Archive for October, 2012

The metro and the magic machine
October 24, 2012

Washington, DC — Every rush hour, probably on every train, definitely the Red line and the Blue and Orange, at all of the busy stops — Woodley Park, Dupont Circle, Farrugut North, Metro Center and, on the way back Rosslyn, a combination of chess and musical chairs ensues every time the doors open and seats empty.

Young people, as a rule, show convincing disinterest in the empty seats, older people don’t. But the inevitable exceptions call for manuevering. My low blood pressure, which has made standing an ordeal for me my whole life, and my gray hair, which has made everything easier, grant me, in my view, any seat I can slither in ahead of anyone who is not pregnant or carrying a cane. Some embarrassing day, I suspect, some other gray-haired person is going to end up sidling into my lap.

In the meantime, I do what I can, and had planted myself in time to watch a series of other seatings, and was opening my book when a balding suited young man asked the middle-aged woman in front of him something, which probably had something to do with why she had a wooden box on the  only otherwise empty seat next to her, instead of on her lap.

I assume that because I didn’t hear him, and she did have an arm around a long wooden box that rested on the seat next to her, and she in turn, staring searchingly into his face, asked if he would like to sit down. No, no, he said, as if the thought was ridiculous — who would want to sit at the end of a work day instead of jerking around dangling from one arm, after all.

She took that, apparently to mean he really wanted to know what the box was for, because she turned it over to show it had strings, like a harpischord running from top to bottom, but no keys.

“If you run your hand across the strings,” she told him, “it’s supposed to have the power to _______ your mind.”

The blank sounded like “erase” but I couldn’t believe she said that, so I left it blank.

She strummed her finger over the strings, and continuing to stare directly into his face asked if he could feel it.

I couldn’t hear his reply, but I could feel his predicament. What do you say — no? and then she keeps trying? or yes, and she moves onto the next step, which seemed inevitable. He seemed to be trying to say sure, whatever you say. She continued to look at him, like an extremely bad tv detective, while strumming. The people who were talking to each other stopped talking. The people who were fiddling with their iphones stopped fiddling. I let my book rest in my lap. The train stopped, no seats emptied, but then she turned the box so that its back faced out, and moved it just enough, against the back of the seat so the young man in the suit could perch on the edge of the seat which he did, and rest his suited back against it.

“Do you feel it?” she said, strumming.

“Well yes, of course, I can feel it,” he said.

The next stop, Metro Center, he got up like the seat was on fire. She followed him out, it was her stop too apparently, and it was mine. As we all jostled for places away on the escalator, she stared searchingly around, it seemed, for her next subject.


Things have a way of turning out so badly
October 1, 2012

Washington, DC — My pied-á-terre is in a building on the corner exactly between the National Zoo Red Line Metro stop, and the National Zoo — two blocks from each. The building is on the west side of the street, the side that the metro lets out on, so the side that most people cleave to as they make extended-family-sized, stroller-pushing pilgrimages in what sometimes seems an unbroken line between the Metro and the Zoo.

A friend of mine visiting asked how I felt about that, with implied sympathy for a blight on what is otherwise a pretty good deal (if ever you can call living in an apartment the size of a train car that I would have scorned in my twenties at a quarter of the rent, a good deal). But actually, the thing my friend asked about was, in those initial days of feeling otherwise a little screwed to be paying four figures for less than 400 square feet, the saving grace. Because where I grew up, if you had a stream of tourists surging up your street heading for the zoo, you were Jackie Onassis, or someone with a similar amount of money. What I like about it is not only living in a neighborhood that other people take a field trip to visit, but the oneness with the world, with humanity that the people-watching being in such a place offers.

But I have noticed a trend: The children sitting in the strollers facing south, heading back to the metro are almost always crying. The ones who aren’t are scowling. They are sullen. They look like they wish they had the vocabularies to say — Was that your idea of fun? Not mine! Worst day ever. The absolute inevitability of that — I am sure I have never seen a happy child in a stroller pointed towards the metro from the zoo — finally made me realize that fatigue (rather than disappointment, horror at the sight of caged fellow creatures or existential angst) is probably behind these children’s wails and dour demeanors. The bigger people, who tire slower, stayed too long. And then the departure unleashed whatever transition issues their children have.

Once I figured that out, the sight of a sobbing child in a stroller being pushed away from the zoo, makes me think, with some lightness, of the  last words of The Glass Menagerie: “Things have a way turning out so badly . . .”

I imagine the rest of the day, probably planned a week in advance, probably held out as a bribe, even (“if you eat all your vegetables, we’ll go to the zoo!”), was good. It just ended badly, the way eagerly anticipated things sometimes do.

And then the baby panda — unanticipated, but so long awaited, hoped for — came. And she came, the dear, tiny little stick of butter sized present to the nation on the same day as good news on the political front for, I believe, more than 47 percent of us, that someone had memorialized Mitt Romney’s contempt for the electorate on video. I realize the two events were unrelated entirely, but to me they were both part of a wonderful day in the neighborhood.

I was out of town when the news broke that the baby panda died, her mother’s “honks of distress” alerting zookeepers. The Washington Post published a beautiful story that included a glimpse of the zoo staff’s grief, with the quote from one of them mourning “all the fun we would have had.”

Things have a way of turning out so badly. And yet, somehow, we eagerly anticipate again, looking forward to the next great event that will make all the exhaustions, transitions, struggles worthwhile.