The time has come to bid farewell to my dear, dear friend the Virginia Railway Express.

Hallelujah.

I’m moving this weekend to a place that is minutes not hours from the metro (hooray!) and never again will I need to rely on the luxury of the VRE for my daily commute. It is indeed a bittersweet goodbye. I will not miss the pre-sunrise rides and the motion sickness, but I will certainly miss all the characters.

Neo was one of my favorites, I sat behind him every morning from Manassas to … well I’m not sure where he got off because I slept through it. But he was so quirky and obsessive about his VRE routine that he always made me feel less insane for having my own obsessive VRE routine. I will not miss Sugar Daddy, even though I only saw or spoke with him once, the possibility of a future run-in often haunted my evening rides. And of course I will never miss being verbally abused by Madam Conductor.

I will definitely miss the naps in the morning. Somehow, no matter what awkward position I was in, I managed to sleep for almost an entire hour on the way in. I will also miss the views. I was fortunate enough to get a few good looks at the tidal basin during the pink snow a.k.a. the peak weeks for the cherry blossoms. The view I had was panoramic, from behind the Thomas Jefferson memorial, and free of swarming crowds of tourists. It was lovely.

I will also miss the blogging material. As several of my loyal readers (read: friends who are bored at work) have pointed out, my blog could take a serious hit to material abundance and hilarity levels once I no longer frequent the VRE. Never fear, metro rides will still provide me plenty of fodder, and of course I have a few anecdotes backlogged for future release.

They say all good things come to an end. And since I’m no good at goodbyes, I’ll just say this:

See ya later VRE. It’s been real.

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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.

Everybody has their routines. VRE riders are especially attached to their routines, and some of the more creative or obsessive ones can provide daily entertainment.

Like the man who I have nicknamed Neo.

depot

Manassas Train Depot

He gets on the train at Manassas, so I see him just about every morning. Manassas is only the second stop on the way to DC, so you’re always guaranteed a wide selection of seats. The station also has the historic train depot, which houses a passenger waiting room and a booth selling JavaRoo coffee, tea and muffins. So most people, especially on the coldest days, wait inside the depot to hear the railroad crossing bells, then walk toward the part of the platform where the car they choose will land.

earmuffs

180s

Neo never waits inside. He stands with his feet shoulder-width apart, precisely one foot from the edge of the platform, facing straight ahead. He wears a calf-length black puffy parka-style coat, black pants, black gloves, and black earmuffs (180’s, actually). And he holds his black suitcase in his gloved hand at the side of his right leg.

He chooses his spot, because this is where the train’s doors usually end up stopping. The first time I realized Neo was obsessive over this routine was the second morning in a row that the train, for whatever reason, pulled up an extra 10 feet, landing the doors 10 feet away from him instead of directly in front of him. He was visibly flustered, shook his head in disbelief, and scurried through everyone lining up to get on the train in order to be the first through that door, like every other day.

300px-neo

The real Neo

The reason I nicknamed him Neo is my favorite part of his routine. Since he is standing nearly on the edge of the platform, he usually gets the brunt of the slight breeze caused by the train speeding into the station. So he’s standing there, in his waiting-for-the-train stance on the edge of the platform, and as soon as the train starts to pass him, he abruptly turns his head to the right and leans back a little. Every day it reminds me of The Matrix.

When the train stops and the doors are usually right in front of him, he marches up the steps of the train with military precision. He hangs a hard left to march up the stairs to the single seats on the top level, walks half way to the back, and sits in the same seat every day. He doesn’t arrange his things, doesn’t put his bag on the overhead shelf, just sits. And waits for the train to carry him to work.

I know all this because the seat I choose to take every morning is the one right behind him. I, however, wait patiently and let people take their time getting on the train in front of me. And I still manage to get the same seat every day.

This is the same attitude that Neo’s antithesis has. He wears jeans every day with construction boots, a baseball cap and hands in his pockets. He has no bag or briefcase, and he saunters up to the platform as the train is pulling in, stands back to let everyone else on before him, then nonchalantly boards the train. When we get to Union Station, he casually walks to the escalator and stands on the right side, snickering at commuter zombies hiking up on the left.

I like him for making me feel silly becuase I am one of those commuting zombies.