I found myself in a scene from Dante's Inferno this morning. The acrid smell of smoke filled the air as high pitched squealing sounds assaulted my ears. Bodies pressed against one another, surging to enter into a space already packed with bodies. The air was damp with humidity and perspiration and the hopelessness of thousands. Yes, it was yet another rush hour trip on the Orange Line.
I rarely take Metro, as I am fortunate enough to live only a few miles from my office in Arlington. But every once in a while I am forced to head down into the Third Ring of Hell. Don't get me wrong -- I lived in D.C. while Metro was being built. I endured the construction with a smile because I knew how underground public transportation in Washington would enrich all of our lives. I dreamed of the day when I could board a subway that would whisk me from Dupont Circle to Capitol Hill. Eventually, that day came... and went.
35 years later we have a system that should dispense Dramamine with its fare cards. My trip this morning began at 7:55 a.m. and ended at 8:30 a.m. -- and I was only going three stops. There were delays of some sort (the announcements explaining the delay were unintelligible) and so the platform filled with commuters. Once trains began arriving, each was filled to capacity. The faces of passengers inside the cars bore varying expressions of dismay, panic and heat stroke. I finally boarded the sixth train that arrived, although "boarded" doesn't appropriately convey how I ended up on the train. I had stepped toward the edge of the platform to see how crowded this train was and was swept along by those behind me through the doors. I'm not certain that my feet were touching the ground. Because I was now part of a living, breathing mass of people mashed against one another, I didn't need to find something solid to hang on to.
As the train lurched out of the station, I became aware of how hot the car was and how little air seemed to be circulating. No matter, I thought, I'm only going three stops. How wrong I was. I had defined "stops" as stations, but this train was full of stops. All of them abrupt, punctuated by screeching brakes and lurching bodies (and stomachs). Over and over we made these stops. Apparently the conductor was trying to explain them by saying over the loudspeaker, "ATTENTION, PASSENGERS: mumble mumble delay mumble mumble." By the expressions of my fellow passengers, we might as well have been in the Donner Party. I too began to feel any hope of reaching my destination fading away. My only distraction was watching how bendable my fellow passengers' necks were as we bobbed to and fro at each lurching stop.
Eventually we reached an actual station and I'm sure many of those pushing their way through the mass of humanity were likely searching for the nearest toilet in which to heave. I haven't felt that motion sick since crossing the English Channel during a huge storm in the 1980s. But I was determined to make it two more stops so I planted my feet and smiled at a woman who appeared to be crossing herself. Over and over. After a ride of more than 30 minutes, I had traversed approximately four miles and reached Farragut West. For the first time, I realized that it isn't the platform lighting that makes the faces of disembarking passengers look green. They are green. We all struggled to get through the fare card machines and up into Washington's version of fresh air. The fact that it was raining was a bonus for the small band of us who stood at the top of the escalators gulping in the chilly, damp air of K Street. The ties of several of the men were askew, and at least one of us could have been mistaken for a homeless person.
I do harbor a fleeting suspicion that our Metro system has been commandeered by enemy forces who are seeking to put Washington commuters into the worst possible moods each day -- interfering with our efforts to say Yes We Can! And even though my stomach still felt queasy four hours later, we had triumphed by arriving at our destination. I had walked only a few yards when I was stopped in my tracks by a hideous thought: I would have to return on Metro later that same day.