The people in the subway car did not speak. They watched solemnly as though they feared the presence of strangers. I pulled the luggage closer to my feet while the train whistled down the dark tunnel.
I had just arrived from Medicine Bow, Wyo., on my first trip east -- I had never been east of Bassett, Neb., and I had never ridden in a subway.
Medicine Bow is a very small town in a big state that is populated less than this city and that has no subways. I was intrigued that people travel beneath their homes, offices, streets, and even the Potomac River.
That was the exit point. After the doors sprang open with a synchronized, metal thud, I entered a platform area in a honeycomb-like cavern that was fed by escalators.
The escalators provided some clues about people. Tourists seemed to be the ones who rode; residents, on the other hand, walked on the moving stairways as though they believed the machines were too slow. I rode, although I wondered if there was a good reason to also walk. The escalator carried me into the sunlight of a world that was amazingly foreign.
With nervous excitement, I wrestled with the luggage, trying to maintain a fast, steady pace. The two-story, narrow apartment house, attached to a row of similar houses, was nearby. Was this a safe neighborhood where I was staying? Was it safe to walk down the street, even in the daylight hours?
That night, when I telephoned back to my hometown, the telephone operator asked if Medicine Bow really existed. Two weeks later, I, too, would begin to wonder.
The big Eastern city and the small Western town exist with vast differences.
Washington, D.C., has paved streets; Medicine Bow has dirt streets. The D.C. telephone directory has too many pages to count; the Medicine Bow telephone book has six pages. Medicine Bow has about 953 people, 117 dogs and 76 cats; Washington, D.C., has infinitely more.
My western concept of the geographical nature of the East was wrong in many ways. I thought Washington was on the Atlantic coast. Wrong. I thought there would be cool breezes from the ocean. Wrong again. The high humidity is uncomfortable. The Potomac is a huge river: In Wyoming, its size would indicate that it was a lake.
If the fear of being mugged in the city is exaggerated by the small-town westerner, nonetheless, it exists. Small towns are safer, mostly because they are smaller. There are fewer car accidents, fewer robberies, fewer people.
One result is that most people who live in cities know how to be cautious about their environment. Several D.C. residents used the term "street-smart" and said they didn't take chances, such as walking alone at night. However, they also said they didn't feel "oppressed" by the threat of crime. They adjusted their lifestyle to include precautions.
Besides crime, other possible dangers in this city are revolving doors, traffic, and dehydration from constantly perspiring.
A special tour of the city, Maryland suburbs and Virginia suburbs provided an examination of neighborhoods, development and people. There is a spectrum of economic conditions. The wealthy neighborhoods, such as McLean, where million-dollar mansions are camouflaged by lush greenery, greatly contrast the public housing sections, which are not confined to the District of Columbia.
The poverty in the nation's showcase city to the world was my greatest criticism about D.C. It was a sobering sight. I can't imagine a politician going to work in this capital city and not feeling an obligation to help the people who are in serious economic need. Back home, people help one another through hard times, because there is no pride in having a community with ill or needy or troubled residents. No one is isolated from problems in a small town and therefore everyone seems to assist in seeking solutions.
A fellow tourist, Pam Madison, from Hartford, Conn., said that at first she was shocked to see the poor conditions of public housing. "But the more I traveled through those parts of the city, the more I got used to it," she said, possibly reflecting the view of most city dwellers, who feel they have little control over employment, housing, and the economy.
While my main form of transportation was the subway system, a grand invention that's easily conquered by the newcomer, I took enough taxi rides to learn that the cabbies can leave the width of a jackalope's whisker between their taxis and the next car as they zigzagg through traffic.
Transportation is particularly important for people with foot blisters. "There's still something you can buy in Washington for a quarter," the shoe salesman told me when I purchased some pads for the inside of my shoes.
Food, gasoline, clothing and other costs are similar to prices in Wyoming. Housing costs are extremely high here. It seems incredible that a house or apartment could rent for over $600 a month, but apparently that's the case for a lot of them.
The most interesting part of my two-week presence in D.C. was my acquaintance with The Washington Post, and how it contrasts with my paper back home. The Post has more employes than Medicine Bow has residents. It is a city-within-a-building that includes a public relations office, security guards, staff nurse, computer technology and even a cafeteria with Pac-Man machines. The newspaper that I work for, The Medicine Bow Post, has only one full-time employe and several part-time employes. I can remember how pleased I was when the Medicine Bow newspaper office was moved to facilities that had hot running water.
Medicine Bow has a saying about people being stuck in "low mud" as compared to "high mud." Since most of the town's streets aren't paved, it is easy to get mud on both cuffs of the trousers. But the saying actually refers to an attitude about living and learning, with "low mud" being a formidable problem but not without solution.
The District of Columbia's streets kept my cuffs from mud, and my two-week study changed many wrong impressions that I had about this and other cities.
I met people from many ethnic groups: black, white, Vietnamese, Arab, and others. I found the people to be friendly and helpful. My conception that city people had little time to be cordial proved to be wrong.
I discovered and enjoyed the many Smithsonian museums, art galleries and monuments; the delicacy of Maryland crabs; that the girls are beautiful; that most men who wear ties don't keep them tied; and that most people fit into one of three categories: Tourists, politicians or joggers. And I learned that Washington has trees and fireflies, and because it has no skyscrapers, you can sometimes see the stars at night.
With all of my experiences, I still have many unanswered questions that perhaps I will settle one day with another visit. Was Washington built in a swamp? Who are the people who live next door? What goes on a bagel? Why do people walk or run up the escalators?