A Civil Commute -- Trying to Connect with My Subway Compatriots

People should be more social. I should be more outgoing. You should say hello to a stranger. We're all in this show together; let's act like it.

Full disclosure: this empirical study at the intersection of anthropology and etiquette aboard the Washington Metrorail is rooted in intellectual theft. I read a New York Magazine article by journalist Melissa Dahl who tried to make small talk every day for a week on the New York City subway. When my fiance told me it read like something I would write, copycat inspiration struck.

Truly, the Washington subway is the introvert's notion of heaven. You board, deliberately avoid eye contact until reaching your destination, and then reenter society. I have known the convenient frustration of a subway commute in DC and NYC, and despite the Big Apple's misanthropic reputation I believe our brand of self-imposed isolation beats theirs. Even panhandlers, a New York subway staple, don't bother trying here. And so, determined to reach out to Washington, my week began in earnest:

Monday morning I boarded the train going the wrong way. For 4 years I started my day by walking into the Metro station, down the escalator and stepping onto the train on my right. I just moved to Virginia, and in my new home Metro station I need to turn left. Old habits die hard, and I was late for work. I was blissfully unaware at first, because I quickly and successfully struck up a conversation with a man and a woman from Tampa who work for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Monday," I solemnly offered. "You never have more of the workweek ahead of you than on the train Monday morning."

They were the friendly sort and I was so lost in conversation about the training that brought them to town that I failed to notice I was traveling farther into Virginia until the subway emerged from its tunnel and sunlight flooded the car.

Huh?! Why can I see trees?!

As I stepped off at the next station, I turned to bid my new acquaintances a fruitful day of training. I added, "I'm somehow comforted to have a couple friendly souls to witness my shame and inability to ride the subway."

About 9 hours later I was working the Express crossword on my ride home, and I knew the answer to "a golden measure" was "karat." I'm not a speller, and I did not know if the first letter was "C" or "K." But I was social now. And the older couple across the aisle looked like they wouldn't bite. Unfortunately, they were just as ignorant as me, and she turned to her smartphone for help. The tourist was surprised she could not get reception. Until, after the train pulled into my station, she got a couple bars, and as I walked off she called out, "'K'! It's 'K'! The answer is definitely 'K'!"

On Tuesday, en route to an off-site morning meeting, my train from Arlington towards DC was packed tightly with people wearing headphones or staring at small screens. My first rule was to never interrupt anybody. I asked an unoccupied rider standing nearby on this crowded train, "So when do we start losing people? When we get into DC?"

He nodded, said "yeah," and that was the extent of my socialization. But, I found a chance for redemption after that meeting, and I was back on the subway heading for my office. Another older couple did not look intimidating, he in a Philadelphia Phillies cap. The pleasant pair were in town to visit their son, and they empathized with my gripe at being released from a long meeting only to cross town to start my day at the office.

En route home after work, I was yet again struck at the number of people occupied with electronics. I asked an older man next to me if, in decades past, subway riders have always been so distracted by the "toys" of the era. The bearded man--who I soon learned to be a government contractor who specializes in "technology transfer" (???)-- reacted by removing the small ear piece he had in, prompting me to apologize. He kindly said not to worry about interrupting, and explained that riders used to simply stare at nothing; now at least when we stare, we are staring at something, he reasoned.

Shortly after 7am Wednesday morning I asked a gentleman seated an arm's reach to my left, "Is it just me, or are there an awful lot of trains running the new Silver Line route, way more than you'd expect?" He had no opinion. He's just in town on business. "Government contractor," I asked with a (hopefully) friendly grin, "like everybody else in town?" No, he works for a small engineering firm with a L'Enfant office.

"These profundities of the Metro schedule," I said by way of lighthearted explanation, this is what I spend my time considering." He was not a chatterbox.

On the way home I sat (I am not sure if it was the Silver Line) beside a woman standing in front of a giant ad for "Cookie Jam," a smartphone app.

I pointed to the sign and asked, "How is it possible that that game makes enough money to justify that huge ad?" I continued to vent, "It's probably a free download, but somehow it creates revenue sufficient to buy big ads in big cities? Is there a lot of advertising in the game? I guess?"

She seemed neither knowledgeable nor interested in the financial mystery that had apparently captivated me. I definitely carried the load of our conversation which lasted two stops until I was home.

I saw an All-American looking 20-something in a flight suit, Thursday morning, with "Air Force" stitched across his breast. Standing next to him, I asked if he was a pilot. Sort of. He's in the cockpit, but as the navigator. C-130 cargo planes. "So you are up there in the plane, I guess that's what I meant," I said before asking, "Do you know, what percentage of people in the Air Force are pilots, fly in the planes?"

He agreed with my assumption that it must be a very small fraction, though he did not have any statistics. "For every pilot there are a ton of smart guys making the operation work," he added. Minutes later he wished me a good day as he left.

That afternoon I sat by a family of 4, with father and son wearing New York Mets hats and jackets. I remembered the Mets were in town to play the Nationals, and I asked if they were on their way to the ballpark. Nope, they were just coming from the baseball game. Mets 6, Nats 3. I chatted with the parents about which parts of New York City tend to root harder for the Yankees or Mets. Dad said that in New Jersey, where they were from, allegiance was a crapshoot (proud New Jerseyan Jon Stewart is also a Mets fan, I pointed out).

With the weekend fast approaching, I was struck, Friday morning, to look around the train and seemingly every single person looked downright forlorn, en route to work. I was troubled, even if week-ending "Friday joy" is something of an artificial construction at 7am.

Disregarding the train car's cloud of depression, I asked a man with glasses, white hair and a thick mustache if he knew why it is that subway drivers, apparently, must tell riders when they are at the "final station in the Commonwealth of Virginia." And then alert passengers at the next stop to confirm that we arrived at "the first station in the District of Columbia." "Train conductors alert us every single time that the jurisdiction changes," I proclaimed, "and there must be a reason."

"The only thing I can think of is it must be for some legal reason," he said. Minutes later he exited, without saying goodbye. I was hurt. But just a bit.

Maybe it is poetic that on the final leg of my weeklong -- and not totally unsuccessful -- pursuit of humanity, I could not find anybody to talk to. It was not for lack of trying. From the moment I boarded until I disembarked 9 stations later, my eyes were open for a talker. Again, I refuse to interrupt anybody who I see busy with headphones, an iPad, smartphone, or even an actual book(!). And I stood on another principle by refusing to associate with the well-dressed man with his belongings spread out to take up three seats. And clearly everybody else had eyes locked on their phone or otherwise mastered the art of detachment.

I reached my stop, shrugged my shoulders, finally and officially failing, and stepped off to reenter society. I considered what I learned that week. And what I had not: I did not get so much as a first name all week. I was reminded how the movie Fight Club coined the term "single-serving friend."

In maybe the most diverse city in America, I think every person I spoke to on the subway that week was white. Each day I relearned how many people latch on to their phone and/or recoil beneath headphones to preemptively shut out the world. Ironic, I believe, because one conclusion I quickly drew (even if it made me late for work on Monday) was that time goes by a lot quicker, my commute gentler, when I find a partner or two to engage with.

It was disheartening to realize that most people who exude any sort of openness or air of approachability proved to be visitors who lived anywhere but Washington. But neither Rome nor the Washington subway was built in a day, and I am not finished trying. Maybe we'll talk soon.