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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Resume (May in D.C.)

Meridian Hill Park in winter

Call it a sign of the scattered and rushed times we live in. There is an entire blog devoted solely to documenting the failures and ensuing apologies of other bloggers — those who have returned to their keyboard, hat in hand to their readers, following a long absence. It’s titled, fittingly, Sorry I Haven’t PostedIt’s been since January since I tapped out anything here on Road Notes, and so I suppose I could count myself among these bloggers’ ranks. But at this point the apology is probably unnecessary. Judging by the readership stats, it would likely just echo out into the emptiness of cyberspace.

Things have been warming up here in the District; as I wrote in my last post, however, the weather never really cooled after the glow of autumn. Still, it’s been nice to have consistently summer-like weather lately. People don shorts and flip-flops, the sidewalk cafes are set out, and the pace of day-to-day life somehow seems slower — if only just because the hours of daylight are longer.

Today I took a jog (my first in too long) up to Meridian Hill Park. It’s what I would call D.C.’s answer to New York’s Central Park, with the major caveat that it is smaller and more humble by several orders of magnitude. But at least it is my central beacon in this city. During the winter, skateboarders would ride the curves of its empty fountain, and on morning runs the fingers of bare trees would seem to reach above the dawn horizon, unrivaled by the stories of surrounding buildings, simply because of the hill’s vantage point.

Now the trees have become lush again: draped in greenery, they form a canopy enclosing a space that feels worlds away from all that “Washington” has come to mean to the rest of the United States, or the rest of the world. There was a line of men sitting on a bench rapping on bongo drums, assisted by spurts of melody from a saxophonist, who stood on one end. Young men and women without shoes on — on either side of the park — tried their best to balance along tight-ropes they had set up between trees. And a few souls laid out on the grass in solitude, accompanied only by the pages of the paperbacks they held.

I think of spring as the time when I first discovered D.C. Though J and I actually moved here in January of last year, during a comparatively bitter winter, it wasn’t until the leaves came out that I began taking runs through the neighborhoods, finding the surprising quiet between the rows of brick townhomes. In the fall of 2010 I wrote about finding a halcyon moment during a stroll through a small town in rural Wisconsin, where my wife is from. In D.C., I have found the joy in taking runs around town. I never wear headphones, so that I can hear the sparse signs of nature (but mostly the sirens), and I often am spurred to break off of the route I have drawn.

As could be said of many capitals, in the District, there are two cities: the one of Capitol Hill, the monuments, the White House, and K Street; and the one of low-slung neighborhoods, where folks of all types mingle, whether they are building careers, building families, both, or just passing on through. And when I run, I transverse these worlds, throttling my speed up and down commensurate with how familiar or unfamiliar the neighborhood is — and how winded I am.

As I settle into spring again, I resume this curiosity. The city (both of them) seems to open up and I let my legs carry me. And I tell myself that I’ll do a better job of remembering what I see, so that I can bring it back, and write it down here.

The Abandoned Forest

They lie on the sidewalk, cold and naked. Who knows what rural burg they were taken from; almost certainly they were more beautiful then. But that was before they were cut down and dragged to the city — dispersed, separated from kin, transformed into refugees, and propped up for the delight of others. And then the families that embraced them simply put them out into the cold and the dark. With bare limbs, they wilt and rot by the roadside, slowly fading into sicklier shades until by some mercy a municipal worker brings around the wood chipper, and shoves them in.

It’s a strange sight this time of year, these little patches of discarded forest. Some have been flocked in gold while others are humble, small and sad. They are all dying — needles turning brown and sloughing off. Yet they once brought so much joy and warm sentiment. Is this the Western equivalent of the Tibetan sand mandala: to dress a pine tree in a tangle of lights and ornaments, stuff its undercarriage with gifts delicately wrapped in paper that will be torn to shreds, and then pick it apart again and toss the whole thing out with the trash?

The imagery seems all the weirder here in the District of Columbia, in this seething, sinking swamp. All around it looks like a Lilliputian lumberjack went to town on a pine forest no one knew the city had, leaving his bounty by the stoop. And with temperatures this January that would sooner be fit for Southern California, it’s easy to forget that we even just had Christmas. But the evidence is all down the block, a littering of holiday spirit, now as lifeless as dried sap.

Our tree never was alive. It never felt the breeze winnow through its branches, the cleansing force of a soaking rain, or the freshness of the morning dew. But it never felt the pain of  being sawed from its roots either. It never grew. Like an android, it was made by man — pieced together in some Chinese boomtown like Shenzen by people who are probably now scrambling aboard a train to get home for the Lunar New Year. While it stood in our apartment, I noticed an ornament that I didn’t remember either my wife or I picking out: a paper triangle with a “B” on it. It was the product tag. It’s still on there, with the tree that now sleeps beneath our bed.