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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday, I saw this scene:

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

“Ticket please!”

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

“Sir. Sir! Ticket please!”

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

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

Madam Conductor said thank you and moved on.

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

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

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

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

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

I am ashamed of myself.

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

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

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

Let me tell you why I’m sore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

– AP Chemistry homework

– Surprise memorization tests in band

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

– People wearing costumes in the yearbook room

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

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

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

– Used my yearbook pass to go to two lunches

– It’s almost Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, without further ado…

The things that I find most inappropriate this week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things that are happying me today:

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

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

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

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

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.