The gates to the Rockville Metro station were locked tight, so a dozen people stood in line for the MARC ticket machine, waiting to buy a ticket to Union Station. From there, they’d improvise. What else could they do on the day the region’s subway was closed?
The MARC train was arriving in two minutes. A sense of quiet desperation hung in the air. It seemed that most of the people had never taken MARC, a Maryland commuter line, before or used the balky machine to buy a ticket.
I cleared my throat and made an announcement: “I am a Washington Post writer. I’m headed downtown. I have room for four people in my car. If you come with me, you have to let me write about you.”
Four hands went up. We walked to my car, we happy few, a little slice of America crammed in a Kia Soul.
Osman Njai, 37, was the newest American. He became a citizen last year, after immigrating here from Sierra Leone in 2009. He lives in Northeast Washington. After spending the night at a friend’s house in Germantown, Md., he found himself stranded at the end of a nonfunctioning Red Line. He needed to get to his job as a lab technician at George Washington University Hospital.
John Bonilla, 37, has yet to become an American. Six months ago, he owned a women’s-shoe factory in Bogotá, Colombia, and employed 40 people.
John was a business owner in Colombia, commuting to work in one of his three cars. But Bogotá is dangerous. “Better for me,” he said of his life there, “but not for my kids. There, I’m a factory owner. Here, I’m a server. But my kids come first.” He and his wife have a son, 16, and a daughter, 5.
John — his name is actually Joan, a Catalan name, but he’s Americanized it — sold the factory and moved to the United States. He earns $9.50 an hour as a temporary hospitality worker.
John laughed when he thought of a stranger offering a ride in Bogotá. You’d end up “stolen,” he said.
Kia Morning Flower, 40, an Atlanta native of Native American and African American heritage, was headed from her home in Gaithersburg, Md., to her job in a preschool at the Department of Labor. “It’s hard,” she said of the Metro shutdown. “Some of the teachers I supervise don’t have cars. They depend on Metro. I was on the phone since 9 last night trying to coordinate things.”
Michael Akinkoye, 19, was hoping to catch the 9:25 a.m. Megabus from Union Station to Philadelphia. He’s a sophomore at St. Joseph’s University, where he’s a double major in finance and marketing. He said he hopes to be a professional soccer player. In middle school, he did a summer camp in England with the Chelsea soccer club.
As we headed south through Rockville, we looked at the vehicles around us. Nearly every one held a single person. Each was a lonely little cocoon.
I asked Osman about commuting in Sierra Leone.
“If somebody has a car — and maybe four or five in a neighborhood of 400 will have a car — they will give a ride to whoever is going to town,” he said. “And if they’re not going where you’re going, they’ll be nice to you and take you halfway to your journey.”
Michael remembered a trip he took, a few years ago, to Nigeria, where his parents were born. In Lagos, there were motorcycle taxies that could zip through the traffic jams.
“I was too scared to try one,” Michael said.
In Bethesda, Md., we passed a woman on a bicycle, pedaling with determination. Whenever traffic slowed, she passed us, the tortoise overtaking the hare.
On Reno Road NW, in the District, we brainstormed ideas for improving Metro. Regular maintenance, Michael said. Better communications with passengers, Osman said. Better emergency preparedness, Kia said. Better value for the money, said John, who spends $330 a month on Metro fare.
On North Capitol Street, we talked about how we passed our time on the subway. Kia said she reads or listens to music on her iPod Shuffle. Sometimes she rests. “But I always keep one eye open,” she said. “Metro has gotten a little sketchy.”
Osman said he’s always reading something. Currently in his backpack is “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”
“It’s about how we drove the other human species to extinction,” he said.
John said he read the Bible on his phone. Whatever benefits he’s had, John said, he owes to God.
“Hey,” I said, “it wasn’t God who picked you up in Rockville. It was me.”
John laughed. After all, how had I been inspired to give him a ride?
Michael said he read the Bible, too. “I just had an epiphany,” he said. “My new mind-set is: I woke up, therefore there’s work to do.”
I dropped Michael off first. It had taken us 90 minutes to get to Union Station. Michael had missed his bus, but he was confident that he could catch the next one. Then I dropped Kia off near her preschool. John hopped out at Ninth and E streets NW.
Osman stayed in the back seat. When he came to the United States, he said, he worked three jobs: as a nursing assistant, as a dishwasher in a retirement home and as a counter worker in the Pentagon food court. He said he likes his current job as a lab tech, but sometimes thinks about going back to teaching, which he had done in Sierra Leone. He also wanted to write a novel.
I dropped Osman off at 23rd and I NW. I was alone, and the car seemed awfully quiet.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.