Do you remember the first time you stood ankle deep in the ocean before dawn? The sinking feeling and splash of vertigo hypnotized as you watched an infinitely speckled sky fade into a single star? Or the time goosebumps crawled on your skin as strings softly yielded to a horn’s elegiac solo? Or that time you went to the Glacier National Park or Machu Picchu or some other breathtaking view you had only seen in travel magazines and National Geographic: Do you remember that sense of awe? Shocked and strangely gratified by your tininess, your splendid insignificance. The flash of comprehension, the joy of existence reimagined. You liaised in emergence, that half-glimpse into the eternal. You recognized your soul tethered to a body, a body scaffolded by particles of dust and dirt. You returned home and looked through an old photo album as you would look through a recursive reflection.
Since Trump took office, I haven’t felt the slightest inclination to visit this country’s capital. So morally bereft and girded by the ever-more-ignoble bible belt, I think of D.C. as something akin to the Chernobyl meltdown. By my thinking, the contamination is best monitored by a moral exclusionary zone. Why risk lecherous stools or necrotized decency? Stay away.
That was my position until Angela said she had a conference just outside the beltway. “You have to go too,” she had also said. So there I ended up, four days in D.C., breathing Gehenna’s sulfur. I decided that if I had to spend time in such close proximity to the Whore of Babylon, I might as well inhale the airborne grotesquerie with empty lungs and pray for an expedited demise.
Much to my relief, however, the toxins weren’t airborne, and the locals were in good health. Only once or twice did I see, and this is true, elementary school children – white children – bused in for a patriotic field trip, wearing those red hats. And sadly, I suspect, though I have no way of actually knowing this, their parents fancied themselves political fashion coordinators and indoctrinators.
I bought a day pass for the Metro and boarded a 7000 Series Train. (Trains for the non-urban, like me, are something of a novelty. The last time I rode a train was somewhere in the State of Washington. It was a tourist attraction for little kids and elderly grandparents. Angela made me do that too!) I was on the Red Line, entering Metro Station from Rockville. I wanted to get the touristy stuff out of the way. So I swapped to the Orange Line and got off at Federal Triangle, which was supposed to be near the Mall and museums. I walked out of the Metro station and there was Trump Tower. It was right in front of me. I stood paralyzed like a rabbit who had spotted a hungry dog. “God, damn it,” I prayed with a sort of disgusted sincerity. I just knew all those Trump leeches of criminality and carnality would crawl under my skin, like it has done to the Grand Old Party. Then I remembered the movies where natural disasters or aliens destroyed cities, you know, like Independence Day. Safety is always underground in those movies. I went back to the Metro to breathe and escape the very first building I saw. After a couple of ins and outs of metro stations, I realized the best part of D.C. was underground.
The trains flowing into stations like blood pumping through a body. The doors opening and closing, aortic and mitral valves, releasing passengers onward, duties and obligations ahead. The body must breathe, must be nourished with the life-continuing cells. The renewal of life, a revival, a given ruach again and again, ad infinitum. People coming and going, in and out, ruach… ruach… by the breath of his mouth… ruach.
I’ve ridden the D.C. Metro before and the Paris Metro. I’ve shot around London on the Tube. I’m pretty sure I’ve done MARTA around Atlanta. Maybe there are a few others I’ve forgotten about too, but what brings all these experiences together is the knotty realization that the Metro works because thousands of individuals come together and somehow form a whole. The city becomes the body with a circulatory system of people.
I sought refuge at Union Station and decided to pass on the monuments. Instead, I’d photograph life in the Metro. The art of street photography, as if I know anything about it, seemed to be the ability to cloak yourself from others by becoming something in the background. For the most part this strategy worked. I found corners, sat on the ground, and never made eye contact with anyone. Then ambition took over; I wanted great shots. And that meant being less inconspicuous. Ten minutes later, I was spotted and, well, I wouldn’t say I was kicked out exactly. I was not so politely told to put my camera up. But that’s the great thing about the Metro. There are plenty of other stations to photograph.
I went to another station and another, on and on. The swarms and personalities, the waiting pools and streams of people, the obvious tourists and the ear-plugged locals, the self-appointed doormen who are more eager to get on the train than let people off, the shared conference calls, the sleepers, the Dapper Dans, the phone checkers, the recently fired, the yogini and swamis, the luggage carriers, the last-minute boarders… I knew I loved the Metro and even said as much as the nice lady from L’enfant Plaza was telling me I needed to leave.
The blending of the one and the many is maybe the oldest paradox. We’ve asked questions about how it works. How can there be one in three and three in one? Who am I in my family? In my marriage? Who am I, an individual, while standing with random strangers? Standing on the platform watching individuals clump together into capricious clusters, seeing the same formula reciprocated as the doors open and the clusters disperse. The incongruity of categories, categories such as I, you, and we, them, tinged in the back of my mind like a half-remembered mirage. Or was it an oasis? The undressing of certitude, the preoccupation of language naming the simple and monolithic unity into apparitions and creeds. Words and letters, such as I and we, me and you: metaphors. Metaphors of language trying to baby-talk isness into comprehension. And even this, humanity’s most hallowed tool, language fails with each letter by its very effort. We don’t know who we are. I don’t know myself’s self. I have concretized and purchased this self at an expense not yet disclosed, and though there is no sense of regret or remorse or moral failing because of such a transaction, something was exchanged. Something was lost. Something was surrendered. And now I can only ask in what manner can I call me mine?
No more than the fellow who stood next to me, gripping the overhead handle as the train rocked back and forth, can call me his, I think. If this means anything, it at least means this: if I claim the food I eat, the house I live in, my wife, and the countless other belongings and relationships I enjoy are gifts from a transcendent God, then how much more is this thing I label as me? Am I not also a gift? It is a gift …he has made. If I am a gift, if I have been donated this present tense existence, surely then, I can’t be in rightful possession of me. I am not my own. Or, as Abraham Herschel put it, “I find that what I call ‘self’ is a self-deception.”
If it is not mine, to whom belongs this loquacious box of endless prattle? Once the question was realized the answer seemed all too conspicuous. The faces buried in cellphones, the mom trying to manage two children, the stair climbers and the escalator-riders, like the trains moving from station to station, I am a pocket of ruminations and observations, as these other bodies are their own island personalities. Moving from station to station, however, collectively there is no me. There is no we or you. There is only a horizontal chain of being plodding eschatological-like towards a divine telos. The distance closing and remaining the same. Every breath, every ruach, an inspiration as much as an inhalation; every spat of loneliness a jab of dereliction. This I and your me, maybe in the front car, maybe in the last, but this we, this us, pulled into the station, the resting point, together.