the chorister's c



Escape Velocity

18 January 1999

Sometimes I spy on people.

I'm riding the Red Line towards town and the Dupont Circle station. I'm tired of reading, and I look up from my book, because I'm gradually becoming aware of a conversation between a guy and another man and his son.Their seats are all facing mine, across the glass partitions by the doorways, so I can see them pretty clearly but I lose most of the words over the roar of the train. The conversation is mostly one-sided.

The Guy looks to be in his forties, maybe older. He's pudgy, flat-faced, with a florid complexion, thinning hair, rimless glasses.He's got on a worn gray-blue jacket of some synthetic fabric, it's the top half of a suit. A pale blue shirt with a big collar, open, with no tie. Gray-brown slacks, broken-down Rockports on his feet. None of his colors seem quite pure and clear, but dingy, rather. Not quite shabby, but shiny, chintzy. He looks like what my long-lost friend Anne would call a Tuna.

The Dad is definitely in his forties, and prematurely gray. He looks a little like Austin Pendleton (but that's just me: everyone looks like Austin Pendleton to me these days). Dad's wearing an windbreaker of some primary color; are his jeans green? The Son is ten or twelve years old, in a red jacket, and restless and tired, alternately nuzzling into Dad and jumping up to swing on the stanchions.

As the Guy continues this conversation with Dad, it's the choice of topic that arrests me. The Guy is talking to a total stranger about space travel. I hear, "... even in outer space, they're positioned..." I become alert. Dad is being polite and holding up his end of the conversation (which marks him as a tourist from Ohio, in my book). The Guy seems lucid, but there's something about his turns of phrase. I hear, "what they taught you in school... and I said... they say 17,000 mph but it's really 17,500... a spacecraft takes off at an angle... what is freefall?" and I am convinced the Guy is building a moon rocket at home on his kitchen table.

Dad, still polite, but guarded, asks whether the Guy works at NASA. The Guy offers a cryptic denial and says he's retired, and then he says that he's a volunteer docent, a tour guide. And he has a "grand union" with the other docents.

Now it's true that the Guy is wearing a photo ID badge around his neck, like every good Fed in this neighborhood does. While the bottom half of his body is tightly locked around the bags at his feet (a brightly-colored canvas briefcase and a plastic grocery bag), above the waist he sprawls, his arm across the back of the empty seat next to him. His jacket hangs open so that I can see the badge on its cheap ball-chain; I can also see that he's wearing suspenders and a belt. A wedding ring. His accent is hard to place: he sounds like Texas for a moment, and then like the Midwest. Call it Missourian.

So who is this Guy? Is he a pathetic wannabe that spends every Saturday afternoon at the Air and Space Museum? Is he genuinely unhinged? Or is there nothing really wrong here: am I just reading too much into this friendly banter across the aisle? It is the possibility that he is completely "normal" that I find fascinating, unsettling. What's the difference between this harmless old nerdy Guy and me, who spend a rainy holiday scribbling a story about him?

At the Cleveland Park station, a girl in a jean jacket scoots on the train at the last moment, holding her farecard in her mouth. She rides standing in the doorway, and a flicker of an expression on her face tells me that my suspicions about the Guy are not mine alone.

Dupont Circle is two stops farther down the line. I ride the long escalator to the top of the P Street station entrance, and I'm still thinking about this Guy. I jaywalk across one-way 20th Street, and I'm halfway across before I realize that I've looked the wrong way for the traffic.

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©1999 David L. Gorsline.
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