I've lived in Washington DC long enough to see that it is, as the saying goes "Two Cities." There's Washington: that famed center of pomp and power connected by the metro; and DC the land of crime and generational poverty connected by the bus lines. In an essay by one of my students this past semester, he said that Washington was divided "if not racially, at least socially." And I think that's fair. Living off Anacostia on the green line is very different than living off DuPont Circle on the red line. They may as well be two cities.
But I do believe that sometimes the city is one. There's two things we all have in common here in DC: that were all different and we're all here. Maybe that's enough. A few weeks back, I was on the yellow line headed from Columbia Heights to Chinatown. And I saw something that's stuck with me.
It's a typical metro scene.
I'm sitting down behind a large, graying Caucasian man. He's wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jacket and hat. He's staring out the metro at the nothing that whizzes by through the tunnels. Two black girls are sitting in front of him chit-chatting with their mouths while their eyes are glued to their phones. They're hands pass expertly over the phones, sending text messages perhaps. An older white woman with a sour face is standing, holding onto the rails. Her Georgetown Medical Center tag sways with the tilting of the metro. There's a Hispanic girl also standing, examining her long green fingernails. At Shaw-Howard, an elderly black woman in an electric scooter wheels on. She has oxygen tubing attached to her nose and it flows back to a steel container hooked to the back of her scooter. It takes her a while to maneuver the scooter so that she can easily drive off when we get to her stop.
We pass the Mt. Vernon Square metro station. The metro tilts harder than most. The older lady from Georgetown Medical Center is holding onto the rail with two hands now. Suddenly, the metro jerks to almost a complete stop. The force of it makes the girl with the long fingernails and the woman from Georgetown cling to the rail. But the woman in the electric scooter tumbles to the ground. Her steel oxygen container flies down the metro's center aisle. The scooter pins her to the floor. She cries out. Her body begins shaking under the scooter. For a moment, everyone is still. Not quite able to believe what we're seeing. The metro starts moving again.
The man in the Philadelphia Eagles jacket leaps to his feet and rushes to the woman's side. He shouts "Somebody call for help!"
I hit the red emergency button. I've never used it before. It looks old and rusted. I don't believe it works. There appears to be a speaker so I'm not sure what to do. I push it down and try talking into it: "Hello? We need some help back here...a woman fell...I guess you should get an ambulance." The speaker is dead. No response. I keep pressing it, trying to get it to work.
Once we get to Chinatown the metro begins to grind to a halt. The man in Eagles jacket, the girl with the long fingernails and the woman from Georgetown Medical Center are all around the woman now. An athletic young black man in expensive workout clothes rushes from the back of the train. He and the man in the Eagles jacket lift the scooter off the old woman. Then the woman from Georgetown and the Hispanic girl try to lift the elderly woman. When they can't get her up, the two young black girls put down their cellphones to help and manage to get her back into her scooter. The Hispanic girl breaks a nail and doesn't notice. The woman from Georgetown crawls under the seats to get the steel container.
The doors open. A large batch of commuters try to plow in the doors all at once, but are faced with an elderly woman convulsing in her scooter. A woman from the metro authority tells them to back out of the way. She's holding a walkie-talkie and telling them to bring EMTs down into the metro. She seems annoyed--possibly because of the young guy who kept pressing the emergency button.
The woman from Georgetown returns with the steel container. The girl with the fingernails is rubbing the elderly woman's back, cooing to her that everything will be alright. The two black girls have retreated backwards but only by a step. They want to do more but don't know what to do. The young athletic man and the man with the Eagles jacket step back to let the woman from Georgetown reconnect the oxygen container and strap it back on the scooter. When she's done, she rubs the elderly woman's back as well and kneels to be face-to-face with her. The old woman hides her face and her body continues to shake, not longer from fright or pain, but, I think, shame. She seems to be sobbing. The Hispanic girl and white woman's hand touch several times as they rub her back and tell her everything will be okay. They don't seem to notice. The woman from the Metro authority manages to convince the woman to wheel her scooter out of the metro. Before she does, her crying picks up and she shouts "Thank you." It has a southern twang, drenched in her tears.
We all get off the metro. Everyone lingers around the woman for a moment longer than they needed to. Part of it was sympathy I think, but part of it was also that we'd done something together. Something good.
Commuters are beginning to complain about the transition time. A young professional behind me mutters, "In New York, they do this much faster. They don't know how to do this stuff."
Part of me wants to tell him to go back to New York, because what I saw in the metro convinced me that Washington DC as a whole does know how to do this stuff. Upon further urging, everyone begins to leave. Our metro train departs empty so we can get another one. I watch the two black girls leave. Their holding their cellphones in their hands but not using them and their chit-chat is more somber now. The hispanic girl still hasn't noticed her nail, but she shrugs her purse further up her shoulder and goes to leave as well. The man in Eagles jacket shakes hands with the young athletic black man and they part ways. The only one who stays is the woman from the medical center who still rubs her back and promises to stay with her until the EMTs come.