8.15.2005

A Duty-Dance with Death

Rows of evening commuters settled in with cell phones and newspapers as the express train slowly lumbered out of Union Station. Rob sat across from me in his usual seat, fiddling intently with his iPod. The train gently swayed as the clattering wheels gained speed.

Around us sat the regular 435 crowd -- Close-Standing Man, with high water pants and a habit of invading personal space; Gregarious Guy, obese and overly friendly, loudly holding court at the far end of the car; the Furtive Novelist, who darts through crowds and makes copious notes on pieces of paper folded into a old book; Wild Bill, bearded in a style that hasn't been seen since the Civil War; the Bridge Bunch, playing cards on a briefcase perched on their knees.

Unfolding the Post, I turned first to the corrections and then to the obituaries. Reading the paper begins with a refreshing whiff of honesty, a candid public accounting of errors. Then there's a list of people who don't give a shit about it anymore.

The train rocked back and forth, trundling through wastelands north of the District. I'd just begun reading a Style story about a guy who wrote a musical about his experience being mauled by a bear, when the lights and air conditioning suddenly blinked off.

Rob tugged at his earphones and rolled his eyes upward, trying to sense change in speed that indicates a more serious problem.

"Not a good sign," I said.

"I don't think we're slowing down," Rob said. "The engine is still running."

"Who kicked out the cord?" said a voice from several rows back, eliciting a chorus of polite laughter.

Within minutes the lights and air conditioning came back on, filling the car with a comforting hum as people returned to their distractions.

"Close call," I said. "You never know about these trains. Amtrak treats the commuter service like a bastard stepchild. The track maintenance sucks."

Rob sipped the can of beer he had wrapped in a brown paper bag. "All it takes is a slight breeze for the pantograph to lose contact with the power line," he said. "Then the trains don't run at all. Snow or ice on the tracks I can understand, but wind? Ferchristsake."

"People are finally hearing about how bad the commuter trains are. They're so much worse than the Metro," I said. "I've got to put something about this in my blog. Trains can be stuck for hours. Like that 428 train last summer I heard about, when it was so hot. People say the cars were roasting. They were locked in during the heat…"

"I was there," said a voice from across the aisle.

A rumpled figure slumped in the far window seat. I hadn't noticed him before, thinking at first that he might have boarded at New Carrollton. But the express doesn't stop until BWI Airport, so he must have been sitting there since Washington.

He appeared to be in his late 50s, pale hairless arms peeking out from a short sleeve shirt, pudgy fingers folded on his lap. A cap was pulled down low, shading his eyes. His face, what I could see of it, was creased and weary.

The man had the appearance of a cog that keeps the machinery of government running, a drone relegated to the fluorescent bowels of the federal bureaucracy.

Maybe he was a itinerant network administrator, or an information specialist. Perhaps he was a displaced academic eking out a living as a subcontractor for a beltway bandit, grinding out proposals or fiscal analyses. It was difficult to envision him as anything but a repulsive non-person.

I looked at Rob. "What did he say?"

"He said he was there," Rob said.

"He must be listening to music," I said. "Anyway, it was goddamned hot, and people were locked inside the cars until…"

"I was there," the man said.

I examined the man closely. His eyes appeared closed, as though asleep or deep in thought. He didn't seem to be breathing, so still that I couldn't tell if he was dead or alive.

Rob served as an interpreter. "Where was he?" I asked.

"I don't know," Rob said. He leaned toward the man across the aisle. "Where were you," he asked.

"The 428," the man said.

"He said he was on the 428," Rob told me.

"He's just echoing things that we say," I said.

"Oh," said Rob.

"I was on that fateful 428" the man across the aisle said. "It was Friday, August 9 -- a blistering afternoon with all of the mugginess you expect from a reclaimed swampland. There were more than 800 souls on that seven-car train. When we left Union Station, none of us could have imagined the harrowing ordeal that lay ahead.

"The 428 isn't my usual train, but I left the office early to get a head start on the weekend. Half of Washington must have had the same idea. That train was packed. Every seat was filled, with people sitting on the steps. Standing room only, all the way down the aisle.

"It wasn't long before the first hint of trouble reared its ugly head. I'm not a superstitious person, but sometimes I think that train was just ill-fated. Bad juju. The lights flickered before we'd even left the station yard. As you note, my friend, this is often a bad omen. Most of the time, it's nothing. But this time, it was a flicker of hell.

"Somewhere around Odenton, the train stopped dead on the tracks. Just stopped. After a period of time, word filtered through the train that a fuse had blown. Since the power was out, the PA system didn't work. We were given very little information, and had no idea how long we'd be sitting there.

"The afternoon sunlight blazed through the windows. Heat inside the car shot up like a pressure cooker. Within minutes, the temperature was over 100 degrees.

"The train was stifling. There was no escape. Stepping out onto the tracks was out of the question. The conductors wouldn't even open the doors. Too much liability. So we remained locked in, and waited. Minutes slipped into an hour, and an hour turned into two.

"Waves of despair passed through the car as people received news of dinners gone cold, appointments missed, dates stood up. Children not picked up at daycare. It was an unmitigated disaster. I have TiVo, and that may be my saving grace.

"Men clawed at their neckties. Women tugged at damp straps and panty hose. Hair wilted. Sweat spots blotted through dress shirts. Rivulets of sweat poured down faces. It was like roasting in an oven. I craned my neck around to see who was the weakest, wondering how much longer until we devolve to depravity. The car smelled of perspiration and stale coffee breath.

"After two hours, the conductors came around and opened an emergency exit window, letting a fresh air waft into the car. Though saved from the brink of heat stroke, our ordeal was far from over.

"Eventually another train engine arrived to push us. We limped slowly toward the BWI station. That's when the storms moved in.

"The sky darkened angrily as we approached BWI. Knots of dark grey clouds appeared overhead. And then the heavens opened, unleashing a torrent of rain. Fat drops splatted against the window.

"The platform was already full when we arrived at the BWI station. They had to put us onto another train. We were forced off the train, herded like cattle onto the crowded platform.

"But there was nowhere to go. People huddled under the narrow awning to take shelter from the furious downpour. Some tried holding newspapers over their head. It was futile. Many of us were soaked to the skin. Not only that, but briefcases and backpacks were soaked too. And shoes.

"Moments earlier we had been begging for water. Now we were getting drenched. That's one of the cruel ironies of this 30-minute commute that turned into a hellish three-hour nightmare. We were wet for the rest of the ride," the man said in a low whisper. "And very tired."

Then the man fell silent. For a few moments Rob and I looked at each other, waiting to see if there was more to the story. There wasn't.

Rob sipped his beer.

"So," I asked Rob, "any plans with the kids this weekend?"

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