On why I hate D.C. subways

I am standing on a subway platform in Washington, D.C., and trying to figure out how, exactly, to get to the line I want to get to, and Jessica is vibrating with anxiety next to me.

“Do you know what you’re doing?”

“Does it look like I know what I’m doing?”

“Are we lost?” She sounds stricken, like I have stranded us on the far side of the moon, and she didn’t want to go along anyway, and now look.

“No,” I say. “I know where we are. I just don’t know how the hell to get to where we’re going.”

“That sounds lost.”

“Sometimes,” I say through gritted teeth, “it’s better if you’re quiet while I try to figure things out.”

I’m pacing this way and that, looking up at the overhead signs, then at the subway map in my hands. It shouldn’t be this hard. The subways in D.C. just aren’t; they are sort of like toy trains you set up around the Christmas tree. It’s not like finding your way through the rabbit warren of streets in Sultanahmet, old-town Istanbul, which I have done, only to be defeated by a simple below-ground grid with signs in English.

Tears are sparking in Jessica’s eyes, because she gets stressed when I’m impatient, and yet her stress does not magically render me calm or anything, so I find myself pivoting on my foot, looking at each sign in turn.

“We are here,” I say, stabbing at the map, “and we want to be there,” I make another stab, “which requires us to transfer to the blue line, but there is only the orange line here.” I gesture to the platform we are standing on. “But the map says we can get on the blue line here. So why can’t I find the goddamned blue line?”

“You could ask someone.”

“There is no one to ask!” My words echo against the subterranean concrete walls. “It’s just us! We are the only ones here!”

“You are lost.”

I notice that this time she has abandoned the we. Disassociating herself from me. She had nothing to do with this.

“Grr,” I say under my breath.

“I hate it when you do that.”

It’s a good thing we took this practice trip, I think, looking up at the signs, the tears sparking in my eyes now. Because obviously we are never going to go to Italy. It’s not supposed to be this hard. This is the simplest thing in the world, a subway in D.C., and I can’t do it right, and it wouldn’t matter if it were just me, I’d wander around for a while and figure something out. But she is humming with anxiety next to me, and it is throwing me off my game; it always does. I’m like a man: I can only do one thing at a time. I can’t soothe her emotional distress if I am also trying to find the damned train. If she could contribute something, for god’s sake, then maybe everything wouldn’t be so damned hard.

We have been upstairs and downstairs and this way and that and still cannot find the platform. And there is no one here to ask. And pretty soon she is going to have a meltdown, and so am I, and won’t that be a pleasant Sunday afternoon on vacation.

“What are we going to do?”

“Look,” I say. I am rattled, which I don’t normally get. Usually if something goes wrong, I sit down and have a cup of coffee. Jess gets a Diet Coke. We make a new plan. But I can’t even get that far today, I can’t even get to, well, let’s go outside and flag a taxi. My mind is frozen in where the hell is that platform??!?!?? and it will admit no other thought. This is why I need another adult, I think viciously, because when I get like this, someone needs to stop me. So, no, we are not going to Italy.

I don’t realize I have said this out loud until Jessica says, “Mom. I am almost grown up. And we just need to look at the map.” She looks over at me, determination on her face. Determination and disappointment; she wants to go to Italy.  “We are practicing, remember?”

“Fine,” I say. I have looked at the map ten thousand times, and I don’t care how much we practice, this is already a disaster and—

“That sign says we must go that way.”

“We have been that way,” I say, exasperated. “There is nothing over there but the escalator. We have been up the escalator. We have been down the escalator. There is nothing there!”

She gets a sly smile on her face, the secret smile that says she knows something I don’t know, and she drifts over to the escalator. I adjust the shoulder bag with a harumph and follow her.

We get to the escalators. “See?” I say, swallowing the I-told-you-so. “There is nothing here.”

She edges past the escalator. There is not much room between the wall of the escalator and the tracks, and she bumps a trash can, and I hiss in a breath. I know what she’s doing, she is playing Harry Potter the way she plays Lord of the Rings; the world is her game board. And Harry couldn’t find Platform 9 3/4, just as we can’t find the line we want, and what he had to do was just keep walking.

I’m assuming that we will find a blank wall back here, or perhaps a maintenance room, and then I will just burst into tears and go home.

And we get to the other side, and there is the stupid goddamned platform I have spent twenty minutes trying to find.

“Why the hell would you HIDE THE FREAKIN’ PLATFORM BEHIND THE GINORMOUS ESCALATORS?!!” I shriek loud enough for the transportation authority to hear.

Just then the train pulls in, and the doors ease open, and Jess looks over her shoulder at me, the sly, secret smile still in place.

She always does this! I think, stomping on the train. She thinks all you have to do is believe! All you have to do is be Harry Potter or Frodo, and everything will turn out all right! And then it does! And that just encourages her!

I throw myself onto a seat. She is sitting up, straight and proud, next to me. On the way to Hogwarts, I guess.

“You need to take a deep breath, Mom,” she says.

“What I need is to stop being so damned impatient.” I lean my head back, wondering why I ever left Kansas. I know how to find things in Kansas.

“That is just how you are made,” she says philosophically. “Give me the map.”

I surrender the map meekly.

She looks at it. “It is three stops to where we are going. I will tell you when it is time to get off the train.”


  1. I hate being lost, i have a bit of a phobia about it…next time i will try to put on the sorting hat and see what happens. Thanks Jessica !

  2. Brilliant. Good to know other adults shut down when frustrated. I can navigate foreign countries, but get screwed up in a DC or NYC subway station every time. It’s all psychological, I know this, but still I wig out under the pressure.

    I guess it’s a good thing Jessica isn’t an adult to contribute that baggage on these trips.

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