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John Kelly's Washington Live

John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 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:
A Moving Tale for Our Times, (Post, Sept. 10)
Hey, Cable Guy, Feel the Love, (Post, Sept. 9)
Subway Sonnets Sought, (Post, Sept. 8)
Talking Back to the Spammers, (Post, Sept. 7)
Answer Man: The Word on Science, (Post, Sept. 6)

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: Oh, hello. I didn't see you there. I've been distracted. I moved house yesterday and am still discombobulated. It's barely 1 p.m. and already today I've ventured out for donuts and coffee (since our oven isn't hooked up), been to the dump (because we have to clean up our old house before relinquishing possession), vaccuumed up pillows of dog hair (ditto), and frozen myself in a cold shower at our new house (because I didn't know the hot and cold spigots are reversed). And now here I am, ready to chat about just about anything.

This week's columns were about the Greek inscription on the National Academy of Sciences building, my take on the subject line of spam messages, the announcement of a Metro poetry contest, reader feedback on my cable-bashing column from a while back, and today's moving reverie.

If you ventured past my column in The Post this week--which I encourage you to do; I won't be jealous, honest--you'll have seen that traffic continues to be bad Washington. That's not really news, but isn't it nice to know, as you sit stuck on the Beltway or I-66, that you're part of something historic?


Bethesda, Md.: Your column on e-mail spam was great! I think you might enjoy this web site:

It is self-described as "Poorly-drawn cartoons inspired by actual spam subject lines!"

washingtonpost.com: Talking Back to the Spammers, (Post, Sept. 7)

John Kelly: That's funny. I haven't perfected my thesis yet, but I think spam is evidence of Darwinism. If you are dumb enough to believe that there are hot co-eds waiting to meet you, if only you take generic Viagra made in China, then you deserve whatever happens to you, preferably infertility.


Metro question: How would I go about reporting a sadistic bus driver? Wednesday night I sprinted out of the Pentagon Metro stop and see my bus (the 8:30 7A) waiting. I keep running while waving my arms and yelling, "Please wait!;" and see it close its doors and start taking off. It then stops, I catch up, and then it takes off leaving me in it dust. I know that the bus driver saw me because there were several witnesses who said in disbelief, "I can't believe he left, he was looking at you!;" I looked on Metro's website, but I could only find a number to call if you were disabled and had complaints about accommidations.

Thank you!;

John Kelly: Man, that does sound sadistic. Fun, but sadistic. I used to run into something similar when I took the Ride-On from Langley Park in my younger days. Because I had to cross a shopping center parking lot to get to the bus, I could see it long before I could reach it. It wasn't the driver's fault but often I'd have to break into a dead run when I saw him starting to shut the door. I'd arrive huffing in a clatter of wingtips. As for filing a report, I just spoke with Metro's Cathy Asata and she said you can call 202-637-1328 or go to the online complaint/comment form at
http://www.wmata.com/riding/ridercomment.cfm. Lemme know what happens.


Anonymous: Greetings, I was curious how the Metro Sonnet contest is going. Are you getting any good ones? When will they be run in the Post?

John Kelly: Yes, we're getting some great ones. Once again readers rise to the challenge and provide a valuable service: entertaining me and doing my job for a little bit. I haven't set a date for publication yet, and I forgot to mention a deadline for submission. Ohhhh, let's say they're due by Sept. 20. By the way, any kind of poetry is eligible, not just sonnets.


Washington, D.C.: Hey Answer Man,
Can you explain why DeSales Street, the one-block shortcut between Connecticut Ave. and 16th Street, has been closed all week? It's the street that runs between the Mayflower and ABC News. I want my shortcut back!

John Kelly: I think it's closed because they don't want anybody to go on it. Badda bing! Sorry. I don't know the answer, but I have called Bill Rice at DC DOT and if he's able to find out in the next hour I'll let you know. How's that for service? Now, if you'd been bitten by a radioactive spider you could just go OVER the roadblock.


John Kelly: Speaking of radioactive spiders, I had a thought the other night as I tried to fall asleep: How convenient for Peter Parker that his webbing comes from his wrists. He's just lucky it doesn't come from his nose or eyeballs.


Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: I wanted to respond to your column about Metro improvements. I take the Metro from Dupont to Silver Spring every weekday to work. The metro woes continue for us riders who commute past Union Station. I have sent letters and emails to Metro and receive no response! The problems include continually dropping off workers at some hut every morning between Union Station and RI Ave, testing the NY Ave station during peak rush hour (leading to long, slow rides), continual problems between Silver Spring and Takoma leading to slow rides, an escalator at Silver Spring that has been broken since June where riders need to walk up and down the same escalator (I'm just waiting for someone to get hurt--this is a tort waiting to happen) and to top it all off the escalator is filthy--littered with paper, food, dirt etc (it hasn't been cleaned since at least May!!). Please help as the Metro personnel have been totally unresponsive!!!

washingtonpost.com: Subway Sonnets Sought, (Post, Sept. 8)

John Kelly: Yeah, that doesn't sound too good. I've toned my muscles on those Silver Spring escalators mysel for the last few months. I've gotta think Metro is aware of all these problems and is just buried under a massive to-do list. Plus, they say they need more money. Several readers have asked about the pause between Union Station and RI Ave. I don't find it too egregious, since it's rarely more than 10 or 15 seconds. Here's what Metro's Lisa Farbstein had to say: "The trains sometimes stop at Brentwood Raily Yard to move employees--both picking up and dropping off. For example, supervisors visit different locations throughout the day and that's the most economical and efficient way of moving them around."

I don't think any one of these issues--the broken escalators, the drop-off, the trash--would in itself be a problem. But when they add up or happen with the backdrop of the well-publicized problems, there's a sort of snowball effect.


Maryland: Hello Mr. Kelly: Love your columns and hope you can point me in the right direction.
My health coverage at work has a "cap" of $15,000 per year for Prescription drugs. I have just passed that 15k mark. To get the medication (I'm HIV) I need for the rest of the year will be roughly $8,000 out of my pocket, now that I've maxed out. Company policy will not allow for an "exception" in my case. I make a good salary, but simply can not afford to pay 8k. What services might be available to help me out? Thanks!

John Kelly: I confess that's way outside my area of expertise. Any readers out there have any suggestions? You might try contacting the Whitman Walker Clinic to see if they have ideas. I've heard that some of the drug companies themselves have programs, but don't know any of the details. Maybe you'd qualify for something. Good luck.


Mr. Obvious: Tell the bus lady that there's no reason for the bus to wait.
It's gotta go when it's gotta go.
Does she complain if the bus is late, too? Maybe it was
because the driver had to keep stopping for people like

John Kelly: I'd be inclined to agree with you except for that one detail: the driver taking off, STOPPING, then taking off again. That sounds like a cat playing with an injured bird.


Austin, Texas: Does everyone really hate the cable companies? Haven't they done anything good for us?

John Kelly: Yes, everyone hates their cable company. And no, they haven't ever done anything good.


John Kelly: Okay, okay, that's a vast oversimplification. This week I'm hearing from cable fans, as well as cable flacks whose feelings have been hurt. (The latter wouldn't put the former up it, would they?) The PR types want to know why I didn't write about all the GOOD experiences people have with cable. And I say, because that's not what the column was about, just like it wasn't about global warming or Jacques Pepin or installing a sump pump. It's a fact that cable has the worst reputation of any similar industry. I don't want to harp about it, but it seems to me that the cable guys would be best served by admitting this and then dealing with it. Like an alcoholic, the first step is realizing you have a problem.


The Amazing Censored-Man: Actually, if Peter Parker's abilities were like the spider's,
the webbing would shoot out of his butt.

John Kelly: So he'd have to wear, what? Chaps?


To Answer Man: The deficit has risen a great deal since Bush has been in office and it doesn't seem to hurt him at all in the polls. I've always heard (mainly from Republicans) that deficits are bad things for government-- actually prohibited for many states-- but I honestly don't know what difference it makes to me personally. I can see it makes a difference to Bush, since it defers payment for the Iraq war and tax cuts until long after the election, but should I care? Or is it just something economists worry about?

John Kelly: Okay economists, here's your chance. Why do deficits matter? I thought it was because it can affect the overall availability of money, raising interest rates. Any truth in that?


Silver Spring Md.: John, the webbing comes from his wrists because that's where he installed the nozzles in his Spiderman suit. It's NOT a bodily fluid.

John Kelly: It isn't in the comic books, but it is in the movies. Which I thought were quite good. I especially liked the "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" montage in SM2.


Arlington, Va.: You wrote: "I've ventured out for donuts and coffee (since our oven isn't hooked up)."

When I went off to school, I had to quit making coffee in the oven, so I got myself one of them there "percolators." Works like a charm, and I highly recommend it to you. 'Course I still like it when I head home for a visit, and Mom bakes up some coffee, old style.

John Kelly: I guess that didn't make sense, did it? It's not like you need an oven to make coffee. I could've made a fire in the yard and made it like the cowboys did. Or plugged in my coffeemaker, since we do have electricity. But we can't walk in the kitchen, because a tile floor is being laid. What I meant to convey was the overall sense of disconnection under which I'm laboring these days. Of course, I've got easy, compared to people in, say, Darfur.


Fairfax, Va.: I take the Vienna metro daily, and when I walk past the kiss and ride I consistently notice driverless cars parked in the spots designated for pickups. These cars are there for hours and never get ticketed. What gives?

John Kelly: Are you sure they're not parked at meters? Some of those lots do have meters for brief periods. If not, then they're breakin' the law, breakin' the law. Rat em out at that Metro address. On a related note, I think it should be a law that you kiss whomever it is who drops you off at the Kiss and Ride. Wife, husband, mother-in-law, neighbor, whoever. It's KISS and Ride, people! A simple "thank you" won't suffice.


Charlottesville, Va.: John, I have advice for your next move: hire packers. Ain't free, but not really that expensive. You get to keep your life until the day before the move. They can pack any house in a day or less. Then, you only need to go thru your stuff once...as you unpack the boxes.

John Kelly: The moving company would've loved for us to use packers. They probably have more confidence in their packing abilities than mine, and they could be assured that when the truck showed up the stuff would be ready to go. But it would have DOUBLED our bill. Plus, I think it's important to touch the things you own at least once a decade.


Washington, D.C.: As someone who also has a hernia-inducing quantity of records (the last time I moved, 12 years ago, my brothers and sisters swore they would never help me move again), I'm curious as to how many you have?

John Kelly: Oh, geez, I don't know. 500? Plenty of people have more, but more and more people have none. Plus I have a lot of 45s. I'll never part with my copy of Brownsville Station's "Smokin' in the Boys Room" or my half-dozen copies of Terry Jacks's "Seasons in the Sun." Or "Love Is Like Oxygen" by--who was it?--Sweet? In fact, I added to my records 5 years ago when we spent a year in Cambridge, MAass. I was taking out the trash one day when I saw what I thought was a single LP in the dumpster behind the apartmetn building. Then I noticed it was LOTS of records, fanned out like a deck of cards. Someone had thrown out their entire vinyl collection. I was into that dumpster faster than you can say "Hey, give me a boost."


Silver Spring, Md.: Deficits matter because the government has to borrow money to operate, as well as to service the debt on the money it borrowed last year -- eating up more of the budget every year. Hence the "spiralling" analogy often used to describe the deficit.

Also, if the government is competing in the market for money, yes, interest rates will go up, either because the government is competing for available money, or printing out more.

John Kelly: Plus, it seems that the government shouldn't do things families shouldn't do. What is the government if not a super huge family? I'm always told it's dangerous to get too far into debt. Didn't anyone tell Bush?


Buffalo, NY: Hi John!;

I hear you concerning the crapiana syndrome. We moved into our present home 23 years ago and there are still boxes in the attic that haven't been opened since the move. The boxes have now been left to the kids in the will!;


John Kelly: Your poor children. Of course to paraphrase that first Indiana Jones movie, bury them in the sand for a thousand years and they will become priceless, even if the boxes contain check stubs and half-empty bottles of Vicks Vap-O-Rub.


Clifton, Va.: Metro execs claim they have run out of ideas to cut costs. Here's one out source your bus and subway operators, station managers, custodians, maintenance folks, mechanics etc.
Get rid of your current overpaid, nasty union miscreants and contract out. the service can't get any worse and your costs will drop in you aren't paying union scale.
You dont need anymore of my tax dollars guys.
You need to get real!

John Kelly: I've encountered plenty of rude non-union employees to believe that privatizing is not the answer. And I don't mind my tax money going towards Metro. A functional Metro system eases all sorts of burdens: traffic, air pollution, parking. Somebody should be looking at the big picture.


Burke, Va.: Four of us standing out at bus stop on Burke Road wating for the 17H at approx 700am. 17h just zooms past and doesn't stop. Not the first time this happened and wont be the last. Privatize Metro and get rid of the overpaid Union folks!

John Kelly: More with the union-bashing...I'm not sure what a union has to do with it. Is it because union-represented folks are hard to fire? I can't believe that any union condones rude treatment of customers.


Anonymous: Looks like I'll be in town, without my wife, on Thanksgiving and on Christmas. In the past, I've found that many places (e.g., CCNV shelter) get more volunteers than they need on Thanksgiving, though they sometimes said they needed more on Christmas, when more people are traveling. Any suggestions? Volunteering at a hospital on Xmas Eve could be particularly rewarding, perhpas. Maybe Children's Hospital? I'm sure they get many queries, so may be picky as to the "skills" they need.

John Kelly: Christmas Eve you could probably find a lot of dads and moms who need help assembling bicycles or play kitchens. But seriously, that's very nice of you. Any ideas among chatsters out there?


McLean, Va.: RE:Hating Cable Companies
I actually like mine. Cox in McLean. But maybe that's because I've got cable modem service. Very fast, and only rarely goes down. ~$40/month isn't much more that dial-up, and it's much faster. The only TV I watch (usually) is the news and the Weather Channel.

I had satellite when I lived in Utah, and it was great. No 'rain fade' or other interferences, lower cost, and more channels than the local cable company. But no local forecast feed from the Weather Channel. It wouldn't work in the house I'm in now because of all the trees blocking the southern sky.

John Kelly: Cox has a better reputation than other systems, Comcast, for instance. Satellite gets better ratings overall than cable. We'll be considering it in the new house, though I'm not expecting it will be a life-changing experience. I've given up hoping for those.


Detroit, Mich.: No, no one told Bush about debt. His father's wealthy business partners and friends made sure that George W. was always bailed out when one of his businesses was failing.

John Kelly: So where's 41 when we need him now?


Never gonna move again: The last time we moved, in 1988, we brought up at least a dozen boxes from the basement of the old house, where they'd been since 1984, and put them in the garage of the new house. They're still there. I don't know what's in them.

John Kelly: One of the most depressing things about this move was taking some unopened boxes that had been marked "basement" from our last move and crossing that out and writing "attic."


How Many Donuts?: You are very punchy today....how much sugar have you had?

Also, twice today I have read (and you have written) something that struck me as odd....in your column, you refer to "moving house" and in your introduction this chat, you said that you "moved house yesterday."

I would have said that I "moved" or moved to a new home/house" but not the way you said it. Are the copyeditors absent, or is your way really correct grammar?


John Kelly: "Moved house." "Cleaned house." Those both work, don't they? Does "moved house" sound wierd to people? It may be something I picked up while living in England. Or, I should say, whilst living in England. Did I mention I wore plimsouls while I moved house?


Rosslyn, Va.: Serious question here-
Why hasn't the Washington Post been covering the upcoming end to the NHL as we know it? This industry brings in loads of money for local economies (minus those areas where hockey shouldn't be in the first place- come on, snow, in Dallas?). It's a shame that the Washington Post hasn't been covering squat about it. Wasn't the baseball lockout something that made the front page? Why is hockey treated like a second tier sport in the U.S.?! There ARE a LOT of us who love hockey a whole hellova lot more than Football or Basketball (Baseball is a joke).

washingtonpost.com: NHL Section

John Kelly: I don't know the answer to that. Of course, coverage by The Post doesn't guarantee much of anything. Look how lousy all of the teams have been for the last decade or so. (Except for the Freedom...)


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Kelly: I have submitted several emails to Chris Zimmerman of the Arlington County board concerning metro since he is Arlington's representative on the WMATA board. It's been months ago and I've never received a response. Do you think it's reasonable to expect a written response from my county commissioner much like I would receive from my Senator or Representative?

I am at a loss of who else to send my complaints about metro to. The metro doesn't care so I thought sending them to my ELECTED representative would get a response.

Love your chat and columns!

John Kelly: I would send him a letter. I'm finding that it's hard to respond to e-mails. They sort of pile up and then disappear. Sometimes I print them out so I don't lose them, a perversion of the whole idea. But letters I'm much more likely to actually respond to. And yes, you should expect a response of some sort.


Washington, D.C.: With regard to the most beautiful building in DC, the National Academies building, it's important to look up in the atrium, as there are reliefs on the ceiling that depict important scientific achievements - there's a guide sheet in case you don't know them. One in particular had a European colleague giggling: Volta's electric piles. Where he came from, "piles" is apparently common parlance for "hemorrhoids."

John Kelly: It is in...England. And yes, the whole NAS building is great. I want to check out the cafeteria, which is open to the public after 12:45 and is said to be one of the best in town.


Alexandria, Va.: No one talks good about cable because when it's working, it's just something that we take for granted. I guess, then, that it's praiseworthy to note that we've had Comcast (and its predecessor) for six years or so now, and have only made one or two calls for service. That's not a bad record in any industry.

John Kelly: No, that's not bad. But when you do have a problem, how responsive are they? I've always been made to feel like a criminal when I call my cable company, as if I'm ripping them off in some way.


Alexandria, Va: John-Not a question but a comment. As a partially disabled Metro Rider I would ask that people not to take the entire seat by placing their bags, backpacks etc. on the empty seat alongside them. That is very rude and selfish and one should not have to ask to sit down.
Thanks for letting me get that off of my chest.

John Kelly: You're welcome. Sudden idea: Metro should have a Secret Rewards program. Every day an undercover Metro employee will randomly give $100 to a rider who pulls his/her backpack off the seat next to them to make space for someone else to sit down.


Let's rumble!;: Steel-cage death match, Spiderman vs. Batman. Who wins?

John Kelly: Ooh,close, given that both saw loved-ones die and so they fight dirty. But I think Spiderman, unless Batman was allowed to keep his utility belt.


Washington, D.C. again: 500 records? That's it? That's not hernia-inducing; heck, that'd barely cause you to break a sweat.

John Kelly: You know how much of a wimp I am? You've seen my picture. I can barely lift an 8-track without a truss.


Re: Deficit: It's true that Bush is spending huge amounts of money, but I just want to point our for the record that Kerry isn't planning to reduce the deficit much, if at all. Have you heard how many new programs he has in mind? And he wants to finance all of them simply by rolling back the tax cut to the wealthiest 1%. It just ain't gonna work.

John Kelly: Thanks for weighing in.


Washington, DC: So how often do you listen to your vinyl records? Or are they "comfort objects" that you don't really use, but can't bear the responsibility of disposing of? In the latter case, I recommend storing them in a place where you know they will get damaged. A leaky basement is ideal, although a hot attic might work for records. Then when they are "accidentally" destroyed you can dispose of them guilt-free. This method is particularly good for a spouse's "comfort objects;" you might want to mention it to your wife.

John Kelly: Man, you are one cold customer. Now that I moved the records I intend to listen to them repeatedly, just as soon as I find my turntable.


Arlington, Va.: Volunteer to ride along at your local police department on a holiday.

John Kelly: That's a nice idea. Should be a quiet night. Silent night, anyway.


Bethesda, Md.: Hey John. When you first took over for Bob, my wife and I
had sent you some info about a mystrious man we have
seen in Rock Creek Park. Always walking somewhere. We
have seen him as far south as near Georgetown and as far
north as Olney. We refer to him affectionately as "Racoon
Head" (his hair looks like a racoon hat). Have you ever
looked for this guy or talked to anyone else who has
mentioned him?

John Kelly: I don't recall your e-mail, but he sounds intriguing. If anyone has any info, send it my way: kellyj@washpost.com. Same goes for any comments or observations. Thanks for chiming in today. Sorry I couldn't get to all the questions. Have a good weekend and see you next week.


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