John Kelly's Washington: Metro Mess-Ups, Swine Flu Pandemics and More Stuff

John Kelly
Washington Post Metro Columnist
Friday, May 1, 2009; 12:00 PM

Post Metro columnist John Kelly was online Friday, May 1, at Noon ET to chat about Metro mess-ups, swine flu pandemics and other annoyances of modern life.


John Kelly: Greetings from the Big Apple, where I arrived mere moments ago. New York is as it always is: crowded, loud, dirty, but full of lovable mugs who occasionally break into song. The dancing construction workers I encountered crossing Broadway were especially entertaining.

Of course, you can't be in a big crowded city these days without thinking of the swine flu. There was a woman coughing behind me on the Amtrak train, but she was BEHIND me. The virus can't go around seats, can it?

What was really annoying about her was the way she talked to her husband after they got on in Baltimore. Well, it wasn't the WAY she talked to him. It was THAT she talked to him. It was 6:45 in the morning and I was trying to sleep. What sort of long-married couple--and I assume they were long-married--actually TALKS to one another? Shouldn't they at that point have reached that stage where they just trudge places together in sullen silence?

Sad, maybe, but at least it would have let me catch some shuteye.

Boy, I'm becoming quite the misanthrope. My

blog today

is about the annoyance of phone and computer screen glowing during the movies. And my

column yesterday

was about how Metro ruined my life--or at least one night of it. And now here I am harping on a woman who, despite the fact that she probably infected me with H1N1, is probably pretty blameless.

I didn't see anyone wearing face masks on the train. And none in New York as I walked from Penn Station, except for the muggers in ski masks. Is this pandemic being blown out of proportion by the, um, media? Or does it pay to be prudent?

I see that my alma mater, Rockville High School, is closed due to swine flu. We're the Rams. Shouldn't we really have been closed by sheep flu, or scrapie?

Anyway, let's get started. Anyone want me to bring anything back from Manhattan for them?


Gaithersburg, Md.: Metro Trapped! Returning from Italy, we chose Metro get home. BAD idea. On Tuesday, we waited a Metro center for 45 minutes. Train lurched forward to Farragut North. "Everybody Out; Train Out of Service" Metro gave no information! We surfaced to try the bus but after getting up to Connecticut the "L" buses were not appearing. By then it was too late to get the last bus from Shady Grove to our neighborhood if we ever got there. Exhausted, we had a quick supper; found a 'friendly' cab, knowing he had to make a living. G'burg $60! Metro priceless!

John Kelly: I wonder if you were caught in the same hell storm that I was. I never did find out what caused the original problem--probably a toddler brushing against the train doors. And I don't know why a blissfully empty train swept past without stopping at Farragut North. I just know I was annoyed--and late for my appointment. At that particular moment I was wishing I had driven.

Now, having said that, I must point out that the following evening--Wednesday--I DID drive. I was out in Fairfax around 5:30 and had to get to Rockville to pick up my daughter. It took over an hour on the Beltway, horrible sludgy traffic. I always start to fall asleep in that sort of traffic, my head nodding then snapping up. I try different radio stations in an attempt to stay awake. My presets include 94.7, which I have to change, since it's gone from classic rock to "Fresh 94.7," which sounds like a feminine hygiene product. Whenever they say "Fresh 94.7" I imagine a long-haired woman running on the beach in a white linen sundress.


John Kelly: The real question is: Why did you leave Italy?


Laurel, Md.: Hi John, I'm a woman in my early 30s. Twice in the past month, I've had the same experience while pumping gas at two different gas stations. I've paid by credit card at the pump and started pumping gas when another (older male) customer says to me: "You know, you need to pay first." To which I say, "I know, I paid by credit card." To which the guys each say, "Oh, OK." Now, I could almost see a gas station employee telling me this. But another customer? I have two theories: Either I look like a gas thief or else I look like a young woman, and these older men assume I don't know how to use a gas pump (or that I wouldn't have a credit card and must pay inside with cash). Any other theories? And any ideas for what to say next time it happens?

John Kelly: That is weird. Do you think they were making a pass at you? Were these the sorts of stations where you can't start pumping gas until you've paid? In which case, they're just idiots.


Washington DC: I found the article "A Year Ticks By, and Taxi Meters Still Divide" interesting. In the year that the meters have been in place I have yet to find anyone who thinks they are worse than the zone system. Other than cabbies trying to get the fares raised did the author find anyone who preferred the old system? I would say that 30 percent was about what I was being overcharged under the zone system. Since the meters have come in my twice monthly ride home from DCA has come within $1 of $23.50. For the last year of the zones the initial bid by the drivers ranged from $25 to $47. I had more than several yelling matches with them. OH beware of the new scam. They keep receipts that other people don't take and give you a $9 receipt for a $6 fare. Then give the $6 one to a $5 fare. ALWAYS make sure sure that you get the correct receipt/bill. If there are a dozen receipts laying on the dash watch out. A Year Ticks By, and Taxi Meters Still Divide (Post, May 1)

John Kelly: The cab drivers I've spoken with all complain that they're not making as much money. The article said the Taxi Commission decided against doing a follow-up study that would, it seems to me, have settled the issue. Couldn't they just look at overall receipts from two time periods and compare them?

I don't understand how the receipt scam works. How does that benefit the cabbie? Aren't his fares automatically kept track of through the meter mechanism?


Intothefutu, re: First there was bird flu and now there's swine flu. Why is it always the animals fault? What's going to be next? Lion flu? Moose flu?

John Kelly: Bubonic plague.

Or, if Ted Nugent has anything to say about it,

cat scratch fever



Washington/Wheaton: John -- the metro mess that is the Wheaton escalators is beginning to really grate on people's nerves!

Sure, the Wheaton escalators are the tallest single-span escalators in the Western Hemisphere, but my god, we're down to just the one working (and even that was shut down the other day). The extended service to one of the three keeps getting the completion date pushed back (4/1 to 4/15 to 5/1 to 5/15 and now 5/30). The center span came to a screeching halt one morning several weeks ago. Metro promised to have it back in service last week.

I don't really know what I'm paying for anymore.

John Kelly: Think of it this way: You would pay a lot more to join a health club and use their StairMaster.

They've been working on the elevators at the Forest Glen station, too. I'm lucky, since I ride Metro at relatively off-peak hours--on around 10:30 and 7:00--and so have never had much trouble with crowded elevators (or, usually, train cars, either). I could see the situation at Wheaton getting old fast.


Downtown D.C.: Are there any rules about using power washers on the sidewalk in downtown D.C.? There is a building custodian that is hosing down the sidewalk at 8:45 a.m. every morning. He is totally oblivious to everyone walking by and sprays people. It's so bad I cross the street to avoid the block. Shouldn't he be required to do this much earlier in the morning before the sidewalks are busy?

John Kelly: That's a good question. I'll try to look into it. You'd think he'd wait till after, say, 10, since there would be fewer pedestrians on the street. Maybe he's obsessive-compulsive. Where is this particular building?


Downtown: Did you read the Post article about Year One of the taxicab meters in DC? Kind of surprising that your reporter didn't interview any taxicab customers. I've found that taxi drivers are somehow MORE corrupt now than with the zones. They try to take ludicrously long routes, stop at every yellow lights (and some green ones), etc. I'm sorry, but their sob stories are just not true. A Year Ticks By, and Taxi Meters Still Divide (Post, May 1)

John Kelly: I like to think that corruption in taxi drivers is similar to corruption in any other professions: lawyers, investment bankers, priests, politicians. Some will be corrupt but the majority will be honest. The meter system seems fairer to me than the zone system. I like seeing numbers spin around, rather than trying to read a yellowed, curled up map on the back of a headrest. Now, whether those NUMBERS are fair is another question. If the cabbies are truly hurting, I don't see anything wrong with adjusting the base fare.

Interestingly, the article said that a record number of people are applying to be cabbies, which suggests that the market at least thinks it's still a good job to have.


Beltway blues: Surely you expected to be in horrid traffic, right? If it was unavoidable, I understand, but that's practically the worst possible time to get on the Beltway.

John Kelly: I had forgotten. I thought it was an aberration. I thought, "Can it really be this bad every night?" I thought of the poor commuters who must endure it daily. And I thought that, all things being equal, I prefer being occasionally steamed with Metro than sitting in that mess every night.


Hyattsville, Md.: John,

One afternoon this past week I got on Metro at the Dupont Circle station at about 4:20 p.m. The first car of the train was empty but the doors did not open. The driver announced loudly that the car was 'isolated' and the doors were not going to open so we had better get in another car.

This happened at every station. At every station we had to wait for people to realize they could not use the first car because it was 'isolated.'

Do you have any idea what was going on?

John Kelly: I've seen this before. I always assumed there was a mechanical problem with that one car, something wrong with the doors or something. (Although I've also seen them take an entire train out of service for a problem with one door.) Another possibility is that a passenger got sick in there, but I don't know.

Maybe Metro should use another term than "isolated," something that is more descriptive: "There's a problem with the doors in the first car, so it's off limits."


Pumping g, AS: Yah, know John, right across the river in Jersey, there are NO self service stations: it's all attendants.

John Kelly: And no left turn lanes, right? I seem to remember driving in New Jersey and having to first turn right to make a left.


Richmond, Va.: Unless your train took a detour to Mexico, you're OK.

John Kelly: What if I eat at Taco Bell? Is that dangerous?


Montclair, Va.: Yet another new flu strain has been discovered. In addition to the common symptoms of an explosive cough and high fever, victims feel compelled to order home delivery of large quantities of frozen food, particularly ice cream. This is being called the Schwann flu. Luckily, the high fever can be controlled by packing the victim completely in frozen food.

John Kelly: Schwan flu, huh? There's also the ailment that strikes people who eat a simple dessert made of milk, eggs and sugar: flan flu. And you know what? It comes from Mexico too.


Curly: Two wrongs don't make a right, but three rights make a left.

John Kelly: And two Wrights make an airplane. Nyuk nyuk.


Washington, D.C.: Re: your Thursday column. I was in the Farragut North station, too! Actually, I saw you -- at least I thought it was you (were you wearing a plaid hat?), and I almost said something to you but then chickened out. Do you mind being approached by total strangers who think they recognize you from your photos? I was going to ask if the ridiculous situation in the station was column fodder. I just couldn't understand what was going on. The problem was in the other direction, and it had been fixed! I had to let 4 trains go by (not counting the empty one) until I could squeeze on, and all of that was to go 1 stop. If I had been wearing more practical walking shoes, I would have walked.

John Kelly: I was wearing a hat, but it wasn't a plaid hat. I don't think I own a plaid hat. Mine are your basic black, brown, gray. And soon I'll switch to my summer straw. I don't mind people coming up to me, as long as they don't try to make my picture when I'm at the Chick-Fil-A in my sweatpants with no makeup on. Oh wait. That's Jennifer Aniston. No, I don't mind. Just make sure it's me you come up to.


Gaithersburg, Md.: My husband wrote the original post. Yes, we were caught in the mess Tuesday. The announcement kept saying the there was a train with mechanical difficulties at Van Ness and we would be moving once they got the train out of the way. Then they said they were single tracking at Van Ness. All I know is that we got one stop, from Metro to Farragut North and they said there that they were turning around our train to go back to Metro center. Maybe that we the empty one you saw. We think you're lucky you were only ten minutes late. And yes, after we heard that the CDC said not to travel to countries with Swine Flu I thought we had my excuse not to come back to the U.S. but I'm not sure my boss would agree so here we are.

John Kelly: We should be looking at the bright side of a pandemic. Like, you can get REALLY good deals on travel packages to Mexico now.


Silver Spring, Md.: Why all the travel these days, John?

John Kelly: Last week was that Texas A and M thing. Tonight I'm giving a little talk at a gathering of Oxford alums. Oxford University has decided it's time to be like American colleges and tap their graduates for donations, something I gather they've been somewhat reluctant to do in the past. (Rather mercenary, doncha know.) Of course, I'm not a graduate and I'm pretty tapped out. But it's a nice excuse to come to New York.


Seton Hall Anthropologist: Re: Intothefutu, re:

Yes, they are called zoogenic/zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to humans (and sometimes v/v -case in Gombe (?) chimp preserve in Zaire a week or so ago]). As soon as we started living in close proximity to the soon to be domesticated animals, ca. 15,000 years ago, their diseases started jumping to us.

That's one reason why European contact was so devastating to Native Americans: few domesticated animals (dogs, llamas, alpacas, turkeys).

John Kelly: Is there anything that we give THEM? I mean, just to be fair. Athlete's foot? Tennis elbow? Anything?


Alexandria, Va.: In my experience with the taxi meters, fares are drastically cheaper than before -- a huge boon to me but it must be killing the cabbies. Instead of needing to have $30 on hand to cab home late from work, the fare is now literally half that. But, I end up taking cabs more often, so maybe total cab receipts will stay the same but it will take more cabbies and more trips to achieve the same revenue... who knows.

John Kelly: That's interesting. That would support the cabbies' view. I don't think anyone would suggest taxi drivers are making a killing (I mean, except for Travis Bickle). It's an often unpleasant job and an occasionally dangerous one.


Washington, D.C.: Hi John, I take the metro from downtown D.C. to Shady Grove everyday. The trees along the railroad tracks adjacent to the metro tracks appear to have been eaten by a very sloppy machine. They all look like they've been chewed. It seems to have happened all at once. I can't imagine that it was intended to clear the tracks of branches because they are sort of broken off in a haphazard manner and the branches are everywhere. Did I miss a tornado that barreled down those tracks?

John Kelly: I wonder if there's a machine mounted on the tracks that trims the trees just enough to keep them out of the way of trains. That might explain the haphazard sort of look you encountered.


Rockville to Odenton: So when IS a good time to drive on the Beltway? A couple weeks ago it took me over two hours to get from Rockville to Odenton. I'm making the same trip today and am thinking I might leave at 6:30 or 7. There really is no good time to go, is there?

John Kelly: Between the traffic and the swine flu, maybe telecommuting will finally catch on in a big way. I work at home occasionally and my biggest frustration is that I can't access work things from my computer as easily as I can at work. My Lotus Notes takes forever to scroll through and I can't search for specific e-mails. If they could make it seamless, I might be one fewer person clogging up the road or the subway.


Washington, D.C.: Am I the only one who thinks it was sloppy reporting that today's Post article about taxi driver complaints about the meter system causing them to lose revenue did not mention the significant decline in the economy in the past year? Couldn't this account for declining revenue rather than the meter system? Isn't it worth at least a mention?

John Kelly: I also wonder about the effect of the Circulator buses, which are going more and more places. And what do they cost? Under 2 bucks? It's hard to compete with that.


Cameron, N.C.: Sabrett's hot dog with onions and kraut. What the heck, make it 2.

John Kelly: I almost bought a bagel for my breakfast at Union Station this morning and then I said, "Wait a minute. I can have a New York bagel for breakfast tomorrow. Why would I want a Washington bagel today?"


And any ideas for what to say next time it happens? : Yes. Say this: "No, you only have to pay first after 10 p.m. on the weekends." And let them wonder.

Honestly though, they're just flirting with you.

John Kelly: Except for their case worker, you might be the only woman they've spoken to all day.


Sterling, Va.: You still use Lotus Notes at the Post? I thought only backwards government agencies were still on that.

Does your accounting department use abacuses too?

John Kelly: Abacuses? No. Do you know where we can get some? That might be a step up from the colored pebbles that we use. "Now, do I carry the green rock over to the other row?"


I'm not as misanthropic as this question makes me seem:: I also despise people who talk on the train. I generally despise all people who think their conversation is important enough to have it loudly in a place where everyone else around them is quiet (library, quiet room of a coffee shop, whatever). I also hate people at the gym who grunt, cough, or count their pushups out loud. And everyone who has their headphones on so loud that we all get treated to their musical taste.

If someone is a really egregious offender I go over and politely ask them to STFU, but most of the time I do nothing but glare at them, because it never seems to bother anyone else. My boyfriend thinks I'm way too sensitive to noise. I'm curious to hear other opinions on that issue. Does that sort of thing bother you? A lot?

John Kelly: Are you sure you're not my wife? I sometimes wish I carried around a tranquilizer-equipped dart gun--of the sort seen on "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom"--to stop her from going off on rude people. She's like the enforcer. Those things bother me, too, but not as much as they bother her. And often what bothers me isn't the noise so much, as it is the realization that those people just don't care that they're annoying other people.


Re: Is there anything that we give THEM?: No we just eat them that's all.

John Kelly: Oh, you're right. Fair enough. What was that bumper sticker I saw? "If God hadn't intended us to eat animals, why did He make them out of meat"?


Amtr, AK: I find it bothersome that they make you sign your Amtrak ticket in the upper left corner, but there are no pens anywhere near the ticket machines. And if you use the conductors' pens, you are made to feel like a pen moocher. Why do you have to sign the tickets anyway?

John Kelly: It's probably so they can bust you one some other charge, the way they got Al Capone for tax evasion. You falsified an official government document by knowingly signing your Amtrak ticket.

Another thing I wonder: Today I saw that passengers will no longer be able to board an Amtrak train within two minutes of its departure. This is supposedly for safety reasons. But isn't running down the platform after the train one of those romantic things that everyone should do once in their life?


D.C.: A previous commenter wrote that cabbies now "stop at every yellow light". Isn't that the law?

John Kelly: Yeah, well so's driving 55 on the Beltway.


Arlington, Va.: It might not always be convenient, but if you feel like a cabbie is taking his time or going the long way you can always have him drop you a few blocks from where you're going and walk the rest of the way to trim a little off the bill.

John Kelly: And the meter system lets you see exactly what you'll owe him.


Zoonotic: I thought I read once that you could give your cat a cold. But there's not much satisfaction in that -- the little jerk would just sneeze in my face and wipe his nose in my hair.

John Kelly: Ah, the joys of pet ownership. Now that spring is here my dog has taken to eating grass, the long blades of, it's lunchtime. I won't go into it.


Herndon, Va.: Hi John: What's the deal with stacking the deck at noon on Friday this week? There are 5 chats going on at the moment! How am I supposed to choose?

John Kelly: You pose a question to each and you see how long it takes us to answer it. (Sorry I waited so long to answer yours!)


If someone is a really egregious offender I go over and politely ask them to STFU, but most of the time I do nothing but glare at them, because it never seems to bother anyone else. : Honey, you need to start wearing earplugs.

John Kelly: Okay, there's one opinion. Anyone else think she's being reasonable/unreasonable? Or is part of living in a modern society being able to ignore all the other people who live in it?


Animals: we destroy their habitat and drive them toward extinction, we pollute their air and water, we "farm" them in conditions that are beyond inhumane, we keep them in cages in zoos and wonder why they develop neurotic disorders and die from lack of activity. Oh, yeah, they have a beef with us, so to speak.

John Kelly: Don't you think they'd do it to us, if they could? I mean, those cows look pretty docile--standing in the field, chewing their cud--but if they had opposable thumbs it'd be us being fattened up in narrow pens: Kobe human.


Ref: Chewed up Trees: I think it was a giant caterpillar, about forty feet long and about four feet wide. Saw it two days ago poking around Cleveland Park.

John Kelly: Just think of the big pretty butterfly.


Re; diseases jumping TO animals: Pet birds can catch respiratory illnesses from humans.

John Kelly: Polly want some Tamiflu?


D.C.: With all the stories you produce about the landmarks of our fair city, have ever considered doing the porno tour? We've got some highly suggestive statuary in the city, like the fountain in front of the LOC, the BSA memorial, and those homoerotic friezes at the top of the old Agriculture building.

John Kelly: I'm not familiar with the Agriculture friezes. Is it strapping farmboys, their overalls falling down around their shoulders, revealing taut flesh?

Speaking of homoerotic, here's a bit of the

Steuben Monument

in Lafayette Park.


Quiet Car: I hate noise on a train as well, and hated trains until I found the wonder of the Quiet Car. Most trains nowadays have them, and the best yet, there is usually a conductor/enforcer stashed in there to shush people for you!

John Kelly: I think perhaps that's what I'll take home. We asked the conductor about it this morning, wondering if you were allowed to use a laptop in there. He said, "As long as you're not tapping at the keys too loudly."


RE: Taco Bell: It might be dangerous, but it won't give you swine flu! Actually the other day my mother told me we shouldn't eat at Anita's for fear of (Mexican) Swine Flu. I told her I was ashamed to know her.

John Kelly: I don't think you can catch German measles from sauerkraut either.


Rockville, Md.: I think the irony for the zone system for cabs is that they waited until the technology caught up (GPS) and then abandoned it.

John Kelly: The GPS stuff sounds really cool but I just can't see it having worked in D.C. Many of the cabs barely work. I don't see them being able to swing a system that employs complicated algorithms and satellites in geosynchronous orbit.


Silver Spring, Md.: In addition to cabbies, Marc Fisher likes the zone system. In response to the allegations of cheating, I believe he used to tell people to grow a pair and fight for their fare. Not in those exact words, but he doesn't rock like you do, John.

John Kelly: No, I never liked the zone system. I like things that make transactions easier.


Bethesda, Md.: "A previous commenter wrote that cabbies now 'stop at every yellow light'. Isn't that the law?"

Umm, no. But hi there -- apparently you're that driver who is always in front of me!

John Kelly: As the parent of two teenagers close to getting their licenses, I urge everyone to stop for yellow lights.


Cabs and yellows: It should be noted that cabbies do NOT stop at yellow lights when they don't have a fare.

John Kelly: I'm not sure police cars do, either.


Power-washing the sidewalks: My question is why this stupid practice is still allowed in the first place. It seems that almost every summer we hear news that the D.C. area is experiencing a drought, yet every day you see those people outside in downtown D.C. hosing down the sidewalks. I realize the use of an ordinary BROOM would mean that they'd actually have to do some work, but come on, washing the sidewalks has to be one of THE biggest wastes of water you see around here.

John Kelly: If there aren't official water restrictions I see no reason why they shouldn't keep the sidewalk clean. It makes for a more pleasant pedestrian experience, provided you can walk down the sidewalk without getting splashed.


Nitpicker: GPS satellites aren't in geosynchronous orbits, which is why they need extra-fancy algorithms.

John Kelly: Thank you. And thank you for showing my how to spell "algorithm."


Noise on Metro: I used to read on Metro -- now my iPod is my only option, because there's one person talking on their cell and two listening to their music devices at volumes likely to induce hearing loss.

Telling people who want to read to put in earplugs smacks of rudeness.

John Kelly: I always wonder how loud my iPod is to other people. I should put the headphones on and then ask my seatmate if the music annoys them. Then I should ask if they know they have to pay first before they pump.


Germantown, Md.: I had a Reuben sandwich for lunch and now I have a tummy ache. Diagnose me, Doctor John.

John Kelly: You have Russian Dressing Flu.


Taxi!: You said regarding driving a taxi, "It's an often unpleasant job and an occasionally dangerous one."

As one who drove a NYC yellow cab on and off from age 19 to 23, I can safely say your description is accurate.

Often unpleasant: A drunk hauled off and slugged me in the face -- it hurt, but he didn't do any real damage. Another drunk upchucked in the back of my cab. (Amazingly, this only happened once.)

Dangerous: I was held up twice, once at knifepoint, but I was too young and stupid to be frightened.

The upside was that it was an interesting job, it allowed me to build up a really high tolerance for adverse traffic and weather conditions. To this day I'll drive just about anywhere, anytime.

And the money wasn't bad, but that was quite a while ago. (Hint: I'm nowhere close to 23 at this point.)

But would I want that job today, particularly if I were trying to support a family? Not so much.

John Kelly: If you're who I think you are, you had some more adventures besides.


Atlanta, Ga.: Down here in Atlanta, one of the stations DOES have the largest escalator (well, the highest?) anywhere around. And well, people don't take our MARTA system like they do in D.C. But -- during the Olympics -- it broke down, they said cause it couldn't handle the capacity. So they had someone (after probably 5 days during the Olympics of it happening) stand at the bottom of the escalator so there wouldn't be so many people on at once (i.e., holding a hand in front of you to make you wait about 20-30 seconds to go up). Fun, reminiscing.

John Kelly: There's an idea: An escalator you need to make reservations for.


Rockville, Md.: Who talks?

I know it is humor and all, but my wife and I have our best times talking. Married for 36 years in December. We even whisper and giggle in church. Must be a habit.

John Kelly: Now you're making me look bad. Okay, I promise to talk to my wife--and giggle-- during the entire four-hour return train trip tomorrow. I apologize in advance to anyone who is sitting near us.

That's all for now. I have to go find an egg cream and a stickball game. Thanks for stopping by for the chat. I'll see you in the paper on Sunday. Wash your hands, cough into your armpit and enjoy the weekend.


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