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John Kelly's Washington

Metro's Promise -- We're All Still Waiting

By John Kelly
Thursday, February 10, 2005; Page C11

A colleague of mine, Mike Greenberg, gave me a little something his father-in-law, Bruno Zanin, had squirreled away. It's a 20-page booklet that appeared as an advertising supplement in the Washington Star on March 21, 1976. On the cover are the words, "This is Your Metro Owner's Manual."

It was an endearing bit of PR designed to familiarize Washingtonians with the subway system whose Phase I -- five stations between Rhode Island Avenue and Farragut North -- was just about to open.

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"Metro is here," acting general manager Warren Quenstedt wrote in the introduction. "And with it comes that very special feeling from owning something of value. Like that new house, that sleek car, that special something that you have always wanted, you can't help feeling good about the fact that it's yours."

Like all good instruction booklets, it assumed that readers knew absolutely nothing and had to be told how to do everything: "As you approach a Metro station you will see a distinctive bronze-colored pylon at the top. These identification pylons are located at every station entrance so you can spot them easily, day or night. . . . The platform is the area where you wait and board the train. The lights along the edge of the platform will pulsate as your train approaches. . . . Since each line is color-coded, you simply look for the five-inch color dot signifying the line you want. . . . "

Some of the sections are a little ironic, given what Metro is like these days: "Once on board you'll experience a gliding kind of riding at an average speed of 35 miles per hour including stops, with a potential of up to 75 miles per hour."

And: "You will find escalators at Metro stations to transport you in and out."

And: "The large booth behind the fare collection kiosk is called the information kiosk. It will be staffed by the station attendant whose job is to help you. . . . You can always identify station attendants by their bright orange jackets."

The bright orange jackets are gone, and so are the big, dinner plate-size hats that looked as if they were bought in bulk from the Russian army.

But the lights still pulsate as a train approaches.

Follow the Money

I apologize for being interested in boring things.

(That's my second stab at an opening sentence for this item. My first was, "I make no apologies for being interested in boring things." I decided to be more polite.)

When I say boring things, I mean things such as the precise breakdown of customers who use the automated teller machines of Chevy Chase Bank, tabulated by how many choose which language option.

You see, when you first stick your card into a Chevy Chase ATM -- and probably those of other banks as well -- you're given a selection of languages to choose from: English, French, Spanish and Japanese. I thought it would be nifty to print a little chart in my column illustrating the breakdown: 58 percent use English, 12 percent use French, whatever.

Okay, so this isn't on a par with publishing the Pentagon Papers or exposing the infiltration of the rodeo clown industry by Mara Salvatrucha, but I do what I can with what I've been given, and anyway, this wasn't going to be a whole column, just one eensy-weensy item.

So months ago, I called the people who you would expect to know the answer: Chevy Chase Bank.

One of the more tiring parts of my job is explaining to people exactly why I'm accosting them. It's never for anything that's easy to describe: "I'd like to talk to you about the recent election." It's always convoluted and a little silly.

And everybody is so suspicious these days! The minute you say you're from The Washington Post, they think you're out to get them.

I don't know what the people at Chevy Chase Bank thought. Maybe they thought: "He asked us something about foreign languages. I bet he's going to accuse us of insensitivity for not offering a Flemish option."

My request sort of languished. I would call every few weeks and say, "Remember me? I'm the guy from The Washington Post who wanted to know what percentage of ATM users choose each language." And they would kind of mumble something. They would never call me back and eventually I got the message.

So I've decided to work outside the system and instead appeal directly to you, the readers. I want your random little bits of organizational data. I want to know how many manila folders your division used last year or the combined weight of your travel office. I want to know the most popular T-shirt colors sold at your mall kiosk or the mileage of your motor pool.

These are just examples, of course. What I want are simple, unadorned, rock-solidly factual facts. Send them to kellyj@washpost.com or write John Kelly, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Sky Control to Major Tom

Answer Man's column on Monday about how speed limits are enforced from aircraft omitted one crucial detail: how the speeding tickets are actually given. They don't land the airplane on the highway and then stroll up to your car and ask for your license and registration.

No, the officer in the aircraft radios a description of the offending vehicle down to an earthbound cruiser.

"Once there is a positive ID made, the operator [in the aircraft] does not take his eyes from that vehicle until he makes contact with the ground unit," said Lt. Nick Saunders of the Virginia State Police aviation unit.

And then you get pulled over.


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