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Capital City Chronicles: What Happened to the Metro?

My Journey to the Nation’s Capital: Part 2

by Donovan Wheeler

When my parents told me that we would be relying on the subway to get around Washington, D.C., a fear-stricken waft of nausea overwhelmed me. This was 1986, a year after Bernie Goetz opened fire on his “would-be” attackers in New York. People in our home town at that time—family friends and other kids at school—told stories about dark stations, intimidating graffiti, foul odors, surface areas you didn’t dare touch. And then there’s the television. I recounted the countless subway jabs in All in the Family and Jeffersons reruns, and when my brother and I watched a local rerun of The Warriors a year or two before, we learned to associate the subway with gangs, violent beatings, shootouts, and stabbings. And based on that movie, subway life was even worse if you were a woman, so—as terrified as I was for my own safety—I grew numb thinking about would happen to my mom once we got to the Capital.

Those were all Big Apple references, and New York’s system had been running for over eight decades at the time. The Capital City’s transit system, by comparison, was barley ten years old when Dad lurched our ’72 Winnebago through the Beltway en route to our campground near College Park. After a tenuous bus ride (the red line didn’t reach the University of Maryland back in ’86) to one of the northernmost terminal stations, we sorted out the byzantine button-punching instructions in the card dispenser, swiped our way through the turnstiles, and stepped onto the subway platform for the first time.

And it was clean. While still somewhat dark (we are talking about standing around in man-made caves, after all) the stations were reasonably lit. Furthermore the lighting was soft, reflecting off the rectangular, honeycomb design, flooding the area with a sort of soft incandescence. The floors cast a luminous sheen, clean air swirled through the cavern, and an array of circular lights gently flashed as each train approached.

When the cars stopped, the doors glided open. Silently. A hypnotic voice welcomed us, told us to stand clear, warned us kindly that the doors were closing. The cabin was splashed with pastels hearkening back to the polyester days ten years before when they were built. Bright oranges, burnt reds, and yellows mixed with the cream colored plastic walls and soft brown floor carpeting. The net effect was akin to a sort of space travel my brother and I used to watch on TV all the time: a sort of Star Trek shuttle ride inside a Soul Train set design.

For the rest of that trip we bounced around the city hitting one mostly convenient station after another (when you get down by the Tidal Basin/Lincoln Memorial area, the Metro will be far, far away). We rode with a few panhandlers—how they could pay to get on board but not have money for milk struck me as odd—and we sat with hordes of shorts-wearing, Nikon-bearing tourists like us. But we also saw suits. Lots of suits. I had no doubt that plenty of the more powerful people in the government drove themselves of forked over cab fare, but thousands of apparently important types took the subway. More profoundly, they stood in their turf. In my vision of the NYC subway, someone wielding a briefcase and sporting a $2,000 suit was tantamount to a swimsuit model walking into a dockside bar. At D.C.—in our high-riding Champion coaches shorts, cotton tube socks, and white Nikes—we were the outsiders…in the most “touristy” of tourist locations to boot.

Public Domain Image.
Public Domain Image.

For the next thirty years, whenever I would think of that family trip, I would always marvel at the utopian state of the mass-transit system, especially when I would make later trips around Chicago on the “L” or even catch a bus ride in Indy. As the year passed, I never caught on to the perplexed expressions people would flash me when I’d tell them how amazing the Metro was—particularly among those who had recently been back from Washington themselves. And when I made my own return trip in 2007, I was still so enamored by the ’86 experience that I willfully ignored the obvious signs of decay when I rode the trains again.

On my third trip to the city, however, I couldn’t play any tricks on my mind. When my fiancée, her daughters, and I boarded the northbound train from the Huntington Station late last July. The once soft cream tones of the walls were now covered with black smudges and streaks of dirt. In the corners, where seats met the walls, globs of caked filth had congealed and hardened into solid plugs, so firmly affixed they were now as much a part of the trains as the doors or the rails. The brown floors were worn threadbare, especially near the doorways. Seat trim poked sideways, torn from its once secured fitting. The train seemed noisier. It appeared to lurch more violently. The once reassuring voice in the ceiling now spoke more stridently, with more impatience. What used to sound like a warm, “Welcome…” now seemed came off as a cold “Get on, and hurry it up!” And many of the suits were gone. They’d traded their fare cards for their own sets of keys and parking passes in the city.

Photo by Donovan Wheeler
Photo by Donovan Wheeler

The train system which had once sold me on the wonders of public transit had become the stereotype I saw on TV. A month-and-a-half later, I still don’t know how to sort out what happened. Was the Metro grand in its past because we lived in a Keynesian economic structure which funneled money into public projects? Did supply-side economics—especially after its aggressive expansion under Clinton and Bush—cripple the train system by sapping its funding? Or was my memory of the train back in ’86 a mere fantasy? Proof that we remember our past with our emotions, and we create the sights, sounds, and smells we thought we experienced with whimsical, romanticized Pixar animations in our heads?

Not enough time has passed for me to answer the question, but the experiences—the one I know I just witnessed versus the one I think I might have had three decades ago—has jarred me a bit. Now I’m second-guessing every memory, and wondering what ugly details I’ve left out of my first road trip, my first date, my first hole-in-one on the golf course. But mostly I’m saddened because the grand, convenient, and clean public transportation system I thought I knew is just a vision. But the dirty and intimidating leviathans I see in the movies are all too real.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes to ISU's STATE Magazine. Since putting in a pool he can now dive in head first (with goggles), and he has mostly stopped throwing golf clubs, but he still hates to fly.

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