Thursday, May 13, 2010

Misery on the Metro



I take the Metro everyday to get to my internship in the heart of DC. And yes it is called the Metro, not Subway… Subway is a popular and affordable made-to-order sandwich shop, not an underground train. Anyway on my weekday rides during Metro rush hour I constantly find myself observing the routines and attitudes of the people around me.

Though the people who board these trains everyday tend to be a smorgasbord of races, body types, socio-economic standing, etc. the typical fa├žade is this: utter misery, exhaustion, intense concentration or some kind of mixture of all three. It’s as if the exhaust of the underground train steeping in the coil of tunnels sucks all the happiness out of these people. Maybe the dementors in Harry Potter are a metaphor for the Metro system?

Every regular rail rider conveys the same tone: I hate my life. While this might not be the case the facial expressions I witness almost come across as humorous to a newbie like me. What is it about this commute that is so troublesome?

Today, when I came through the sliding doors of an orange line train, to my surprise I managed to snag one of the last open seats. Usually I would have had to stand with my arm in the air gripping a metal bar for dear life, pressed up against some stranger hoping the train wouldn’t jolt suddenly to send me flying inappropriately into someone’s armpit. The woman next to me didn’t even flinch as I plopped down next to her. She continued to concentrate on resting her head against the window beside her, I’m assuming in attempts to steal some rest on the way home. However, as the train began to move and jostle, this attempt seem futile and from her facial expression far too painful to be considering at the moment.

The cab is awkwardly silent as usual, other than the occasional cough or newspaper crinkle. I turn my attention to a man in his early 50s standing diagonally across from me. He stands close to the sliding doors, hanging desperately on to a bar beside him. From the look of him, he might as well have been Frodo off to destroy the ring, the next stop being Mordor. He looks intensely concentrated and anxious, with a hint of dread in his eyes. There is a younger man sitting directly behind him, clutching his briefcase to his chest as if it contains the answer to life or the cure for cancer. He stares straight ahead, eyes unblinking looking angry and a little terrified. The woman sitting directly in front of me is making the most noise on the train. I can’t see her face but over her shoulder I can see her furiously shuffling and grading papers. By the way, great job Milo Andres, you got a check plus on your copy book.

Suddenly I notice the only spark of happiness in the cab. It exists between two friends or coworkers. Two girls stand next to each other talking in low voices interrupted by a hushed burst of laughter or gasp. They aren’t obnoxious or the least bit loud but the people standing around them all have taken notice as I have. Some glare, clearly annoyed by their joy; others stare in awe as if they have never witnessed such delight.

The overly-happy-for-the-Metro friends get off the train at the next stop and the mood returns once again to its depressed norm. The intensity of this cab is overwhelming, even for Metro standards. I wouldn’t be surprised if a hole to the center of the earth opened up ahead of us and the muffled voice of our conductor came over the PA system and said, “Next stop: Hell.”

But something happened today to break the misery that suffocated this cab. A young man squeezed his way on board with his daughter who looked to be no older than four. He had three white garbage bags in his hands. The standing passengers were incredibly annoyed with the amount of space his baggage took up.

But suddenly everyone’s expressions changed as they took a closer look at the bags. Through the tightened plastic you could see the outline of a cuff sleeve and button of a jean jacket, the stripes on a navy blue pair of athletic shorts, and the fold of a sock. Clearly this man was carrying all of his and his daughter’s belongings in these three bags. Everyone’s expression on that train melted away from annoyance to understanding, from misery to pity, from exhaustion to concern.

It was at that moment I had hope for the people on this train. No one was going to help this man or ask him how his day was; but these people at least showed compassion or some emotion other than misery. People around the newest passengers made more space for them and their belongings. Some even smiled or winked at the frightened four-year-old. At that moment—on the packed, steadily rocking train—it was enough. This man wasn’t going to find any salvation in this cab, but it would at least get him to the next stop. I’m crossing my fingers it’s not hell.