Only the patriotically deluded think Washington, D.C., is a great summer vacation spot. The weather is hot, muggy, and miserable. The streets are pot-holed, the sidewalks smell, and those giant 1950s-science-fiction-atomic-blast-transmogrified caterpillars you see are actually homeless people moving under layers of blankets.
Unlike many jaded Washingtonians I am not indifferent to the plight of the homeless, and do give them change if they attack me. But I am indifferent to the alleged charms of Washington, D.C. You want D.C. — and the monuments, the Smithsonian, and the seat of the federal government — you can have it.
Unfortunately, I have it every working day, though at night I escape across the Potomac to Virginia. My dislike of D.C. would be somewhat ameliorated if I could ride a horse into work — as a westerner, I still wear cowboy boots as a matter of course — but that, alas, is not on.
What is on is the Metro, the Washington subway system. Riding it, for me, is a five-day-a-week penance, which I hope will reap me rewards in Heaven.
As some wear a hair-shirt for mortification, I wear a sweaty dress shirt from the two-mile walk I have to the Metro station. It is hard to put on airs — except for those usually dealt with by underarm deodorants –standing on a train platform with a sweaty dress shirt cling-wrapping one’s abdomen.
At least a wet shirt allows one to slip between passengers and get aboard the usually overcrowded trains. Once, looking at a train with passengers pressed nose tip to nose tip, I heard a tourist exclaim softly, in the civilized drawl of Dixie: “It’s inhuman.” That’s right, ma’am, it’s mass transit. The pope warns us not to treat people as objects. The mass transit system treats people as objects.
To assert my moral superiority, I never — if a seat is available — sit down. I always stand so that pregnant women, tourist children with encumbering balloons, and men with Sports Illustrateds I can read over their shoulder, can sit instead. Does this win me plaudits from grateful passengers?
Let me put it this way. I’m over six feet tall and built like a wide receiver — and I wish I lived in a country where the women were smaller than I am. No one needs to tell me that there is an epidemic of obesity in America, as women the size of hippos rush in with greedy, piggy eyes for the seats I’ve left available for them, knocking me down as a potential rival or angrily pushing me out of the way so that they can beat a challenger hippo. If they lose this tussle of roaring beasts — like maniac Wal-Mart shoppers wrestling for the last jumbo-sized discount nightie — they make it clear my existence is to blame.
I don’t mean to pick on women. I’m married to one after all (though not a hippo-sized one). Men are bad in a different way, especially since the demise of the traditional leather attaché case and its replacement by athletic-bags-cum-briefcases that are slung over the shoulder. These are often enormous in size — the size of a camel’s hump at least — and loaded with brick-weight bureaucratic impedimenta.
Like Curley, Larry, and Moe inadvertently slapping each other with two-by-fours carried over their shoulders, men seem oblivious to the effects of their sling-cases, so that I’m buffeted by the hunches of jostling hunchbacks.
As an accommodating sort of chap — and one partly educated in England (the Californians of my youth were generally polite people too) — I am continually saying “Sorry” for the heels that trample on my toes and the backpacks that smack me in the face. When there is any response at all, it is usually a glaring look that implies: “You should be sorry; I’m a lawyer.”
I do my best to offer these lawyers as much space as possible. But this, I’ve found, is not reciprocated. If I put aside my magazine (a compact, folded Spectator of London) to create more space for a young lawyer, he pulls out a giant Wall Street Journal and asserts a ring of Lebensraum that leaves one with barely enough room to breathe.
Still, it’s true that the meek inherit the earth. In fact, when the air conditioning fails, and the train stalls out for twenty minutes in the subway tunnel, and the windows fog up with choking humidity, they die like flies and are buried in it.
Not everyone who rides the Metro is awful. There’s me, for instance. And one does find a goodly number of people reading Bibles or prayer books, or with rosary beads in hand — praying, no doubt, for deliverance from this Hell.
As a xenophile in a cosmopolitan city, I do enjoy the occasional blessing of listening to harmonious, flute-like spoken French, or the troll-like mysteries of Teutonic languages that aren’t German. And during SARS season, there’s inevitably the added excitement of a sneezing Chinaman on board.
Last week, there was a fire on the line so that my commute home was an entertaining three hours. This week, in recognition of its sterling customer service, the system raised its fares — again. Washington isn’t the land of milk and honey, it’s the land of government bilking your money.
Washington? If you need more penance in your life, it’s a great place to be. But personally, I’ll spend my summer vacation out in them wide open spaces.