The passengers are mostly too engrossed in their cellphones, children or reading material to pay me much attention. Also, women my age, older than 75, tend to become invisible anyway. Yet with age, I find, I have gained a greater ability to see. The ride offers me a panorama I overlooked when I worked for the government.
There have been reactions. Once, a gentleman on the No. 31 Friendship Heights bus on Wisconsin Avenue spied me drawing his children. As we both got off the bus, he offered to pay me for the drawing. From his clothing, I knew he couldn’t pay much, so I asked for only $10. Another time, a young man appeared as if from nowhere and demanded, “What right do you have to look at people?” I stammered something about being an artist.
When I draw, I try to fade into the background, never drawing someone whose eyes are upon me. I am like a street photographer who has learned to take candid, unposed photos.
But Metro offers another high value: I have gained knowledge and respect for the riders and for the system. Metro is the great equalizer. It ferries all kinds of people to their work, the airports, hospitals, movies, their homes. It is the unsung workhorse of the city. It carries what comes to be a microcosm of America: people getting along despite their differences.
After I retired in 2007, I took the bus or subway seemingly every day from my home in Columbia Heights, going to concerts, plays, the National Press Club, art class in Alexandria, and museums and many other attractions in this city.
One January, every time I took the J6 bus from Silver Spring Metro to my class on upper Connecticut Avenue, a tall, rawboned young man would board, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. He held his hand out, imploring the riders in a thick Slavic accent for “two dollah.” Once, on the Naylor Road bus along Wisconsin Avenue, I spied a man in a three-piece suit with his hands busy knitting a garment.
Generally, I take one of four conveyances: the Yellow Line train between Columbia Heights and Braddock Road, the H crosstown buses and the Fort Totten and Federal Triangle buses that ply their way along 11th Street NW.
On the Yellow Line, I see military men in camouflage, men and women in professional dress and young men who take up a whole seat with their legs splayed out. Many riders carry suitcases and other totes, going to work or the airport. Most seem angry or distracted. The crosstown H buses carry millennials and students, mothers with babies and young children, some adults in wheelchairs or with walkers or canes and older adults who travel without encumbrances.
The travelers on the 64 buses along 11th Street NW include a sprinkling of white millennials but mostly older adults of African or Hispanic descent. Occasionally there are children with parents.
Cellphones are ubiquitous. It is odd to see babies in strollers, too young to read, fingering small devices.
Most riders are courteous. I am nearly always offered a seat on crowded buses and trains.
There’s no denying the diverse cultures in the metropolitan area. Bus and subway riders form neighborhoods. They dwell in the battered old buildings along 11th Street, alongside their new neighbors in the glass-faced apartment houses renting for $2,500 for a one-bedroom or in the bright, red-brick apartments at Vaughan Place on Wisconsin Avenue.
Like any other city, Washington is a place of neighborhoods. It wakes up, goes to work, comes home. It’s not just Congress and the president making laws or evading them. Folks are born and reared, go to school, work and retire — all within the environs of the city. They depend on Metro, the great equalizer, the engine for tolerance. It unites people through their need for transit.
I am fortunate to capture the diversity of this great city from my perch, to see the people most riders never notice.