Metro Refugee Endures Commute From Hell

Feature: When Metro fails, one writer learns necessity is mother of invention

July 11, 2016

Scene: A couple exhausts its life savings to move to a home in the Huntington section of Alexandria, Va. in order to be within walking distance of the Metro, the Washington, D.C. version of New Yorks subway. They close on May 31 and move in June 12. On July 5, Metro shuts down the lines that bring Husband 11 miles to Washington Free Beacon HQ, which is located many floors above THE POLITICO. The Wife is 10 months pregnant.

Tuesday, July 5: Bicycle

Distance (Round Trip): 23 Miles
Completion Time (Round Trip): 2:57
Cost: Free 

The breeze that greets me at 10:15 is hateful, 90-plus degrees and laden with humidity, the kind of wave that blinds you when you open a grill that’s been pre-heating too long. I wheel the borrowed mountain bike outside and clumsily mount. I do my best to fake the look of a dedicated cyclist, but my outfit is unconvincing. I do not own spandex, so I make do in a pair of my wife’s maternity leggings.

The old adage that you never forget how to ride a bike is true, but cycling goes beyond mere mechanics. Muscle memory does not cover the behavior I’ve observed among modern cyclists as a motorist and bipedal pedestrian, so I will myself into their mindset. I ignore traffic signs. I pedal lazily in the middle of the street and wave motorists around me into the oncoming lane. When there are dedicated bike lanes, I ride on the sidewalk.

Many commuters are deferential, embarrassed by the strength inherent in the automobile. To ride a bike is to step into the clip-on shoes of a modern bully who is more Anthony Fremont than Bugs Meany. He doesn’t impose upon classmates from a position of strength, but from a position of entitled weakness; he deals in temper tantrums and tattle-taleing rather than the honest work of hoisting undergarment elastic over a victim’s head. Cars grind to a halt when they see me coming 15 yards away.

Alexandria and Arlington have gone to great lengths to appease cyclists over the past few years. Alexandria installed bike lanes on King Street after passing an Orwellian "Traffic Calming" bill. The merchants and homeowners decrying the lack of street parking in the city’s most bustling commercial corridor were no match for the thuggish likes of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Arlington has dedicated bike lanes and repair stations running through Crystal City, a desert of office buildings and airport hotels that developers now whimsically tout as an up-and-coming dining and shopping center.

A bike trail connects the two areas. Alexandria is turning Potomac Yard, one of the largest train depots in the Eastern seaboard from 1906 to 1982, into the region’s premier destination for DINKs. Luxury apartment buildings and condo complexes are going up. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which cannot maintain its existing train lines, is building a new station that will cost between $228 and $539 million.

Developers footed the bill for Potomac Yard Park, an $800,000 green space that includes the trail. It is pothole-free and dotted with amenities that the childless find attractive: brightly-colored pull-up bars, a basketball court, and dotted yellow lines to regulate cyclist passing, which is done by barking "on your left" when an "excuse me" would suffice.

I had hoped the trail would give me a chance to inspect the new structures, a hodgepodge of classic brick mixed with orange, brown, and blue siding cut to highlight modern architecture’s disdain for symmetry, but I can’t get a good look.

Cycling forces you into a state of obliviousness. It is impossible to have 360-degree awareness when the world is approaching at 20 miles an hour, a 26-inch rubber wheel serving as the only barrier between you and calamity. Turning back throws you off kilter; glancing to the side sways you in that direction. You can’t help but move forward in a solipsistic bubble.

I take one pit stop over my 23-mile trip. My hangover, coupled with the heat, forces me into a 7-Eleven a mere four miles into my journey. Potomac Yard Trail sits across the street. I wait at the crosswalk like an ordinary pedestrian. An insistent blue Volvo—of course—stops and pleasantly waves me along. I board the bike and turn to give her a wave of thanks. I nearly topple over.

Wednesday, July 6: Drive Self

Distance (RT): 20 Miles
Completion Time: Did Not Complete
Cost: $600

As I sit down for breakfast my grimace evokes pity from my wife, who is going on four hours of sleep and is officially 40 weeks pregnant as of midnight. She says she is not in labor, but the nausea that woke her throughout the evening has her nervous; my plan to walk to work has her terrified. So I’m driving.

I ditch my exercise rags and grab a pair of dry-cleaned summer slacks and a lavender-striped shirt. I remove my computer from the backpack and head out the door. The car won’t start.

The center computer display is crucial to the performance of the 2012 Honda CR-V. Without it a driver would never know radio station identifications. The display has not turned off for a week, a quirk I did not fully appreciate until it drained the battery. I get a jump and head to the dealership. The technicians are baffled but assure me the warranty covers the problem. They send me off to Enterprise. The workday is nearly done. I drive home.

The call comes as I take my family for a walk. My wife says it can help induce labor and the kids need to run around. It’s 6:29.

"We need to replace the entire audio component …Yes the warranty covers it, but …Yes, the deductible is $100. Now … Okay, so here’s my dilemma: there are coins—we think they’re coins—inside the audio component. We can hear them rattling. The presence of a foreign object negates the warranty…We can send the part back, but they won’t accept it …The cost for a new [whatever the hell the part is called] is $500 …Yes, the deductible still applies, the labor’s free though…We should have it ready by Friday … Congratulations. Yes, you can keep the rental."

I’m tempted to let the kids go play in the street.

Thursday, July 7: Vagabond Triathlon

Stage 1: Scootering
Distance: 2.4 Miles
Time: 0:34
Cost: $39.99 (and what was left of my dignity)

It’s 75 degrees and muggy when I set out at 6:46 a.m. There is nothing less dignified than a scooter, but the temptation to coast on hills is too great. I try to navigate the thing through Old Town. The three-inch hard rubber wheels cannot handle bricks. The handlebar snaps off after two miles.

Stage 2: Walking
Distance (RT): 10.7 Miles
Time: 2:48
Cost: Free

I have more than eight miles to go and it’s 7:20. At four miles an hour I can be at the office by 10:30. I tuck the broken scooter into the backpack straps and hoof it.

Stage 3: Hitchhiking
Distance (RT): 9 Miles
Time: 0:46
Cost: $3.57

At this point humidity has skyrocketed and temperature is approaching 90. I walk more than a mile along the Metro tracks before detouring into the 7-Eleven again. I buy a pack of Cheetos and the largest Slurpee they have and ask the cashier for cardboard. She refuses. I walk back to the dumpster and retrieve a box for frozen chicken and scrawl out my plea for a ride.

Major hitchhiking key: Look happy without seeming manic
Major hitchhiking key: Look happy without seeming manic

My hitchhiking ledger is full of credits and only a single debit. I once drove a mother, her two young children, and dog to LaGuardia in rush hour. She mailed me a thank you note and a T-shirt. I still have the letter. The next hitcher directed me to her drug dealer’s corner in Poughkeepsie. She didn’t ask for my address.

I try my luck on Route 1, the artery that connects Alexandria to the airport, Arlington, and 395 into D.C. It has one of the worst rush hours in the region. The street is surrounded by strip malls, which necessitate frequent traffic lights, and townhouses and apartment buildings that restrict the speed limit to 35 miles per hour even on its three lane segments. When asked to address the congestion, lawmakers installed $13 million lanes reserved for buses rather than expand the roadway. These lanes are empty.

Hundreds of drivers pass me by as I amble down the street. A woman in the passenger side of a Lexus looks out her window in disgust. I smile. The key to hitchhiking is to appear as harmless as possible, hence my shorts. You should look happy without seeming manic, hence my sign: METRO REFUGEE ROSSLYN BOUND I HAVE CHEETOS (CRUNCHY). Your target demographic is a male driving alone with no car seats in the back.

At 8:04 a black Camry stops at a green light in front of Notch 8, a new luxury apartment complex complete with an "entertainment kitchen," gym, and "game room with Xbox® One and PlayStation® 4 gaming consoles, sweet 70" flat-screen TV, and library of games & videos." Studios start at $1800. The Camry idles, ignoring the chorus of horns. The light turns yellow then red. I park at the corner to jot some notes. A car horn. A dark Subaru Forester turns the corner, windows down. "Hop in."

Tom Rust, 46, wears the countenance of Jonah in the storm, the reluctant smile of man coming to grips with his duty, self imposed or from on high. He had seen me earlier, but didn’t decide to pull over until the Camry stopped. Two decades ago he was bumming rides from Moscow, Idaho to Washington State while his car was in the shop. He needs to balance his ledger, too.

Getting a lift in the Mountain West was easy, but hitchers in our nation’s capital face unique challenges. "I could stick my thumb up and get a ride after a couple cars," he says. "I saw the sign and said, ‘this guy doesn’t look homeless. It must be a protest or something.’"

He grew up in Old Town Alexandria and is getting ready to take over Rust Construction with his brother after his father retires. The business started in 1920 when Great Granddaddy Rust tired of the dairy farm. He broke up the land and started building homes in the Rosemont section of the city. Tom was born in 1970, six years before Metro opened. Part of the charm of Old Town, which is now littered with boutique cupcake stores, two sex shops, and numerous Zagat-rated restaurants, "was that it was industrial. You had tracks running down to the water."

"The west side was always high end, but land was cheap on the east. You could put a warehouse anywhere. The city council wouldn’t let you build something like that today," he says. One of those warehouses is now home to a doggy daycare facility, where sitters "watch dogs in our playroom learn and exercise social skill that allow them to create complex relationships that include friendship." It’s painted purple.

Rust laments the gentrification that cast out the city’s black population and replaced them with DINKs. He used to take the Metro into Clarendon because he and his wife shared one car. The needs of raising a 15-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son trumped those of a convenient commute. He recently bought the Subaru in anticipation of taking over the family business.

"There’s a lot of money in the area. Lots of new homes and renovation. Business is good," he says.

He drops me off in Arlington. I walk three blocks to the office past the cranes at work on a mess of a glass building in Rosslyn. He never eats the Cheetos.

Friday, July 7: Swimming

Distance (RT): 17 Miles
Cost: Free
Time: Did Not Attempt 

As it turns out, it is illegal to swim in the Potomac River because the "smallest cut or scratch is a welcome mat for disease."

Friday, July 7: Kayaking

Distance (RT): 17 Miles
Cost: $50
Time: Did Not Attempt

On Friday I was to cast off from the Mariner Sailing School’s dock in Old Town as soon as it opened at 9:30 a.m. and land at Key Bridge, where I would haul the kayak half a mile into the office. An editor pointed out I would be paddling against the phantom current lurking beneath that placid, poisoned surface. The smart money says I won’t reach Rosslyn until 4 p.m., at which point my triumphant march into the office will be replaced by an agonizing U-turn in order to return the kayak by sundown. The smarter money says I should double check whether my life insurance payments are current.

Jane, who picked me up after eight miles of hitchhiking on Thursday afternoon, is with the smarter money.

"I’ve swum in the Potomac a few times for the triathlon. I normally train in a pool, but the first year I did it a friend of mine told me to come swim at his house. It’s right on the water. There’s this buoy off his dock not too far out. It’s going against the current on the way back. He’s an older man, so he kayaked behind me to give me a spot. I reached the buoy easy enough but when I turned around it was like I was on a treadmill. Then the kayak flipped. He had to hold onto the buoy," she says.

"There was a guy fishing in a little dinghy. We flagged him down, and he came out and helped my friend into the boat and towed him back to the dock."

On Friday, my wife drives me in the rental car, which is covered by our warranty. It takes 20 minutes.

The Metro will remain closed for the next week. If you see a man with an obnoxious sign, please pick him up. Not doing so could result in an additional cyclist on the road.

Published under: Feature