My People

It is very cold, around 15 degrees, and a stout north wind makes it feel even colder. My breath forms a white cloud around my head each time I exhale. In the Franconia/Springfield Metro station a man stands in the entrance to the station holding a handwritten cardboard sign reading “Disabled Veteran. Any help is appreciated.” He only wears a light jacket, despite the cold. Sometimes uniformed military officers passing by on the way to their jobs in the Pentagon stop to chat with him, and one day I see a full-bird Colonel hand him a wad of folded bills. I wonder why we don’t take better care of our war veterans. He is too young for Vietnam, too old for the recent wars. I wonder if he is really even a veteran at all, I’ve heard stories of people faking it for whatever reason. He always says “Good Morning.” Adhering to the first rule of dealing with street people and beggars, I avoid eye contact, reading the paper while walking by, but I return his greeting quietly. I don’t give him any money.

I am handed my free copy of the Washington Post Express every day by the same woman, who always greets me with “Good morning, sir, have a nice day.” I always tell her “Good morning, ma’am.” I don’t know why we use the formality of calling each other sir and ma’am, but we do. She hands out free papers at the station in any kind of weather. I figure she deserves a bit of courtesy and respect. I enter the station and wait for the train. It’s cold, I shiver on the platform for about fifteen minutes before the train arrives.

A smelly man with dirty dreadlocks and a paper bag filled with his undisclosed treasures sleeps on the train, taking the entire front row of seats for himself. It is the crowded morning rush hour and the train is packed but no one sits close to him or wakes him. A woman sits in the row behind him but moves quickly to a different seat, unable to tolerate the odor emanating from his seat. He is wearing a mismatched set of rags and occasionally stirs, before quickly falling asleep again as if lying on a comfortable featherbed in the privacy of his own bedroom. A Metro employee wakes him and tells him to keep his bags close to him so they don’t disappear, but he lets him stay on the train. He has paid his fare just like the rest of us, after all.

I read my Express paper and do the crossword puzzle. It takes me less than five minutes to do the puzzle these days. Practice makes perfect, and approximately 5,000 metro rides over the past 10 years have given me plenty of time for practice. My ride is about 35 minutes, which is just enough time to read the paper and do the puzzle, and sometimes I have a few minutes left for reading a few pages of a novel. Anything to avoid talking to people. That’s the main unwritten rule of Metro riding. Never talk. That’s the easiest way to spot tourists, they’re the ones yapping away about visiting the Smithsonian or Arlington Cemetery. Daily commuters don’t talk, we bury our faces in our papers or novels or play Candy Crush or Angry Birds on our smartphones and commiserate in silence.

One morning on a crowded rush hour train a man gets on and yells “Don’t be scared! I’m not crazy, I’m not going to hurt anyone.” I feel my heart speed up, startled by the disruption and feeling my fight or flight response start to build. This is the DC area, you never know what kind of crazy situation might crop up. I worry about suicide bombers or mass shooters. But that’s not what he is. He’s a Christian. And he’s determined to give his captive audience a sermon. We endure his proselytizing in mute agony. Surprisingly no one tells him to shut up, but I consider it. He has broken the sanctity of our solemn morning ritual and we all feel shaken and violated.

I reach my destination, Foggy Bottom/GW University, and walk up the escalator. A man stands at the top of the street escalators singing gospel songs at the top of his lungs. His singing is flat and atonal. I can think of nothing generous to say about it, other than that he has mastered the art of volume control. The man is loud. His voice echoes around the tiled walls of the Metro station like the thunderous voice of God himself. It’s as if he thinks that heaven is a long way away and he needs to shout his praise in order to be heard by God. If you can’t sing well, at least sing loudly.

The elevators in the Metro stations are perpetually out of order. If a person in a wheelchair arrives at a station on a train and finds the elevator out of service, he is out of luck, with no way to reach the upper platform and exit the station. One day I am on the escalator when a commotion breaks out on the escalator next to me. Someone is trying to push an old woman in a wheelchair up the escalator. The wheelchair tips over backward, knocking down a very large man with a prosthetic leg, who falls into everyone behind him, threatening to topple everyone down the escalator like dominoes. Someone thinks to hit the emergency stop button. I am the first one on the scene at the top. I plunge down the now-stalled escalator and manage to lift the large one-legged man back onto his good leg and help him to the top. He is huge, well over 6 feet tall and probably 300 pounds. It takes all my strength to get him onto his feet. He is shaken but not hurt. He is cursing and yelling, but I am able to calm him down. Then I join a couple of other guys who carry the woman in the wheelchair to the top of the escalator. Luckily no one is hurt. No Metro officials bother to help, just us good Samaritans. I see the station manager watching from his glass booth with complete disinterest.

When it rains a man sets up a table at the Foggy Bottom station selling umbrellas. They come in two sizes and two prices; small or large, $5 or $10. I’ve seen him every rainy day for the past ten years. I don’t know what he does on nice days. His business depends on lousy weather. He always yells the same sales pitch “Umbrellas, five and ten! Umbrellas.” Last week I heard him say “It’s gonna rain all day, folks. Get yer umbrellas, five and ten!” It wasn’t raining at the time, so I laughed when I heard him say that it was going to rain all day. But then it ended up raining all day and I wasn’t laughing any longer. A man whose business depends on bad weather knows how to predict bad weather. I bought a five dollar umbrella from him several years ago. It broke the first time I used it.

On the sidewalk in front of GW Hospital a tall thin black man with neat dreadlocks pushes two shopping carts filled with his eclectic possessions. He always wears a black suit coat over his tattered clothes. Both carts are piled high and overflowing with dirty blankets, books, broken clocks, discarded broken appliances; most likely things he has scavenged from garbage dumpsters. He arranges his items in neat rows on a blanket on the sidewalk like a vendor displaying his wares, and maybe some people actually buy his junk once in a while. One day I see an electric guitar with no strings and think about asking him how much he wants for it. Maybe he found it in a dumpster behind a club where it was smashed on stage by a rock band the night before in a cacophony of feedback and distortion.

On the next block a large man sits on a milk crate on the sidewalk wrapped in a cheap gray polyester blanket holding a red plastic cup to collect change. He holds a cardboard sign that reads “God Blessed You.” I always wonder why he wrote it in past tense. It makes me curious as to what I have done to deserve to have been blessed. I pass him almost every day for 10 years, always sitting in the same spot. I have been blessed many times. But I have never given him any money.

A man used to sit nearby on the sidewalk behind a cardboard sign that says “Found a construction job, need money for boots.” I saw him every day for four or five years in the same spot with the same sign, and I always wondered what kind of job he found that kept his position open for so long pending his boot purchase. I haven’t seen him for a few years, I wonder if he finally got those boots and went to work.

A short elderly white man haunts the entrance to the public library. I dub him Mr. Vitriol because he seems to always be shouting at the world in an angry rant as I pass by, cursing and vehemently berating everyone within hearing range. There are usually a large number of homeless people hanging out at the library. It is an open secret that public libraries serve as the nation’s largest daytime homeless shelters. I haven’t noticed him in months. I wonder if he finally died and disappeared into a cloud of dark bilious vapors. The only thing I remember hearing him yell that I could make any sense of was something about “that fucking Bill Clinton.” Even the homeless in DC discuss politics.

When I was still fresh to the DC area ten years ago I often took walks in the park near our office during my lunch hour. I hadn’t yet heard that our local park has a reputation of being a hook up point for gay men engaging in random casual sexual encounters. I am walking in a wooded section one day when an older slovenly fat man in gray sweatpants approaches me. He motions to the bulge in the crotch of his sweatpants and gives me a leering look. I walk away as quickly as possible. I stop walking in the park after that, but continue to walk around the neighborhood sometimes when the weather is nice.  I am walking to the deli for lunch one day when a scary looking woman in rags screams at me something that sounds like “See my blue pen!” while waving her ink pen in my face. I guess she was proud of her blue pen.

A small and neatly dressed black man sits on a crate at the end of the bridge over Rock Creek Parkway in Georgetown. Sometimes one of my coworkers engages him in conversation if we walk to Georgetown for lunch. He is extremely intelligent. He talks about philosophy, classical music, physics; an expert in almost any topic. A true polymath. I wonder what his story is. I imagine him a genius Ivy League college professor who somehow ended up on the streets. I imagine an intriguing story involving a torrid affair with the dean’s wife, lost tenure and a career ended tragically.

I am walking around the block in the Georgetown area one day during lunch hour, enjoying a lovely spring day with a coworker. We round a corner and find a homeless man shitting behind a bush next to the sidewalk, in full view of everyone passing by. We walk on as quickly as possible. It was a few years ago but I can still picture the pile of shit under his ass with too-vivid detail. One of those unfortunate events that can never be unseen by the mind’s eye.

I follow a blood trail one evening on my commute between my office and the Metro station. It is about a one half mile walk and there is a steady trail of blood droplets every few feet on the sidewalk. I am a hunter, I have followed the blood spoor of wounded animals in the forest. I know what a mortally wounded animal’s blood trail looks like. Someone has lost a lot of blood. The trail leads directly to the emergency room of the GW Hospital. I hope he made it in time.

In the evenings the entrance to the Foggy Bottom station is crowded with people handing out fliers and doing petition signing drives. I always push through without acknowledging them and always refuse their literature. It’s usually whacko stuff from the Lyndon LaRouche cult or things of that ilk. I consider them a nuisance standing in between me and my ride home, and when quitting time comes my only thought is getting home as quickly as possible.

The train operator always announces the train line and the name of the next station when the Metro arrives at a station. “Blue Line train to Franconia/Springfield, next station is Arlington Cemetery, doors will be opening on the right.” One day as we pull into the Franconia station, which is the end of the line, I hear the operator say “Blue Line train to…here.” Everyone laughs. I can recognize operators by their voices now. One guy always says “oinge line” instead of Orange line, and “leff” instead of “left.” Another woman enunciates robotically in a mechanical voice “King Street sta tion. Doors o pen ing on the le eft.”

I have developed pet peeves among the announcements they make. Like when they say “doors are preparing to close.” Doors are inanimate objects, how do they prepare themselves to close? I can imagine them psyching themselves up, saying “C’mon doors, we can do it! Let’s close this time! On three, ready…” Another annoyance is when the train has stopped for some reason (which seems to be all too often) and as they are about to move again the operator says “Stand clear, train moving forward.” What exactly are we supposed to stand clear of? We’re inside the train, how do we stand clear of it? Saying “hold on, train is moving” would make a lot more sense.

Finally the train arrives at Franconia and there is a race to be the first one off, thus to arrive home more quickly. After all these years of riding I have figured out exactly which door of which car I need to use in order to be closest to the escalators when we arrive. Let nothing stand between me and my humble abode!

For a while a young guy set up a one man band in the exit of the Metro station, playing guitar and harmonica and a foot drum all at the same time. His sign read “hungry college student” and he had a guitar case at his feet open to collect donations. But his music was terrible. I thought to myself that he should probably concentrate on mastering one instrument at a time before trying to play all three at once. If he is a music student he should get used to a life of deprivation.

At the top of the escalators that lead to the street level a short man disfigured by stroke stands leaning on a cane. He wears a dirty red Santa Claus hat year round and shouts repeatedly in his slurred speech: “God is good! Anybody got any spare change? I’m tryin’ to get me a couple dollas. Anybody got forty cents? Somebody gave me 20 cents. Good is good! Happy New Year!” He never changes his pitch, bidding all a “Happy New Year” with an equal gusto, be it July or January.

A trio of very thin elderly black men stand in the entrance to the parking garage singing a cappella songs from the doo wop era. They are amazing, singing in perfect harmony, snapping their fingers with the beat. Many people stop to listen and drop a few dollars in a bucket at their feet. One day I see them offering CD’s for sale. They must be professionals. I wonder to myself if they were famous at some point in the past. Maybe they were big in the Motown era. How did they end up singing in a Metro station for spare change? Adapting to modern times, I hear them do a rendition of Pharrell’s “Happy” one day. It puts a smile on my face. Because I’m happy.

It is the week before Christmas and it is extremely cold. A black man is playing “O Come All Ye Faithful” on an electric guitar plugged into a portable amp. His guitar case lies open at his feet, a couple of dollars and a few coins on display. Pulses of people pass by from trains that arrive in waves. They shuffle quickly home from work and shiver in the cold, but few pause to drop any spare change. For some reason I think of him as the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix come back to spread tidings of joy. A Christmas Miracle! I wonder how he keeps his fingers warm enough to find the frets on the guitar neck in such cold weather. I don’t stop to listen and I don’t give him any money. My mind, as always, is on getting myself home as quickly as possible.

These are my people. People I have seen every day, or almost every day, during my long daily commute to and from Washington, DC every day for almost ten years. Well over 5,000 trips. In a way I feel that these people are part of my community. People I know somehow, even though I have never spoken to most of them. I wonder if they will miss me when I finally leave this place. Somehow I think I will miss them.

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