Bus Sketches

The aisle on an empty bus

The woman was filling the boxes of her crossword puzzle in the morning paper. In pen. She sat sideways as the bus pulled away from its bay. She turned to the woman next to her and offered her a sweet.

The woman shook her head, “no,” and politely smiled her “thank you.” She had a pleasant round face topped by a hat. The leopard trimmed brim was double accented by the fringes of her pageboy peaking out and framing her full cheeks. The weather flirted with cold and the forecast teased rain. The hat was both prophylactic and camouflage–protecting against a potential storm and masking her need to see her hairdresser. She pulled the cord, requesting the next stop.

The man facing front looked up as the woman with the hat pulled herself out of the seat. She led with her chest, almost like someone was pulling her up via a string attached to her breastbone. The man read the sign floating above the aisle. It said the name of the next stop. The woman with the puzzle asked him a question. It might have been about the news or about an event at her church. He responded in a way that was familiar, but when they got to the next stop, a silent woman who was seated next to him stood up, too. He gently guided her off of the bus that pulled away as they got on to their day.


Cars parked on a shady street, next to a speed hump.

Ugh. He hated driving in the city. Well, that’s a little unfair, given he did it every day.

He preferred sitting in his own car to standing shoulder to shoulder to backpack to belly on a subway car. Even if the subway car moved and his car was sitting was in traffic.

He had his route, though. He’d leave his cul de sac. tour through the curvy roads of the subdivision, drive over the bridge and exit at the secret tunnel at E Street. From there it was a few short blocks to the parking garage. He paid dearly for his spot, but he was in control. He shifted his hours so he beat the outbound traffic. All in all, not a bad commute.

Today, though, he had to cross town. He was going to the hockey game and decided, perhaps foolishly, that he could park close to the arena. He wouldn’t need to go back and get his car. He would just need to fork out more city parking lot ransom. But he was calling the shots on his movements.

Until now, that is.

He wasn’t a speed walker, yet he felt confident that he could definitely get to his destination faster via sneaker. He was spending significantly more time with his foot on the brake than the gas. In fact, his forward progress was consisting of rolling a few inches after releasing the brake.

He had started the journey with his favorite rock bands from the 70’s blasting. He had turned off the joyous music and was only listening to the blasting of cool air from the vents. He was feeling no joy. He needed to cool off.

He started off with certainty that he would have a beer or two before the game. Now he wondered if he would get to his seat before players skated onto the ice. He tried looking out the window at the other commuters, to calm himself. Instead he saw a big white truck blocking one of the lanes. The truck wasn’t moving. There were do-gooders loading tables, trays and coolers after feeding the bums. And the bums were streaming across the street, zig zagging between the barely moving cars with styrofoam boxes. They weren’t actually gumming up the traffic any worse, but it looked like they could. That just added to his annoyance.

He was happy, if that is the right word, that he was in the left lane. He wasn’t going to let any of the cars stuck behind the white box truck into his lane. He was out of graciousness. Not without guilt, though. He didn’t try and justify his discourtesy. He was irritable and he owned it. Now he had to get around that truck for his right turn.

The congestion-causing truck made it easy for him to switch lanes. He zeroed in on the unmatched intersection. The north-south street was through, but the east-west didn’t quite match up.This caused additional traffic confusion. He slammed his hands on his steering wheel. He was likely to miss the opening faceoff.

Pedestrians streamed across the unmatched streets, barricading his turn. A trio of cyclists on those stupid city red rent-a-bikes crossed in front of him. They needed to watch where they’re going. There was almost a break in the walkers. He decided to try and thread his Camry through the crowd. If he made a move, maybe some of these idiots would stop walking and he could clear the intersection.

He stopped himself from cursing. His windows were up and nobody would hear him. No reason to uselessly swear.

His eyes darted from one side of the street to the other. Where was he going to park? Now was the time to curse. He thought for sure that there’d be easy parking. His phone rang. He looked down and saw his buddy’s name. He told the unanswered phone, “I’m on my fucking way, alright??” His buddy took the train, and he scanned for a place to put his stupid car.

End of the Line

The floor and door of the Metro. It's gross. You should be glad I took out the color.

Dang. This train is filthy. It’s past rush hour and I’m on the last car.

Who the hell thought it’d be a good idea to carpet the floor on a public train? There are stains from spilled cokes™, from ground-in egg mcmuffins®, from a dropped perfume bottle and a misplaced brush from a very shiny nail polish. There are tarry spots from gum, or another sticky substance, that became black from the bottoms of shoes and flip flops, sandals and boots, sneakers and those Dansko clogs that the ER, OR and radiology teams wear at hospitals.

Some of the boots that grind in the grime had spiky high heels or wedges. Some were tanned and open-laced Timberlands spewing street from their lugs. Some were black, steel-toed work boots with the slippery grease from a restaurant kitchen accelerating and accreting the grunge buildup on the floor.

The doors, the ones that open magically and slide into the sides of the train, are streaked with gunk. The lighter streaks are simply slightly less gunky. The windows at the top of the doors are also streaked, but with residue from palms and elbows and some cheeks and chins. There may be marks from fingers desperately trying to force the doors open as they slipped closed.

The doors open onto the platform of octagonal bricks hugged closely together by mortar. It’s odd that the mortar doesn’t show filth. I guess cement doesn’t stain like rayon. It’s funny how the outdoor platform seems to be so much less gross than the inside of the train.

There is no fresh breeze in the train cars. There are no rains to clear away the grunge. There are no melting snows. The inside of the train is inside and gets no relief from the humanity that desecrates it daily.

But I’ve been on the new cars. With the stainless steel exteriors with a hammered finish. With floors of flecked linoleum or some other surface that doesn’t spotlight blotches. With metal grips that don’t show thousands of fingers pressed in to balance against the lurching car. With wider aisles and molded rather than padded seats.

Why didn’t someone think about that before?

Busting Loose

A yet to be "rehabbed" street in Shaw. Around 7th and L, NW. Close to the cop shoppe.

Growing up, a meaningful block was a half-mile long. Nobody walked much, so it wasn’t a big deal, but the distances between stuff were actual distances. Walking three blocks was a mile and a half. Distances were covered in miles per hour, thank you very much.

When I first moved to our nation’s capital, these were pre-GPS days–I know, right?, I pulled out the map to see where I was heading. It was on the other side of the beltway. Using my historical point of reference, I figured it would take about 60-70 minutes. It took me less than 20, and that might have included a little bit of time when I was lost.

Geographically, D.C. is a small place.

Today I told The Spouse that drinks were on me at the hip watering hole that just reopened. I decided to hoof it from downtown. The Spouse hit the pavement from The Mall. It’s a sign of the times that we would even consider walking. Five or six years ago, when the development was in planning, I would not walk that corridor. Boarded up shops, drug deals on corners, and no reason to be there. Nope. Seventh Street was a car route.

I walked the dozen blocks, passing the new convention center, spiffy hotels with five-story atriums, rehabbed buildings, shiny new box apartments, a grocery store with wine and a ton of prepared foods, and a few windows still boarded up. For now.

There were still the few blocks of subsidized apartments, but they’re much less notorious. There was still a cop going back and forth with a citizen. They were being observed by a sidewalk full of the neighborhood a few yards away. Nobody was cuffed. The convenience store was surrounded by folks waiting for the bus. The air included the smell of tobacco and weed. But no piss.

The city was always tiny, but now the walk from the FBI building to the burgeoning condo, bike path, coffee shop and restaurant fueled blocks formerly known as the hood and now known by their hip nicknames was much faster than a cab during Friday rush hour. In less than twenty minutes, office commuters can traverse to the land of brown liquor with artisanal ice, biergartens, craft roasted coffee, dog groomers and hipsters.

These thirteen blocks span less than a mile, not the 6½ that I would have expected in my youth. As the city gets closer together, it gets bigger for some people and increasingly inaccessible for others.

The Spouse remarked on our independent walks through what had been a tough area. I noted that there was new paint and landscaping at the public housing complex across from the shiny new grocery store. The rec center that had an awesome makeover was full of little and mid-sized kids that did not live in the new studio and studio +den apartments with the marble counters and stainless steel appliances.

We don’t want the city to lose the people who have raised generations of families here. Both of us, at the same time, said we really hoped that there was enough room for everyone. I better go call the Mayor.

Storm Chased

A mean storm meeting a beautiful evening sky. Run!

It was time to go. She looked along the row of desks to the window next to the wall clock that evidenced the time. She got stuck on the window. She wasn’t running late, but it was dark. She walked past the empty desks to look outside. Everyone in her aisle had already left. Slackers.

Her eyes scanned the sky. It looked like it might be getting ready to storm. Like an August squall kind of storm. In the heat of summer there are spates of mini-monsoons, sometimes four, five or six days in a week. These are expedited events. Storms that when you beat them home, you’re dry. And if you don’t, you’re wading ankle deep through a tiny flash flood roiling at the storm drains at the intersection. The latter is a bit gross.

She shut down her Pokemon session that had been running amiably in the background all day. There were a few pokestops near the office, and someone(s) had been setting lures. No walking but much catching between emails and meetings.

She swiped over to the weather app. It displayed a current temperature of a comparatively mild 88°F. Rain wasn’t forecast for another hour. She’d be home in half that. Quicker if she took in fewer steps and high-tailed it to the closest train station. She grabbed her backup umbrella, just in case. She put it back in her cubby. She wouldn’t need it.

She looked up at the window again and thought better. She plopped the tiny orange umbrella in her bag. It didn’t take much space, and better to be prepared. The app said No. The sky disagreed. She was going with the non-virtual reality.

She optimistically put on her sunglasses rather than her inside peepers. She placed her sunhat on her head–easier to wear than to carry even though she looked ridiculous walking into the premature evening decked in sunwear–and pushed through the two sets of doors to the sidewalk.

She had been out at lunchtime when it was plenty hot. The vestiges of that hot was on the metal and glass of the doors. It rose from the sidewalk through the soles of her shoes. It was still hanging out in the thick air. She turned toward the corner and her hand flew to her head, to keep her wide brimmed straw chapeau from lifting off her head. She turned to a stranger at the light.

“Wow! Now that’s a cold front.” The woman next to her took in the floppy bonnet, looked up to the blackening sky to the west and grinned her agreement as she scurried across the street. The light had changed. All the commuters on the sidewalk were dashing to their next stop. The wind was cold. And pushy. It was a warning.

Her foot reached the sidewalk on the other side of the street. She looked up, again, to her right. The clouds were moving, and getting darker. There was a definite border between the stormy side and the calm side. The stormy side was encroaching, though. There wasn’t a  referee to throw a flag and make it organize itself according to the rules.

She saw the man who spent the day on the street packing up. She somehow knew he didn’t sleep on this street, but she had never seen him leave. The wind was motivating him.

She stopped every eight or ten steps and looked back at the sky. She saw a flicker of lightening and heard the thunder. She mounted the top of the escalator and descended into the subway and boarded a waiting train.

Her car came out of the tunnel. Damn. She was losing the race with the storm. The line of blue sky and fluffy white clouds was behind her, behind the train. Before her was a dark, rumbling and angry sky. Looking over her left shoulder she could see the reflection of sunshine. A caldron of something wicked this way comes to her right.

The conductor warned the people on the about the weather conditions. “Use caution on the platform,” he entreated. She dismounted from the train onto the bricked walkway. She smelled storm. They say it’s ozone. The sky cleared its throat like an old smoker.

It wasn’t raining now, but it just had. People stood at the edge of the cave that opened into the elevator well. She pulled out her little umbrella and released it from it’s little bag. It wasn’t quite raining. Not yet.

She held the umbrella above her head that was covered by her sunhat. Her sunglasses and staw hat looked silly underneath the short-sticked, orange umbrella. Nobody noticed. If they were under the overhang, they were looking up. If they had left the station with her, they were looking to get out of the rain. Some went to the bus bays. Others to the kiss and ride. She and some others walked along the sidewalk to the intersection.

There was a flash and a boom. The lightening and the thunder were concurrent. The storm was here and now. She ran a few steps, and then the rest of the block. She wondered if she could minimize being struck by lightening by running. It couldn’t hurt.

Going home meant going toward the bright part of the sky. Maybe if she hurried–another reason to run–she could leave the storm. Her house seemed to be underneath the clearing. The rain was hitting the cover above her head with more purpose. It was still fairly light. Another flash and another deep grumble from the sky. She skipped over the curb and flew to the next corner. The next flare lit up the street. The thunder was quick to follow, louder, longer and lower than before. She saw her house and squared her gate to be greeted on the porch by a big dog and a man.

He laughed at her sun and rain gear. She closed her umbrella and the sky opened up and poured rain. She was home just in the knick of time.

Walking Without a Net

Sunset in Brookland. At the intersection between work and home.

It’s the end of a long week, meaning, in part, that it’s the weekend. The last steps to home are in front of me.

I texted The Big Guy to see if he wanted some special pizza for dinner. Not like the stuff the guy in the beat up Nissan compact brings to the door. I like that it is brought to the door, but I like much less the similarities between the cardboard box-container and the crust. He replied and special pizza it was to be.

I left the station and walked the block around the old Brooks mansion. You used to be able to criss-cross the lawn to reach the corner, but now there’s an iron fence with pointy metal pickets to direct foot traffic to the sidewalks. Better for the lawn, I guess.

It’s a little late so the remnants of rush hour traffic are gone. The sun was sinking low and red on the other side of the bridge, and I see a lone car making its way over the hill and coasting toward me. There are no cars on the other side. A quiet night.

I slowly stepped into the street, the same street where I jaywalked the cop. I was, again, walking against the light. The approaching car was getting close to the intersection and then came to a dead stop two car lengths before the crosswalk.

Oh, jeez. I was three short strides into the road and, if the car kept at his reasonable pace, he would be past me, through the light and onto the next block before I was near his side of the road. I was not intending to interrupt his progress. Not at all. I was just trying to make the most out of my time, and the timing of my pedestrian commute.

I looked at his tags. The blue and yellow bands framing the white background and the blue raised letters. Pennsylvania. Not likely Philly. Nope. Rural or suburban Pennsylvania where pedestrians drive. He had no concept for the give and take of an urban parlay between vehicle and walker. He didn’t know that I knew where he was and that I was timing my crossing. He didn’t know the choreography, or even that it was choreographed.

I felt bad because he stopped his car. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I scurried past him and alighted on the curb on the other side. He waited for me to be on the sidewalk before he shuttled down the road. I was annoyed that he refused my curtsey and disregarded the dance, but he wasn’t part of the corps de ballet. That’s a hard part of living in D.C., the audience that enters the stage.

But at least we were going to have pizza. Except they ran out of crust.