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John Kelly's Washington Live

Free-for-all Discussion

John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; 1:00 PM

John Kelly writes five times a week about the joys and annoyances of living in Washington. He aims to show readers the Washington (and Silver Spring, Alexandria, Manassas, Bowie ...) that they know and take them places they don't know. He wants to make them see familiar things in unfamiliar ways and unfamiliar things in familiar ways. ("We may occasionally end up seeing unfamiliar things in unfamiliar ways," John says, "but such are the risks of the job.") His columns take a cockeyed view of the place the rest of the planet knows as the Capital of the Free World but that we all call home. John rides the Metro for fun and once kidnapped an Irishman to see what made him tick.

John was online to chat about his columns and mull over anything that's on your mind. This week's columns:
Some People, They Just Take, Take, Take, (Post, Sept. 17)
Flying the Colors, but All Crossed Up, (Post, Sept. 16)
Inspired by Spam, (Post, Sept. 15)
Putting Words in FDR's Mouth, (Post, Sept. 14)
Answer Man: The Height of Rush Hour , (Post, Sept. 13)

Post columnist John Kelly (The Washington Post)

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


John Kelly: Top o' the afternoon to you all. The weekend is so near I can almost taste it. (And what does it taste like? Like Rold Gold Pretzels, if you must know.)

In this week's columns Answer Man took a ride in Montgomery County's suspicious traffic airplane (IT is suspicious; it doesn't look for suspicious traffic); I debunked an Internet rumor that the designers of the WWII memorial scrubbed God from an FDR inscription; I riffed some more on spam; I wrote about a reader who thought it funny that the Swiss flag is used on first aid stations; and today I got all criminal, with tales from the police blotter. Chime in on any of it, even if you're among those who feel my column on the Swiss flag and the Red Cross did irreparable harm to a hallowed institution that exists only to help people.

So, how much rain are we going to get this weekend, as Ivan limps northward? The house I just moved into came with a musty basement. Am I going to have a swimming pool down there?


Germantown, Md.: Sorry to hear about the mugging (or was it? You "gave" him your wallet?). Was your desire for overpoweringly bad breath a reference to local hero Mike Fury and his brutal "Super Onion Breath"?

washingtonpost.com: Some People, They Just Take, Take, Take (Post, Sept. 17, 2004)

John Kelly: I recovered quite nicely. I even wore a bow tie yesterday. (You have to get right back on that horse.) No my bad breath reference was just me being stupid. And your reference must be (I have decided after a quick Google search) to children's entertainer Bob McAllister and his local TV show "Wonderama." I'm afraid I never saw the show. My memories are more of Captain 20. Incidentally, the only thing my mugger charged to my credit card were some Amtrak tickets. I like to think that he just left town.


John Kelly: Sorry. "Wonderama" was the name of his show after he moved to New York. (McAllister, not Captain 20. Captain 20 was called back to his home planet, probably.)


Metro times....: Is there a website that shows the approximate travel time and cost from one Metro stop to another?

washingtonpost.com: Metro: Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

John Kelly: You can search around on this website for just that info. Remember, though, that your mileage may vary. This doesn't include time waiting on the platform or take into account the possibility that doors won't close and you'll be offloaded. Which is what happened to me--and hundreds of others--on Tuesday. I think Metro should offer riders the choice of staying on. So what if they can't all the doors closed all the way. I'd waive my liability and take that chance...


Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: John, good column on my around-the-corner neighbors, the Swiss. You didn't ask them the question I've been dying to find an answer to, though: When you go through security at the Swiss Embassy, do they confiscate your Swiss Army knife? If you don't have one, will they issue you one for your visit?

Regarding your bow tie = mugging target hypothesis, as a bow tie wearer myself, I can only suggest you get some more intimidating bow ties. Something with skulls, or maybe flaming eyeballs. Nothing says "dapper man-about-town" like flaming eyeballs.

John Kelly: You scoff but imagine the fear that the Swiss Army strikes in the hearts of its enemies: a thousand guys in lederhosen streaming towards you holding little plastic toothpicks, tiny tweezers, miniature nail files, and, yes, three-inch knife blades. And I'd rather surrender than get it from that little corkscrew.

This bowtie was red with tiny white dots. It wasn't the design that was the problem, but the architecture of the tie itself. It was extra floppy, like something Oscar Wilde would wear.


Arlington, Va.: John, thanks for the chat and columns.

I've been strongly opposed to using public funds to build stadiums and arenas for sports teams. Every study not paid for by a sports team has shown the net economic benefits are negative. Don't you think Major League Baseball might be in for a strong dose of poetic justice? After years of extorting millions from cities across the country for new stadiums, and after years of teasing DC with the prospect of a team, they may have waited too long. Virginia looks less and less likely to approve stadium financing, and if the District and MLB don't act quickly, the new DC council that sits down in Januray might not approve one either. That would totally screw the MLB. They'd have to condsider placing the Expos in a city with very shaky prospects for success (Portland, Las Vegas, Norfolk) or contract the Expos, costing the owners millions in forgone revenue from the sale of the Expos to a DC area group. I doubt it will play out this way, but I can dream, can't I?

John Kelly: I'm torn. I hate hearing about cities that hobble themselves by making all sorts of concessions to fatcat owners, owners who have very little loyalty to the city or the fans. But then I'd love to catch a ballgame every now and then after work. I also think that something like a baseball team can provide more than merely economic benefits to a city. Washington SHOULD have a team, just because it's right that it have one. I hope they can work the details out in a way that pleases the most number of people. One thing I've wondered is why they haven't been pre-selling season tickets. Back in the late '80s My Lovely Wife and I put something like 200 bucks into a special account, our promise that we would buy tickets when and if DC got a team. We would get the statement each month. Then finally that project was closed down and we got our money back.


Easton, Md.: Hi John. Any chance you know the web site to bid on the downtown pandas that are being auctioned off? One would look really cute in my back yard! Thanks.

John Kelly: Not just any chance, a 100 percent chance. Go to www.pandamaniaauction.com. By the way, I'm planning on a column on the pandas next week. This weekend I'm visiting the special hospital where the pandas are patched up. It seems that vandals went after the pandas this year with a diligence and vigor and animosity that they didn't display to the donkeys and elephants we had last time around.


expos to DC seems to be complete: Montreal employees have been told that the franchise is moving November 30th. MLB has given its notice to the Florida courts about a move. 12 hour meetings with DC compared to 5 hours with NOVA. Reports out say that a decision could be made in 5 days. This has to look good for DC now because of the primaries. It looks like the primaries have sped up the process of relocation and DC may be a lock.

Side note. What do you think of naming rights when taxpayers have funded a stadium. Naming rights generate millions, however the city never gets a say. I think public financed parks should have the right to name the park, or else give the money generated back to them in some capacity. Not just hand over millions to owners who wouldn't pay the tab.

John Kelly: Wouldn't it be ironic if the expected election of three stadium opponents is what got the baseball lords moving? Of course, you've probably jinxed it by saying DC may be a lock. You're right about the naming rights. I don't see how it's the team's or team owner's decision. It's the taxpayers' stadium. How about that for a name: Taxpayers Stadium. Or more accurately, Taxpayer Park?


Oxon Hill, Md.: Ok, so maybe I'm not the brightest but whenever tropical storms are approaching the newscasters warn about low lying areas. How do I know where low lying areas are? Oxon Hill? Bethesda? Silver Spring? It all looks the same to me.

John Kelly: Well, you see, there are low-lying areas in each of those places. If it seems to get wet and stay wet, if the water seems to always go there and stay there, it's a low-lying area. You could get our your topographic map and consult it. You do have a topo map, don't you?


Washington, D.C.: Hi John,

Love your columns.

I'm reading my gun magazine as I sip my starbucks coffee....don't you just love freedom.

John Kelly: I'm sorry, my brain just hiccupped. Isn't that like reading a PETA magazine at Ruth's Chris Steak House? And yes, I love freedom. I love the feel of it and the smell of it and the taste of it. Freedom tastes like...chicken.


Washington, D.C.: Why has the traffic been so bad on I-95 and the BW Parkway this week? I commute to DC from Laurel everyday and have found the traffic adnormally bad, except for today. Any ideas?

John Kelly: I spoke to the folks at the Maryland Transportation Ops Center and they said there were no major incidents to blame. The guy there did say he noticed excessive volume on Wednesday and wondered whether there was a combination of weather and just a lot of vehicles. Maybe people traveling in advance of Rosh Hashana? Anybody else notice anything?


Stupid Metro doors!;: This happened on the Blue Line towards Springfield yesterday. Every stop we spent 5 minutes opening and closing the doors. Finally he said "OK for folks on the 5th car...." --- and how in the heck are we supposed to know what car we are on?

Couple of Metro comments -

-- Has there ever been any discussion of privatizing Metro? I decided I would easily pay $5+ each way from Springfield to Farragut West if a private company ran 8 car trains all the time, they were clean and neat and security arrested people drinking coffee on sight.

-- Why doesnt Metro start a 'no eating/drinking' campaign with huge signs on the train cars? On the new cars, I dare you to find the sign that says its illegal to drink on Metro, its in 6 point font on the very end of the cars. Why not simple big black and white posters? Metro has no one to blame but itself.

-- On the Yellow line train North in the morning, there is an extra large couple that I see 3-4 times a week, happily drinking their extra large coffees. They sit there and chat (loudly) happily sipping their extra large coffees, from the same place every day since they are in the same cups. These type of ignorant people make me scream. So Metro, if you are listening, feel free to post cops on the platforms along the Yellow Line North between 8:15 and 8:45 if you want to make a couple great arrests.

John Kelly: Let us know next week if Metro police swoop down on these java swillers. I know that Metro drivers already have a lot to do, and a lot of announcements to make, but why not add a "No eating or drinking" reminder to their patter? At least for a few days a month...

I know there's been talk of privatizing Metro during this chat. I'm not sure that would solve the problems. I believe that London's commuter train services got worse after they were privatized, when the various owners would do this little calculus in their heads: Should we spend our money on maintenance or keep it as profit?


Post-Watcher: How bitter is Carl Bernstein?

John Kelly: I don't know. I've never tasted him.


Clifton, Va.: Nice article in WP about Prince William County and the increase in median income and all the folks relocating there. Wonder if they realize they don't have 24/7 professional firefighters out there. The professionals work 9-5 M-F and then the volunteers take over. Not demeaning the volunteers but the new residents will demand this service and there goes the taxes. This is the big difference between Fairfax that has such a service and Loudon and PW county. The difference can be your life or a family members life! And yeah I know what I am talking about have family members who are both volunteer and professional firefighters and they acknowledge the difference in response times after 5 in PW county. Libraries and ball fields are nice but this can be a matter of life and death.

washingtonpost.com: Prince William Flaunts Its Prosperity (Post, Sept. 17)

John Kelly: That's part of the tension that develops whenever communities change. And even when they don't. They still have these professional/volunteer disputes in places like Montgomery County. I wonder if it will take a big news story--a fire that doesn't get put out, a heart attack victim who doesn't make it to the hospital--to prompt action in Prince William.


Washington, D.C.: re: Flying the Colors, but All Crossed Up (The Washington Post, Sep 16, 2004), Why don't they just fly a flag with the EMS symbol -- the star of life?

John Kelly: Another reader asked the same question. The Star of Life, for those who don't know, looke kind of like a blue asterisk, with a caduceus (a snake on a stick) in the center. You'd recognize if if you saw it, since it appears on many ambulances. I don't know why the Smithsonian doesn't use it. It may not be as instantly recognizeable. Other crosses are trademarked by other organizations: the blue cross of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the green cross of the National Safety Council. How about a big band aid?


Anonymous: Since Sen. Craig knows what's best for D.C.'s residents and is prepared to force through bills he knows they need, whether or not they vote for it (D.C. Gun Bill May Be Linked to Budget), shouldn't he be the one to decide whether D.C. gets a stadium? Since we don't want to raise taxes to build a stadium, how about just running up a deficit and let future generations pay? We're spending $4 billion a MONTH in Iraq without raising the revenue to pay for it; we just raise the deficit, which doesn't seem to phase voters. Just put it on the plastic!;

John Kelly: And the perfect name would be MasterCard Stadium....


Stadium Namer: Marion Barry Stadium.
I like it.

John Kelly: I don't want to know what the special promotions would be. Free crack pipe night?


Ball Park Name: I think you mean "Taxpayers Without Representation Park"

John Kelly: Do you think George Bush would throw out the first pitch at a stadium with that name?


Laurel, Md.: How about naming the Expose's new stadium "Taxation and representation are inseparable" Park?

Unfortuneately, Balitmore already took that idea. That line was spoken by none other than Lord Camden, after whom their railroad yard and by extension stadium were named.

John Kelly: Ronald Reagan Ballpark? Everything else is getting named after him.


Germantown, Md.: Thanks "ever" so much for the spamradio info. I found it a pleasant diversion for a few hours and it annoyed the $%# out of my evil office mate. Thanks again. Surely you are aware of the Conet Proect? Somebody has gone to the trouble of recording the "number stations" transmitting on shortwave to spies worldwide. Creepy... my daughter won't let me play it in the house. http://www.irdial.com/conet.htm

washingtonpost.com: Inspired by Spam (Post, Sept. 15)

John Kelly: I found the spamradio to be kind of hypnotic. I've heard those conet messages before--basically strings of numbers at the far end of the radio dial--but couldn't find any audio clips on the Web site you posted. I remember when we lived in Europe and would hear it in the car my father said it was submarines talking to one another, which I guess it was.


Re: Low-lying areas: There's a complicated process for determining whether one is in a low-lying area, and it's called "looking around you." If the land goes up, you're probably in a low-lying area (i.e., one that's more likely to fill up with water in a storm). If the land goes down, you're in a high area (i.e., one that's more likely to slide down into a low-lying area in a storm).

John Kelly: Thanks for the tip. You obviously work in the insurance industry.


Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: I have a question that I hope some reader can help out with. Is there any website the provides information, especially including reader's comments, on a particular physician's practice. My general practictioner is awful (e.g., never calls to provide information on tests he orders and does not return calls inquiring about them) and I would like to find a new one. However, it seems like as consumers, we're flying blind with respect to doctors. Any thoughts on how to find one who is not a dud? Thanks.


John Kelly: Any ideas out there? We don't need specific names of doctors, just places where potential patients can look. I know that Washingtonian magazine does those "100 best otolaryngologist' issues. I don't know about Washington Consumer Checkbook. You could also ask friends or workmates for recommendations.


Mr. '80s: Marion Barry is back.
Joe Gibbs is back.
Does this mean I can grow my mullet back?

John Kelly: Yes, but we draw the line at leg warmers. And you may not push your blazer sleeves up to your elbows.


I-95: When I was driving in (on Wednesday) there was terrible traffic on I95 from Laurel because one lane of the beltway was closed at 450 for an accident. I guess it wasn't major according to transportation officials, but it caused some coworkers to sit for more than an hour on a 6 mile stretch of the beltway and traffic to back up all the way up to Columbia along 95.

John Kelly: This must be what happened. Driving in Washington--which officially has the third worst traffic in the country--is a little like being the little ball on a roulette wheel. You never know where you're going to land. You can leave for an appointment and end up being incredibly early, incredibly late or, incredibly, on time. Or you can not get there at all. Yesterday I thought I'd take a quick trip out to Reston in the middle of the day, only to find that I-66 West was shut down because a dump truck turned over. I sat for a while, got off and on to Route 50, sat some more, then turned around and came back to work. Total time wasted: 90 minutes. Work accomplished: none.


Doctor Reference: If you have insurance through work, like me, ask co-workers. You'll get plenty of feedback.

John Kelly: I'd ask about how long you're kept waiting for your appointment, how good the test results follow up is, how personable the doctor is...


Frederick, Md.: Wow, where did the summer go? How many entries have you gotten for the Metro sonnets? Can we do one on rush hour traffic next?

John Kelly: Summer's gone back to the other side of the planet. We've gotten quite a few Metro poems. Remember that you don't have to do sonnets. Any form of poetry is acceptable. And traffic poesy is a good idea. People can work on it while stuck on the I-95 or I-66.


Washington, D.C.: Of course, Captain 20 was also Bozo and Count Gore DiVal.

May you live long, and win lots of prizes.

John Kelly: That's back when local TV personalities had to really be talented. Let's see Tracey Neale put on Spock ears.


Looking ahead...: Do you plan on staying in this job until you're old enough
to be considered a 'curmudgeon'?

John Kelly: I don't think so. But then I don't know if this job makes you a curmudgeon or if only curmudgeons are drawn to this job. I fear I may have curmudgonic tendencies. But then, who doesn't?


Panda hideout: If you want to catch the Pandas before they're gone, they're hiding out at American University. They're all along the central quad and it's really fun to go walk around and see them all at once. Not sure if the students are kinder than general city folk, but so far the pandas are staying intact.

John Kelly: And it sure beats having to walk all over creation to see them.


Metro Rider: I use metro all the time, and often use the bus to move
around the area. I think they're doing a great job, all
things considered. The new Bus Schedules pamphlets and
maps actually make sense!; Great Job.

John Kelly: Yes, even when our Metro system limps it's better than nothing. And when it works as it's intended we tend not to even think about it. What happens, though, is that people remember the problems, and when they come in quick succession it pushes people toward that elusive point where they just say, "that does it, I'm driving from now on." I've come close myself, but then I drive for a few days and stew in traffic and go back to riding the rails.


Rockville, Md.: Speaking of low lying areas, what ever happened to Washingtonienne?

John Kelly: I think she's at Minute 14.68 in her 15 minutes of fame. I hear she's in Playboy, which usually signals the end of a career, not the beginning. And isn't she writing a book?


Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.: John: Been mulling over your query regarding utterances which brand you as coming from elsewhere. My wife tried to warsh the Pittsburghese out of me; she just did not understand the yinz and the yang of it.

John Kelly: Now, do you say "Warshington"? Because that's one that seems to rub people the wrong way.


Long Beach, Calif.: Mr. Kelly, sorry about you getting mugged. You could at least have made the guy
ask for your wallet, don't you think? I've heard of people making deals right on the spot. "If I give you half, and don't report it, is that cool?" stuff like that.
The short version is:
wear a bow-tie, get mugged
Play an accordian, go to jail,
What else do you need to know?

John Kelly: Oh sure, blame the victim. I didn't have the composure to engage him in a dialogue. If only I'd had an accordion. No one messes with a guy with an accordion.


Rockville, Md: John,
I am still awaiting Metro to send me back my replacement $40 Smartrip card that was "demagnatized." At least that is what they are telling me what happened.

Anyway, since I had no way of proving I had $40 on that card, I had to pay an additional $4.25 to get back to where my car was parked and then $7 to get my car off the lot because I could not prove I had been on metro and the new $5 Smartrip card I had to buy to get off the parking lot just charged me as if I'd been blowing off steam in the Twinbrook lot all day, rather than taking the train downtown.

As a result, I am back in my SUV and happily driving myself to work, getting the smiling parking guy to park it for me, and happily handing over $15 for my sense of freedom from Metro stupidity.
My office has $200 a month in pre-tax transportation plan that I can spend on private parking.

How much you wanna' bet I will never see my $40 again?

John Kelly: I thought that was the beauty of Smartrip, that it did keep track of how you used it and thus how much money was left on it. What if your employer gave you $250 if you took public transportation and $200 if you drove yourself?


Arlington, Va.: I have so enjoyed reading your moving/buying a house saga. We are currently going through the same thing and I also now understand the whole "microwave in the basement" thing. We had to use the "door to door" service to "de-clutter" and "make more spacious areas" in the house. What a pain! Anyway, thank you for giving me hope and not being discouraged because it hasn't sold in the first week. My agent is probably getting tired of holding my hand, but she's very good at her job. Please do some follow-up columns as you settle in.

John Kelly: Thank you. And good luck. Your house will sell. I was told that the market has "cooled." In fact I think it cooled the instant we bought a house. But things are still moving and yours will too. The latest thing I heard of are people who not only help you declutter, but basically redecorate your house to make it sell. As if your taste wasn't good enough!


Arlington, Va.: I was so glad to see the post article last week about the mermaid that was carved out of a tree in the front yard of the house on lee highway. I live just around the corner from the mermaid and I like it. the real reason for my joy is that for the past two months the weekly arlington rag newspaper has done nothing but complain about the new logo for arlington county. Maybe now they'll grab onto the issue of the mermaid with her bodacious breasts & the non-issue of the logo will fade away.

washingtonpost.com: Majestic or Monstrous? (Post, Sept. 17)

John Kelly: I'm going to have to drive out there and take a look. I'm a big fan of...art. The photo on Style made it look like there wasn't much around it, like it stood alone on a vast plain. I'm curious about the context. But I'm always in favor of things that make you smile--or even shake your head in mock disgust.


Washington, D.C.: I read your column, and you made light of your robbery. I think your case is another example of the D.C. Metropolitan Police indifference to crime victims. My car was torched a few months ago, and the police refused to list it as "destruction of property". It is listed as "Miscellaneous Report" in the police records. You could have been badly hurt if you had not surrendered your wallet. I think that crime and police incompetence is a major hindrance for many people to live in D.C.

John Kelly: Well, crime is down, they tell us, and many neighborhoods are a lot safer than they used to be. That's no consolation to people who don't live in their neighborhoods, or to people who happen to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, as I did. I did think it was funny--and a little disappointing--that the cops were sort of disgusted with me. But I wouldn't have done anythnig differently. It's easy to replace a wallet. I don't know what might've happened in that alley.


Washington, D.C.: I ride the Orange line in from Vienna at about 7:30, and some days I get the drivers' announcement at the beginning of the ride about food and drink and other rules. I guess you only get the rules when you go from the beginning of the line.

Also, one of the drivers says something very weird and unpleasant for the early morning hours: when leaving we should not leave behind any packages or newspapers (okay so far) or bodily waste. (HUH? Yuck.) Someone at metro should tell her to keep this pearl of wisdom to herself.

John Kelly: Yuk.


Stadium Namer: I think the stadium should be re-named each week after
whatever scandal is hot. Think about it.
Lewinsky Field
Chandra Park
Swift Boat Stadium
Dan Rather Field

John Kelly: Okay, I'll think about it.


Washington, D.C.: Hey John,

I just want to tell all the whiners out there who complain about traffic tie-ups and double parkers and delivery trucks...I walk to and from work every day in 20 minutes. Life is stress free. I didn't pay a fortune for my condo. And I can now pick up a Krispy Kream on the way!

Have fun in traffic!

John Kelly: That's all well and good, but what if you work in, oh, Germantown, or Sterling? You better have a car or a magic carpet.


Alexandria, Va.: I just don't know what to do about Metro. They raise our fares, yet service has declined. The trains are dirty, always running late, the doors don't work properly, and I've run into people eating, drinking, and even smoking on the trains.

What is pushing me over the edge is they installed a new escalator in May at the station I use, and it has now been out of service for over a month! It's brand new - didn't it have a warranty?

I'm ready to start driving again.

John Kelly: Someone probably lost the receipt, or maybe the thing broke just after the warranty expired.


Third worst?: My sister was in town the other weekend. She lives outside of Los Angeles. You know what she complained about while she was here? The traffic.

John Kelly: It's nice to know that our traffic even makes an Angelino complain.

Thanks all for piping in today. If you're in the vicinty of George Mason University tomorrow from noon to 1 p.m., stop by the Fall for the Book Festival. I'll be at the Washington Post booth. I'm not sure what I'll be doing there, greeting readers, I guess, and maybe guessing their weight for a dollar. And always, send me thoughts at kellyj@washpost.com. Don't get warshed away this weekend.


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