People in Washington make time to read in remarkable places. They read as they walk around construction on 21st Street NW, as they navigate the inner loop during a 5 o'clock slowdown, as they nibble pasta salad at lunch and as they wait their turn at the Post Office. Along with their coats, hats and identification cards, Washingtonians grab a book as they walk out the door.
It is not easy to read on the Metro during rush hour. Still, people do. Pressed on all sides, they hold their paperbacks in one hand, pausing only momentarily as the surrounding mass shifts. Glancing up as the train slows into a station, a reader may become engaged in a kind of literary conversation, Washington-style.
Normally, only tourists and the demented speak to strangers on the Metro, but a book changes the rules. A gray-haired lawyer on the crowded Metro Center platform hesitantly approached me once when I was carrying Milan Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness of Being."
"I always thought it was the strangest novel I ever read," he confided in a half whisper. "But I can't forget it."
Another time, as my train left DuPont Circle, a woman looking stiff and official in her Army uniform did a double take as I pulled my copy of Norman Mclean's "A River Runs Through It" from my purse. "So, what do you think?" the sergeant demanded. "You are the only person I ever knew who read the damn thing."
While I was reading "Their Eyes Were Watching God," I came to one more passage by Zora Neale Hurston that made me sigh in admiration. Then I blushed for I remembered where I was.
That hot day, my feet aching in my high heels, my briefcase trapped between my ankles, I stood clutching a pole at the end of the Metro car facing the long bench near the door. I was being watched by a frazzled young woman juggling a toddler and a baby with bundles and a stroller. Still she smiled as our eyes met. "Zora really knocks you out, doesn't she?" she said nodding toward the book. For a moment she and I dissolved whatever separated us as she welcomed me to a place she knew I would enjoy. Then she turned back to her wiggly toddler and the baby's dropped pacifier.
Now I live in a university town where I commute five minutes to work and read in private places. Although I talk often with students and colleagues about literature, the reading itself seems secretive. I miss the chance meetings and unplanned alliances. And I miss the public affirmation of the human capacity to be transported by the written word.
-- Ronnetta Bisman Kahn