What’s going on with the second largest subway system in the United States is stunning and dangerous. It isn’t really working anymore and the mood of the average Metro subway rider in Washington, D.C. is getting increasingly dark and angry. It is palpable and widespread and worse than it has ever been. So, of course, Metro is considering holding public hearings on possible fare increases and service cutbacks next week.
We subway riders do occasionally talk to one another and a common concern these days is that you never know what you will confront on an average weekday morning or evening commute. There’s no confidence of arriving to work on time. There’s no sure thing about when you get home. Increasingly, there is concern you may not get to work or home at all. Paying more for the honor and the risk seems rather outrageous.
Surely, when 61 year-old federal contractor, Carol Glover, woke up Monday morning, January 12th in her Alexandria, Virginia home, she had no reason to suspect it would be her final day. Twenty four hours later the cause of her death would be established; acute respiratory failure due to smoke exposure after being stranded on a Metro train outside the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station later that afternoon.
More than 80 others would end up hospitalized that day, some 200 evaluated by medics. A friend of mine from work was on that train. He self-evacuated. He was following the lead of two military guys on his subway car who were initially patient as they waited for instructions. But as 15, 20, 30 minutes went by and the situation just got worse and worse and smoke was now getting into the subway cars- they had all had enough. They managed to open one of the sets of doors, identified where the electrified 3rd rail was to stay far clear of it and walked a few hundred feet to the station platform. They were actually surprised at how close they were to the station and shuddered to think of the dozens and dozens of their fellow riders who continued to wait for help while Metro officials managed to turn the event from an “incident” into a near catastrophe.
On Tuesday, February 10th, the National Transportation Safety Board sent letters to Metro officials explaining what they saw as the cause of the problem that day along with an urgent plea to have Metro correct a major flaw: it has no way of knowing where smoke might be in their tunnels. And because they didn’t know that an electrical arc had caused the smoke or where- Metro officials miles from the L’Enfant Plaza station took steps that only made matters worse- much, much worse.
On February 11th, the NTSB made the letters public. From the Washington Post that day:
Metro botched the operation of ventilation fans in and near the L’Enfant Plaza station during a fatal smoke emergency last month, causing a mass of noxious fumes to move hundreds of feet toward a train in a tunnel and then linger around it while scores of riders gasped for air, federal investigators said Wednesday.
In its most detailed revelations yet about the Jan. 12 incident, the National Transportation Safety Board outlined a sequence of missteps in which Metro controllers, 11 miles from the scene, activated two sets of giant fans at cross-purposes with devastating consequences.
The two sets of fans, on opposite ends of the train, were both pulling the smoke instead of one set pushing while the other pulled, the NTSB said. As a result, the mass of fumes settled over the stationary train and stayed there.
And there’s more. While his bosses back at Metro headquarters were accidently ensuring the smoke in the tunnel would go toward and eventually envelope the train, the subway operator forgot to shut off the ventilation system in the cars so all the smoke outside the trains went inside the cars. You could have actively tried to injure people and not had as much success as Metro bosses and the train operator had that day trying to help.
Just this past weekend, there were at least three other “smoking” incidents in the Metro subway system- two at the Foggy Bottom station near George Washington University and one at the Woodley Park station near the National Zoo. The explanations range from smoke caused by the train’s brake systems to smoke caused by a “maintenance” problem.
Thank You for Riding Metro- We Hate You
But noxious smoke is not the extent of the trials and tribulations for Metro’s beleaguered riders. There is rarely a day that there is not a major delay or its cousin, the infamous “residual delay,” that Metro apologizes for constantly. I cannot even count the number of times such delays have caused dangerously crowded platforms.
This is usually when train operators are at their surliest. A funny thing happens when trains stop running for, say, 30 to 45 minutes…they get crowded. Cue the internal intercom system that only works sporadically. “Passengers, I REPEAT, stop leaning on the doors. We will be going nowhere if you are leaning on the doors. I will NOT hesitate to offload this train.” The trains are late, the platforms and the subway cars get crowded and the operators yell at the passengers. Nice.
Realistically, of course, on most trains, the operator’s disdain for us would have sounded more like this:
“[unintelligible feedback noises]…assengers…stop lean…[unintelligible feedback noises]…nowhere…[unintelligible feedback noises]…offload…”
Obey Metro’s Commands at Your Own Risk
One of my favorite incidents that I personally witnessed was the time a mechanical malfunction had occurred on the yellow line and the trains had to single-track through the Pentagon City station. At one point, the station manager ordered the 1,500 or so people I estimate were stacked up on the platform, to go up the escalators and go to the other side of the tracks- that a train headed to D.C. would be operating on what was ordinarily the track headed away from the city.
So we all made our way to the other side. Then came the announcement, “Passengers, we regret the inconvenience, could you please move back to the original platform?” And so we issued a large group groan and then trudged back up and down the escalators. The voice, I presume from Metro headquarters, continued- a special little message to the station manager that we could all hear. “Could you please stop communicating with the passengers until you hear from Metro Central Control?”
Money Will Help- Good Management Would be Good Too
Metro is asking for more money from each of the jurisdictions in the Washington area. It is asking Congress to restore the full tax benefit for subway commuting that was drastically cut back last year and resulted in ridership losses. Failing at these efforts, Metro will consider upping fares and cutting back on service again.
I don’t think these Metro folks understand the fury that is out there. Too many people regularly arrive to work late or have been stuck on a train or a platform when they just wanted to get home to their families. Too many people have to put up daily with broken escalators, elevators, and turnstiles. But more importantly, too many people have been killed or injured.
Here’s a list: That’s 11 dead and 94 injured in Metro collisions that occurred in 1982, 1996, 2004, and three in 2009. Derailments have killed 3 and injured over 40. In fact, during a 20-month period starting in January of 2003, there were a total of 8 Metro derailments. This is all in addition to January 12th of this year.
I don’t think this is just a money issue. All the money from all the jurisdictions in the DC metro area will not fix what appear to be incompetent management and a culture in which the users meant to be served by this subway system are actually treated like annoyances and unwelcome cargo. Metro seems to be simply overwhelmed.
And what remains unsaid but is surely on the minds of Metro’s hundreds of thousands of commuters and their families- is what happens on that awful day when someone or some group purposely tries to inflict harm on the residents of the nation’s capital by attacking its subway system. Will there be anyone at Metro who will have a clue about what to do to save our lives?
I suspect we will be totally and completely on our own.
Brian Williams really is one of the good guys in the journalism business. Smart, funny, unassuming, a regular guy’s regular guy…especially for a network television anchorman, a category not generally known for humility.
And now his career seems to be threatened not just because of what turned out to be the tall tales he repeatedly told about a chopper ride in Iraq 12 years ago, but by an apology many saw as disingenuous and complete with weasel words like “misremembered.”
Let’s see if we can make some sense out of this because “liar” is just not one of the words generally used to describe Brian Williams.
Rich Krell was the pilot of the Chinook helicopter that carried Williams and three other NBC staffers ahead of the advancing American military forces during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Krell talked to CNN this morning and has a different take on the whole thing than the crew members of the other choppers interviewed by Stars and Stripes.
Krell notes that the chopper Williams was riding in did take small arms fire. The choppers were carrying bridge parts and extensions that took the brunt of most of those bullets. And the helicopter was part of a 3-chopper formation that flew together and ended up taking evasive maneuvers after coming under fire. Krell says the Williams chopper separated from the others as it went off to drop off the bridge extensions. They returned and the brief trip to deliver the bridge parts would explain why the crew members of the other helicopters said Williams showed up later.
Williams embellished the story through the years. Small arms fire became rocket propelled grenades. The three-chopper formation, he said, was a four-chopper formation (Krell says the 4th one developed mechanical issues so only three flew in formation that day). In various interviews through the years, he has mentioned fearing for his life, which might or might not have been the case with small-arms fire, but certainly makes for a good yarn. And here’s where we start getting, I think, to the truth of the story.
Williams, like many journalists, is a story teller. And he’s good at it. And he tells stories like good story-tellers do; with passion, conviction, detail and 100% sincerity. Even, in this case, while taking license with the facts. I imagine Williams is not the first person to ever tell “war stories” that are full of bluster and exaggerated breathlessness, but unfortunately for him- he is a famous television anchorman who happens to be the face of NBC News.
If I was Brian Williams, here’s how I would do a second take on the apology. What did seem disingenuous about the mea culpa, was a seeming implication that he had told this story just once, the other night as he tried to recognize the heroism of a military man at a sports event. Not true. He has told the tall tale many, many times before and there are plenty of video/audio clips of such. Here’s what I’d say if I were Brian next time there’s an opportunity for a chat with Jimmy Fallon or David Letterman:
“The chopper I was in did take small arms fire. It was not hit by an RPG. I have told this story often through the years and each telling has gotten more and more dramatic…like something you might do at a bar with friends. But I am a newsman with a daily broadcast seen by millions. It was irresponsible of me to embellish like that and I have learned my lesson. Credibility is really the only asset I have as a newsman. And now I have to work very hard to regain your trust. I ask everybody for another chance.”
I’d be quite inclined to give him that chance if he leveled with us like that.
In the future, I would also advise anyone facing similar circumstances to use a thesaurus to find a synonym for “misremembered.” I don’t think this reaches the level of “I lied.” But maybe something like “wild-ass exaggerating” or “intense embellishment,” might go down better than the weasel-like “misremembered.” Nobody wants a word like that to end up being their contribution to the English lexicon.
Actually, I have already wished for world peace. I actively donate to fight cancer and I wish it would go away. I do my part against animal cruelty; I wish the best to all our animal friends. I don’t even have a car so I’m certainly doing what I can to maintain a small carbon footprint and thereby wish the planet an environmentally sound future. There really is only one remaining wish I have for 2015 and that’s that selfish subway riders would suddenly become considerate individuals.
New York City is well aware of the issues and is starting up a subway etiquette campaign and Washington, D.C. would be well-advised to do the same. But since it is the DC Metro system and they have their hands full with things like perpetually broken escalators and running the trains on time, I am not optimistic they’re capable of also handling a simultaneous public relations campaign.
Hence- this handy pocket guide to subway etiquette. Actually, the only “handy” thing about it is that you may be reading this blog on a smart phone, which is a portable device, and therefore is, by definition, handy.
So let’s get started.
Here’s a lady who thinks that because she shops, she is entitled to three seats. Don’t do this. People are not staring at you because you’re attractive. They’re staring at you because they are getting a first-hand, close-up view of a selfish a**hole.
Here are two examples of people who are mistaking a subway pole that passengers use to maintain a sense of balance- with some sort of device that gently massages their butt-cracks. And here’s a courtesy sign that was specially created for them:
Attack of the Knapsacks
People who wear knapsacks like this never seem to fully appreciate just how often they smack people in the kidneys with these damn things. Because they wear them on their backs. Where they do not have eyes. In their new etiquette campaign, NYC is going to ask knapsack users to carry the things instead of wear them so there’s a better chance they can see when they’re about to take out an innocent passenger.
The Train is FULL, Thank You
Some people see this as a full subway car. Others see the three and half inches of empty floor space by the door and take it as an opportunity to squeeze in. With their knapsack. No. This train is full. There is another one coming. Usually within 3 or 4 minutes. Also…some of these people could be notorious door-hoggers. They refuse to budge when anyone is entering or leaving the subway car. It is ok to leave the train for just a second, stand on the platform and let people get out…and then you can get back on again!
All together now! Stand on the Right- Walk on the Left. This goes year-round and there are no exceptions in the Spring during tourist season.
Since this is usually the state of the escalators in DC’s Metro system, the stand-right/walk-left issue is often moot. The nearby elevator doesn’t work either. There are old-fashioned concrete stairs though. Feel free to stand to the right on those as long as you’d like.
And happy commuting to one and all in 2015!
I was born in New York City in 1956 and that made me an American. My parents, from Colombia, South America, never actually achieved full citizenship status though they always had the appropriate documentation to work and live in the United States for many decades.
They ended up divorcing and both would return to Colombia but toward the end of my mother’s life, she moved back to the states and lived with me and my family in Atlanta. It was the Pablo Escobar era in Colombia and a huge bomb in downtown Bogota had killed 200 people and taken out a major high-rise office building and broke the windows in the nearby building where my mother worked and I brought her up to the states to get her away from the bloodshed and violence.
It was then that she began the process of seeking American citizenship.
It was a tough go. In her 60’s but not in the best of health, there were hours and hours of bureaucratic engagement and hassles. Stella was a classy, elegant woman; always very well-dressed and proper in every way. From a middle to upper-middle-class background, she stood in stark socio-economic contrast to the hard-working, wonderful, salt-of-the-earth, but much less well-off Mexican and Salvadoran day laborers with whom she shared many hours of waiting time in the Atlanta immigration offices.
After a typical 3 or 4-hour visit to immigration, waiting in long lines, filling out forms, doing interviews and writing out $700 processing checks (money you never get back whether you achieve citizenship or not), she’d end up exhausted by the experience. On a couple of occasions I would take her directly from the chaos and frustration of the immigration offices to the Ritz-Carlton- Buckhead where I could treat her to tea and a nice breakfast and make her feel human again.
Enforcement Beyond the Grave
Stella did not survive the immigration process. She passed away several months after her initial application and before anyone could rule on her status. About two months after her death, I received a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, informing me that a court date had been set for her. I called the appropriate authorities and sent a copy of her death certificate. The court date came and went and now the letters started coming in fast and furious, each one increasingly menacing. Stella Garcia-Pena has missed her court date, the letters said, and the deportation process is now underway.
I forgot who I called, but it was not a friendly conversation on my part. “If it makes you feel better to deport a dead woman, by all means, go right ahead. But understand that, really, this is not a living individual you are talking about here.” But if you’d like, I threatened, next court hearing you schedule for my dead mother’s deportation, I can call one of our local Atlanta TV stations, or perhaps CNN (where I worked) and maybe we can have a camera crew document this tough federal action you’re taking against someone who no longer walks the earth.
I think the camera crew thing saved the day. I did receive one more clueless bureaucratic letter threatening more deportation and, as I recall, possible imprisonment. But one final letter of explanation from me and a follow-up phone call did the trick. The Immigration and Naturalization Service had deemed it would, finally, let my dear mother rest in peace.
I am certain she is now a citizen-in-good-standing in Heaven and I understand the entrance process to get past the pearly gates is considerably easier and more efficient than what she had to go through here on earth. Basically, she just had to prove she was a good person.
And that, she was.
There’s nothing like a good, sensational Ebola scare. Sure, Americans have virtually zero chance of contracting the disease. But that doesn’t keep 40% of the public from calling it a serious or moderate health threat. ISIS scares the bejesus out of us too. Some 70% of Americans in a CNN poll says ISIS has the capability of attacking the United States, even though you’d be hard pressed to find a single military analyst who would agree with the notion they’re anything more than a regional threat.
Here, the facts- the things you are way more likely to die of than Ebola or ISIS:
Being in a car: 30,000 people die every year in car accidents. If that many people were killed every year by terrorism, we would have built a gigantic moat around the entire nation and invaded 73 more countries. According to the National Safety Council, what are the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident in the United States? It’s 1 in 112.
Being legally executed: What are the odds you’ll be convicted of a felony and then be put to death? Way more probable than getting Ebola. The National Safety Council says there is a 1 in 96,203 chance you will die from legal execution.
The Flu: Though safer than driving in a car, 23,000 Americans die every year from the Flu. But- Oh My God…where can I get a vaccine for that? Anywhere and for free, if you have a health insurance card.
Falling Down: Yup- there’s a 1 in 152 chance you will die by falling down. About 2 million times the chance of getting killed in a terrorist act or by Ebola.
Unintentional poisoning by and exposure to noxious substances: Chances of dying this way are 1 in 119. Right up there with car accidents.
Intentional Self-harm: 1 in 103.
Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease: It’s the second largest killer in the country- there’s a 1 in 29 chance you will die of lung disease.
Heart Disease and Cancer: The #1 killers in America. One in 7 will die from heart disease or cancer.
In an excellent article in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki, summarizes the odd, but quite common psychology we all fall victim to:
At work here is the curiously divergent and inconsistent way most of us think about risk. As a myriad of studies have shown, we tend to underestimate the risk of common perils and overestimate the risk of novel events. We fret about dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash, but don’t spend much time worrying about dying in a car accident. We pay more attention to the danger of Ebola than to the far more relevant danger of flu, or of obesity or heart disease. It’s as if, in certain circumstances, the more frequently something kills, the less anxiety-producing we find it.
Facts, are, indeed, stubborn things. Fear, however, is both stubborn and widespread.
My dear friend, Angie Stiepel Case, challenged me to select my ten favorite books and then I’m supposed to nominate ten other friends to do the same- like a Facebook literary chain letter. I adore Angie but I have a paranoid suspicion that this was invented by some fiendish Facebook employee as a means of getting us all to give up precious, marketable details about our literary tastes that will be exploited by aggressive algorithms that will populate our newsfeeds with ever more highly targeted ads designed to penetrate our very psyches.
So here are my ten, complete with humorous anecdotes and memories attached. Considering all the books ever written, I would say my selections reveal me to be a fairly shallow individual who was basically formed in the 70’s and 80’s and never really grew up. But I’m happy that way.
In no particular order:
The World According to Garp- John Irving: The book was better than the movie which starred Robin Williams as Garp. But the film had a great scene that lives in my memory forever. Garp and his wife are looking to buy a house and as they step out of their car onto the driveway, a small plane crashes through the roof of the place. Garp immediately puts an offer on the home asking what are the chances that happens again.
Little Big Man- Thomas Berger: The film directed by Arthur Penn and starring Dustin Hoffman is one of my all-time favorites. Hoffman is the 104-year old Jack Crabb who recounts a life of “injuns,” (raised by the Cheyenne nation) and savage U.S. cavalry, with real life characters like Wild Bill Hickok and George Armstrong Custer. Chief Dan George was nominated for an academy award. Author, Thomas Berger, passed away last July and I bought the book and it is just as fantastic and touching as the movie. He is a terrific writer. In its day, the book and movie were considered a protest of sorts against the U.S. military during the Vietnam War era, but it stands on its own without that baggage and reads like one of the best historical novels on the American west…ever.
Contact- Carl Sagan: Another book turned into a movie starring Jodie Foster and Mathew McConaughey. They are very different works. The movie does the best job ever of depicting the moment contact is made with intelligent life. The audio representation of the contact is not scientifically accurate at all but the poetic license taken is totally justified. The movie does not have what was the mind-blowing ending in Carl Sagan’s novel. One of the best science fiction endings of all time, in my opinion. Hidden, deep, deep in the calculation of Pi, a super computer discovers a pattern that is an undeniable message from an alien force so powerful, it can alter mathematics; a force so clever that it knows its message cannot be found until a civilization builds powerful enough computing skills to demonstrate the necessary technical proficiency and advancement. Carl Sagan!
Lincoln- Gore Vidal: One of the best historical novels of all time. Vidal paints a vivid picture of civil war Washington, complete with its houses of ill repute, the dusty streets, the stench of the canal that ran behind the White House, spies that crossed the Long Bridge to enter Washington from Virginia. A masterful, memorable work.
Chesapeake, Space, Alaska- James A. Michner: Ok, three books listed as one but it’s Michner. I remember reading just about all his books on various beaches over various summers. This trio are my favorites.
Lucifer’s Hammer- Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: One of my favorite post-apocolyptic novels. Big Meteorite hits the Earth head-on. The build-up is terrific. The strike itself is well-described- like the surfers who paddle into the Pacific to catch the wave of their lives- a full-fledged tsunami that leaves one of them dying spectacularly as he slams into a Los Angeles skyscraper. Good stuff.
Rendevous with Rama- Arthur C. Clarke: Layer upon layer of imagination and mind-bending discoveries aboard a gigantic alien vessel with breath-taking detail, a master work by the greatest science fiction writer of all time.
The Iowa Baseball Confederacy- W.P. Kinsella: One of the lesser known baseball novels by the author of Field of Dreams. A bizarre, metaphysical, mysterious journey through the prism of a baseball game that refuses to end.
The Pillars of the Earth- Ken Follet: You have to love a historical novel about the building of cathedrals that stars as its protagonist a man named Tom Builder. The middle ages in a wonderful mix of palace intrigue, intimate character development and medieval architecture.
Breakfast of Champions- Kurt Vonnegut: The favorite author of my youth. I read everything he wrote and then wrote like him. And thought like him. Biting satire; humor with meaning. He was my literary hero. Breakfast of Champions is notable in my life for the following weird reason. I had a final paper due in college- a dense book review due at 8am. At 10pm, I had not written a word. But I had just read Breakfast of Champions. I plopped a coffee and a bottle of no-doz on the 7-11 counter. The cashier must have sensed I was a young college student preparing for a cram session and magically produced a couple of amphetamines. It was destiny. I swear, it’s the only time I ever took white crosses. But that was 1975 and the statute of limitations has surely run out by now.
Anyway, the journey that followed was a spirited creative frenzy, to say the least. For those who may not have read the book, Kurt Vonnegut himself makes an appearance in the novel and totally freaks out his own main character by revealing himself as his creator. I drew up a three-tiered chart explaining each reality-within-reality that Vonnegut constructed. I wrote whimsically about the hilarious diagrams Vonnegut sprinkled throughout the book like the thing that looked pretty much like an asterisk * – which was Vonnegut’s representation of an asshole. I’m sure I wrote other much more intelligent things that I’ve since forgotten because I really was on quite a roll.
I think I may have also written a review of Welcome to the Monkey House. That was a collection of Vonnegut short stories that features my all-time favorite- Thomas Edison’s Shaggy Dog. The famous inventor creates a head-phone-like device that can measure intelligence. He notices his dog looking a little nervous. Edison puts the headphones on the dog and sure enough, the IQ level is three times that of his own. The dog admits the great scam that has been perpetrated on the human race and later has to pay the price, attacked by all the neighborhood dogs who caught wind that he had betrayed the ancient secret.
I drove to school, turned the paper in at precisely 8am drove back home and passed out. The following week I got an A+. On my final. Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut. Always and forever.
I am currently refraining from naming the ten others I would challenge for their favorite books in case this really is a ruse by evil algorithm creators. I will revisit the matter at a later time. I trust this is not like breaking a chain letter and that I now have 7 years of bad luck or something.
– The 7-year-old son of an Australian member of ISIS is pictured holding the decapitated head of a soldier, a photo distributed on social media by his father.
– A white towel drapes the corpse of 18 year old, Mike Brown, an unarmed black man, two days from starting his first day at college, shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri last weekend.
– Far-ranging rockets fly into the night, aimed at Israeli citizens while shells land in “safe” places housing Palestinian refugees, wounding and killing women and children.
– Another 135 people die in a single day from the deadly Ebola virus, now spreading through West Africa.
– An actor and comedian who captured our hearts for over three decades with his obvious love and passion for life, kills himself- the victim of a deep depression.
– An airliner with 300 innocents aboard gets shot out of the sky over Ukraine and it is days before repatriation of the bodies and burials can take place as armed insurgents keep even investigators from reaching the scene.
– Thousands of Central American children who survive a 1,300 mile trek to the American border escaping violent gangs in their home countries, are dispersed throughout towns and villages in the U.S. while the government decides what do with them. In many of those towns, angry protestors demand the children leave and let it be known they are not welcome.
– American politicians forget the art of compromise and the business of governing grinds to a halt as partisan gridlock leaves our Congress as one of the least respected institutions in the nation, unable to address any of the country’s problems.
These eight news stories have one thing in common. These are the headlines of our summer of 2014. I am not alone in remarking about how bleak and horrible the world seems right now. Certainly, for those of us who work in the news business, where these dismal stories are part of our normal routine, it is hard to take. And for those not in the media or journalism worlds, it is all equally appalling and sad.
There is only one answer to this as far as I can tell. The world, despite our best efforts, is not going to fix itself. But you do have the power, mostly, of determining what information you receive. So unplug. Just disconnect every now and then. Don’t watch the news. Stay away from news web sites. Go outside. Breath clean air. Go for a walk. Take in a comedy club. Go to a baseball game. Rediscover your partner.
We all need to take a break from this horrid summer of news. For our own mental health.