Archive for category: Commuting with Nature

The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 2

22 Jan 2004
January 22, 2004

Last month, after a particularly grueling day at work I founded The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable. Each month I would perform underground cell phone conversation tableaus to the apathetic minions riding DC’s subway system, the Metro. The response to our premiere performance was fantastic. No one suspected a thing and no one took notice.

Today, my theatre troupe debuts the second in its series. Speeches this week by two diametrically opposed politicos (both in tone and in temperament) provide the muse for this month’s production:

Hi, yeah it’s me.
Let me –wait a minute.
Wait a minute. Wait.
Nah, I don’t think the terrorist threat will expire on that schedule.
The Patriot Act, si se pueda.

And you know something?
You know something?
We will NOT give up.
Man, don’t give me a permission slip to defend us.
Right. Cool. Very cool.

Double the budget.
We’re going to New Hampshire
And to South Carolina.
And Oklahoma and Arizona

The killers will fail.
And that’s hard to explain to our partners
Yeah, willing foreign workers when no Americans can be found
In Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Phillippines, Thailand
And North Dakota and New Mexico.

And we’re going to Washington!
Yeah, I’m on the Red Line right now.
Straight to the White House.
Shit. The train’s out of service.

Wait, I can switch to the Green Line
The service on this subway bites.
We’re providing more funding for our schools
–a 36 percent increase since 2001.
The Metro? I oppose amnesty.

The status quo always has defenders!
Yeah, the sanctity of marriage
Si se puede. Yeah I think it’s possible.
Wait a minute. Wait, here it comes.

Man, that felt good. Whew, really good.
Ok, adiós amigo. Later.

Other Performances:
The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 1
The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 3

The Underground Christmas Spirit

24 Dec 2003
December 24, 2003

It was one of those spur-of-the-moment things. Just as we pulled into my subway stop this morning I decided I was going to wish everyone in my car a booming Merry Christmas. My impromptu holiday plan would take place just as I took my exit. I envisioned the good cheer and commuter camaraderie that we still-in-town workers would share.

But could I summon enough chutzpah to pull this off? It wouldn’t be the first time. I had no time to think twice. If I hesitated for a second I would falter. The train pulled to a stop and the chimes announced the doors’ opening. I grabbed my backpack and stood up.

Just as I opened my mouth a deep voice from behind me said, “Sir, you forgot this.” I turned around to see a Santa handing me my umbrella.

“Thank you,” I said much more quietly than I had anticipated just seconds before. “Merry Christmas to you.”

The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 1

20 Dec 2003
December 20, 2003

After a particularly difficult and emotionally heart wrenching day at work (is there no other kind?) I was listening to my iPod’s special “Get Over It” mix on the subway home, prepared especially for days like this.

While undoing I looked around me and observed a man I often see on this train. He reached into his pocket for his cell, popped his earbud into his ear and began to talk. As always with these devices people look like they’re speaking to themselves. They smile and react to someone unseen. It’s not as if the unseen person is “there.” The cell protagonist looks off-center and indirectly into the ether. Have you noticed? With my special mix playing the soundtrack in my own ear it is theater in it’s most wonderfully absurd early 21st century form.

After difficult days one strives for equilibrium: a place to comfortably sit without anxiety and distress. This position often spawns quirky creative trances in me. And so, today I launch The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable.

Every month I shall perform a piece on the subway, developing a repertoire of mobile phone conversations. Putting my finger to my ear (no one will look closely to discover I have no earpiece) I will produce what I call monodialogs® –pithy and topical urbane conversations. When my audience ignores me I will know I am a success.

My premiere performance just in time for the holidays:

Hi, it’s me. Did you tell him?
What’d he say?
Better hide his passport.

She’ll find it at the top of the medicine chest, behind the Paxil.
Ha! Yah, I know.
No, no, shave it off. Really. SHAVE IT OFF you fool.

He thinks he can get away with THAT?
[Looks at fingernails]
The Iraqis will never agree.
Tell him it’s his Christmas present.
[Laughs, looks down the aisle at the opposite end of the car]
No, I don’t think he’s here.

I hid it under the sink, behind the Draino.
Don’t let her see you. Right, shaken. Not stirred.

We just arrived at Cleveland Park
See you soon. Bye.
You’re funny. Yah, me too. Bye.

Other Performances:
The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 2
The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 3

The End of the Line

05 Aug 2003
August 5, 2003

In two more weeks my life will change forever. My oldest, just about to enter the 2nd grade at the end of this month, will be joined by my youngest as she enters kindergarten. Their school is close to home and my commuting with children days will end. What a big step for all of us and I am sad excited sad… Ok, I can’t wait!

For the past four years I have dutifully accompanied one or both of my girls to preschool downtown. This has meant I have risen every workday at 5:15 and left the house with one or both daughters at 6:45 for our subway trip into DC. Once deposited safely at school, I walked 20 minutes to my office, rain, snow, or shine, finally arriving by eight.

For one entire year, when both girls were in the same daycare, I dropped off #1 at her classroom, then walk an additional 15 minutes to my youngest’s class before proceeding to my office. We bought a tandum double stroller called a Sit N’ Stand which allowed my oldest to stand (or sit) in the back while my youngest was nicely cloistered in the front. I learned to navigate that thing adroitly through subway doors and crowds, depositing us at the end of a car and away from rushing travelers.

When both children sat their heads were back-to-back and my youngest would take great delight in butting the back of her head against her sister’s. This was always excellent entertainment for early morning commuters (although my oldest would surely disagree). But the gargantuan task of transporting these two was always evident to others and I could always feel their awe/admiration/thank-God-it’s-not-me thoughts vibrate throughout the car.

Having them sequestered in the relatively safe containment field of a stroller allowed me to concentrate on getting them safely from Point A to Point B. Despite my desire to keep them contained forever, I realized they finally had outgrown the stroller when their weight actually made the stroller go in all sorts of uncontrollable directions. Walking side-by-side in crowded Metro stops presented new challenges.

At the other end of the day I made the identical return trip in reverse. I picked up my tired but energized sweet’ems and navigated the underground with millions of hot (or cold), tired, and grumpy commuters. We’d arrive home exactly 12 hours after we first left. This was a very long day for all of us. And, I have to give my girls credit. They were champs and good sports in this daily grind.

• • •

Traveling with children allows you to experience human nature in special ways, not just my youngsters’ but the adults around us. As I’ve mentioned before, knowing smiles and impromptu conversations often connected me to strangers.

But I also had to scratch my head when no one on a crowded train offered my four year old a seat. When one did, it was the exception, not the rule. And, surprisingly, 90% of those who did were men.

Once a woman pushed herself through a pile of waiting commuters to catch a packed train. The rest of us had decided it was safer to wait for the next one. As she pushed her way through, yelling “I’ve got to get on that train!” she knocked my daughter’s stroller into the space between the platform and the car. As the door closed between us it was the only time I silently mouthed an unseemly word underground. Rhyming with “itch,” I made sure she was looking right at me as I delivered it.

A couple months ago, while waiting at the same platform, a man tried to cut right between my daughter and I as we both walked on board. We had recently seen a little boy rush onto a train and leave his mother behind as the door closed. This affected my young daughter deeply and she couldn’t stop talking about this incident for days. So when our hands were temporarily separated I immediately tensed up.

When both of us were safely aboard, I said loud and clear “I have a four year old child here!” for both he and the rest of the car to hear. He replied “Well, if I had known you had a child I would have given you a break.” I and the other passengers took note: no child, no break. Yes, you meet many interesting characters underground.

Bob Levey, noted columnist for the Washington Post, once devoted part of a column on us after two interesting encounters down under. As I reread it now, my shock at these interactions with fellow commuters was so evident. I was so green. Creating a buffer between your children and “the world” requires some thought and finesse. You want to protect them. But you also want to teach your kids how to make distinctions between safe and unsafe situations. No wonder I was often exhausted when I walked through our front door.

While those experiences stood out, we’ve actually made friends with a small group of workers whose schedules always matched our own. Seeing them on the way in or out of town provided us with a community deep down. Today I announced to a crowded elevator that we would be coming to our last “meeting” next week. I will miss them.

• • •

As my children and I walked in the front door each evening at least one of us was either:

  • Ready for a timeout (dad often marched right into his bedroom without protest)
  • Hungry
  • Ready to pack it in for the night
  • Excited to see mom to tell her all about our school/bureaucratic day

Given the long days and hard commutes, you must wonder why we subjected ourselves to this for these four years. We had preschool choices but this one weighed in as the best. Both my daughters attended the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center and the museums of the Smithsonian were their classrooms and playground. When your 4 year old came home and nonchalantly announced that Frank Stella was her favorite artist, you knew it was worth it. Last year my eldest daughter made a musical instrument out of trash and then played hers accompanied by Yo Yo Ma (I have now instructed her that, should this ever happen again, make sure you have said virtuoso autograph your trash).

I have chronicled many of our adventures to and from school. It was a time to be close to my daughters whether we were taking a nap, “baking” pretend cookies, reading, playing the staring game (to see who could make the other laugh first), making up stories, or using onboard ads to teach the alphabet. And, I will miss that closeness (probably more than I realize at the moment).

But both my wife and I are a bit relieved that now both girls will be closer to home. Given the events of 9/11 (when I had to rush to the Center to retrieve my younger daughter after hearing news reports of fires on the National Mall) and of anthrax scares (when we kept her home for two weeks), we’d like to think she is more protected from the realities of our new world order in our own neighborhood (if only for a few more years). For a while we were making daily decisions whether to take her downtown: an incredible preschool program verses her safety. Constantly making that decision was exhausting. Of course, the DC sniper showed us that we can be vulnerable even in our own backyard.

But looking forward, I am so excited about my anticipated free time bonus I don’t know what to do with myself. What will I do with my extra time? I will be able to sleep later and I will arrive home at least 1/2 hour earlier each evening. My wife is praying for a refreshed and revitalized me when I walk through that door: someone who isn’t so exhausted by office politics and commuting home with a tired child that I will actually be able to cook a dinner once in a while.

But what will I do on the subway? I could continue making phantom cookies and play the staring game, but without my daughters I won’t get the knowing smiles from those around me as I am used to. In preparation I’ve been watching others to reacquaint myself with the joys of commuting solitude.

In anticipation I’ve been beefing up my new iPod with music—do you have any recommendations for leisurely sojourns to and fro? And I’ve been paying closer attention to my suggested reading list on Amazon. I’ve got a few goodies lined up. Hmmm, perhaps a recipe book would be a good place to start.

• • •

Later: On the commute home this evening I noticed a young woman sitting across from us. She appeared to be in her early 20s but with her hair in pigtails and her Mary Jane shoes she was dressed more like an 11 year old. I watched her as she pulled out a piece of paper and began to write. All the while my daughter was fidgeting, her dress above her knees prominently displaying her underwear. She loves to wear dresses but constantly struggles to remember this bit of modesty.

As the woman rose to exit, she handed me her note. I was simply tired and wanted no intrusions. I politely declined but she dropped it in my lap and whispered “it’s a tip” as she walked away.

What will I do without the kindness of strangers and outside the glare of my daughter’s spotlight? Gracefully fade into a commuter’s anonymity.

A Close Encounter of the Loud Kind

19 Jun 2003
June 19, 2003

While Steve was cleaning up after a night of teen debauchery, I suddenly found myself walking quickly through my own nest of broken eggshells. This morning, on my commute to work a young
man got on the train, his Walkman blasting louder than I’d ever
heard one blast before. I hate it when I can hear nothing but the rat, tat, tat of the bass. The volume was blaring. My inclination in these cases is to say something. But, of course, I never do.

He moved to the middle of the car, yet the sound continued to surround me. I looked his way in wonderment. While he was facing in the opposite direction, he suddenly turned and looked right at me. I suppose my thoughts were too loud. Without thinking, I mouthed the words “too loud” and touched my finger to my ear.

Immediately, I recoiled at my own actions. Why the hell was I actually
trying to engage this guy? It was foolhardy at best. I was with my five year old, taking her to school. An altercation was the last thing I needed.

He mouthed something back but I immediately looked away without struggling to figure it out. I knew I had walked over a line and I wanted to return to anonymity as soon as I could. Only after we’d transferred to another train did my daughter say “He said ‘I don’t care.’”

Fashion Dos and Don’ts

08 Jun 2003
June 8, 2003

I have been reduced to doing fashion makeovers in the subway. On our morning ride downtown, a man, about 35, took the seat directly across from me. With my daughter taking a commuter’s snooze on my lap I was just casually looking around. And my eyes rested precariously on his rather large shoes.

They were mottled burgundy oxfords with a wide, rounded toe and thick soles. The shape of the toe, their color, and their rather large girth had “clown shoes” written all over them. Not as big, of course. But the vision of those oversized bulbous foot coverings only seen under the big top refused to leave me. I began to look elsewhere but I couldn’t help myself. I kept returning to those shoes.

While I am an observant fellow, an artist and photographer with a decent sense of style (in my svelter days I wore vintage clothes from the 1940s and still collect men’s neckties from that period), fashion makeovers are not my usual modus operandi. Since my recent weight loss, however, (a 20 lb./9 kg. sack around my waist) I have noticed I am more conscious of my own dress. Obviously I had now moved on to critiquing others’ with a particularly odd vengeance.

In my defense, my family routines have been totally out of kilter for the last month. My wife went away for two weeks and I became sole parent to my two young ones: a gratifying, yet stressful state of affairs. And right after her glorious return my sister came to visit us for a week. Playing tourist and constant talks about old family craziness were not only exhausting, they left no time for my own internal processes.

Despite our normally overextended family life, I usually can find respites for myself and my creative urges. Without these moments of solitude I had been dreaming heavily and vividly for the last five nights. This morning’s aberration must have just been an extension of these basic human needs. If I had no control over my life, I seemed to be attempting to control a complete stranger’s. But I digress.

Were his shoes an aberration as well? I gave him the total once-over. Yes, men do look at men on occasion. He had a very long oval face. His haircut, short on the sides and longer on top, along with his below-the-ear sideburns, only emphasized his head’s length. No doubt about it. It was the wrong haircut for him. More bizarrely, I wanted to tell him so. Luckily, my daughter’s own head anchored me to my seat and I nonchalantly put my hand over my mouth to prevent any outbursts. I had prior convictions interacting with subway audiences.

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