Pining for the Train That Got Away

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By John Kelly
Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why did My Lovely Wife and I arrive 10 minutes late to a performance of "The Illusion" at the University of Maryland on Tuesday evening and thus find ourselves forced to creep into the darkened theater, the first act well underway, and scuttle, crablike, to the first open seats we could find, seats that happened to be in the front row next to an oddly dressed young man who, it turned out, was in the cast, a fact we discovered only when the action on the small stage froze for a moment and a spotlight illuminated our rowmate, who proceeded to, well, act, drawing the eyes of the audience toward us -- us: the late people, the rude people, the people who sat in seats that (once they were in the penumbra of the spotlight) we could see were marked "Reserved," as in: "Don't sit here unless you want to sort of be in this play" -- and forcing us to slouch down/lean over/compress the very cells in our bodies in a futile effort to make ourselves invisible?

I blame Metro.

An hour before our ignominious entrance into the Kogod Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, I had sauntered down the escalator at the Farragut North Station. I thought I had left myself plenty of time to journey out to College Park -- travel time 34 minutes, if I hit the trains right, according to the calculator on the Web site of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority -- where my wife would pick me up in the Kiss and Ride lot, kiss me, then drive us to the play.

But I was barely down the escalator when I saw it: the sort of huge, milling crowd that instantly says, "Abandon hope all ye, etc."

Oh well, I thought, I've built a little cushion into this. I might still be able to make my 7:10 p.m. rendezvous. I figured I wouldn't fit on the first train that entered the station, filled as it was with all manner of people packed into every nook and cranny, an abundance of red shirts reminding me that -- oh yeah -- there was a Capitals game at Verizon Center. I pinned my hopes on the second train, which, the lighted sign indicated, would be along in a scant three minutes.

It was a glorious thing when it came in. It was totally empty, yet its lights were blazing. I reflected on how seldom we see an empty Metro car all lit up inside. Usually the unoccupied ghost trains slide through stations with their lights off. But this car was shining like an unopened Christmas present: fresh and new and hopeful.

I think I speak for all of us who were on that subway platform when I say that we entertained fantasies about where we would sit or stand in that virginal car, so inviting did it seem after the teeming cattle car that had previously rolled through.

These fantasies, however, turned to thoughts of homicide, for although the car was moving slowly in that I'm-just-about-to-stop fashion, some of us could hear a voice announcing, as if reciting a mantra, "There is a train directly behind this one. There is a train directly behind this one . . . "

Of course there's a train behind this one, we thought. There's always a train behind this one. And behind that one and that one and that one, forever and ever into infinity, like a snake swallowing its tail in some primitive creation myth. We didn't want any of those trains. We wanted this train -- our train -- this gleaming, sparkling, invitingly empty train, this train that represented eight subway cars' worth of deliverance from the crowded, dangerous Farragut North platform.

But on it rolled, impervious to our shouts and imprecations. Somewhere in College Park, actors were adjusting their costumes, while early birds took their seats and thumbed through programs.

I waited, seething, then squeezed myself onto the next train like the last sardine in the tin. I went two stops then exploded out at Gallery Place and made my way through the roiling hockey-mad crowd.

On the dim platform below -- wondering which direction I should go -- I thought to myself: Why don't the dung-colored pylons in Metro stations have lines' information posted on them? And the system maps: Does WMATA find them so rare and valuable that it hesitates to put too many in its stations, lest they be stolen like priceless Rembrandts?

I got on a train and then at Fort Totten changed to another train, which amazingly seemed to be a Yellow Line train going to a Green Line station. (Was the map wrong? Was the train wrong?)

And so, in the end, I was late. As I sat in my front-row seat, the smell of the actor's makeup heavy and cloying, I thought of everyone else who has ever been late: to their child's day care, or dinner with the boss, or a secret assignation, or hockey game, or movie, or flight, or shopping trip with the girls, or drinking with the boys -- all of us late and blaming Metro.Got something on your chest? Get it off during my online chat at noon tomorrow. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/discussions.


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