Archive for category: Commuting with Nature

Curbing My Enthusiasm

17 Sep 2006
September 17, 2006
Curb Your Enthusiasm

Deep inside I could be him. Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm

I was standing on the subway platform Friday afternoon, looking forward to the weekend. It started out as a normal commute home. As the train came into the station it was packed with fellow commuters. I know just where to stand to be next to the doors when the subway stops. My station is a transit point between three lines so there are always a lot of people exiting and getting onto the train.

When the doors opened two people stood just inside the car clogging the exit points. And they refused to move, leaving less than a foot for the multitudes exiting. You might remember I’ve given great thought to this problem and outlined my own plan for helping to alleviate this self-centered phenomenon.

I usually think to myself “why don’t these people just move outside the doors and let everyone else off?” But instead, I crossed life’s invisible boundary into the otherworld of human behavior and, without thinking, said out loud: “Why don’t you guys move out and let these people off.”

One of the perpetrators was a young man in his twenties, well-dressed and holding a bouquet of flowers. He turned to me and started yelling vile expletives. Surrounded by my fellow commuters I was both embarrassed and shocked. Before opening my mouth I had done a quick survey of the wrongdoers, neither of whom looked huge or threatening. (The guy was holding flowers!) I did not foresee this happening.

I’ve been watching HBO’s 5th season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, written by and starring the originator of Seinfeld, Larry David. When I describe the show to the uninitiated I simply say “It’s Seinfeld on steroids.” Like the original sitcom’s character George Castanza, Larry says things we might think but would never act upon. He is oblivious to their consequences.

I laugh at the situations he gets himself into. But it’s a nervous laugh. The show straddles a very fine line of reality. What starts out as a normal, albeit tense interaction, tumbles out of control. Actually, it weaves back and forth across this psychological border often, producing a highly charged energy that is far from relaxing. It’s theater but I can picture myself getting too close to this edge in my own life. Had I just crossed into this world under the streets of Washington?

Luckily, I am a fast thinker (the result of growing up in a bizarro family where I had to learn to verbally protect myself at a moment’s notice). I replied to the dorker (Metro’s term for a door hog), “I hope the person you’re giving those flowers to treats you better than you have treated me.” On the commute home I thought of better replies but considering the moment I gave myself a pat on the back for a good comeback. He was silent.

As I entered the car I looked more closely at him and was shocked a second time to discover he was wearing a yarmulke or “keepa” (Hebrew for this religious skullcap). Not only was he Jewish but his supposed devotion to our religion seemed to exceed mine. His moral standards should have towered over me. How could one of my “own” treat another that way –treat ME that way?

I was immediately taken back to the 3rd grade when I met my first Jewish bully, Sidney Minz (my apologies, Sid, if you grew up to be a well-adjusted person). I remembered how astonished I was to encounter a fellow Jew who was mean. I had mistakenly assumed that all Jewish people were kind (an attempt by my young mind to identify and feel attachment to the group I’d been assigned to at birth).

When I sat down I pretended to read my novel while ruminated about this encounter. I looked up ever so discretely to take a closer look at my antagonist. I saw him furtively glance my way. I looked down while thinking of the ultimate retort.

In a situation like this, when you don’t actually know the person, context is important. I went with what I knew. What would be the best reply to a devout Jew with a questionable character? I chose an intelligent riposte with just a hint of guilt: “When you wear that keepa you represent all of us. You should be ashamed of yourself.” Simple and to the point, it had the added bonus of letting him know he had transgressed against a fellow Jew. And my paternal admonition would remind him of his father, or better yet, his mother. Perfect.

Larry, however, would have taken a much more direct approach. Crossing the line, he would have made his way to the young man who by now was at the other end of the subway car: “At Yom Kipper I will forgive you,” he would say. The ultimate Jew-to-Jew comeback. The next scene you would see him sitting down at High Holiday services only to notice the rabbi standing at the pulpit was this same young man with flowers.

If the line in my life moves just ever so slightly it could happen just like that.

Related Story: George Allen Inspires Comedy, Philosophy Too (Washington Post)

The DC Subway: Don’t Block the Box

26 Jun 2006
June 26, 2006

Sardines. Every morning subway commuters are packed into overcrowded tins like generic and anonymous fish. The only way out of these cans is through three small doors. And by the time I’m ready for my exit there’s almost no way out.

I’m lucky. I get on at the beginning of the subway line so I can usually sit close to the egress. This gives me a front row seat as human nature typically unfolds; when people get on the train they mass at the exits rather than moving out of the way towards the center of the car. The closer we move downtown the more packed it gets. Natural selection has culled commuters in its own efficient way; we all want to make sure we can get off at our appointed stops. It’s the survival of the fittest. And who can argue with Mother Nature?

Working against her is the Metro. They’ve configured subway seats like a train’s: a small center aisle with two-by-two seating on each side (unlike the NYC subway where the seats are arranged along the sides creating large open areas for movement in and out). People don’t move to the center as instructed because the aisle is narrow and, in a crowded car, hard to navigate. So they congregate at the exit, a small space bounded by two windshield partitions. But when the doors part, they continue to stand there creating a dam and ignoring the rush that ensues. Riders are reduced to shoving upstream through a small rivulet.

As we enter each station we are admonished by the loudspeaker to “step back to allow customers to exit.” No one listens. And we push to get out and push to get in before that voice returns to let us know the doors are now closing. Subway doors are not like elevators. Touching their edges does not make them retract. These doors will close right on you like pincers. Human sardines beware.

The Metro is considering reconfiguring the seats like New York’s subway to allow for a better flow. But that’s a ways off, if it happens at all. Instead, last Fall they had a contest to find just the right new loud and forceful speaker to command us to move out of the way. The old voice was sweet (but, alas, ineffective). “Doors closing,” she’d say in her nurturing second grade teacher sort of way. But Metro was looking for a something sterner. The context winner is more like your six grade teacher (Quicktime Audio, 308 KB). You know, the one who rapped you on the knuckles if you passed a note to your girlfriend across the room.

Everyone hates her grating and condescending voice. And to prove our disdain we ignore her. People continue to crowd the exits. But I have a better plan and one we can implement right away. My idea also comes from New York. But not from downunder. Instead my inspiration comes from above (ok, more like street level).

My idea for better subway crowd control

My idea for better crowd control at every subway door.

Borrowing from New York’s plan to reduce intersection gridlock, the Metro should institute a “Don’t Block the Box” campaign. Mark off subway car exits in bright and bold yellow. Give the announcer a new script that includes the admonishment DON’T BLOCK THE BOX said in her best uncompromising tone (more like your middle school vice principal).

Metro, you need to link your serious announcer’s words to something concrete. Unlike the amorphous request to “move to the center of the car,” with these visuals you create a clear no-standing zone. Additionally, this campaign would give commuters a verbal snippet that will stick in our minds even when we try hard to banish it (just like the latest example of “subliminal” marketing from the makers of HeadOn). Easily repeatable when offenders, well, offend: “Don’t block the box, sir. I need to get out.” Civilized and to the point, with just a hint of shame –just the retort I’ve been looking for. Perfect. When the subway system figures out how to stop trains in the same exact place at each station every time, place these boxes on the platform too.

A little bit of yellow paint and already I’m beginning to feel like a big fish in this murky sea.

Update: The Washington Post takes note of my suggestion.

Is That Who I Think It Is?

20 Apr 2006
April 20, 2006

John Bolton on Subway

Sometimes a morning commute is just a morning commute. But on special days the egalitarian nature of mass transit puts you front and center –right in front with those “special people” making the news. This morning I saw John Bolton, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, on the subway.

Washington is like Hollywood. You never know who you’re going to run into. And when you do nonchalance is required. No fawning or whispering is allowed. You know them but you must never acknowledge them, not until the celeb or politico is out of sight. If you disagree with their politics, extreme self-control is always required. I wanted to ask John if he still supported the President and most importantly did he have any reaction to Karl Rove’s and Scott McClellen’s White House departure. But I refrained. I know my place.

Many years ago, on this very train, I sat across from Senator William Proxmire. The good Senator created The Golden Fleece Award, presented to public officials whose projects were deemed self-serving and a waste of taxpayer dollars. This elevated him to hero status in my book, an almost impossible ascent for any politician. Yet, I pretended not to know him.

Ok, this wasn’t really John Bolton on my train. Just an incredible simulacrum –his dopplegänger. But you never know. On the way home I swore I saw Charles de Gaulle except I know he’s been dead for 26 years.

Some days are just more interesting than others. You never know who you’ll run into on the subway, dead or alive, politically relevant or not.

Underground Station Breaks

05 Apr 2006
April 5, 2006

The DC Metro Finds New Revenue in a Tunnel. Click the image above to start. (Quicktime, 2.1 MB)

Washington’s subway system is slowly falling apart. After 30 years the Metro is showing its age. The system needs a huge overhaul. But with no extra cash that’s becoming harder to accomplish. I’m already paying $6 a day to ride the subway back and forth to work. My commutes are overcrowded and prone to frequent technical breakdowns. Without additional support I will soon be paying more –a lot more.

For years the Metro rejected any thought of allowing commercial ads for additional revenue. Architecturally it is a beautiful transit system, one subway officials felt shouldn’t be sullied with advertisements. But as it began to bulge at its seams the administration considered new ways to bring in needed money.

Last fall the Metro began to wrap train cars in large scale billboards. I might find myself riding home in a car sheathed in a thin veil of plastic advertising Chevy Chase Bank. Yesterday marked the debut of its second new revenue stream: animated commercials in subway tunnels.

Using a take on a 19th century technology, the zoetrope, in the tunnel between the Gallery Place and Judiciary Square stations suddenly I was watching a movie outside my window: an ad for the Lincoln Zephyr. One hundred and thirty-nine backlit stills quickly passed by my window: a flipbook underground. It was a bit surreal for no one had announced this matinee. My iPod was playing Zero 7’s “On the Waiting Line” and the music synced with the visuals perfectly.

The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 9

24 Feb 2006
February 24, 2006

You can’t hear me? I CAN HEAR YOU!
Yes I can.
Brenda, I am on the subway. I can’t be doing that!

When people make public spectacles of themselves I get embarrassed. Why me? Watching a scorned lover let her philanderer have it on the Jerry Springer Show immediately causes my hands to cover my eyes. I must protect myself and this is my instinctive automatic response. Hands to ears would be better but my body doesn’t always listen to me.

I could turn off the TV, but of course I don’t. There is something visceral about open displays like this. Schadenfraude.

They mailed the final papers to him today.
If you hang up on me you are going to regret…

it, Brenda. Big time.

There’s no turning it off in the subway. Despite our clearly marked destinations, we often get lost in our own worlds. We are oblivious and completely devoid of embarrassment. My hands rest naturally and comfortably on my lap.

Related Stories: Past Acts at The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable

The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 8

18 Dec 2005
December 18, 2005

Amber, this is Glenn
I’m in the Metro on my way in
I need an email to go out


An early morning snow had forced the federal government to open two hours late. The respite from AM bureaucracy did not prevent countless worker bees from their appointed tasks. Conference calls from home circumvented any disconnect Mother Nature could hand out. Workflow could not and would not be stopped by a mere three inch layer of slush.

Subject line: “Update from Glenn”
No, make that “Good news from Glenn”
Yes, good news.

I slowly reached for my notebook and pen while we waited for the next train. Good news in the midst of this bleak arctic mess should be acknowledged. But I didn’t want to interrupt his stream of consciousness. A professional cellphone documentarian realizes the critical importance of camouflage.

Start with “Glenn asked that I let you know
the following per this morning’s 8:30 discussion:
Good news!”

“The template will be ready on time.
But action is needed by MLS immediately
to approve these template reports.
Catherine will have the lead on this.”

Make sure she gets an advance copy.
I want her prepared.

I shifted my posture to maintain my stealth, turning just a bit away from him. The rustle of nearby newspapers and the bass hum from a pair of earbuds on the other side of me made his dictation less distinct. Human evolution had not smiled kindly on eavesdropping.

“The system will be able to produce biannual reports
by the meeting in Dallas”

Make that “by the meeting in Denver.”
That gives us a bit more time.

Read it back to me.

No, change that back to Dallas.
Jim will be all over us if we don’t produce.
I don’t want his hands on this thing.

Glenn looked up from his notes and turned slightly away from me. The platform lights began flashing, announcing the arrival of our train. He stood up. I stood up. He went to the first door in the train and I followed with as much nonchalance as any commuter could muster.

Type it up and send it out immediately.
I want to get this off
before anyone has a chance to react.

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