I have often spoken of the fine gentleman who gives me my daily Express at the Dupont metro stop. He is wonderful. I cannot applaud him enough for his morning attitude and our brief conversations about the day’s news, weather, metro delays, etc.

I also enjoy the green windbreaker-material track suit he dons on rainy days. There is also a poncho. Man is he stellar.

And then there was a crash on the red line and it’s only recently “recovered.” For about a month I’ve been skipping the transfer to red line and simply walking the mile from Farragut West (I figure even if the delays aren’t so bad, at least I’m above ground breathing real air). When it was too hot and sticky humid and I was too tired from vacation recooperation last week to make the long walk, I revisited the red line in the mornings.

Perhaps even better than the shorter walk was seeing my main Express man again. He’s the apple of my morning’s eye.

Heyyyy long time no see miss! Have a great day! So good to see you!

It broke my heart. I missed him so. But I didn’t stick around long to explain where I’d been because the truth is that I wouldn’t be entirely honest with him.

You see, when I wasn’t visiting him every day I had to get my Express somehow. Well I didn’t really need to, because I still don’t actually read it most days. But West Falls Church metro got a new distributor. And he’s precious. So sweet. He’s a young’n and I can’t avoid him like I used to avoid the older one (who’s still there, and still shouting his annoying “Double double, Express and Examiner double double”).

The young’n looks up at me from his stack of papers with a sly little smile and a sparkle in his eye and says, “Would you like an Express ma’am?”

Certainly I don’t condone the use of ma’am in reference to young people like myself, but he reminds me of a younger, more innocent Lil Bow Wow — before he dropped the ‘Lil’.

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I can’t really explain what I find so endearing about Lil Bow Wow and his Express distributor look-alike.

I also have a hard time explaining why I put two copies of the exact same newspaper in my recycle bin every day.

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.

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.

Oh man am I sick of hearing that word.

At any rate, WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) is finally organizing its progress on its $202 million stimulus plan into a readable, understandable format on its website. I have been searching for this information ever since I read WMATA’s first news blurb about the burgeoning plans for the millions – it seemed to disappear afterward and only recently showed back up on WMATA’s site.

On Feb. 18, Metro released its first musings about the $202 million plans, including a list of some projects that would get a chunk of the stimulus cheese in the coming months. The goal was to stimulate “the local and national economy by creating jobs and building a stronger regional transit system,” according to the release. Metro also stated that its “strategic goals” included improving quality of service, safety, and security, and that the following list would help reach those goals (this is a direct quote from their press release):

Some examples of Metro’s stimulus projects include:
• Replacing Metro’s oldest buses
• Replacing crumbling platforms
• Installing SmarTrip purchase capabilities at more Metro fare vending machines
• Enhancing bus garage security
• Installing technologies to improve bus route and schedule information
• Rehabilitating the oldest stretch of track in the rail system
• Building a rail car inspection and test facility to speed up the process of putting rail cars into service
• Updating the train arrival signs on platforms and mezzanines
• Replacing the Metro Center Customer Sales Facility
• Expanding and replacing vehicles for para-transit service

When I read this list back in February, I was increasingly outraged. I understood that it was only a preliminary brainstorming step toward the larger goal of what seemed like fixing everything, but it also seemed to me that the more prevalent of Metro’s issues were buried toward the bottom of the list.

For example, as you may have read or experienced first-hand, there have been many instances of single-tracking on various metro rail lines in the past few months, due solely to train derailments. I can think of three that specifically burdened my commute – on only one line, in only one month.

Why is “rehabilitating Metro’s oldest stretch of track in the rail system” resting at #6 on the list? This ancient track is between the Rhode Island Avenue and Judiciary Square stations on the Red Line, which is not where the four most recent derailments have occurred. Where is the funding for the stretch of track or the piece of equipment that’s causing derailments on Orange Line?

A possible band-aid on this boo-boo might be a rail car inspection and test facility, which by the way, is lower on the list than adding more vending machines for SmarTrip cards.

Which leads me to the kicker…

WMATA still has a $154 million gap in its operating budget to patch up, which means that the idea of service cuts is still being entertained as a possible way to cut spending. The stimulus funds can only be applied to Metro’s capital budget, so even if this list of projects sounds great, is executed perfectly and results in newer, better-working rail cars, we still might be facing service cuts and [even higher] fare hikes.

All that complaining aside, I am sure Metro’s stimulus plans will help the area’s economy – even if it succeeds at nothing else, it should be great for creating jobs. Of course all this hinges on grant approvals and permit approvals and the like. The new Economic Stimulus Program page on Metro’s site is marginally helpful right now, and will hopefully grow as more plans become concrete and more hurdles are cleared.

This is all part of Metro’s six-year transportation improvement program, so I have high hopes for the “Time line of Milestones” on this page which is currently only detailed through June 2009 and is so far pretty unimpressive.

I would also like to see the “Where is your money going” get more detailed when actual individual projects get rolling. I want it to tell me that one million of our dollars this year are going toward repairing the holes in the tiling at the Shady Grove station, and I want it to say, “Hey Lauren, guess what! We just started deploying extra Metro security officers in the dark, seedy parking garages at all of our stations, for your security! And it’s going to cost you and your fellow commuters another million.”

I just want to thank the Metro Genie for hearing and fulfilling my wish for this information to be made readily accessible to Metro patrons like myself. I would like to issue a second wish to the Metro Genie for this site to be updated and with details!

Thanks in advance.

My third wish is still under consideration.

I haven’t updated recently on account of the amount of work I’ve had to do at work. Go figure. But there has been no shortage of adventures in the many days since I last shared my run-ins with umbrellas. I recently had an interesting encounter with a cleaning device on the metro. For your reading pleasure:

I was riding the metro from work to Union Station one afternoon around 4:30. It’s usually not crowded at all at this time (pre-rush hour), which means that there is no need for the crowding around doors that always happens in the evenings. It results from people being too impatient to wait for the next train (arriving in a short two minutes), that they have to push their way through the closing doors and into the middle of a huddle of ornery suits. This of course triggers, “Ding ding ding Caution! The doors are about to close. Ding ding ding Caution! The doors are about to close. Ding ding ding Please allow the doors to close.”

But I rarely have to hear that on the pleasantly unpopulated 4:008sac_lynn_cohen_00230 p.m. metro ride from Dupont to Union Station. One day last week though, I heard the ding-ding-dinging and looked up from my book and pulled an earbud from my ear. There was a lady with an arm stuck in the doors.  She was short and squat and reminded me of Magda, Miranda’s housekeeper/nanny on Sex and the City, but a tad more rotund.

The doors kept trying to close, smooshing the excess arm like cookie dough around the outside of a dull cookie cutter. A couple of gentlemen ran to her rescue, and from my vantage point it looked like they pulled her clear of the hazardous doors, and we would be on our way.

As I looked back down at my book (What is the what by Dave Eggers, check it out) I heard the “doors closing” warning again and angrily wondered who tried to sneak in after this lady’s arm was freed. I prepared a look of disgust to shoot over toward the culprit, and I found the same lady trying to pull something (no doubt a rolling briefcase) through the doors. She couldn’t just be satisfied with rescuing her arm, she had to save her belongings too. The nerve.

So now her briefcase on wheels was stuck in the door and she was pulling on the handle with both hands and all her might. The two kind gentlemen that freed her arm were trying desperately to pull the doors open. The metro driver was shouting over the speaker that once the doors close you must let them close, that’s why there’s a warning. I appreciated that the driver gave this woman one chance (saving her arm) before she started getting an attitude at a high volume, but clearly she was as unhappy about this rolling briefcase as the rest of us. I’m sure she resentfully pushed a button to open the doors again, because the woman saved her brief case, quickly wheeled it into the middle of the car, and headed back toward the door. I couldn’t wait to see what else she had up her sleeve, and she certainly delivered.

She immediately began the same routine she had just successfully navigated, with something of similar size and shape – I thought it had to be yet another rolling briefcase, but I couldn’t really see from where I was sitting. I was thinking that this lady was very lucky to have already saved a limb and a briefcase from the clutch of the metro doors, what else could she want?

She lunged into the effort – both hands grasping the handle of whatever it was, pulling with all the strength she had left. The same two gentlemen, bless their hearts, tried yet again to help pry the doors open for her. The driver was getting sassier by the second over the speaker system, and I was sitting back enjoying the whole scene. It was already pretty comical.

Then the lady defeated the doors and wheeled her vacuum cleaner into the middle of the car.

Wait.

Vacuum cleaner?! sabrina2-cov

I immediately thought she might be a relative of Sabrina the teenage witch, because they all rode around on vacuum cleaners (instead of brooms, because brooms are so, like, old-fashioned. Duh.). But if she could ride the vacuum through the air, she probably wouldn’t have fought so hard to get it onto the metro. I settled on the conclusion that she must work for a cleaning service or be borrowing the cleaning device from a friend or something more realistic like that.

Whatever her excuse for dragging a rolling briefcase and a vacuum onto the metro, I admire her guts.

She wheeled her belongings, one-by-one, to a seat at the back of the car. Once she sat down she assessed the damage to her arm with enough of a pout on her face that I felt bad for her. But I wanted to offer her some advice: If you’re trying to squeeze through closing metro doors, first weigh the value of your limbs, then whatever belongings you might be toting behind you. If that driver had been a smidge less patient, the nice vacuum cleaner lady might have lost a right arm.