These last Metro train riders are usually both weary and bleary-eyed. Some of them have just gotten off work. Others have just gotten off bar stools.
They stare blankly. They smile to themselves. They stretch out, with slack mouths, for short naps.
All aboard the midnight train to Shady Grove.
Each night at 12:06 a.m., the last trains of the day from each line leave the Metro Center station for their final run. Most of the travelers on the Red Line train bound for Bethesda and beyond will get off at Van Ness or Cleveland Park or Friendship Heights and not that most remote of Metro outposts -- Shady Grove.
"When the train gets to Shady Grove, it's almost a ghost train," said Metro station attendant Charles Harris about the 23-mile trip. "It's so far out, you see reindeer."
The last travelers to the suburbs wait beneath the high, waffle-iron ceiling of the Metro Center with varying degrees of alertness.
A man in a red Exxon cap goose-steps in slow motion back and forth along the platform. Three 16-year-old girls in punk-chic black costumes giggle among themselves, their heavily made-up eyes raccoon-like in the station's stark light. A tall man with puffy eyes begins to sing an aria in a small, unsteady voice.
The passengers enter the cars and collapse into their seats. The train hurtles toward Shady Grove on this recent night with 42 people aboard.
On the midnight trains, the atmosphere is decidedly different. The go-get-'em attitude of the morning is long gone. Few documents crackle importantly. Few heads are seen buried in the financial sections of newspapers. Few intense discussions about office politics are overheard.
Jim Bovard, a free-lance journalist, uses dazzling swift strokes of his pen to edit what he describes as "the only puff piece on the Gramm-Rudman bill." But his is the only evidence of industry. Nearby, a young man with red eyes and a pasty face props his chin on his fist. A plump woman in a white fur jacket rests her head against a window, eyes closed, lurching slightly each time the train takes off again.
Sometimes, passengers fall asleep on the midnight trains and miss their stops. In that case, attendant Harris said, they have little choice but to call for a cab. A driver with Montgomery Taxi Inc. said that several times a week he picks up a befuddled but angry person at White Flint or Shady Grove who really intended to get off at, say, the Medical Center or Bethesda station.
The train empties rapidly on its final trip. By the time it rushes above ground onto a high, open trestle before the White Flint stop, only a few passengers remain. Below, the red taillights of cars have a lonely, faraway look. The traffic lights blink. A fine mist falls. The train rocks gently.
A man with dark hair curling around his ears and small, gold-rimmed glasses leans back in his seat, smiling sublimely. He is dressed in a gray flannel suit, a white oxford shirt and a maroon-striped tie, topped with a camel's hair overcoat. A bulging leather satchel sits at his side.
He is 34, he said, but he refuses to give his name. "Just call me an overweight real estate lawyer," he said, still smiling blissfully.
His story is this: He took his secretary to dinner. He drank "ungodly amounts of a Grand Marnier-type drink." He was supposed to be home four or five hours ago. He does not expect his wife to be pleased.
He is, he said, an infrequent Metro rider. He usually doesn't take the last train out, but this night, he shrugged, "It was there and I happened to be sober enough to recognize it."
He assumes a comically critical air and surveys his surroundings. "Seems like a nice train," he said.
Indeed. There are no spray-painted slogans on Washington's subway trains, no damp heaps of crumpled trash. The only signs of disarray at 12:45 a.m. are a few sheets of the day's newspaper discarded on the carpeted floor. And the passengers? They are of the sort who are more likely to say, "May I?" than to study mayhem.
The lawyer contrasts this midnight ride with a similar one in the New York City subway system. "This," he said, "is safe. That is an experience in danger."
For the rest of the journey, he proceeds to pontificate in an exaggeratedly learned tone. He orates, among other things, about his basset hound with nine-inch ears, Chumley. "That's C-H-U-M-L-E-Y. Please get it right," he admonishes several times.
Finally, the train pulls into the Shady Grove station, brightly lit and eerily deserted. Two other passengers shuffle away. Taking a deep breath, the lawyer hoists his leather satchel with gusto and hops out.
"I feel like a frontiersman," he said, looking around at the freshly mopped tile floors and the motionless escalators.
Outside, no taxis are waiting. The lawyer reaches for a pay telephone and dials his home number, mumbling something about divorce proceedings.
"Sweetness?" he said into the phone, after a long moment. "I'm at the Shady Grove stop. Sweetness? . . . Sweetness? . . . Are you awake?"