Two days after moving to the District I received a rude welcome when I embarked on my first morning Metro ride to work. The two-stop trip from Woodley Park to Farragut North left me with the unshakable impression that I was not, and could not become, a Washingtonian.
It wasn't just my inability to locate the dollar bill slot on the farecard vending machine, nor was it the seemingly endless moment I spent deciphering the cryptic five-tone Metro map at Woodley Park station, or even that I got on the train headed the wrong way that made me feel like an outsider that fateful sunny morning in July.
No, it was the feeling I got from my more accomplished fellow commuters that made me feel like a helpless tourist.
A woman in a black pantsuit let out an audible sigh as I struggled to cram my first ever metro card into the turnstyle, slowing what had been a seamless rhythm of human traffic into the station.
A disheveled man shook his head in disgust as he elbowed by me on the escalator, personally insulted that I had yet to figure out the unwritten stand-right-walk-left rule.
My Metro experience notwithstanding, James Aldridge, administrator of the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affair's Housing Regulation Administration, says that people actually spend less time in D.C. than in other cities with comparable populations. He attributes the high turnover rate to the wealth of academic, governmental and special-interest institutions that dot the cityscape.
"A lot of people come to the District for six months to a year to develop skills and contacts. They rent and then they leave," he says.
Well, either the transient politicians, interns, lobbyists and others about whom Aldridge spoke took a different route to work that particular morning or they did a good job hiding their unfamiliarity with the Metro system.
I didn't see any of them frantically inspecting the route map on wall of the train, behind the elderly woman who had to be wondering what I was looking for in her ear, nor did any of them seem to realize after two stops that they were heading away from their places of employment.
I'm certain I was the only Red Line rider to let go of the rail that was keeping me standing upright just before the train came abruptly to a stop at Van Ness, pitching me forward into a man who smelled an awful lot like a freshly opened can of cheese ravioli.
As I stumbled across the platform to get on the waiting train that would take me back the way I had come, checked my watch, realized I was going to be late for my first day of work, and collapsed despairingly into an empty seat, I was sure I could feel all eyes on the train scrutinizing me as their owners thought, "Rookie."
I looked intensely at the floor and wondered if I had what it took to become one of them--a Washingtonian. Is it as simple as figuring out the Metro map and the traffic circles, or is there a minimum amount of time people must live here before they can call themselves Washingtonians?
Maybe it was something more subtle: knowing where the best restaurants are or how to get free cable? Political connections?
Whatever it was, I vowed to myself as I emerged triumphantly from Farragut North and felt the warm sunshine on my face, I would acquire it myself and become a man of the city.
I had almost forgotten about that first ride until another trip on the Red Line recently made me aware that I had, in fact, arrived. As the train pulled into Cleveland Park and I prepared to disembark to meet some friends for a movie at the Uptown, the nervous guy who had been manically checking both his watch and the route map for the past three stops, suddenly lost his balance and tumbled into my back.
"Rookie," I chuckled to myself.