Underground

An ode to public transportation.

I love the subway.

I know this is akin to saying you love bus rides, but you have to
understand that I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, and Baltimore is nowhere near a subway city. It does have [a subway][baltmetro], but there’s only one line that stretches from the suburbs of Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Which is decent enough, I guess, for folks that commute into the city to work. But it misses out on a lot of points of interest — the least of all being the Inner Harbor, which held all kinds of appeal for little-tyke Chris Klimas, who loves [fancy fish][aquarium] and the [life cycle of dinosaurs][scicenter].

So the only memory I have of the Baltimore subway is my father telling me that people would race it as it passed along the highway — it went seventy miles an hour, which seemed incredibly scary. The only things I knew of then that went that fast were roller coasters, and I never set foot on [one][spacemountain] until I was
13. Did you get safety harnesses on the subway? I would wonder as I watched the subway cars pass us on the highway.

When I started riding the [Washington, DC subway][dcmetro], it was almost like a roller coaster. It was always for fun — visiting friends, going on dates — and more importantly, there was a sense of a system to it. With a single-line subway, you don’t need to understand too much to successfully use it. Get on where you can; get off where you want. But the DC subway requires transferring lines, selecting the train that’s going in the right direction — it even has its own etiquette. I love the rule that people who stand on the escalator should do so on the right side, so that those in a hurry can scuttle up the left. There are signs up that tell you this now, but it seems like the kind of thing that’s created through popular tradition, not a meeting of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The whole thing is just complicated enough to be interesting and not
scary. The way I liked learning the back roads where I live now. The way you can pick out total newbs by the way they rub their ears when the Green Line plunges underground. I still feel the pressure change in my inner ear — I’m still a tourist in my heart — but I’ve taken [some advice][notmind] from T.E. Lawrence to heart.

The bigger reason I like the subway, the reason I’ll still love it
when I’ve gotten older and grown out of my love for everything whose workings I don’t understand, is the people. You get to see so many strangers, just sitting on a train for twenty minutes or so, and
strangers are a commodity when you live in the suburbs.

I know that’s a funny thing to say. The whole point of the suburbs is
to avoid strangers; in elementary schools, they teach you that the
stranger is to be feared, that everything he tells you is a lie
(unless he knows the secret word your parents told you), that his
pockets contain apples with hidden razor blades and candy bars laced with drugs whose names they test you on the same way they do the [seventy major prepositions][prepositions] in the English language.

This is nothing new, the kind of ground the [Brothers Grimm][grimm] covered two centuries ago, but the subway shows how the lesson is flawed. Undoubtedly, there are lots of strangers out there who would like to possess the money in your wallet, the shoes you wear — even your body itself. But there are also lots of strangers who are just like you, trying to get from one place to another, whose lives will touch yours for only a few minutes.

The beauty of the stranger is that they’re almost never anything like you, and you never get to find out exactly how. You can begin to guess from the clothes they wear, the way they talk or don’t talk, their posture in their seat. You can make up names for them if you’re the kind of person who thinks that everything needs a name, or you can guess where they’re going: families coming home from grocery shopping, naive college girls going clubbing, old men with no apparent destination, bureaucrats on lunch break.

The people toting suitcases hold the most fascination for me. I know
that they’re heading to [Reagan National][airport], but beyond that, who can say? It isn’t so much wondering whether they’re headed for Madrid or Osaka. It’s the 21st-century equivalent of watching people pass by on a train — wherever they may be going, they’re doing something new, embarking on an adventure.

You may be on an adventure too. It only makes the suitcase people more interesting.

And then there are also strangers who leap beyond a threadbare fiction held between stops. A woman who looked like my Aunt Francis did when I was just a kid. I haven’t seen Aunt Francis in a long time, but I remember the arch of her eyebrows, the way she would laugh.

Aunt Francis is technically my great-aunt, though I didn’t figure that out until much later. She was always just Aunt Francis. She and my grandfather were the first generation of my father’s side of the
family to be born in America; their parents emigrated to New York City from Lithuania. Aunt Francis tried to teach me a little Lithuanian over the phone once, when I was maybe six. I just didn’t get it — tried to repeat what she told me, not even remembering what she told me it meant.

I don’t remember any of it now, not even what it was supposed to
mean. And I feel terrible for not knowing. I know the word [kielbasa][kielbasa] — we eat it at Christmas. I can locate Lithuania on a map, and I felt proud when the Lithuanians trounced the Americans at basketball in the Olympics.

But really, I don’t know anything.

The last time I saw Aunt Francis was when we had all gone out to
dinner the summer after I graduated from high school. The conversation had turned to the Lithuanian language somehow, and she leaned over to my grandfather and told him a joke that seemed to last forever. My family and I looked at each other, trying to figure out even what the general drift was.

We ask for an explanation, and eventually they spool it out to us — but never mind that. This joke has stayed with me as a reminder of what I am, what happens to people when they leave one country and are absorbed by another. A joke I’ll never really get. A history I’ll never really know. I could force myself to [learn it][lithuanian],
the way I learned that ‘aboard’ and ‘about’ are the first two prepositions in the English language if you think alphabetically, but
I will never really, really know it.

I am in a subway car, just glancing at a woman for half a second, not
even really looking. It’s Saturday night; people are talking, people
are being happy, people are going places. I am in a subway car, thinking.

[baltmetro]: http://www.mtamaryland.com/services/subway/
[aquarium]: http://www.aqua.org/
[scicenter]: http://www.mdsci.org/
[spacemountain]: http://sm.dlpfan.org/
[dcmetro]: http://www.wmata.com/metrorail/default.cfm
[notmind]: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056172/quotes#qt0128779
[prepositions]: http://grammar.englishclub.com/prepositions-list.htm
[grimm]: http://www.fln.vcu.edu/grimm/grimm_menu.html
[airport]: http://www.mwaa.com/national/
[kielbasa]: http://www.polkacide.com/kielbasa.html
[lithuanian]: http://www.angelfire.com/mo/Lith/language.html

Article © 2004 by Chris Klimas