Archive for category: Commuting with Nature

Nailing a Good Photo

09 Aug 2009
August 9, 2009
My fellow commuter on the subway

My fellow commuter. Click on image for a larger view.

It had been a long week. I’d just completed two days of teaching teachers how to podcast: a rewarding activity that reminded me of my years in the classroom. But teachers know teaching is exhausting. And teaching technology is even more so. You closely examine your students’ faces, ferreting out those who get it and those who are lost. To bridge those techno-fears I succumb to using humor to push on through. By the end of the session I surveyed the room, happy to see their relaxed faces. But I had lost my voice in the process.

So, on Friday morning, knowing that my instruction had ended and I could tie up my regular loose ends before the weekend, I was in an easygoing mood on my commute into work.

As we pulled into Union Station I noticed the woman sitting next to me. My, what long red fingers you have, I thought. If I could get a good pic of those nails holding your book’s pages at bay I’d start the day feeling creative. Should I ask you first? An age-old question. If I did your body language would surely change and that special relationship between your nails and the book would be lost. Yet, I’ve always felt a bit weird about being surreptitious. What if I got caught? What if she questioned what I was doing? So much the better I finally decided. The tension woke me up.

I pulled out my iPhone and nonchalantly aimed it her way. The man across the aisle was watching me. But my next door neighbor continued to read. When you work undercover the pressure’s on to get your shot quickly. But once I looked through the viewfinder I knew this: to get a good photo I would make myself take the extra second to compose it just right. Every extra second increased the chances of an engagement. But that’s all it took. I moved the camera a bit to the left.

I only took one shot. And I had gotten my voice back.

Vulnerable Below Street Level

25 Jan 2009
January 25, 2009

Caffeine, you were my friend. I started my day with you and recently began seeing you on an ongoing basis in the late afternoon. When I realized you had no effect on my regular bedtime I relied on you to give me that extra push from my day job to my evening job as a dad and husband. Suddenly I had energy to do the dishes without being asked and to cheerfully help my girls with their homework. But no more. From now on I will do my evening work without your help. I’ve learned my lesson.

Last Wednesday, as I sat in the train commuting home I suddenly realized I was a bit queasy. This wasn’t anything new. A late-day coffee sometimes upset my stomach just a bit. Forgoing any subway reading usually calmed it down. I had control over it. But Wednesday was different. The coffee in concert with an overheated subway car did me in. It came on suddenly and wouldn’t let go. I closed my eyes as I broke out in a cold sweat. I shed first my winter coat and eventually my shirt. I wasn’t sure I could make it to my stop. By the time I got there I was sitting in a drenched t-shirt. It was all I could do to get out of the car and sit on the platform bench nearby.

As I sat on there with my head down I knew I was dehydrated. I couldn’t lift my head without becoming lightheaded and I knew I’d need help getting out of the subway. When a janitor passed me by I asked him for some water and to use his cell to call my wife. It’s hard to ask a stranger for help. As I waited I laid down with my eyes closed. I relished the quiet of the abandoned platform, only to hear the oncoming trains. The wind that preceded their arrival felt good on my face. But with their appearance came homeward bound commuters: a constant reminder of my vulnerability.

I was sick and unable to take care of myself in such a public place. I closed my eyes to hide the looks of people passing me by. Suddenly, a man’s voice asked if I needed help. “I’ve called my wife. Thanks,” I said, just barely opening my eyes to see his shadow in the subdued light of the platform. I simultaneously wanted his help and wanted to be left alone. “I’ll stay with you until your wife arrives,” he said. When she came he quietly left. I wanted to get his name but he was already gone.

She brought me water and I drank it as quickly as I could. In the end that was a big mistake. “That was too much of a shock to your system,” the paramedics later told me. I tossed it all right on the platform. That’s the “thanks” I left for that nice janitor. While we waited for the ambulance (for a gurney was the only way I’d get out of there) two other commuters asked if they could help. I am thankful for the kindness of these strangers. But then a train operator got out and asked if I was drunk. Vulnerable and misunderstood. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

When the paramedics finally arrived they took my vitals (all fine) and asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. “Absolutely not,” I replied. I knew an all-night visit to the Emergency Room, waiting hours in a garishly lighted waiting room would not be my best medicine. I’d be fine if I could just get into bed and relax. They carefully lowered the gurney to the bench level and moved me to the elevator while my wife got the car. As we waited for her I asked if they needed my medical insurance. “It’s all free,” she said.

I was thankful, but none of this was free.

Commuting Rules of Engagement

11 Jan 2009
January 11, 2009

Rush Hour on the DC Metro. Photo by andrew.deci via Flickr.

When you commute five days a week on public transportation you start to see the same people standing in the same places everyday. I’ve always marveled at how our clocks are in sync. Do each of these people get up at 5:30 a.m. like I do, eat breakfast while reading the paper, then go shower and dress for work, all at the same moment?

So it wasn’t surprising when I saw that tall man, in his late 50s, wearing his wide-brimmed leather hat and trench coat on the subway platform. He’s one of those people who not only gets on at my “home” Metro stop but also gets off at the same downtown destination I do. I see him in the morning and in the evening on our way home. Everyday. We live and work in close proximity. There are a few of us. But I’ve never talked to any of them (although I often make eye contact with a guy who brings his wife flowers every Thursday).

I’ve never engaged this man with the hat but I have been keenly aware of him from the beginning. He’s a nervous sort of guy. When the subway car stops he walks fast to the entrance and when the door opens he rushes in to get his special seat. Luckily, that special seat isn’t my special seat. In fact, I have worked hard not to rush in to get my special seat expressly because I don’t want to act like this man.

Now, you need to know a bit about human nature, specifically Washington, DC Metro commuting behavior. When a train arrives what we should do is move to the sides of the doors and let everyone out before entering. This is the civil and evolved way. But this doesn’t always happen. In fact, it rarely happens. There’s a pile up of bodies squeezing to get out and those simultaneously pushing to get on. I try hard to not succumb to this madness.

On this particular day as I waited for the jostling to begin I looked to the left and Mr. Man with the Hat was standing right next to me. I had never been this close to him before. When the doors opened as commuters started to exit the subway car he was already leaning forward in frenzied anticipation. So in play was he that it appeared he was pushing the person in front of him forward. I watched him, inches away, move in. And I could stand it no longer.

“Please stop pushing,” I said in my calmest commuter voice. “I wasn’t pushing,” he replied. “Yes you were,” I softly mumbled back. I didn’t want to cause an altercation but without thinking his statement demanded a reply, even if I was the only one to hear it. We got on –he went his way towards his pre-ordained seat and I went mine.

In order to justify my mumble I replayed our brief encounter as the train moved to the next stop. And during the playback I realized he indeed did not push the person in front of him. His body language and shuffling, like a nervous sprinter just before the gun sounds, made him appear to jostle the woman in front of him. But there was no actual contact. It was his extreme posturing that made me react.

But the deed had been done. I had revealed myself and my heretofore private evaluation of this man. I was no longer just an anonymous person he saw every day at the beginning and end of our mutual commutes. I was that man.

Sometimes it pays to keep your thoughts to yourself.

Marginally Speaking Downunder

14 Apr 2008
April 14, 2008

Gotta get off, gonna get, hafta to get off from this ride
Gotta get hold, gonna get, need to get hold of my pride
When did I get, where did I, how was I caught in this game
When will I know, where will I, how will I think of my name

Theme from Valley of the Dolls
k.d lang

Only by sheer routine can I get myself ready for work and out the door each day. I get up the same time; I eat the same cereal; I exercise the same way and I walk the same path to the subway each and every morning. I could do it with my eyes closed. In fact, my eyes are closed.

It’s impossible for me to think on any abstract level until I am comfortably seated on the subway. If I forget my lunch or worse yet my staff ID I won’t notice until I am on that train. Only then do my eyes finally open and I can begin my morning observation and critique of the human drama sitting right in front of me. I need these extra two hours of pre-commute somnambulism for these higher level functions to work efficiently the rest of the day.

So it wasn’t until I actually sat down this morning that I noticed the man sprawled across two seats snoring loudly. LOUDLY. Really loud. I tried putting myself in “another place” by listening to k.d. lang but her soulful alto was no match for this snorer no matter how much I raised the volume. I didn’t move even though seats were available elsewhere. It would have done no good. His atonal a cappella permeated the car.

At the next stop I watched people get on. They too were dreaming until they sat down. And then it was too late. Like me, they were cemented to their seats. One woman sat down right in front of our sleeping beauty. She adjusted to his cacophony by conducting an early morning business call. The rest of us were now regaled by the crescendo counterpoints between snorer and project manager. We were privy to her government contracting in between his nostril intake.

Another commuter sat down across from me and after waking up silently mouthed “Wow, that’s really loud.” I caught her attention and replied (loudly of course): “yes, QUITE loud.” While no one, including myself, was willing to leave our comfort zone to tell either or both to pipe down (no matter how uncomfortable we were), the least we could do was commiserate. This is pro forma on these weekday rails: a nod here, a knowing look there. That’s how the rest of us communicate in the morning.

Suddenly, a man came walking down the aisle yelling “Aaron Burr was a degenerate. Aaron Burr was A DEGENERATE!” He seemed very agitated (and obviously not in his own comfort zone for quite some time).

Washington: a city exhausted and overworked. This morning only the marginalized had the guts to voice their opinion.

Upgrading the DC Metro’s Identity

13 Jan 2008
January 13, 2008
Metro logo treatment

When DC’s Metro unveiled a new concept car last week this logo identity mysteriously appeared. Local officials first billed DC’s proposed transit system as “America’s” subway when it went to Congress for financial backing.

Last week the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) unveiled designs for new subway cars that could make their appearance as early as 2013. Here in DC we’ve been debating seating designs for years. Should we continue with the traditional 2×2 seats? Or should we use more bench seating like New York City’s system, which would allow for greater passenger capacity? The debate continues. Of greater interest these days is the new higher fares when the on-time service has dramatically deteriorated.

However important these issues are, they paled by comparison when I spied a new Metro logo on the side of the new car rendering in the Washington Post. A leaner and more efficient system is one thing; an ugly logo representing it is quite another. No mention of the new identity appeared in news reports nor on the WMATA site. But even if this display was meant only for sketchy purposes, I’d like to nip this graphic in the bud. Even as a concept it’s ugly. I wince every time I look at it.

Using Metro’s present brown-boxed logo as the “M” within the word “America’s” completely undoes the unity of the text. Your eye just stops at the dark rectangle. I don’t know what font they used for the rest of the word but it’s clear its designer never meant it to be used in all caps. In addition, the font is serif while the logo’s “M” is san-serif. Mixing the two styles should be left to a professional (if at all). This logo treatment looks like a bureaucrat did it. A type treatment for DC’s subway should convey a sense of strength, reliability, and speed. It should also reflect the elegance the system’s architecture conveys. This font is too casual and lackadaisical. And it only reinforces the perception that our subway is falling apart with no clear vision of its future.

I have always been mystified with the system’s identity. The ugly brown color used on all station identity is hard to see on the pylons at street level. It’s present logo, a big and bold san-serif “M” looks uninspiring and, I might add, like the system is standing still. I understand the desire for the “M” to stand out and be seen on the street, but surely there is a font that would convey a sense of style as well. There is no sense of movement implied by this treatment. With its mechanical breakdowns, most of us Metro riders would say this indeed represents the Metro today.

a logo comparison

A quick comparison brings up some initial ideas. Left: Metro’s present logo (this block “M” appeared as the logo on the Adopted Regional Map in March 1968, eight years before the system opened to the public). Middle: A simple change would give the sense of movement, something DC subway’s identity desperately needs. Right: A more radical shift to a more elegant font would imbue the identity with a sense of style as well.

If nothing else, change the present “M” logo to an italic to evoke motion. But consider using a more elegant type treatment to reflect the Metro’s modernist take on the city’s Federal architecture. Bottom line: in upgrading the system’s infrastructure, don’t forget to rethink its identity. Yes, big and bold is visible, but a bit of style would make this designer a bit more proud to ride these rails and feel a lot less like I’m riding in a cattle car.

Men: Don’t Wear White After Labor Day

04 Sep 2007
September 4, 2007

The day after Labor Day is known by many as Terrible Tuesday. By that time, all of the schools are back in, and the majority of people are back from their vacations. It just sort of hits all at once.

Joan Morris
The Virginia Department of Transportation

white flip flops on the subway

Republican Senator Larry Craig’s recent bad men’s room etiquette has given people watching a bad name (be sure to scroll down to view the video at the bottom of the link).

It was Terrible Traffic Tuesday. And with everyone back from their pleasant summer holidays the Metro was packed –standing room only. I looked up from my prime seat to spy a business man dressed in a freshly pressed dress shirt and tie with nice black slacks. He looked like most men on their way to work this unofficial first day of Fall.

But as I worked my way down to the floor suddenly I was surprised to see this man had topped off his morning attire with white flip flops!

Doesn’t he know you’re not supposed to wear white after Labor Day?

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074