid all the media flurry over the swine flu, I learned a few things:

  1. I should wash my hands frequently. Of course, I already came to my own conclusion that the metro is dirty and I should wash my hands as soon as I get off of it every day. But since news of the swine flu, I’ve gone through even more of my Purell supply than I budgeted this month. Dagger.
  2. I should be afraid of anyone who coughs or sneezes. I was reading on the metro one morning and some poor unsuspecting person sneezed and everyone immediately shot her a death stare of disapproval.
  3. I should be afraid of confined spaces and breathing the air inside them. I’m fairly claustrophobic, so the news media confirming my fear was not good for my mental health. Despite this, I haven’t resorted to wearing a SARS maskbaconator yet.
  4. All this talk about swine flu has made me seriously crave bacon. I also learned that I cannot contract swine flu by eating bacon. I’ll be heading to Wendy’s after work for a Baconator.

So anyway, I set about my normal business on Monday last week, remembering to wash my hands frequently and be cautious of everyone’s snot. Fortunately, the swine flu hysteria had put me in a good enough mood to last the day, because it quickly turned into a prime example of Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

The evening commute was a stress, because the shuttle to our apartment building comes every 30 minutes, and I was on track to barely make it to West Falls Church for the 5:10 shuttle. I rushed down Connecticut to the Dupont Metro, thinking to myself that it’s going to be a long summer if I don’t start hanging out for happy hours in the city until the heat cools off. By the time I was half way down the escalator, half way under ground, I was at least 10 degrees cooler. I was thankful for the shade and the cave-like atmosphere in the metro station and thought that it might actually be a pleasant ride home.

When I switched lines at metro center, it was considerably more muggy and disgusting underground. I told myself to stop complaining because in a mere three minutes I would be on another train with the air conditioning on full blast.

Unfortunately when I got on my orange line train bound for home, not only was there no air conditioning, but there was no air to speak of. All of a sudden I had a mini Joe Biden on my shoulder saying “If you don’t want swine flu you better not breathe! I told you not to ride public transportation!”

Deep breaths, Lauren. Deep breaths.

Of course it was peak evening rush, so the train got ridiculously crowded, and I got increasingly angry at every new person that got on for taking a portion of my air. And as the train emerged from the Ballston underground, it got instantly hotter with the sun’s proximity, and slower for an unknown reason. We had one of those drivers that never tells you what’s going on – he just lets you sit there and ponder the possible reasons the train is stopped and wonder if you’ll make it off alive.

Inch by inch we made our way toward East Falls Church and inch by inch I checked my watch thinking  I could definitely still make the 5:10 shuttle… If we pick up speed right now, I’ll make it… Stopping at East Falls Church shouldn’t take that long… I’m right by the doors, I’ll definitely be up the escalator in a hot second…

And then the driver enlightened us, just when the station was in sight.

Customers, we will hold here until further notice. There is a train offloading at East Falls Church due to a sick customer, we are operating on one track through the station right now. We will move when we get the go-ahead.

Well I still kept my hopes alive of making it to the 5:10 shuttle. I also wondered if the “sick customer” had swine flu. I got really nervous about this possibility when we finally stopped at East Falls Church and everyone who had offloaded the sick person train crammed onto the one I was already crammed onto. It had to be topping 100 degrees on that train and there was less and less air to be breathed. And every one of those new passengers could now possibly be sharing a swine flu infestation with the rest of us. Oh great.

But I turned my thinking toward the silver lining and that was that I had stealthily secured a stance directly in front of the door so I would definitely be the first person off the train. I took great pride in this quick thinking of mine.

The train stopped at West Falls Church at exactly 5:10. I stood facing the doors waiting for them to open when the driver said, “This is West Falls Church, doors opening on the right.” What?! The doors always open on the left at West Falls! Murphy’s Law.

Behind all the people who were lined up at the right side doors, I bolted off the train thinking maybe Phillippe (the shuttle driver) is caught up in a lively conversation with someone on the bus and has forgotten to leave yet. This is completely plausible, it happens all the time.

I basically ran to the escalator, but I was already behind a thick crowd. We shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder in a massive huddle toward the escalator. I was queued up on the left side, lifting my foot to step onto the escalator, when all of a sudden the person in front of me was moving backward toward me. I looked to the top of the escalator and people were grabbing for something to brace themselves with and simultaneously they let out a “Whoaaa.”

It was a rapid reverse.

The escalator had instantaneously switched — while overcrowded with angry, sweaty people — from going up, to going down. I tried to move backward as the people on the escalator were shifting toward me, but the crowd behind me wasn’t catching on and wasn’t moving. Finally, everyone started hiking the escalator as it eventually came to a complete stop. I looked at my watch on the way up: 5:12.

I had to wait for 30 minutes for the 5:40 shuttle in the unbearable heat after breathing little air for the last hour. I didn’t have a book that day, so I was left to sit with my thoughts and consider the possibility that I just contracted the swine flu from seven different people whose snot ranges I was riding in.

I came to two new conclusions while I sat on the curb waiting for the shuttle:

  1. Quit whining, 30 minutes is not that inconvenient.
  2. Always heed Vice President Biden’s advice.