The Fourth of July is, and should be, a day of celebration for all Americans. It is one of those rare days when we can lay aside our partisan bickering and revel in that unifying thread of national pride. The template is familiar to most, friends and family gather for grilling and good times, then retire to the nearest fireworks display before going back home and the welcome relief of air conditioning and a shower.
This year, we went to the National Mall in Washington DC, that rectangular strip of abused grass and bare dirt that lies between the capitol and the tall, spare obelisk of the Washington Monument. We waited until mid-afternoon to leave Virginia, riding the metro into The District. We met up with our son and his family under a shady tree and from there, we went in to the Natural History museum. Our son’s wife had family in from Korea and they were anxious to view the Hope Diamond in all its glittering 56-carat glory. While the unprecedented heat beat down mercilessly upon the Nation’s Capital, we whiled away the hours in the relative comfort inside.
As the afternoon waned into early evening, we claimed a small patch of real estate from which we could watch the fireworks. Those patches get harder to find each year as the mall fills up with tents and pavilions. I took some moments to look closely at the faces of the million or so of our closest friends who had gathered for the show. There was ample evidence that we are truly an immigrant nation. I don’t care what ethnicity you claim, you’re still an immigrant. Even those we call “Native Americans” are descendants of people from Asia who traipsed across the Bering Land Bridge beginning some 16,000 years ago. Americans, along with visitors who may harbor a desire to become one, were all gathered in communal purpose and singular meaning. For anyone with even a shred of appreciation for the patchwork story that is America, it was certainly a moment of note.
It was still very hot, close to 100 degrees, but some evening thunderstorms to the west provided a welcome curtain from the direct blast of the setting sun, and a very welcome breeze began to make itself apparent.
And then, just as suddenly, it was over.
With an efficiency that would have impressed Alexander the Great, the crowd scooped up its belongings and sprinted for the Metro stations. We held back a bit, taking our time getting things together. When you have young children in your party, you learn to do this phase carefully, lest some treasured item be left behind. But eventually, we began to meander. At 12th street, we split up, our son and his entourage heading for Gallery Place and Maryland, we for the Orange line at Federal Triangle.
It was here that the day fell to pieces.
It is no small task to “evacuate” a million people from a central location. Frankly, I'm amazed anyone gets out of there alive, whether by car, bus, or train.
The Federal Triangle station actually lies within the complex of marble buildings making up the Reagan Center. The access to the station is a set of escalators under a beautifully arched breezeway that in another time sheltered horse-drawn carriages carrying dignitaries to what used to be the U.S. Post Office headquarters. It has now been…um…"recycled" into the EPA headquarters. Under normal circumstances, that open archway would have been plenty comfortable. But the entire space was jam-packed with people. Nighttime had not brought a noticeable reduction in temperatures and the breeze had vanished, so with the mass of people, the air inside the archway was hot.
Transit Police were controlling the size of crowds going down to the train platform (a good idea, that) so it took the better part of an hour before we finally numbered among the chosen few to descend. A completely empty train glided up at one point and we thought we had struck gold, but unaccountably, the doors remained closed and the train backed out of the station. A few minutes later, another train, this one carrying passengers pulled in. I’ve not been here long, but I’ve done enough Metro travel to know that people congregate at the mid-point of the platform. The roomiest cars are usually at either end because nobody wants to make the trek to the far limits of the platform. The seats were taken but we were able to find a spot to stand.
Now, the Metro has come under fire in recent years for a number of things related to the condition of that aging commuter rail system. Some of the cars are being replaced, but the older ones are pressed into service for events of this kind. In fairness to WMATA, they do the best they can with what they have. But when a car is jammed full of people, all of whom have been out in the heat for most of the day, the air conditioning just isn’t up to the drill. It’s not just the lack of cool air, but the lack of ANY air at all. It was bad when we boarded, and it got worse. Within two stops, the train, even the front cars, were as full as they could have been. But at subsequent stops, people still tried to jam themselves into the cars, increasing the misery of those already inside. The air was thick, hot, and humid, made rank by the smell of sweaty humans. My wife and I struggled to breathe as the damp warm air laid on our skins like a piece of wet wool.
Still, some manner of chivalry existed. Looking back, I was happy to see that everyone who had a seat was either female or elderly. But as the minutes crawled by, things got even worse. Two people came close to fainting, and somewhere in the car, a child was retching. My wife, ever the RN, noted in a guarded whisper that nearly everyone presented signs of various stages of heat trauma.
It was stressful, but people were still behaving themselves, grimly hanging on by our fingernails to a brittle veneer of civilization. At one point, however, a man who had been squeezed into the niche beside the operator’s cubicle, made a sudden bull rush for the door with his wife in tow, yelling maniacally, “Clear the door! Clear the door!” When one man didn’t move fast enough for him, he stuck out a flat hand and knocked the poor fellow out of the car onto the platform. When a nearby man voiced a protest, the pusher’s wife turned and slapped him. Hard.
We were stunned. From a brittle peace, violence had erupted. Looking at the pusher’s faces as they left, I could see they were panicked and a bit deranged. The Pushee and the Slappee, heroes both, managed to hang on to their tempers. I don't believe, under those conditions, I would've had the capacity for that much charity.
It was a telling moment. Things could have gone tribal very quickly. But around us, I could see in people's faces a renewed determination. Their expressions said silently, "I'm not gonna be that guy." We all relocated the tattered shreds of our humanity. Finally at East Falls Church, the train began to empty out. And by the time we got to the end of the line at Vienna, there was enough space to allow the incipient feelings of claustrophobic panic to subside.
Exiting the train, the air was noticeably cooler, almost pleasant. A passing thunderstorm had washed some of the heat from the atmosphere and we drove home in the first few minutes of Thursday morning with the windows down, reveling in the deliciousness of fresh air.
I enjoyed doing the 4th in DC. But the train ride to Hell can’t be much worse than the one we took out of The District that night.
It would have been better to hang out for an hour or two in DC until the crowds subsided. (Not going to use the street term "chill" here.) But normally train service ends around midnight and we didn’t want to be stranded miles from our destination. Had WMATA extended their run times another 90 minutes, perhaps things might not have been so desperate.
The irony is that the worst of the problems were not Metro’s fault, save the suffocating conditions inside the cars. Most of the misery was created by people trying to jam themselves onto trains that were demonstrably, visibly, and factually already overcrowded. I don’t know the answer to that, because nobody can legislate human behavior. We can hope that higher instincts emerge, but when the heat and humidity overwhelm, people tend to lose it.
This has been a tough couple of weeks for people in this area. The record-setting heat coupled with the passage of an enormously destructive Derecho has left hundreds of thousands in the dark and at the full mercy of the heat. Power companies, even with help coming from hundreds of miles away, will take the better part of two weeks to fully restore power. In the newer areas where power lines have been buried underground, outages were rare. But in the older parts of the Capitol region, where neighborhoods are full of power poles, heavy electrical lines, and tens of thousands of tree limbs, power was lost. The experience has taxed the limits of patience, and perhaps for some, those limits were exceeded on the night of our Nation’s birthday.
Suffice it to say that this is the last 4th of July we will spend in DC. A spectacular fireworks display isn't enough when laid against the seemingly endless horror of that train ride home. We’ll still go watch the fireworks, because it wouldn't be Independence Day without them.
But I promise you that they’ll be much closer to home.