When readers have questions about Metro or suggestions for improving service, I ring up Cody Pfanstiehl, Metro's utility infielder, outfielder, pitcher, cather and ticket-taker.
A few weeks ago, I passed along to him a reader's suggestion that the operator on each subway train should, as his train approaches each station, announce on which side the doors will open. Cody said, "That might speed things up a little. Let me talk to our people about it."
A few days later, Cody called back. "We have a problem with your suggestion," he said. "If we tell blind people on which side the door will open, perhaps we should also tell them whether they will get off on a side platform or a center platform."
"I hadn't thought of that," I said.
"We're expected to think of everything and please everybody," Cody said. "Let me work on it some more."
A few days later, I forwarded another suggestion: "Train operators should make announcements reminding passengers that some seats are supposed to be reserved for elderly and handicapped people. Signs are posted, but they are ignored, and the seats are almost always occupied by people without handicaps."
Cody sighed. "I see the same sort of thing in parking areas provided by stores," he said."Signs say 'Reserved for the Handicapped,' and in a lot of places there is also the universally recognized wheelchair symbol, either on a sign of painted on the ground. But it's discouraging how often those 'Reserved' signs are ignored."
"I know," I said. "The other day I saw a healthy young fellow of about 20 whip into a 'handicaped' parking space in a Dart parking lot. When he jumped out of his car and began trotting toward the store, I noticed that he was in jogging togs.
"I called out to him to ask whether he was aware he had taken the only space reserved for the handicapped. He grinned, called back, 'Yeah, I know,' and kept on trotting.I shouted, 'It's not for the mentally handicapped, you know', but fortunately for me he was already half way into the store and he didn't hear me."
Cody said, "Give me a few days to find out if we can make those announcements for the handicapped."
The next day, he called me. "I'm still working on the announcements for the handicapped," he said. "Meanwhile I want you to know we've begun announcing on which side of the train the doors will open."
"Great," I said. "Keep in touch."
A few more days passed before Cody called again to tell me, "We're getting a lot of complaints from people who don't want to be told on which side the subway car doors will open. They say we disturb their reading or snoozing, and we're filling the air with too much verbal pollution."
I said, "Cody, a variation on a theme by Abe Lincoln may be in order: You can please some of the people some of the time, but there ain't no way you can run a railroad that will please all of the people all of the time."
"Amen," said Cody. "I think what we'll do is continue the door-opening announcements for a while and cut out the announcements about locations of exits to the street. We'll see how they react to that. But I'd say the chances for reminders about the seats reserved for the elderly and handicapped have little chance of approval right now."
I didn't have the heart to argue with him. I know that when I take the Metroliner up to New York, the pleasant announcement from the train operator always sounds a lot better to me as we approach Baltimore than it does as we approach New York. After a passenger has heard the same message often enough, and it has disturbed his nap a few times, he does tend to get a little bit testy.
Perhaps some day Washington's subway riders will emulate New York's and learn to tune out all the distractions around them. I have seen New Yorkers drop off to sleep as soon as they sat down in a subway car and then sleep so soundly that a cannon wouldn't have awakened them. Yet as they approached their stations, some mysterious inner clock woke them at precisely the right moment -- with no need for announcements from the train operator. In a decade or two, evolution may produce that kind of specimen in Washington, too.