“A Metro Catastrophe”–a new short story I wrote about experiencing the metro and the city here in DC. Enjoy.
A Metro Catastrophe
Ridges of trees surround Washington, DC—yellow and green trees in lines one after the other. The first lines are bright, each following line more and more bluish, gradually swallowed by the horizon’s constant blueness. High buildings are still sometimes visible with the trees; streets—not at all, people’s faces—not at all.
People walk those streets nevertheless. Many of them are making their way down the sidewalk, hoping to find some shade and let their panting bodies cool down. Even in the shade it isn’t truly cool. The heat is in the air, in the asphalt, in the cars, in the buildings, in the people, and it’s not going anywhere. The heat is always on our faces, there in every breath, no matter taken through the nose or through the mouth, fills our lungs. It covers our bodies like an extra layer of skin, and sweating becomes the natural state of being, sweat drops make rivers down the back of our legs, down our backs, between our breasts, down our foreheads. It’s not embarrassing anymore to have moist spots on one’s shirt under the armpits—you don’t belong to the community if you don’t have them. Everyone wants to leave this heat and enter an air conditioned building or bus or metro. When the air conditioning on one metro train gives up and the train becomes a luxurious oven, people leave it and get on another train—only to discover that its air conditioning has given up too. Then they sit and sweat, making their own little sweat puddles on the seats. The heat settles in, we accept it, and let it envelop us like the favorite woolen blanket.
A catastrophe took place on the metro yesterday. A train was derailed, and five stations were left with no train service. Including my station, College Park—University of Maryland.
It was Friday afternoon, and I had left half an hour early from work, at 4.30pm. My mind was full with nothing-thoughts. It was my turn to cook tonight, and I was wondering what I should make. Sure, we had cauliflower and broccoli at home, but we always cook those. What else should I make?
As I said, a mind filled with nothing, oblivious.
I had been waiting at the College Park—University of Maryland metro station on the Green line for a while now, about fifteen minutes, and no train was even scheduled to come. Every five minutes, a very sweet-sounding lady would announce that they were experiencing delays in both directions on the green and yellow line, that they were hoping to resolve them soon, that they apologized for the inconvenience, and, most importantly, that they thanked us for riding metro. None of us at that time was thankful for riding metro, and we weren’t hiding it: people were pacing and looking at their watches and staring in the direction of the train’s arrival, as though concentrating would bring the train faster, just as little kids stare at the sky to make it rain. After I had waited for more than half an hour, the same sweet-sounding lady, who sounded to me like a slightly chubby, round-faced, almond-haired girl, informed us that no trains were running in our direction now, so we should exit the station and look for a bus or free shuttle which would transport us to Fort Totten, the station at which the Green and Red lines intersect for the first time. Usually, I would get off at that station from the Green line and get on the Red line, so yes, I needed to get there, but with no trains running, I would have to get on a bus. The bus I would need to get on was F6. On its bus stop, there were about fifty people. No, that would be too much waiting, I though. What about the free shuttles? Oh, yes, the free shuttles are supposed to arrive here, a metro worker told us, but we don’t know when that will be happening, maybe in half an hour, maybe in an hour. At that moment, I saw a bus headed for Prince George’s Plaza—the metro station after ours. They already had shuttle service there, the metro worker said. Awesome, I’m getting on that one, Prince George’s Plaza is only about three minutes away by metro, it can’t be too far by bus.
Oh yes, it can, I found out later.
I got on the bus to Prince George’s Plaza and asked the driver before I swiped my card, “Does this bus go to Prince George’s Plaza?” “Yes,” he said. I swiped my card, confirming that this was indeed the bus I needed, and sat in an open seat. There wasn’t one near the window, so I had to sit by the aisle. Sitting by the aisle makes me uncomfortable because I’m in the middle of the space in the bus, while, in order to feel comfortable, I need to sit on one side, either side, of the bus and be one with it. In this way, I am a part of the outline of the space, like a point on the side of the geometric figure, and can observe the space—otherwise, I am somewhere inside it and am being observed.
Sitting somewhat in the middle of the bus space, I felt uncomfortable and texted the world away to my boyfriend. “Do you want to go to a theater and watch a play tonight?” I said. I wanted to do something different, to escape from the everyday lives we had been living for a while. I was tired of the heat and the daily commute and the chores, I was growing apathetic towards my repetitive tasks at work and towards cooking a delicious meal and reading a good book. I wanted to do something crazy, I wanted to run and jump about the world, catch the wind in my skirt, cover the sidewalks with dance. I didn’t know whether I wanted people with me or not—my initial plan was to go home, change, and leave, without telling my boyfriend anything. I would walk and talk and dance until my legs couldn’t hold me up anymore; then I would come back and land into bed with all my love for the world and for my wide-eyed boyfriend.
I decided he didn’t deserve that, though—he had been a good boyfriend all along and it wasn’t fair to treat him like that. So I invited him, I said, “Let’s go to a theater tonight,” I was waiting to see his response. Almost certainly he would say he wanted to stay at home, he didn’t feel like wasting his time at a theater, and then I’d be free to roam the nightly streets. And then came his response: “The Blue Dragon sounds good, what do you think? It’s at Odley theater, it’s a little far, but I can drive there. It starts at 8.” What an amazing boyfriend I have! I thought. Okay, so we are going to a play. And I started looking up plays, but I couldn’t keep my eyes on the screen. Around me, shabby houses were all I could see, the bus would turn right and left and go straight, and poor, shabby houses was all I could see. Was it worse than Maine, I don’t know. In Maine, it’s mostly sad, fat, white people, here, in Maryland, right next to DC, it was mostly sad, many of them fat, black and Hispanic people. Same difference. There was still no light in their eyes, no purpose to their motions. It’s the same image that scared me in my first November in Maine: moderate cold, a man with a miserable jacket, ballooned up by the spherical mass of his body, cigarette in his mouth, and a dirty, bored, hopeless look in his eyes. I have seen many sad and poor people in Bulgaria, but I still got scared, scared and hurt, as though something had pinched my soul and torn away a little piece of meat from my body. Why did these people look so sad and how did they find strength to get on the bus, I didn’t know. I wanted to get out of that neighborhood, leave and forget, or pull all these people in an earth-wide embrace and weep with them all.
After a full hour of swinging back and forth along streets and alleys, we reached the station. Salvation was there for us all now that we were there, the station workers would set up the red carpet for us and send us off flying to Fort Totten because every last person on this station had been waiting for us, oh, so impatiently.
Swarms of people were trying to make their way here, and there, and then back here again, darting and searching as though for their own heads, desperately. There was no sign of the usual unwritten rules in the metro: when one gets off the train, she comes up here and then walks up here; if she needs to stop and do something, she would step aside in this area in order not to obstruct anyone’s way; from here, you come here and you get on the elevator and you stand here, no, not here, unless you’re walking. In busy mornings and evenings, there would be rivers of people walking and flowing on the elevators, through the machines to read their cards, on the hard floor tiles, into the world. No sign of such purpose and implied organization now, no sign of respect for who got there first. Giant crowds of people waiting for something, so annoyed by modern inconveniences that they are about to go back to natural order.
A station worker yelled, “Bus to Fort Totten, Bus to Fort Totten!” I asked “Where, where?” He pointed over there; I looked over there but couldn’t see a bus, I only saw people; I move a little bit to the side and then a little more until I saw one lonely bus sitting there and saying “Fort Totten.” Of course the bus would be there—where the largest, loudest, most impatient crowd was. It was the people who were tired of waiting and simply wanted to go home. There was no way I could get on this bus and I knew it. I tried not to care too much, but I was angry, I was angry and helpless, angry because I was ridiculously helpless in this post-modern world where our will should count as something. This wasn’t even a real disaster like an earthquake, and we saw how our world of technological advances and blown up expectations crumbled in a matter of seconds; it seemed like a subtle reminder from nature or fate or luck—“Hey, you humans, careful with all the planning—things don’t exactly work that way.”
Someone yelled, “Bus on the other side!” And the entire crowd ran, ran like one, like a slim antelope, our muscles one in a well-toned body. And yet, we weren’t one. We tried to outrun each other, looked back to see whether everyone was running or whether it had been a lie, looked forward to find the bus before everyone else found it. I saw the Fort Totten bus with people trying to get on, almost raiding it, and I saw another bus, to the side, a smaller one. I walked over and got in line for the second bus because its line was smaller, but no one was getting on yet. A formal-looking official was importantly looking at some papers and checking off tiny boxes. A lady turned to me and said, “You should go to the other bus; you can’t get on this one.” I had no idea what this meant and I wanted to respond to the arrogance; but I saw that the first Fort Totten bus had opened its back door too—hope for me to get on! I landed there, just as hens do when they fly over short distances and land at the end point with disheveled feathers. I did get on the bus, I even found a seat! I couldn’t believe it! I asked two, three people, “Is this the bus to Fort Totten?” “Yes,” they all answered and nodded their heads with fatigue. I’d even made it to the right bus, I’d found a seat, and I would finally get there!
We stayed at the station a little longer while as many people as possible got on. The driver spent five minutes yelling that some people needed to get off because the doors wouldn’t close, and if they didn’t get off, the whole bus would be unloaded. Just as a few people reluctantly got off, a few other people from outside saw some space freeing up and jumped on the bus. The doors wouldn’t close again. The driver yelled again. The newcomers got off. The doors closed, finally, and sealed us off, the people on the bus who were leaving this world of natural order and were heading out to the world of the privileged, of civilization.
The Privileged were sealed off from the Primitive, those still in the mud of natural order, the dirty ones, the lowly ones, waiting for their salvation—for the next bus.
Finally on the bus, people began talking. They talked and laughed like they never would on a bus with strangers but it was the common misfortune, the common catastrophe that brought us together. The two women in the seats in front of me told each other their lives on that bus ride, pulled out their cell phones to show each other pictures of their dogs, husbands, children, and in the end they went their separate ways after expressing the most sincere wishes I’ve heard in a while. No phone numbers exchanged; that was for the better, to honor the memory.
I listened to music on that bus ride. The songs took me higher, and I listened with all my might, following wherever they took me. My awareness climaxed while Dido’s Worthless played—while the tandem of voices poured into my ears like a sorrowful, angelic choir, rays of white light were coming out of a center and rising, rising. I felt joy and sorrow then, and understood why those two work together so well and are always present: now joy, now sorrow, appearing to us as two separate entities but truly the two shades of one long dance, intertwined and slithering along. I, a human, could maybe bypass my inborn bias against pain and for pleasure and experience the world for a little bit, the way it truly is. Even if I am late for work next Tuesday.
After about an hour on the bus, we arrived at Fort Totten. It reminded me of a battlefield after the fact: buses parked and out of service, exhausted from rushing to transport such masses of people, women and men, resigned, sitting in the grass with suitcases and backpacks, trying to call someone; survivors. I left the bus and walked into the metro station, swiped my card, up the escalator, got on the train. A transition zone had been passed—I was in the regular, post-modern world again where trains ran and dropped off passengers at stations. Just when I thought that the transition world was over, I noticed that one of the women who had sat in front of me on the Fort Totten bus was riding on the train too in the same car as me. A thrill went through me when I saw her: she knew what it was like to have a little catastrophe for the afternoon, just like I did. She, too, saw the clouds of thoughts and worries that we carry around our heads, and she let them disperse for a bit.
Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t.
Posted by Mariya Manahova