"This is an Orange Line train to Ballston," or a Blue Line train, or a Red or a Yellow one going somewhere. You've heard that before. So have the 53,000 others who ride Metrorail to work every day.
But in the spirit of Andy Rooney, have you ever wondered about the people who make subway announcements?
D.C. subway operators use their voices as an integral part of their work. And the way they use those voices -- pronunciation, diction, pacing and panache -- affects the commuter's mood. As a five-year Metrorail veteran, I look forward to my daily subterranean travels to further extend my study of subway announcers' speaking styles.
When Metrorail's sound system is working well -- which, despite what some short-term riders think, is most of the time -- the first thing one notices are the variations in the ways many place names are pronounced. For example, "Brookland" quickly becomes a borough of New York City ("Brooklyn"), while "Ballston" is transformed into the Massachusetts capital ("Boston"). "Orange" (as in "Line") often is packed into a single syllable ("Ornj"), and "Clarendon" is apt to develop an internal gerundial ending ("ClarINGdon").
Most striking, however, are the variants wrought upon that transit-worker's nightmare, "Judiciary Square": Try to wrap your lips around that at 6:30 in the morning. No wonder it may arrive as "Jooodishyooowary."
More subtle, perhaps, but no less intriguing to Metro cognoscenti are phrasing variations. Most people play it straight: "This is the Blue Line to National Airport." But a Metrorail operator who must have worked for Amtrak treats his mission more seriously, informing us, "This is the Blue Line, with stops at Capitol Heights, Benning Road, Stadium-Armory, Potomac Avenue, Eastern Market . . . " and so on down the line.
One particularly erudite announcer notes that at Metro Center, "You may acquire the Red Line train on the upper level."
Most striking are the variants wrought upon "Judiciary Square": Try to wrap your lips around that at 6:30 in the morning. No wonder it may arrive as "Jooodish-yooowary."
Over the years I've come to recognize certain distinctive Metrorail operators -- whose personalities extend beyond mere quirks of phrasing or pronunciation -- and I've assigned them nicknames.
There's "Darth Vader," an erstwhile Shakespearean actor who gives low-voiced, dramatic line-readings, and "The Robot," who speaks in a jerky, mechanical manner, giving all syllables equal stress. "Michael Jackson" seems far too shy to speak in public; his soft voice constantly fades into the ether, and he separates each phrase into a new wave poem: "This is Rosslyn/ Change here/ For the Orange Line/ On the lower level/ Doors opening/ On the left."
But my all-time favorite announcers are "The Earnest Young Man," "Lothario" and "Mister Rogers." A social worker at heart, The Earnest Young Man is truly concerned about our welfare. Thus, he implores: "Passengers, you must transfer here if you need a train to National Airport."
Lothario exhibits incredible verbal control and an assured, musical style. He treats his entire script as a come-on, finding unexpected seductive powers in even the most neutral terms. "This is Rosslyn," he said teasingly one day, "your absolute last transfer point," daring his passengers to choose the company of any other operator.
Several young women in the car began to giggle and, as "Lothario" continued, drawing out his comments to an incredible degree ("This . . . is . . . Fog . . . gy . . . Bot . . . tom"), the women went wild, racing out of the subway car to see what this person looked like (hip, young, and bearded).
Although less overtly exciting, "Mister Rogers" also has his share of fans. Except for a humorless few who would rather sleep, talk, or work, most of his captive audience chuckle at his patter. Like a cheerful early-morning deejay, he punches out his words, full of anticipation.
On a gloomy, drizzly day, his heartfelt, "Let's everyone have a good day -- and smile; don't forget it's Friday!" elicits grins from even the most dazed-looking, trench-coated government lawyers.