The experience of riding the Orange Line—the branch of Washington’s metro between its western suburbs and downtown—depends largely on your attitude. One can begrudge it, or embrace it; what you cannot do is change the way it is. In my case, I ride between home and work each weekday. My relationship with the Orange Line has been a process, an evolution of mindset, by which something tiresome became tolerable, something banal transformed into a subject of vivid interest. This evolution took time.
And time, more than distance, is what defines a trip on the Orange Line. Time drives the correlation between the crowding of its cars and the frequency of delays along the way. Riding early is best. That helps to avoid the discomfort, the muttered cursing, the strangers that stiffen around your person like a drying cast. The metro can be stimulating, even peaceful; but that hinges on the time of day when you choose to ride, and the surrounding company, which you did not choose.
My wife and I moved from DC to northern Virginia to be closer to her new job. She would drive our one car, it was decided, and I would take the train. For her the move was about work. I had grown up in the area, so for me it was a return, a kind of homecoming—but not a desired one. She and I had both had misgivings about leaving our DC neighborhood, Capitol Hill, where we met and which remains the center of our social lives. There we had lived close enough to the visions of power, the ones that define Washington, that we’d let ourselves be overpowered by them. It’s easy to do. You go jogging in the shadow of the Capitol building. You spot Senators at the coffee shop. Routinely the motorcades flow by; when the windows are down you see a cabinet secretary fingering his smartphone, and the secret service agents fingering their assault rifles. Such images are a little awesome, in the fear-struck sense of the word.
My wife and I placed undue importance on our identity as urban young people, specifically in Washington—as if drawing identity from its power yielded us a modicum of significance as well. We wanted the city to become a panacea for the ills we’d experienced elsewhere. I had wanted to stay on Capitol Hill; moving to Virginia brought me closer to my difficult family, who still live there, and further from the urban autonomy I wished to preserve.
Local epithets suggest how blinkered is the perspective of Washington’s city dwellers, and its majority of transplants, vis-à-vis the suburbs. The Virginia towns of Arlington and Fairfax are maligned as “Farlington” and “Far-fax,” considered much too distant to be interesting—even if Arlington, for one, borders Washington itself. For a non-native resident who lives, works, and thinks within DC’s city limits, Virginia or Maryland’s points beyond seem entirely foreign.
The train itself was never built for looks. The pug-nosed older ones offer pumpkin-orange, patent-leather seats and crumbling rubber coatings on the handholds. Metro hasn’t fixed the upholstery since the Carter administration. Smears of obscure provenance mark the torn carpet among dots of chewing gum, black with age, in the shape of rolled pennies.
The older trains require the conductors to speak between each station to announce the next stop as well as any other train lines to which you could transfer from there. Each driver has a personality, projected through the speakers. And the rider makes his own projections: on the conductor’s background, education, and personal history, with only a voice to go on. Most are men, and nearly all of them are black as well as local. You know they’re from around here when they start announcing stops in “MURR-ihland.”
But the Caribbean woman conductor sounds like she went to an English primary school, the kind with a dress code of pinafores and stockings. “Next stayshohn: Clah-rendon,” she says, with high sonorous vowels; “Next stayshohn: Foggy Bottom…” with a crisp T sounds, not BAH-dumin the mumbled American style.
Another driver, when he needs to adjust the train’s stopped position, repeats, with a voice full of good nature, “Train movin’! Train movin’! Train movin’! Train movin’!” until he knows, that everyone knows, that the train will be moving.
The new trains are shinier but not always more practical. They still don’t run often enough. They have digital displays and automated announcements that fall short on grammar. “This is… A Orange Line Train,” it declares, the robotic white-lady voice almost resembling those of the black conductors, without sounding human.
On rare days the drivers ride as a pair and, rarer still, they forget to turn off the intercom between stops. Then you hear about wild weekends, the Redskins losing again, and Sunday meals with family. Those are the best days, when it no longer matters if the train is dirty or if it’s too crowded or if you were trying to read one of the books you take with you.
The Orange Line changes not just with the timing of your ride but also the seasons. Autumn transforms the line into something more than a transit route. The tangerine sun glows on the fall foliage in tones of mustard and Indian corn, all of it a preamble to Thanksgiving. If you stand toward the middle of the platform—the six-car trains always leave the ends unserved—you can get into the car early, dart for a bench on the right-hand side, and capture the scene at the window.
The start at Dunn Loring station, the one nearest where I live, runs down Interstate 66, the region’s main east-west axis cutting from Appalachia to Washington’s heart. Its eight lanes are freighted with traffic half the day. And the Orange Line sails through 66’s middle, vaulting over the Capital Beltway and its own traffic below, while you coast 30 feet above ground, over the stationary cars. The gridlocked drivers must be jealous of the train, you think. Then the straightaway puts you back on 66 before a rightward curve, its waves of vegetation like a vision from a southeast Asian jungle.
The sun is lighter now, an earthy yellow. After two more stops and a thickening crowd, the train passes underground. You know beforehand because the concrete walls that form the tunnel entrance tilt upward, which before had been level with the earth; but that is the train descending, not the wall uplifting. The concrete ramps quickly, filling the window, until the sun shuts off abruptly, switching in an instant from yellow to black. The din inside the car is a ricochet from the tunnel walls. Most riders are headphoned or otherwise distracted by their smartphones. No one seems to notice the change. Some are reading a pocket-sized Bible in English, in Spanish, in Chinese.
The ride continues in darkness, through the uniform ugliness of the brown, concrete, quilt-patterned vaults that are Washington’s metro stations. You get off, a little exhausted, at one of the downtown nodes that point to geography or history or both: Farragut West, McPherson Square, Metro Center. You take the squeaking escalator to the street. The new sunshine, now a shade of clarified butter, lights the final steps to your office.
Riding out of the city is a different experience altogether. Then the passengers are more relaxed; the destination is home, not work, and the comfort of that thought brings a palliative effect to the crowd. The ride is opposite in atmosphere as much as in direction of travel.
The Orange Line makes the last of its underground passage and emerges—the slanting concrete wall again—into the open evening. The air pressure releases. The noise of the tunnel fades and a thick near-silence fills the car. After November’s daylight savings time, when the region is dark by five o’clock, the blackness of the tunnel joins that of the sky. The surface ascent is imperceptible unless you watch for the patches of light from cars and streetlamps above. Breaks in the sound wall lining each side of 66 reveal illuminated houses, scenes of cooking, or people washing dishes.
At West Falls Church the lines split between Orange and Silver, the new service through Fairfax County’s upscale west. Beyond West Falls Church the Silver Line is entirely elevated; it gives perspectives that previously could not be had—that did not exist—of Tysons Corner, its tech-fueled wealth, and its accumulating skyline.
I was riding the Orange Line once, the morning after returning from a trip with my wife to a foreign continent. I rode in early. I got the furthest seat in the back, by the right-side window looking out on the green foliage and the traffic of the Beltway below. I realized with a subtle satisfaction that this, too, was a journey. Coming home from a spell abroad gave me new vision for my surroundings. My Orange Line commute was not great in distance but certainly so in the diversity of the scenes, in the faces I encountered in what most would call a tiresome ride to work.
I realized, too, that my idolatry of the city, and of my lifestyle in it, had grown slack. I no longer clung to the identity of living downtown. Being an urban millennial was no longer vital to me, and being a suburban millennial is not that bad. The kaleidoscope of the Orange Line had helped me see that.
Some consider such a ride a chore, or a penalty for not making an income that lets them live closer to town. For me it has become an adventure in miniature, and I make the trip twice a day. Lucky me.
BIO: William Fleeson is a former journalist. He is learning to speak Russian by fits and starts, and has lived as a resident alien in Paris, France; Glasgow, Scotland; and Nashville, Tennessee. His writing has appeared in Allegory Ridge, Argus Media, Ethnotraveler and The Hill, among other publications.