Getting Work Done -- on the Way to Work

By John Kelly
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Washingtonians are multi-taskers. Not content to do nothing, we must do something, ideally several somethings, all at once.

You see this in the way so many people walk down the street babbling into their cellphones like undermedicated mental patients. True, most of the conversations consist of variations on this: "Hey, guess what? I'm walking down the street!"

But there are plenty of people who accomplish Actual Business. Not wanting to waste the precious few moments spent walking between the comfort of land lines, they wheel and deal on their cellphones.

Nowhere, however, is our desire to be productive more apparent than on Metro, both rail and bus. Just look around and you'll see people getting stuff done: putting on makeup, balancing checkbooks, everything short of performing brain surgery.

I think we could fund Metro's entire budget simply by taxing people who knit or crochet while commuting, people such as Alexis Abernathy of Alexandria, from whose clicking needles comes an endless profusion of scarves, socks and handbags.

"I have had some nice conversations with strangers, usually older women, over knitting," Alexis said. "It is a nice ego boost when you get compliments. I've also had bus drivers remember me as the knitting girl, and I think they are more likely to wait for me if I'm running for the bus."

Colleen Meagher knits on Boston's subway, the T, and writes a blog devoted to the practice: http://www.subwayknitter.com . In addition to reporting on the progress of her own yarny projects, she surreptitiously snaps photos of people knitting in public and posts them online -- after first cropping out the faces.

"Some people say they are self-conscious about knitting in public," Colleen said. "I'm not. I was knitting at Fenway Park last Wednesday night, and actually the only thing that made me stop was it was getting too dark and I was getting up every three minutes to let people into the row who were up getting beer." (I hope she was knitting red socks.)

Robin Cook Hill commutes every day from Van Dorn Street to College Park. A biology graduate student, she studies very tiny animals called nematodes, visible only with the help of a microscope. "On my way to and from the lab, I like to do things that I can actually see, and the results [of which] are obvious," she said. So she does needlework.

"I have completed a baby quilt and three birth announcement wall hangings," she said. "I get lots of attention when I am working on the Metro."

Jeane Cockey also crochets on her Metro commutes, between New Carrollton and Capitol South. She makes her own Christmas cards, too, rubber stamping them, trimming them and coloring them in. "Coloring is strictly for sitting, but small shapes can be easily cut while standing," she said. "You'd be amazed how much more personal space the other commuters are willing to give me when I'm standing up with small scissors in my hands."

It's not just handwork that gets accomplished. From December 1999 to August 2000, Donald Earl Collins used his 45-minute commute between Silver Spring and Alexandria to write his book, "Fear of a 'Black' America: Multiculturalism and the African American Experience."

"The train rides provided the right mix of noise, body movement and change of scenery necessary for me to concentrate on writing, revising and restructuring the different chapters," he said. Occasionally a passenger would ask Donald what he was working on. "When I said, 'Multiculturalism and black identity issues,' they would usually leave me alone."

I would like to have been inside Brenda Clough's head as she wrote her 1984 book, "The Crystal Crown," on the Metro. It's a sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel set in an imaginary country called Averidan.

"It's the usual bunch of adventures across land and sea," said Brenda, who lives in Reston now but used to live in Vienna. "I don't think you can find any sign of the Metro system in the book."

Finally, maybe Catherine Lewis of Alexandria practices the perfect Metro diversion. She loads her iPod with a recording of a Franciscan priest reciting the rosary.

"Most mornings as I commute to work, I close my eyes and silently pray along," Catherine said.

She's probably not the only one praying.


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