Step back, doors are closing,” said the automated voice over the din of metro passengers. “Next stop, Union Station.”
Four days a week I make my way from Baltimore city into the heart of Washington, D.C. Commuters in these metropolitan areas travel within an intricate system of trains, subways, cars and parking lots, navigating the city’s transportation system with practiced ease. It is an elaborate dance of traffic, fares and schedules, and, to my bewildered excitement, I find myself quickly swept up in it.
I board a metro train at the end of the line, outside of Washington, D.C. I have just made it — swiped my card, run up the stairs, found my train and taken a seat — when the doors close and the car lurches to life. We’re off — headed toward the center of the nation’s capital.
The world flies by my window, gaining speed as we go. At first, the scenery is surprisingly rural: grass, trees and swamp fly by the window. A few large buildings come and go in the gathering suburbs — a shopping mall here, a factory there — and more and more streets begin to crowd out the green as we speed along the tracks. Suddenly, the car goes dark as we disappear into the first of many underground tunnels, and my window view is unexpectedly replaced by my own startled reflection.
I try not to think about the fact that we are hurtling underground. I can easily feel the swift motion of the car, even though I can no longer see the scenery flying by to gauge our speed. The effect is disorienting. I am aware of it when we arc sharply toward the right or the left; once, I catch the lights of another train from an adjacent tunnel.
We are underground for so long that I am even more surprised when we burst suddenly into the light, and into the city.
A bridge briefly affords us a sweeping view of D.C., stretching out around us, before the train drops back to a lower level and buildings hem us in. From the metro windows, we see the city’s back, rattling past fire escapes and graffiti. Two men in kitchen aprons share a cigarette in the alleyway behind a restaurant. A woman hangs laundry from her back window. In the crowded urban landscape of buildings and streets, each scene I see lasts less than a second, a quickly glimpsed tableau.
The metro car lurches as we approach a stop, and we all hang on. More and more people board the car as we get closer to the city center; those already on board shift, making room for the newcomers. On a crowded metro car, urban anonymity applies more strictly than it does on the street — our proximity to one another is too close and non-negotiable for easy comfort, and we have personal bubbles to maintain, even as those standing sway and bump into each other with the motion of the car. The car hums and shudders under us.
The train is crammed with people talking, reading, sleeping, standing, sitting, or window-watching, all enclosed together as we careen down the tracks. We are both immobile, and in constant motion; the clickety-clack motion of the train dominates all else. One section of tunnel is briefly so loud that couples have to shout to be heard, and a man who had been sleeping against the window lifts his head groggily and glances around. A girl uses her cell phone to talk to a friend at the other end of the car.
How many people commute like this every day, in this city, or in other cities? How many commute like this for decades — and cannot imagine life without such daily journeys? The machinery of moving people running through Washington, D.C., feels like a whirlwind to me, but to all of these commuters who swipe their metro cards with practiced ease, the rhythm of the train system seems as natural as breathing.
When I board the return train late in the evening, the metro cars are no longer crowded. Bright city lights now shine through the metro car windows, only to disappear again in the long subterranean tunnels. It has been a long day for most of the commuters on board, and many will not get home until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. A well-dressed woman in a business suit sleeps in her seat, her briefcase secured on her lap with clasped arms.
Tomorrow, the dance will begin again, as commuters make their way through turnstiles, up escalators, and clatter along in metro cars to their destinations, orchestrating their daily travels with the unconscious agility of seasoned acrobats in the daily symphony of life in a city.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.