For the last 2 minutes of my orange line ride this morning, I grabbed a seat next to a large older man with gray hair, a red tie, and the scent of banana about him. As is my normal practice, I shoved my nose further into my book to avoid conversation — he looked like a talker. As we approached Metro Center where I was about to get off, he turned toward me, but kept turning until his lips met the cheek of the woman behind us, who was facing the opposite direction. I heard several smooches and must have looked as uncomfortable as I felt because when he came up for air he leaned toward me and said:

I kiss all the women on the train goodbye before I get off. Every morning.

I faked a pity laugh at what I’m hoping was a joke and willed the train to stop so I could stand up and run away. Of course, he was a talker, so he continued:

At least I kiss as many women as she let’s me.

As he said this he gestured toward his … wife? Ladyfriend? Mistress? They exchanged awkwardly suggestive glances. I forced another pity laugh and then sprinted for the door.

That was easily the most awkward conversation I have ever had on the metro. I would even prefer having to talk to a coworker the whole way. Or the claustrophobic woman. Oy.

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And I’m back. Sorry for the hiatus, my July resolution is to get better at frequent posting.

I know I don’t need to tell you that the metro has been a charlie foxtrot since the red line crash on June 22. But let me tell you — it has been nuts.

Because metro’s automation feature seems to be at fault, all trains in the system have been running manually ever since the crash. This means stopping abruptly, maintaining a maximum speed of 35 mph, and keeping a space of several extra minutes in between each train. At some times, red line trains are only running every 10 to 15 minutes. This is unheard of in the realm of mass transit. It is inconvenient to say the least.

The combination of these speed bumps and the hot, sticky weather that translates to hotter, stickier metro stations, is having a profound effect on my commute to and from work. My primary gripe is that the people around me are forgetting their manners, thinking How dare metro inconvenience me, don’t they know how important I am, while failing to realize that everyone else is in the same boat.

There is more shoving, more shouting, more sweat, more disregard for common courtesies like covering your mouth when you cough and offering the seat from under your 25-year-old healthy bum to the feeble old man clinging to life in front of you. Every car is more and more like a can of sardines.

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Throw some tourists into the mix and things get interesting.

On Tuesday I wasn’t feeling so hot when I left work, so I decided to brave the red line and transfer to orange at Metro Center. Since the crash last week, I’ve been getting on and off at Farragut West and walking the mile-ish to and from my office, just to avoid the red line’s neverending issues. But Tuesday was hot, and I wasn’t feeling well, so I sucked it up and took the red line. It was not fun.

I got to Metro Center only to find that there were delays on orange and blue also. Apparently the whole system has gone to crap. When an orange line train finally came about 15 minutes later, there was a large crowd behind me and a packed car in front of me. As I tried to step onto the train, I saw a frantic middle-aged woman launching herself toward me, pushing herself through the brick wall of people, shouting hysterically:

I’M GETTING OFF THIS TRAIN!

I HAVE to get off this train! I can’t TAKE this anymore!!! Get me out of heeerrreeee!!

Meanwhile, a younger woman about my age was screaming at her from further into the train in a high-pitched, nasal whine:

MOM don’t do this! MOMMMM! Get back on the train Mom!!!!

Fine then give me your keys!! AND MY TICKET MOM YOU HAVE MY TICKET!!!

The woman was now straddling the doorway of the train, one foot in the car and one on the platform. The mass of sardines inside the car all had the same thought behind their death stares: Make a decision lady, the sooner we move the sooner this is over.

With some coaxing from a kind stranger, the woman was reassured that it is better to stay on the train now than wait for a less crowded one or take a cab all the way out to Vienna. The daughter was thankful.

Somehow the woman freaked out again at the next stop and pulled the same stunt. At this point people were angry, especially because we got lucky enough to be on a car with no AC. A large man grabbed her by the arm, yanked her back onto the train and held her firmly in his grasp until the doors were closed. We were only at McPherson Square and the daughter was getting increasingly more annoying than the frazzled lady.

I was in the very back of the car, where there are only four sets of seats and very little to hold on to. Because of this, very few people choose to crowd the area. I noticed Ms. Frazzle’s key chain, asked her if she was a Hokie, and convinced her to come stand out of the [larger] crowd with me, and focus on the one corner of the car that was unoccupied by people.

As we discussed our shared love of our alma mater, the things that have come and gone in the years between our stints there, and what we do now (she’s a high school tennis coach, I’m a… commuter), her daughter continued to whine. I learned that the girl graduated from college (not VT) last month and couldn’t help wondering whether she’d learned any social grace while she was there — every time the doors opened she complained (louder than I’ve ever heard someone speak on the metro) to the people waiting on the platform to get onto the train

Sorry guyyyyss there’s no more room on here. Noooo don’t try to get on there’s no more rooom. Ugghhhh

Oh no she did not…

1. There is always more room on the metro.

2. Don’t tell angry, sweaty, tired, commuting people what to do. Especially not when you’re so clearly a tourist. They will get angry with you.

3. Every time you speak you add more unnecessary hot air to the already unbearably hot train. So shut it.

I continued to talk to Ms. Frazzle to keep her calm. She was very intently focused on me, her eyes fixed on mine, her white knuckles grasping the top of a seat, her feet shoulder-width apart and her body assuming an athlete’s ‘ready stance’. We talked about Blacksburg restaurants, Tech’s newest dining halls, the beautiful campus. She asked me the inevitable questions about April 16, which I still can’t believe strangers ask with such candor. She told me she was a DG and a little sister of some fraternity (Do people still care about this when they’re grown? Because I never have and continue not to care in the least bit). She asked what, if I wasn’t Greek, did I even do all those four years. She asked if I do this “metro thing” every day. I said yes, but only to… hey, look at that we’re at my stop (thank goodness).

As I shuffled off the train I wished her luck on the rest of her ride to Vienna and in her attempts to metro the next day. She thanked me profusely for helping her out, the daughter thanked me for talking to her saying, “Sometimes she’s so crazy. She thinks she has claustrophobia.”

I said you’re welcome, good luck, have a good evening, okay great, yup thanks, sure of course, I said you’re welcome…alright, uh huh …

Bless their frazzled, whiny little hearts. I hope they survived Wednesday and didn’t drive in to the National Mall like Ms. Frazzle was threatening to do. I have had my fair share of claustrophobic moments but man did she ever show me up. Somehow I’m not envious of her win.

I know you know, but just in case you missed it – Yesterday around 5 p.m. (you know, peak rush hour), two metro trains on the red line collided in northeast. As of this morning they’ve confirmed nine or seven casualties, depending on who you ask, and many many more injuries.

I can’t even imagine.

I got to Dupont Circle metro station around 5:15 yesterday, and waited 15 minutes for a train. This seems trivial, I know, but they normally show up one right after the other with a maximum of three minutes in between. The platform got more and more crowded as people piled in and the electronic train status signs remained blank.

There were no announcements, no alerts from WMATA, nothing.

So when a phenomenally crowded train showed up after what seemed like an eternity, everyone piled on. It was reminiscent of the failblog video I wrote about once. People were actually holding onto other people to keep them in the train while the doors attempted to close.

At Farragut North, when even more disgruntled, uninformed people tried to cram on, I thought I was about to witness a metro mutiny. There was shouting, lecturing, arguing, shoving, and even more squishing of smaller people (me) into larger people’s arm pits. Sweaty armpits, because the air wasn’t on.

I thought to myself, I might blog about this tomorrow.

It wasn’t until I got to Metro Center that I even heard an announcement that there was “a situation” on the red line, and that you should expect delays in both directions. But there’s always a situation on the red line, so I casually, like every other day, filed onto my orange line home-bound train and opened my book.

When I got above ground and regained cell service I started to get worried. I had numerous texts, missed calls and voice mails from various friends and family. One text from a coworker asked if I made it home okay, “I heard about the red line.”

I got off the train and headed out toward kiss&ride to wait for my shuttle and heard another announcement about a portion of the red line being shut down, shuttle service, delays, etc.

I called my mom, assured her I was fine and asked what in the world was going on. I had an all too familiar pang in my stomach, one that’s lived there for two years now and flares up when it senses disaster. Sirens, triage stations, media, questions, chaos. Casualties.

Yes, it was a freak accident. It was nowhere near where anyone I know rides the metro, and it was nowhere near where I ride it (for which I am exceedingly grateful). But, as such things always do, it opened a limitless box of questions and what ifs. What went wrong? Who’s to blame? Equipment failure or operational error? How do we know other trains on other lines are safe? What if it had been underground?

Being in the dark, literally underground, having no idea what was going on and no source of information, is a metro fault. We’re all used to hearing announcements of delays or single-tracking or “malfunctions” and not finding out what really happened until you get home and check the news. Some metro officials argue that telling passengers, via station and train announcements, the details of what’s really going on could cause panic. I would prefer if I could first have the information and then be able to decide for myself whether or not to panic. I know plenty of people agree.

My heart goes out to the people on those two trains — the ones going into the city for Monday evening fun, and those coming out after a day of work — their families, friends, loved ones. I understand what it’s like to have something mundane and normal, a staple of your everyday life, be disrupted by something traumatic.

This morning I avoided the red line, walked about a mile from Farragut West to work, and was thankful to no longer be on the train or underground. I’m also thankful to those of you who read this blog and checked in yesterday, it’s much appreciated.

For the details, coverage of all angles (of particular interest is the ‘The Probe‘ article), and some intense photos, check out the story at the Washington Post.

This morninwill-smith-the-fresh-prince-of-bel-airg I woke up after a thoroughly enjoyable three-day weekend relaxed, rejuvenated and ready for the week. In fact I was so relaxed that I felt little need to rush around. As I meandered through my morning routine I realized I would not be leaving at 7:15 for the metro, and resigned to the idea of watching a little more Meredith Vieira (can’t stand her, but I watch anyway) on the Today Show while I ironed my shirt. As the great Will Smith once said, I was “chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool…” or something.

I eventually caught the shuttle and walked calmly and in a half-sleep into the metro while the masses bustled around me. Sometimes it’s refreshing to slow down.

I guess I disturbed the natural order of things by going about my morning at 1/3 of my normal pace, because things started to get weird as I turned toward the entrance. First, I got stepped on while waiting for my SmarTrip to register on the farecard machine and let me through. No big deal, I get stepped on a lot.

When I got to the left side of the escalator down to the platform and realized no one was walking (escaleftors, all of ’em!), it didn’t bother me too much because as I said before, I was taking it easy this morning. But then a train pulled up and I was still stuck in the immobile line of people on the escalator, and as easy as I might have been taking it, I was determined to get on that train. So I started the stand-on-my-toes look-impatiently-around-the-person-in-front-of-me thing to see what the problem was.c_rueben

The source: An old couple that had to be pushing 90, one with a cane and the other with the largest eye glasses I’ve ever seen. Think Reuben from the Ocean’s trilogy, but much much older. They were standing bewildered on both sides of the escalator, unknowingly blocking traffic while the people behind me yelled things like “Ya gonna walk today?!” and “How about MOOOVING!!”

Right as the train stopped and the old couple hobbled off the escalator and safely into seats, the escalator sped up causing everyone to grab something. I resisted.

Then it came to a seriously abrupt stop, causing me to grab the shoulder of the man in front of me as I was launched forward. Oops.

The huddle of people left on the escalator used the momentum to get onto the train which thankfully was not crowded and I secured a seat without any effort. I made myself comfortable thinking Man, that was stressful and decided this was not a reading-on-the-metro day. I closed my eyes and continued to try to take it easy.

Once I got to metro center I learned that the red line in my direction was delayed due to a problem at the Bethesda station. It turns out a woman jumped in front of a train at Bethesda yesterday, and today it was still causing problems? Anyway, it was  one of two metro fatalities this weekend and one of three red line suicides that has affected my commute. It’s really unfortunate.

To end on a much happier note:

1. It’s a beautiful day outside

2. My sore right wrist/arm combination from batting a thousand at the cages yesterday is causing me to type really slowly and really poorly. Trust me, it’s much more comical than it is pitiful.

3. I got an iced coffee from Starbucks for breakfast (at the Starbucks or the Starbucks or the Starbucks or the Starbucks) …If you haven’t already, enjoy:

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.

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.

I have perfected the metro nap. From Vienna to Metro Center (usually close to 30 minutes), I close my eyes and slip in and out of consciousness – and I am good at it.

I always manage to get a window seat, so I don’t have to worry about getting up when the person next to me needs to get off. I will walk to the very end of the train to get a window seat, because it’s worth it. Even though I then have the wall to lean on, I never do. If you have ever put your head against the metro window, I am sorry and I don’t want to know what has taken up residence in your scalp.

I usually fold my arms, clutching my bag, and fall asleep sitting upright. I think I learned this from so many years of sleeping in class – sorry Mom – because if you’re in a 100 person lecture, you can’t just put your head down on the desk. It only takes about a minute for me to doze off once I’m in this position, and the only thing that keeps me semi-conscious once I do is the effort to keep my mouth closed. I often wake up on the train with my mouth wide open, and sometimes with a little drool trickle on the side of my mouth.

But the metro is different. It’s much closer quarters and I believe that many yet-to-be-discovered airborne organisms live on the metro. So I sleep sitting up, sometimes biting the inside of my lip to keep my mouth from dropping open.

Today I was taking a pretty serious metro nap when a crazy sound made its way into my dream. In my dream, it was the sound of bugs river dancing in a puddle. But when it woke me up, I realized this sound was alarmingly more disgusting.

Out of the corner of my right eye I saw two hands clutching the germ-infested metal bar on top of my seat. I turned around to get just enough of a full picture to understand what was going on – there has to be a good reason to wake me up from a morning nap – and what I saw kept me from falling back to sleep for the rest of the ride.

The woman sitting behind me was the human incarnation of Miss Piggy (remember I just came out of a dream about riverdancing bugs). She wore a sleeveless shirt while everyone else on the metro had traded wool coats for trench coats (since it’s 70 degrees today). And she was clutching the bar on my seat – and it didn’t seem to me she was afraid or nervous – she looked like she was on the edge of her seat excited about something.

And she was so excited she was chewing her gum like Mr. Ed might chew peanut butter, except only gum could make the horrendous noise coming from her mouth. As I turned a little bit more, still coming out of my metro nap haze and realized this was the sound that prematurely woke me, I made fleeting eye contact with her. She kept on smacking that gum.

The metro in the morning is crowded. Sometimes it’s stuffy. It’s covered in newspaper and occasionally smells like aftershave.

But it is always quiet. No matter how many people cram onto that car and no matter how many newspaper pages are turning, the metro is quiet in the morning. I like to think it’s because everyone is sharing in the same trudging-to-work-again coma that I am experiencing.

But the truth is that I don’t care why it’s quiet, I just appreciate that it is. And I would much rather be shaken from my metro nap by a terrible driver who stops short 13 times before halting at the platform than by the bug-dancing gum-smacking Miss Piggy-impersonating lady who couldn’t stand to close her mouth while chewing. But I would still like to know what she was so darn excited about.