Archive for category: Commuting with Nature

The Curse: That’s One Small Step For Man…

21 Oct 2015
October 21, 2015
Accident scene

I forgot to take a picture of my foot stuck in the Metro escalator. So, like all good crime stories, I have recreated the scene. X marks the spot.

As I arrived at the surface from my subway commute, suddenly, a short, old woman, dressed in a mid February coat, crossed my path. “Pfeh,” she said in her Slavic-sounding accent, “to you and your descendants!” I ignored her. But I had been cursed. And I hadn’t even reached my cubicle yet.

Strange things began to happen; sudden and unexplained mishaps started affecting every project I was working on. One coworker checked to see if Mercury was in retrograde. It wasn’t. “It’s The Curse,” I said. By afternoon everyone was in agreement.

On Friday, things went better. The problems persisted, but no new ones appeared. By the end of the day I was able to take a deep breath. That woman’s power seemed to be waning. The weekend beckoned and it was time to go home. As I walked down the subway escalator, I began taking out my wallet with my pass so I could effortlessly get to the platform and catch the next train home. But, as I grabbed my wallet a receipt fell to the escalator steps. As I reached the bottom I turned slightly to retrieve it. I hadn’t even bent over when suddenly my foot got caught in the teeth as the stairs go underground for their return to the top. It felt like my shoe had been sucked into the system. It jammed and the escalator came to a sudden halt. My shoe was wedged so tightly I couldn’t move or even feel my foot. So I couldn’t tell if I was hurt. My toes were totally immobile.

A woman just behind me pressed the emergency stop and went to get the station manager. I stood there contorted as other commuters passed me by. The station manager came out of her kiosk to see what was happening. She was about forty feet away from me. I yelled, “Come here and reverse the escalator! Come help me!” She stood there for a few seconds, then she turned and left, saying she needed to report it. I continued to greet commuters as they made their way home. Some passed me by as if I was invisible. One man stopped to ask if I was okay. He was conflicted. Should he stay with me? I told him help had been summoned.

Waiting, somewhat embarrassed and concerned, did I take a photo of my situation as documentation? No, it didn’t even occur to me. Instead, my first thought was to tweet the calamity to the world. And, the Twitterverse began to respond. Retweets of my tweet. Someone blasted the station managers union. A Washington Post reporter tweeted her phone number. As small as my reputation was, I didn’t want it sullied by The Curse. “Nobody needed to know,” I told her. “Well,” she replied, “you did tweet this to everyone.” Um, yes, I did, didn’t I. With my 140 character announcement I had ceded all control over its worldwide coverage. I had announced my predicament to the world without a second thought. The Curse.

The station manager never returned. She never asked me if I was okay and she never filed an accident report as she was supposed to. I heard the faint roar of sirens in the distance.

Suddenly, my boss was standing next to me. She, too, was on her way home. “Are you okay?” she asked. I didn’t know. “Can you get your shoe off?” I couldn’t. I explained how tightly it was wedged in the machinery. She tried to get it off but couldn’t. Another coworker arrived and together they were able to extricate my foot from my shoe. I checked my toes and all were still accounted for. I seemed to be fine. The sirens got closer. I told my boss she didn’t have to stay. Now my attention turned to the fate of my shoe. As many of my friends know, I’m a shoe whore. My wife calls me Imelda. I call it my collection. When I began retelling this story the state of my shoe was the first thing friends asked about.

I couldn’t see the street but the sirens got loud and suddenly stopped. Two firetrucks and an ambulance. Five firemen now stood at the top of the escalator while the gathering crowd looked down on me. One bystander, unable to get to the train, was robbed while walking to the next station. He tweeted it. It was a crumbling house of cards. I was centerstage, but The Curse was hitting us all.

My rescuers made their way down the escalator to assess my situation. My foot was fine. My shoe might be. And the station manager finally made an appearance with a pad of paper trying to look like she was working. She was still oblivious to my wellbeing. But the firemen were kind enough to ask.

My rescuer

Selfie with one of my rescuers. Why the hell am I smiling?

The one with the crowbar got my shoe out. Not a scratch despite the death grip the escalator had on it. My rescuers were quite taken with that. “High quality suede always holds up,” I commented. I asked for a celebratory photo.

I battled that curse for the rest of the evening and well into the next day when, on the last play of the game, Michigan State’s Watts-Jackson scooped up the ball on a failed Michigan punt and ran for the winning touchdown with no time left on the clock. I had won! I beat that old crone with her unwarranted curse.

I was finally back in control.

And the Morning Isn’t Even Over Yet

22 Jun 2015
June 22, 2015

Chapter One: An Interaction With a Teenager

Earlier this morning I dropped my younger daughter off at school to take the ACT test. As we got into the car she immediately turned the radio to her favorite station. Mumford & Sons’ Believe was playing. Now, trying to connect with my 17 year old is always an iffy thing. Will I get merely grunts and groans to anything I say or a brisk reaction meant to shut down any conversation? I never know. The terrain is a minefield. Yet, I choose to traverse it every day in hopes I will have some meaningful interactions with her (honestly, I’d be very happy with just a little idle chitchat).

But I’m a risk taker so I asked, “Do you like this song?” “Yeah,” she said, “I have it on my phone.” I saw an opening so I continued. “Well, their latest album is very different than their old stuff. They’ve dropped the banjo.” “Yeah, I know,” she replied. Moving forward, “Well, aren’t you surprised I know about them?” Her retort: “Aren’t they on old band?” Emphasis on OLD. “Um, no not really.” “Oh, um, okay. I hope we make to to school on time,” signaling our music interlude was over.

The thing is, I’ve never heard any Mumford & Sons music. Ever. But a couple weeks ago I was walking home from work and they were being interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered. That’s how I knew their music had changed from their earlier “propulsive, rootsy, acoustic music” to a more “plugged in” variety. “Goodbye banjo, goodbye accordion and double bass.” Melissa Block’s words. I grabbed what I had, took a chance, and went with it. While I was in the zone I reminded her to take in the garbage cans when she got home. The things fathers do to connect with their daughters. Boy, was I good. And, thank you NPR for guiding me through today’s minefield.

Chapter Two: An Interaction with a Twenty-Something

Whenever I ride the subway I like to sit in the seats that face the center aisle. They’re close to the door and I don’t seem to get car sick when I’m tweeting. But most of these seats are reserved for “Seniors or those with disabilities.” And, over the years, I’ve kept a lookout for those who truly need these seats. I’ve been more than happy to let them sit down.

I was extra happy to actually turn into a bonafide senior citizen last year. Finally, I would feel no shame at sitting there, but I still offered my seat to those who needed it more than me. In part, I feel good when I’m giving. But, as a former father of two toddlers I took to daycare every day on the Metro, I truly was grateful for the kindness of strangers who gave up their seats so my girls could sit down.

Lately, I’ve had back problems so now I am both a senior and someone who genuinely could use a seat. Today, I was sitting there next to a young woman who was texting. A mother and her five year old entered the crowded train and, without thinking, I stood up and offered the child my seat. That was no mean feat in a moving train with a bad back. The law of paying it forward required it and I gladly did so.

But as I stood there looking down at that young woman, who hadn’t looked up once since sitting there, I wondered if I should say something. “Don’t do it!” my inner sense told me. “Don’t wreck the morning.” But I continued to think about it. I don’t look my age and have been waiting for someone to challenge me about sitting in senior seats. I was all ready with my response: “I’m 65 and I appreciate that my outsides look deceptively young. But, I assure you,” I would say, showing them my Senior SmartTrip Card, “that my insides are right on track.”

I wanted to say something. But I didn’t want to come across as an angry old man (okay, an angry old man who looks like an angry younger man). As we got closer to my stop I kept wondering: should I do it? And, suddenly I found my voice. I leaned down and quietly said to her, “Miss, I don’t want to embarass you but these seats are reserved for people who need them. I’m 65 and have a bad back but I got up to let this child sit down. I hope you will think about it, the next time you sit here.” She simply nodded that she understood. No rolling of eyes and no smart-aleck retort. I was proud of myself for coming up with the right words and the right delivery and I was proud of her for listening. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

Chapter Three: An Interaction with Three Thirty-Somethings

Feeling the inner glow of not one but two successes so early in the day, I got out of the train at the next stop and made my way to the exit. As I was leaving I noticed the station manager hugging two other women. The feeling was infectious. And I found myself suddenly blurting, “Are you giving away hugs?” All three of them wrapped their arms around me for a group hug.

As I walked the block to my office I pondered the last two hours, feeling a bit overwhelmed. Interesting interactions are the souvenirs of my life. And I had just been handed three special ones. What a great way to start the day. And the morning isn’t even over yet!

Excuse Me Please

24 Sep 2013
September 24, 2013
Do You Speak German?

I had a wonderful commute on the DC Metro this morning. A few stops into my ride a group of teenagers boarded the already crowded car. Listening to them speak German, I discovered they were from Austria (picking up the word “Ă–sterreich” in their chatter numerous times). I took German in college. While I’m not fluent in any language other than English and Pig Latin, I can often know a phrase and can say it with such a good accent that people think I’m fluent. This is often problematic when they start talking with me and I have to admit I am a fraud.

Well, I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away. I hoped the train would stay crowded so that when I got off at my stop I could say a sentence I’ve known and used for years: Entschuldigen Sie mich bitte. —Excuse me please. And, even though I’ve known this phrase for years, as I got closer to my stop, I practiced it over and over in my head, just to make sure I would convey it like I knew the entire language.

As the train slowed, I gathered my things, stood up and said with all the nonchalance I could muster (as if this was an everyday occurrence): “Entschuldigen Sie mich bitte.” The boy before me moved out of the way and said nicely “Jawohl.” Suddenly, I was in a great mood (which, I might add, lasted well into the morning’s work).

But if I really wanted to have the best day ever I would have found some way to say a phrase that will forever be cemented into my brain: Haben Sie etwas zu verzollen? Taken directly from one of those inane “conversations” you had to memorize in language class, I was actually confronted by an Austrian guard at the Czech border in 1974 who asked that exact question. The chapter was called “Auf die Grenze,” “On the border.” And, ostensibly, memorizing this dialogue would insure that we were never caught clueless at any border crossing surrounding Germany or Austria. Haben Sie etwas zu verzollen? Kaffee oder Schnapps? How often do you get to use something directly from one of those textbook dialogues? When he saw I was American he asked me in English: “Do you have anything to declare?” I knew at that moment that if I didn’t answer him with the same memorized answer from my book, my whole German education would have been for naught. So I replied. “Nein, ich habe nichts zu verzollen.”

Es war ein guter Tag in der Tat! It was a good day indeed!

I’m in Heaven and It’s Only Wednesday

02 Jun 2010
June 2, 2010
Woman with Amazing Hair

This is Glenda.

The morning commute was ending like all weekday commutes. As I shoved my way to the surface it was time to start thinking about work: the fires I needed to put out or needed to start. I didn’t look forward to either, quite frankly. I’m a risk taker but lately it’s been in remission. “If I can just get through the day without making waves,” I thought, “my day will be a success.” (And it was only Wednesday.) I looked around at my fellow commuters climbing the stairs to the top, I mean the street. What were they thinking?

Suddenly, I heard music from above. Was it a celestial chorus coming to rescue me? Was my redemption imminent? Even better: street musicians were playing Vivaldi. Vivaldi! I stood there entranced for what seemed like hours. Finally pulling myself away to my beckoning cubicle I turned the corner and saw Glenda. Glenda had the most amazing hair I’d ever seen. What was happening to me? First my aural sense climaxed and now this. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

“Just a little mousse,” when I asked her how she did it. “And it’s all mine,” she added, as if she was reading my mind.

I’d gone to heaven the easy way. And I was surprised at what a changed man I had become. It lasted almost two hours. What? You’re surprised? Heaven on earth is never an all day thing.

A Story in Three Tweets: Mr. OCD

12 Jan 2010
January 12, 2010

Twitter allows you to send missives to your followers in 140 character bursts. For a storyteller these are often exercises in learning to be economical with one’s words with the greatest amount of impact. Today I tried but a story unfolded in the subway that begged for just a little bit more. This required three successive tweets. Sometimes a tale demands just a little bit more. Here is my 376 character Twitter trilogy.

Mr OCD’s on subway. How do I know? He told me last time. He’s nice & strikes up chat w/ everyone. He’s talking 2 lady next 2 him now…

…But Mr OCD has a mean anger streak. How do I know? I saw him yell @ 2 boisterous teens way on the other side of subway platform. Way far.

Mr OCD’s still chatting it up with that girl as we make our way up to the surface. See ya next time.

On Being a Voyeur: I Have No Complaints

04 Oct 2009
October 4, 2009

When I was in San Francisco last week for meetings I stayed with good friends in Noe Valley. Being a seasoned commuter I left the house each morning precisely at 7:55 and walked down to Market Street to catch the MUNI downtown. My Bay Area mornings were like every workday morning for me –a walk and then a hop onto mass transit.

And when I got onto my train I appeared to do what every San Franciscan did. I pretended to be in my own little world (as I pretend to do every morning on my commute from the Maryland burbs to downtown DC). Secretly, however, I was really being myself: curious as ever, watching my commuter brethren in their natural habitat on their ways to work. In this regard I am no mere amateur.

One morning as we pushed east from Church Street I spied a young man near one of the doors. He appeared to be in his twenties, with blond shaggy hair and dressed casually. He was looking into a folder. Straining my neck just a little and with experienced stealth I was able to see the folder was filled with music scores, which added to my excitement. I tracked his eyes as he read the scores line by line just like a good book. Every once in a while he’d laugh. No, it was more of a chuckle, as if he’d just read a funny passage filled with alluring innuendo from Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

He seemed to really be enjoying his morning read. Looking around, I seemed to be the only one noticing him. Ah, a hidden pleasure visible only to me. I’m such a voyeur. He was so engrossed in his music I continued to look directly at him with no fear of being discovered. You might remember I’ve been in this enviable position before.

Music Feet on the DC Metro

Interestingly, this was my second mass transit encounter with the musical staff. A few weeks before as I made my morning commute to work I suddenly looked down at the feet of woman standing next to me. Each foot sported a music notation tattoo. I so wanted to ask her the significance of her musical commitment but decided the mystery was more interesting.

In the case of the young man there simply was no photograph or video that would adequately convey the encounter. The memory of watching this little tableau unfold was more than enough. He exited the train at Van Ness and I wondered if he worked at the symphony or opera close by.

The woman’s feet, however, were wonderfully photogenic. Their position on the subway floor suggested a dancer but the rest of her body seemed more musician.

In both cases I was left with a mystery which only encouraged me to continue with my life’s work underground.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074