“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”

Consider for a moment the lower platform at Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro Station. It’s one of the busier stations in DC; upstairs is the platform for the Red Line, which runs from eastern Montgomery County, Maryland, south through the not-so-nice parts of Northeast DC until you get to Union Station, where the Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses go, before turning west and running to Chinatown. At Chinatown it starts curving back north, through the downtown business-y parts of the city, then Dupont Circle (closest thing the city has to a gay district, plus a Krispy Kreme and some good bookstores and a Mormon temple), Adams Morgan (where the college kids go to get drunk), and then the middle- and upper-class residential areas of Upper Northwest, before crossing over into western Montgomery County by way of Bethesda, the entitled asshole capital of America.

But this is the lower platform, where the Yellow and Green Lines go. The Yellow Line is schizoid, with little identity of its own; except for a couple of stops in Alexandria, Virginia at its far south end, every stop on it is shared with either the Blue or Green Line. Mostly it’s useful for being the line that crosses directly from Southwest DC to the Pentagon on the other side of the Potomac, where the Blue Line meanders west awhile before curving back down. Or if you live in Alexandria, I suppose.

And then there’s the Green Line. It starts in Maryland, just a bit east of the Red Line, and I’ve honestly never been up that far. Once it crosses into DC, it rapidly establishes itself as the line for people who actually live here—not the college kids or the professionals who come here for five years and then move on, but the people for whom this is their home. This is the one that goes to Columbia Heights, the closest thing DC has to a suburban mall, what with its big-box stores stacked on top of each other and generic chain restaurants. One stop south from there you come to U St, where Ben’s Chili Bowl is, a dive hangout where you can get excellent chili and halfsmokes (a sort of spicy hotdog that exists only here and in one town in Texas) at 3 a.m. During the race riots in the 70s, Ben’s was the only place on U St left untouched by rioters. Bill Cosby proposed to his wife there, and he and the Obamas are officially the only people who eat free, although briefly President Obama was barred from the restaurant because he tried to insist on paying. I recommend the halfsmoke with mustard, onions, and chili, any of the milkshakes, and find someone to split the chili cheese fries with. Avoid the cakes and pies, they’re lousy. The place is always full, always loud, and if you stay there long enough, eventually everyone in the city will pass through.

Further down the line we pass Howard University, one of the best historically black colleges in the country (and it is difficult to deny that there is some segregation to these Metro lines—the Green line and western half of the Blue line are mostly ridden by black people, the other lines mostly by white people), and then Mt. Vernon Sq, which is close enough to Chinatown to be a bit silly, and home to the big convention center which, despite going to 10-12 conventions a year, I have never been inside.

Chinatown is more or less the midpoint of the Green Line. Everyone calls it Chinatown because it’s easy and that’s what it was built for, but honestly there’s not much left of Chinatown. A big gate, a couple of restaurants, and bilingual signage are the only relics of it that remain; nowadays it’s dominated by the Verizon Center, where the hockey games and big concerts happen, and the assorted galleries that cluster around the National Portrait Gallery like puppies suckling (hence the new name, Gallery Place). Continue south from Chinatown and there’s Archives, which is how you go the National Mall if you want to avoid the tourists, and L’Enfant Plaza, which exists mostly to switch to the Orange and Blue lines, and if you got on Yellow by mistake it’s your last chance to switch back to Green. Then there’s Waterfront, where I live. There’s a Safeway and CVS directly on top of the station, which is convenient, and a Z-Burger (good fries, mediocre burger, very long list of excellent milkshake options), and Arena Stage, which shows plays too small and interesting for the Kennedy Center and is one of the most gorgeous buildings in the city. The next stop south of there is where the Nationals play baseball when they’re home, and sometimes they shoot off fireworks I can see from my balcony. On July 4, when all the tourists and transients gather at the National Mall, the locals come here to the ballpark and set off illegal fireworks in the vast parking lot. The police turn a blind eye, because it’s safer than having people set them off in the flammable parts of the city.

Past that… well, the thing is, when I was a kid DC was the murder capital of the country. Then they cleaned up, and the rule became that Northwest was safe, the other three quadrants dangerous. Then they cleaned up Southwest, so the rule because “don’t go east of the Capitol.” Now much of Northeast and even parts of Southeast (which was always the worst part) are safe, and the new rule is “don’t cross the Anacostia.” The next thing the Green Line does after it leaves the ballpark is to cross the Anacostia, so I don’t know much about those stops.

The Green Line, in other words, makes a strong case for being the real DC, the city experienced by the people who actually live here and plan to keep living here. That’s important to remember, because the world experienced by people living in it is never quite the same as the world experienced by people who consume media about it. The places you take the Green Line were never on The West Wing, and you’re unlikely to see them in news or documentaries (although I assume Nationals Stadium has been on ESPN at some point, and Ben’s was on “Man vs. Food” once). CNN goes to the Capitol and the White House, maybe the Senate offices, all strictly Orange Line.

Except on Monday. Because I didn’t tell you the name of the stop where the ballpark is, the next one south of my stop, the last stop before you get to the bad part of town. It’s called Navy Yard, and on Monday a man went there with a shotgun and killed twelve people and injured eight before being killed himself. And that’s scary and surreal, and the media will do everything in their power to make it more scary and more surreal, because scared, disoriented people buy newspapers and insurance and conservative politics and all the other things the powers that be want you to buy.

What they won’t tell you? First, they won’t tell you that violent crime is down, and I mean way down. In the U.S., violent crime in 2011 was only a little over half as common as it was in 1991, both overall and in every individual category tracked. People are getting less violent—even with the economy in the tank, we’re not hurting each other as much. You’d never know that from the news, though; like I said, the world experienced by people living in it is not the world you see depicted in media about it.

More importantly, they won’t tell you that today, like every day, on my way home I will stand on the lower platform at Chinatown station, near enough to the edge that any one of the hundreds of strangers standing on the platform with me could push me off if they wanted to. No one would notice them doing it, and if they timed it right there wouldn’t be a chance for anyone to react before the train hit me. If you want to kill someone anonymously and randomly, it is hard to pick a better place than the lower platform at Chinatown station.

And yet we don’t stand there warily and watchfully, paranoically scanning the crowd for any hint of menace. We stand with our phones and our MP3 players, newspapers and books, and trust that no one around us has any reason to kill us, and therefore no one will. Tens of thousands of people a day do this on that platform, because their lived experience tells them it is safe to do so, and not once has any one of them been murdered as a result.

So if you want to use this news to try to make an argument that people aren’t fundamentally good, that we should be afraid, that we need to arm ourselves and treat everyone who tries to walk into a building as a potential mass killer? That’s what you’re up against. Millions of people who have the chance to murder each other and don’t. Steadily dropping violent crime. Lived experience that suggests safety. Trust.

I love my city, which is why the long description of Metro lines at the start of this. I will not allow it to become an armed camp. I will not allow those who prefer the idea of living on a savage frontier to the reality of living in civilization to try to exploit this kind of tragic blip to undermine the trust of which civilization is built, to let thirteen tragic deaths to outweigh millions of peaceful strangers passing by on their way home.

I implore you, in the aftermath of this and every similar tragedy: instead of focusing on the loud, noticeable stranger who killed, focus on the millions of strangers who quietly don’t, who you without even realizing it trust to build the vehicles in which you ride and the buildings in which you stand, to grown and prepare the food you eat, to treat and test the water you drink. Remember the millions you trust, that you must trust for civilization to endure; don’t let isolated incidents splattered across the evening news make you fear them.

ETA: Fixed a typo and cut a factual error that proves just how much I don’t know about the Green Line south of Navy Yard.

0 thoughts on ““I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”

  1. I'd agree even more if it wasn't for my spontaneous hunger for a chili hotdog.

    Froborr, I know you're used to getting few views on this blog, but I really hope you post this somewhere where more people will see it.

  2. Thanks both of you! I'm pretty proud of this piece.

    As for posting it somewhere people will see it, well, I would if I could, but there's not really anywhere I know of that would take it. It's here, it's on tumblr, after that it's up to readers who like it to spread it around. (Hint, hint. ~__^)

  3. Followed your link from Linkara's RT. Well said. As someone who has had to live in Virginia Tech since a mass shooting followed by another smaller shooting, it's too easy for people to think of Tech as a dark place, a place where violence occurred. There's still more of a sense of trust and openness here than most areas of the country. I'm glad to see someone else speak out about their home town.

  4. Thank you. I think people forget that these things happen in real places, and I think they also tend to forget that DC is a real place, so I really felt the need to remind people that this is a real place. At the same time, I didn't want to contribute to the narrative of fear. People who feel hopeful, secure, and happy are almost never violent; people who feel despairing, fearful, and angry quite frequently are.

  5. I didn’t see this the first time, but followed a link from your current piece on white privilege. I think this is even more important to remember now than it was when Navy Yard happened. It’s shockingly easy for our society to write off a shooting by a white man as an anomaly, especially these days. But it’s all too easy for our country to place the blame for an act of terror is upon entire societies and ethnicity. It’s so crucial to remember that those societies are filled with the strangers you describe above – some better than others, none perfect, but most not violent and just wanting to go about their daily business. They’re just like us, in other words.

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