Sensing the DC Metro

April 14, 2019

It's rare now to see brown used as a brand color today, but the DC Metro still uses it. Brown triangular pillars rise from in front of offices and monuments, striped with color and destinations. A modern counterpoint to historicism and developer schlock.

From the sidewalk too, perhaps after rounding some intricate corner, a sensation of pressure as a damp wind lifts your sideburns and your lapels. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer, the chthonic current calls you down to Hades, but you don't have to cross the Styx. The world above is navy pantsuits and lanyards but below, a dream of a future, or at least the aesthetics of one.

In the suburbs your entry escalator trends upward while downtown you may have a five minute ride down into the depths, with gravity and the evidence of the eyes warring over a 45 degree angle. Tempted to tilt forward; to remain perpendicular to force or to the walls? The right is for standing and the left for passage. Pumps and sneakers, roller bags pass forth.

On reaching the bottom, a ticket machine that prompts you to be prepared, to know where you're going, and when. You have to know your destination and whether it is peak or off peak. You have to calculate your exact fare before entry.

Pushing onward, orange hexagonal floor tiles run up to a brown hexagonal pillar (none of these pillars make contact on top) where sits a station attendant. Upon swiping your fare card, two orange slices, two popsicle tangerines, pull back into mechanism to let you issue further down into the cave system. Future technology from the past, a tenous line reminding us that other worlds are possible.

The cave system is immense, a distant coffered ceiling stretching fifty feet aqove the platform causing the imagination to impute another hidden fifty feet below. The walkways and platforms only ever hit the sides of the vault on tangents leaving many seams and glimpses into deeper levels, perhaps all the way down to the mantle. Mysterious grates allow phones and lollipops to pass into the oblivion. As a child, the Metro was far more impressive and mysterious than Luray Caverns with its Blue Ridge stalactites.

When trains approach, lights on the edges of the platform flash. The entire environment communicates. The trains have computer-guided motion, slightly stilted like a Disney ride. Getting on, the orange carpet and orange seats now replaced by the symbols of the Second Federal Style (more on that later). School groups from Iowa wear MAGA hats and school groups from Alabama don't. Kids head home from Chinatown to Anacostia and I go over the river, back to Virginia in a sequence of two exquisite above-ground sections: across the Potomac on the 14th Street Bridge where I see the Jefferson Memorial and Robert E. Lee's wife's house, and where I think about the plane that crashed into the muddy winter river decades ago; and then over National Airport to see planes gathering and leaving, the rhythm of takeoff and landing an index of wind direction and frontal storm systems.

Finally, that map, an iconic Modernist drawing, half-spaghetti, half-logo. Throughout the ravages of privatization and the dismantling of the government, the neglect of infrastructure, and stylistic masturbation, this map has been an iconic life raft, the holy icon of a living city beyond postmodernism.


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