“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.

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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.

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.

Someone stepped on the back of my shoe today. I’ve been trying to understand it, but it just doesn’t make sense.

I walk fast. I even walk fast through my office – so much so that my boss makes fun of me and will surrender a walkway to me if we’re headed toward each other.

I walk fast when I’m 20 minutes early for my train. I don’t like it when slow people drag me down, so I try not to be that person to anybody else.

Yet as I was walking to the escalator in Union Station’s metro station today, someone stepped on the back of my shoe.

And again.

Now the left.

Then the right.

Then the right, again.

This used to be something funny to do to kids in elementary school. I’ve probably even done it to friends in college. I remember laughing in the face of a fellow third-grader when he tried to give me a ‘flat tire’ but I was wearing my brand new high-tops, so his attempt failed miserably. This was funny, in third grade.

But I turned around to see who the culprit was and it was a man, huffing and puffing behind me, bag falling off his shoulder, coat off the other one. A disheveled, out-of-breath man was giving me flat tires, without saying a word of acknowledgment or apology. As I took two more steps onto the escalator, I feared he might trip me while I was hiking up (I never stand on an escalator). So I turned around to ensure my safety, and he was still at the bottom, on the right side, letting the escalator carry him up.

If he was so concerned with getting where he was going that he had to repeatedly step on me like I wasn’t right in front of him, how did he have the time to leisurely ride the escalator?

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m invisible or if somehow I blend in with the metro station interior decor. In addition to previously being hip-checked by a priest, I have now been stepped on.

With my next paycheck, I’m buying a neon yellow jacket and reflector strips for my shoes. That should help.

Taking the VRE home on a Friday evening can be a very frustrating experience. When the train stops I secretly coach the people getting on the train to move faster. And when the train leaves the platform, it starts off so slow that I secretly coach it to move faster too. And when someone starts talking to me after I have just taken a very satisfying nap, the train could not possibly move fast enough.

The inside of the newer VRE cars is much like a double decker bus: on the first level there are rows of two-seaters on either side of the aisle. And if you are brave enough to venture up the dangerously narrow and windy stairs, you will be greeted with the reward of single seats on either side of the car. The aisle in the middle is open from the top to the bottom of the train, so if you drop your chapstik while sitting in the single seats, it will probably fall into the lap of someone on the first level.

On one trip home a man, who smelled distinctly of bourbon and added commentary to my phone conversation, fell asleep and then fell onto me, pushing me into the window. He was so large it took all my strength to push him upright again. Ever since that day, I consistently sit in the single seats on the second level. I enjoy the sense of privacy they provide.

One Friday evening a few weeks ago, my quiet, peaceful train experience was violated for the first time since bourbon man. I had been on the phone, but we were about two stops away from my stop and the service usually cuts out in that area (yes, a Verizon ‘dead zone’ that allegedly doesn’t exist). So I resigned the last 15 minutes of the ride to a slient time to read a magazine.

As I put my phone away to pull out the magazine, I noticed a man sitting several seats in front of me on the other side of the train waving at me, his grubby little fingers moving one at a time. I waved back, thinking that we’re heading toward Manassas, and maybe I’m supposed to know him, but I’m not sure so I don’t want to be mean. Everybody knows everybody somehow in Manassas. I can’t just ignore him. So I waved and very obviously focused my attention on my magazine.

“You have a very pretty smile,” I heard him say, well after I thought our exchange had ended.

I said ‘thanks’ and even more obviously buried my head in the magazine and turned so I was facing more toward the window than the aisle, hoping this would keep him from continuing the conversation.

“I’m so glad it’s Friday,” he continued. “I even left work early – I usually catch the later train, this is a treat.”

I responded with some uninteresting small talk about the train, doing my best to secure the conclusion of this conversation.

“Do you take the train all the way into the city?” He clearly wasn’t getting my hints. I responded with as little detail as possible explaining that, yes, I take the train to Union Station, which of course prompted his next question. “Oh really? Aren’t you too young to make that commute? Where do you work? What do you do?”

I was too groggy from the nap-phone-nap combination to come up with something clever like “I feed the fish at the national aquarium in the morning. It’s in the commerce building, maybe you’ve heard of it. But I spend most afternoons tight-rope walking between federal buildings. It’s kind of a hobby.”

So I told him the truth in probably the least detail I’ve told anyone since I got the job. “I manage the publication of a research journal.”

“That’s very neat. You can wear jeans to work? I’m dressed down today in my polo, but usually it’s a suit and tie.”

I tell him that I wear jeans to work almost every day, and that I was offered a higher-paying job that required a suit but turned it down (this is a lie, and I’m not sure whether he picked up the sarcasm). Meanwhile I’m wondering why he’s noticing and asking about my clothing.

“Well you look great in jeans. You’re lucky, some people can’t look good in jeans. You’re very pretty. You have a great smile.”

mr-six1Oh. Um. Thanks? I try to seem extremely unimpressed with this compliment, but what could I even say in response? I like your baldness? It goes great with those glasses you must have picked up in 1972? And the speech impediment that makes you sound like you’re gargling and talking simultaneously? And the fact that you’re kind of rocking back and forth while turned around to talk to me since you’re sitting several rows in front of me?

“Oh, thank you. That’s very nice of you,” I finally spit out, past the honesty I was trying to hold back. Don’t get me wrong, I love meeting new people and striking up conversations with strangers (despite what I was taught as a child). But this man looked to be about 60 years old, and he was clearly starting to hit on me.

We are on opposite sides of the car, speaking over the two-story open air and everyone in between and below us. There are people right in front of me and right behind him. The situation is awkward if not mortifying. I ride the train with most of these people almost every day. I hope they don’t think I’m a gold digger.

He asked me about what I usually do in my free time and what my plans for the night and the weekend were. I explained that I was very busy with family things and friends things, and I was very busy every night and every weekend and, come to think of it, pretty much every moment I’m not working I’m usually busy (this is a lie).

He told me that he just moved to the area from North Carolina, he is a retired Air Force vet, and is now working for a defense contractor in Crystal City. He doesn’t have many friends in the area, but he’s enjoying exploring Northern Virginia. He rented a cabin along Skyline Drive recently, he said, but spent the weekend there alone. He said it would have been nice to have some company. Silence.

“Okay, have a good weekend,” I said as I gathered my things and headed toward the stairs all in one eager motion while the train was approaching my stop.

“It was great talking to you. And if you ever want to grab a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, the offer is on the table.”

Oy.

I kept walking as I muttered something resembling “Oh thanks okay bye…” wanting nothing more than to be out of his line of sight, off the train and in my car.

I was hilariously flustered. I called Jessie. She said “These things only happen to you, Lauren.” I don’t believe that, but I enjoyed that it made her laugh.

I stopped at Rebecca’s and told her and her mom and sister. Gasp – “He could be your sugar daddy!” Rebecca’s mom exclaimed. Rebecca’s reaction was the same as mine: “Gross.”

When I got home, I told my family, including Grandma and Uncle Michael. Grandma asked if I had inquired about the man’s net worth and the status of his health. Uncle Michael said I should have told him “Wine would be nice, but I’m not old enough to drink.”

Kanye and his gold diggaz

I wondered if he really was looking for a gold digger, and if so, he could have found her at a beauty salon with her baby Louis Vuitton under her underarm. I wondered if he would even know those were lyrics from a Kanye West song.

Thankfully, the most awkward conversation of my life was followed by sharing it with some of my favorite people. Seeing my grandma get a huge kick out of the story was worth it. But now I’m concerned that there is not a safe place left on the train. And I already sit where I do because of two unpleasant experiences with fellow passengers. I have pretty consistently avoided the train on Fridays since then, just in case he ever leaves work early.

If you have ever taken the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), a commuter train – think Polar Express – that runs from the outskirts of Northern Virginia into Union Station in the District, you know about its culture. If you ride the VRE for the first time, its culture is easy, and imperative, to pick up on.

Although I would never consider myself a follower, I definitely had the common sense to do just that the first time I took the VRE to work. When I got to the platform at the Manassas Train Depot in Old Town, I picked a place near some people – but not too close – and stood there. When the train came, I got into the line that instantaneously formed in the exact spot where the train doors stopped. And when I got into the train car, I walked without hesitation down the aisle and hung a right into an empty two-seater. That was the last morning I went the whole train ride without taking a nap.

I sat there, wide-eyed, watching commuters overwhelmingly dressed in black suits with black shoes and draped in black coats with black hats and gloves and black leather briefcases and laptop bags. They moved through the train as if without having to use a single brain cell. The scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz could do this. I actually thought that the scarecrow would be pretty jilted if he saw this, since he wanted a brain so badly.

Every person I saw get on and off the VRE that day (Manassas is the second stop on the way to DC and Union Station is the last, so I had plenty of time for people-watching) – every person had a routine. I could see their paths predetermined in front of them: Walk through two more cars, toward the back of the train, get the first seat on the lower level left side, put the briefcase under the seat and clip the ticket onto the jacket. I wondered what my routine would be and when I would figure it out.

The art of holding and displaying the VRE ticket is another phenomenon. Some of my fellow train riders have clear badge jackets for their tickets, which also hold their metro SmarTrips and various government security IDs, all held around their necks with stylish lanyards – they’re usually covered in pro football team or company logos, and some of the suck-ups wear VRE lanyards. They display them in varying degrees, but the people who like to sleep the whole way and don’t want to be disturbed by “Ticket please!” – like me – usually hang them in an obnoxiously creative and visible way. I once saw a man put his on his forehead when he leaned his head back to nap. Brilliant.

So, to put the culture of the VRE into one word – particular. Riders like the seat they chose back when they were first forming their routine. They know exactly when to stand up as the train approaches their stop and [admirably] rarely hold on to anything while the train is jerking to a halt. They also like quiet. If a person were to, say, talk on the phone, even the opening “Hello” would draw hate-filled glares from across the car. Guilty.

There are quiet cars with rules posted on the windows stating that you forfeit all of your First Amendment rights upon stepping foot in the car. Don’t rustle your Washington Post too loudly while flipping pages, and certainly don’t even whisper an apology to the person whose scarf you just stepped on causing her to choke. On second thought – apologize in a whisper to the rest of the car, because her coughing is annoying and is grounds for dismissal from the quiet car. Luckily the train’s natural noise always covers up my stomach growling audibly for dinner on the way home.

My hands-down favorite thing about riding the VRE, and probably one of the main reasons I use it so frequently, has nothing to do with its culture. In fact, it’s in spite of the VRE’s culture that I ride so often – just for the views. Right before crossing the Potomac in the morning, right outside Crystal City and on the way into the District, there is a small tidal pool collected right on the side of the tracks. There is a growing family of geese that are always waddling on shore and I once saw a trail of ducklings navigating an area that was frozen. The pool is guarded by a line of blue heron around its edges that stand perfectly still, even as the train blows by them.

And on the way home, if the sky is not too cloudy, the sunset over the Jefferson Memorial and the rest of the Tidal Basin is unmatched. I wonder, on average, how many people actually see that sunset, and I’m sure the majority of people in DC are still in their offices or fighting their way onto highways. I also wonder how much they would lighten up if they checked it out every now and then. As we cross the bridge back into Virginia the sun is going down behind Crystal City and the Air Force Memorial (which you can see from the Pennsylvania Avenue terrace of the Newseum, scholars!). This always makes me happy to be heading back into the great Commonwealth.

This is the sun setting behind the Jefferson memorial:

sunset behind the jefferson memorial

 

And this is the sunset over the Potomac on the way out of DC:

sunset over crystal city on the bridge leaving dc

I took these from the train, and since I wear jeans to work I’m sure I looked like a high school kid visiting my mom at work in DC for the day. Or a loser tourist of some kind. Story of my life. PS – the three semi-arches just to the right of the sun is the air force memorial. Legit but hard to see in this picture.