A Smooth Ride, Straight Into Night

Eleventh Street, NW

1.

The metrorail conductor’s voice sounded like it should have been on the radio. Late night radio. It was smooth like smoke; it purred and crackled. The conductor spoke slowly, and made his announcements with a playful formality. In front of the station names he added a definite article, even when one was not called for — as if the stop were someplace famous, someplace everybody knew and had longed to arrive at. “Customers, welcome aboard the Yellow Line train,” he said, as we pulled away from the platform. “The next stop is, The Gallery Place, Chinatown.” You could almost hear him smiling over the hiss of the P.A. The conductor was an entertainer.

It was morning and I was anxious about the day ahead, but the conductor’s voice calmed my nerves. I swear it sounded like he should have been playing Wes Montgomery or Charlie Mingus over that P.A. system. It made me smile, too. We left the L’Enfant Plaza stop and rounded a gentle curve. You can always feel that curve, even though the tunnel is dark. It makes you lean just a little. The train emerged into bright sunlight. “Customers, the next stop is The Pentagon, the first stop in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” the conductor said, in that soft, low voice. I looked out at the Potomac and saw the breeze churning up the water. The silver buildings of Rosslyn glimmered on the far side of the river.

At The Pentagon stop, he made another announcement. “This is the Yellow Line train to Huntington.” His voiced lifted at the “–ton”. Cheerfully, smoothly. “Also stopping at The Crystal City, and The Washington-Reagan National Airport.”

The train swayed as it left the platform, and later, as the doors slid open I almost forgot to get off at my stop. I wanted to ride it until we reached the terminal. I wanted to meet the conductor, ask him if he’s ever been on the radio, tell him he should be. I’d never been to Huntington.

2.

I walked from the bar and picked up the cab outside the hotel, where I always do. It’s impossible to find a cab anywhere else in that part of Virginia. But next to the hotel there is always a huddle of drivers, standing outside next to their cabs, smoking cigarettes and passing the time. They laugh and joke a lot. The drivers are all men, and they are all from Ethiopia.

I came up to the group and asked if one of them could take me into D.C. They all nodded at the one whose car was in the front of the line. There is a system, a code of the cab-drivers, and it should never be violated. One of the rules is that a cabbie will never get ahead of the line. Even if a customer approaches his cab first, the cab driver will shake his head and point you to the person at the front. That way he knows that when he is at the front of the line, he can count on getting the next fare. Cabbie karma. Capitalism of the common interest.

My driver was a slender, handsome man. Sitting in the back seat, I saw only his profile, but he had a lean, narrow face and spoke in low, gentle tones, not altogether unlike the metrorail conductor. We exchanged questions about each other’s days, and then I asked how long he’s been a driver. It was his second week.

“How do you like it?” I asked. It’s a question I’d often put to cab drivers.

“It’s alright. There’s money in it, if you’re willing to put in the hours.”

I told him I’ve heard other drivers say they sometimes drive fourteen, fifteen, sixteen hours just to make enough to be able to pay the daily rent for the cab and turn a small profit. “I could never do that,” he said. “It’s too much on your body. I think 10 hours is the most I could do.”

He told me he also has a day-job, managing transportation at a hotel. “But before that I used to work at IBM, doing IT.” His voice sunk lower, and there was a long pause during which neither of us spoke. “Then I got laid off.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s alright. My wife was really happy.”

I thought I misheard him. “Was, or wasn’t?”

“She was. I used to work really big accounts, Visa, Citibank. Something would go wrong and they would call me at any time of day or night — midnight, whatever. And I would have to go and fix it. The crazy thing was, our child was 6 months old, and we had just bought a condo. And then I got laid off and my wife was happy! She said, ‘God will give you something better.'”

He laughed. “Can you believe that?”

He seemed happy, too. We drove into a tunnel, into the wash of orange streetlights, and emerged at the intersection with Constitution Avenue. I asked the cab driver where he was from, though I already had an idea.

“Ethiopia,” he said.

Ndemeneh,” I said. “Or should I say, Ndemenot?”

“No, ndemenot is only for people much older than yourself, a sign of respect.”

“I see.”

“Where did you learn Amharic?”

“From other cab drivers. I only know a few words,” I said, and rattled them off — Hello (to a male), Hello (to a female), Hello (to an elder) and Thank You.

“It’s good!” he said. “If you keep practicing, your Amharic might be better than some of the Ethiopians I know who’ve lived in the States a long time.”

We talked about family, about how it’s nice to have the people you love nearby. He had family here, in D.C., and up in Canada. Many of the other cabbies I’ve talked to are here alone, I said, with all of their family back in Addis Ababa. All the while we rode up Twelfth Street. Heading north, it’s like climbing a wave, slow undulations building and building until you reach the apex, or are stopped by a red night. The inertia you build when you hit a succession of green lights feels unstoppable.

But finally it stopped, and I got out of the cab, stepping into the humid night. “Thank you,” I said, “it’s good talking to you.”

“You too,” he said. And he wheeled off around the corner, probably all the way back to the hotel.

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Frisbee Days

Puget Sound

It was a clear afternoon in early summer when we all gathered at the field. There were around six of us, close friends who shared a long history. By then we had become our own people. When there was free time, and there was a lot of it back then, we sought open spaces. The field was just at the top of a hillside that sloped steeply down to the edge of Puget Sound, and you could hear the waves, just faintly, from the sunny grass.

Frisbee was something Eric had taught me. I say taught and you may laugh but it takes more than you would think in coordination to throw a frisbee. We had been at the beach then, too, or near to it. Eric’s father had taken us camping and one afternoon near the camp site Eric settled that I would learn how to throw a frisbee. It was all in the wrist, and with none of the wild movements that my gangly arms wanted to make. The frisbee was red and made of thick plastic. I battered my fingertips more than once trying to catch it.

At the field, we played Ultimate Frisbee — like American football for Americans who don’t play football. You couldn’t run with the frisbee in your hand. If you had it in possession, you had to wing it, skillfully, bending its course, to your teammate without it being intercepted. If you could jump then you had a real advantage, but none of us could really get any kind of height. I would try and leap sometimes and my feet came just barely off the ground but sometimes with my gangly arms I could snag the frisbee anyway.

We played in our bare feet and rolled-up jeans. When I started to sweat I could feel the pollen from the grass attach to my ankles and shins and make them itch. We would run and throw and barely jump until we were tired, and then we would take a smoke break, lying in the grass and facing a big wide sky. Sometimes I would look at that sky then and feel like I could see through the blue to the limits of the atmosphere. Then we hopped up and ran around the field again.

“Over here!”

“I’m open!”

Throwing the frisbee with everyone guarding you was the hardest part. Especially if Bryce was guarding you. He was tall and big and a soccer goalie, skilled at knocking things down mid-flight. Eric had developed an almost gymnastic move to try and get out of such situations. He would face one direction with the frisbee in hand and then do a somersault, releasing the frisbee mid-turn so it went the other way. It didn’t always work, but sometimes it did. If someone else on his team was prepared for it.

I don’t remember what we did that day when we were done playing frisbee. We might have taken the steps back down to the beach, if you can call it that. It was a rocky shore slammed by the tide more often than not. There was a big rock wall there and when you sat atop the boulders in the sunshine they were warm, and we would often sit there. But that day we might have just gotten in our cars and drove somewhere else. I don’t know where we thought we were going. I wish we hadn’t gone off so fast.

Hideaway

A D.C. Back Porch

Once or twice a month, J and I retreat from D.C. to a little burg in Northern Virginia where her parents live. It’s quiet — populated mostly by folks entering their golden years — and offers a respite from the continuous, nerve-rattling wail of sirens that permeates our apartment in downtown. We wake up late in the morning, often after her parents have already risen and gone out for a walk, and brew coffee in the silent house. As Mr. Coffee burbles, I watch the strong brew sluice from the basket down through the tiny hole at the top of the pot. I pour myself a steaming cup-full and then take a step out onto the porch.

The sky down here is wide, only slightly narrower than its Midwest cousin due to the hills, and met at the edges by angular rooftops and the verdure of thick leaves fully unrolled for the summer. The sirens are replaced by birdsong. There’s such a diversity of tunes that J’s father is now dipping into ornithology, studying the variations of pitch and timing that give away the origins of these flying minstrels. He’s also been growing tomatoes, peppers and strawberries out back. They’re pretty tasty, too, if the animals don’t get to them first.

This must be what it’s like for folks who have a vacation home, I often think to myself. A rustic cabin on a lake, this is not. But there’s always good home-cooking when we arrive.

The city and the country give and take. Walking the D.C. streets, when I’m afforded the free time, fills my mind with color and fascination at the churning of people in a place steeped in history. There are brightly-painted brick row-houses and gnarly cobbled streets. The culture and demographics are undergoing a painful but historic shift. D.C. also drains me — of energy, of breathing space, of a broader presence of mind. That’s what I come out here for. The dust has time to settle and I can see what’s behind me, and up the road for at least a little ways. Maybe I’ll even notice a fork I hadn’t seen.

Staying out here amid the quiet is always tempting option. Fleeing for even more remote locales, all the more so. And while Thoreau might have us stay in the woods, even he returned to Concord. So as we make our return migration, there is always the idea of the hideaway. A place where nobody knows our name.