There are many words I can think of to describe the act of waiting at a bus stop in D.C. “Orderly” is not one of them. It’s not that people here trample each other or throw elbows to get on board faster — like I saw happen in China earlier this summer — but there’s usually a certain degree of randomness to the affair. The only way to guarantee that you’ll be the first one at the fare box is to be elderly or pregnant.
That’s how it works on all city corners, I thought, until a recent talk with my friend Kristen. She catches a commuter bus from the intersection of 15th and K and explained to me that the line that forms there every day is governed by a serious set of rules.
So I followed her to the queue to investigate. She took the spot right next to Tommie Collins, 30, and then each subsequent rider filled in the next available chunk of sidewalk without discussion. There’s no need to ask around about the appropriate procedure, Collins said, “Because if you don’t do it right, people will let you know.”
Sometimes line cutters are told politely to step back — which Dana Rosborough, 42, appreciated on her first commute back to Waldorf, Md. But be prepared for the possibility of some stronger language if you incur the wrath of the line regulars, Ray Morgan told me.
“In the beginning, I was more of an enforcer,” said the 43-year-old, who’s been doing the trip from Bryantown, Md., to Washington for 13 years.
One line rule that messes newbies up: In the commuter lots, it’s kosher to hold your place with your bag. Then you can wait in the comfort of your car until the bus comes, Morgan explained. There’s no such rule in downtown D.C., so people who opt to stay in the shade have to join the end of the line when the bus arrives no matter how long they’ve been there.
It’s not hard to understand why these unspoken rules were established, Heather Young said. “Everyone wants the best seat, or their normal seat,” said the 40-year-old Chesapeake Beach, Md., resident. That’s especially true on the more crowded buses, which can leave stragglers behind to wait for the next one. And lining up doesn’t require any real expertise, added Patty Volonakis, 41, of Waldorf: “We all learned this back in kindergarten.”
Line skills are also apparently well drilled at the Pentagon, which I’d heard boasted the most impressive bus queues at any Metro station. After taking a field trip on the Blue Line, I believe it. People practically march into place around there. Maria Gonzales, 48, told me she wishes she could sit sometimes while waiting, but that isn’t an option if she wants a seat on her bus.
On a nearby bench, I spotted Janice Atkinson, 54, who was taking a load off before getting on the OmniRide to Lake Ridge, Va. “I forfeited being in line to sit down,” said Atkinson, whose friend was soon regaling her with the details of a “catfight” that had nearly broken out the other day when someone tried to cut to the front of the line.
All that drama seemed kind of stressful, so I was relieved to walk a few lines over and meet a guy named Courtney. He was in the very last spot of his line, but it didn’t worry him a bit: “If they want to be the first, whatever. I’m not in a hurry. This is time for me to unwind, not stress about going home.”
That’s a line that seems worth getting behind.