Friday, May 21, 2004

COMMUTING: Red Line Jealousy

The Red Line, which has seen 42 new rail cars in recent weeks, appears to be on its way to having the system's most frequent service. But that is making people who represent other jurisdictions on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's board seeing red.

From Lyndsey Layton's report in this morning's Washington Post:
Chris Zimmerman, who represents Arlington, said the Red Line was greedy. "The Red Line has to get everything it can," he said.

The Red Line's defenders argue that the line, which is the busiest in the system, needs the pressure valve released. But both the Orange and the Green lines see massive overcrowding on a daily basis during rush hour.

... Under the new plan, "if you ride on the Green Line, you have to wait twice as long for a train and have a train that is 15 percent more crowded" than on the Red Line, said D.C. Council member David A. Catania, who represents the city on the board.

Could there be some underlying class politics here? Red Line commuters in the District can be very arrogant about their commute and wouldn't imagine moving across the river and having to use the Orange or Blue lines. One colleague calls the Red Line, the "smarty pants" line, partly because that Cleveland Park, Woodley Park and Dupont Circle commuters are more likely to be reading substantive daily newspapers or magazines than the free commuter daily Express.

Basic translation of the griping: Now the rich and smart commuters in Upper Northwest and Bethesda are getting more frequent trains. But if you have to transfer to the Green Line, prepare to wait 15 minutes for a train. (Hey WMATA, please put more benches on the Green/Yellow Line platform at Gallery Place-Chinatown.)

CONSTITUENTS: Marching on Kalorama

According to a release posted on DC IndyMedia, a group of protesters will march this evening from Dupont Circle up to the home of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld near the intersection of 22nd Street and Kalorama Road.

This is the second protest this spring that has brought protesters to the front doors of the homes of Bush administration. As you may remember, a group based out of Chicago surprised top Bush aide Karl Rove at his home in the Palisades, which brought some unwanted attention to his quiet Upper Northwest neighborhood.

Could this be the emerging new tactic of choice for protesters?

Thursday, May 20, 2004

THEATRE: What, Republicans Can Like Shakespeare Too?

Apparently, Republicans can enjoy culture. That's what Brendon Lemon says in Wednesday's Financial Times as he explores the far-reaching popularity of Shakespeare in the capital city.

From the Financial Times (subscr.)
Certainly among Washington theatregoers, The Shakespeare has been a destination for many years, notable for the quality of its offerings. While the city has several other fine theatres, The Shakespeare has proved that, as [Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael] Khan says, "there is a huge audience in Washington for the classics.

"This isn't just because the city has a large group of the highly educated," he continues, "because our audiences, especially in the summer, are extremely young, diverse and enthusiastic. Even the more conservative Republican side of the city embraces our repertoire. Shakespeare depicting sex or violence is not as threatening as when pop culture depicts them, apparently. And Shakespeare isn't a moralist. he doesn't tell you what to think. So people of all points of view can love him."

So if I'm reading this correctly, Republicans enjoy Shakespeare because real-life issues, like sex, are portrayed fairly and in a more dignified manner. (Hmmm ... that could be read as an overly broad interpretation)

What would the Bard have to say about Ms. Washingtonienne and the scandal she's created?

COMMUTING: Is Escalator Etiquette a Symbol of Our Mean City?

According to Dale Rose of College Park, those of us who get worked up over tourists standing on the left side of Metro escalators need to chill out. It is a symbol of our mile-a-minute me-me-me culture.

From Rose's letter to the editor published in Thursday's Washington Post:
The story about riding Metro escalators ["Standing on the Left? You Must Be on Vacation," front page, May 17] was an example of the "me first, me only, and to hell with everyone else" mentality prevalent in Washington. Never mind that walking or running on the escalators is against Metro's rules; the level of rudeness portrayed by the Washington area residents in your story is unjustifiable.

Visitors are doing nothing wrong by using Metrorail. But, even if they were, they deserve our respect and help, not our scorn. The behavior suggested by the founders -- "destroying everything in your path" -- is especially appalling. Are they serious?

Walking on an escalator probably saves at most one minute. We could all break this cycle of rudeness if we gave ourselves 60 extra seconds to board the trains. The generosity of spirit would make our lives and the lives of those around us less stressful.

I'm curious as to whether Mr. Rose's letter made any sort of impact on people reading the Post on the Metro on Thursday morning. Was there some sort of escalator catharsis? Or did they think that Mr. Rose was a big tool with the "generosity of spirit" line. Imposing idealism on Washington is foolish. Adding to the city's cynicism is not.

OUT AND ABOUT: Starbucks Wants Your Jokes

This evening, I was heading up to my 85-year-old great aunt's house for dinner when I decided to swing by the Tenleytown Starbucks to grab a coffee to kill some time before the M4 bus arrived to take me to the Palisades. On my Red Line commute uptown, I was reading the Los Angeles Times, which I carried into the Starbucks. I approached the counter

"Hi! How can I help you?" the perky clerk, who could have been an American University undergrad, asked me.

I gave her my order and the Times was in my hand, resting on the counter in front of the cash register. In plain view was the large front page Reuters photo a number of wounded Palestinians being rushed to the hospital after Israeli forces filed a missile and tank shells into a demonstration at the Rafah refugee camp. It wasn't the most pleasant of photos.

The clerk looked down at it, looked for a moment, then sneered in ambivalent disgust and shrugged her shoulders.

Then she asked: "So, do you know any jokes?"

I looked up in confused bewilderment.

She continued, real animated: "Yeah, we're all telling jokes here. So can you tell us one?"

I replied no. Then an older man behind me said that in order to remember jokes, he had to write them down. "Sorry I can't tell you any ..."

The clerk continued: "Yeah, so ..., yeah we've been telling dumb blond jokes." She had highlights, so I guess it was OK for her to tell dumb blond jokes.

I shuffled over to the pick-up counter and waited for my drink. As I re-read portions of a Times article about the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association assembling the first cellular telephone directory.

"So a blond was driving a car ..."

I tuned out the frivolous bantering between the three clerks. So now when you step into a Starbucks, prepare to make the clerks laugh. They seem to be really bored.

COMMUTING: Cameras Rake in the Cash

The Washington Times reports this morning that the city's speed cameras are bringing in a lot of cash.

From the WT's Tarron Lively:
The District collected $2.3 million in fines from its automated speed cameras in April — the biggest revenue month in the program's 21/2-year history.

But although revenue is up, there are signs that motorists are wising up to the cruiser-mounted cameras that take pictures of license plates as speeders race by. After three months of increases, the number of tickets issued dropped by about 15,000, to 65,077, which is also an indication that the drivers who are being ticketed are paying bigger fines.

The hotspots include zones all in Northeast and Southeast:
The 2800 block of New York Avenue NE, two locations on the Anacostia Parkway, the 100 block of Michigan Avenue NE and the stationary camera in the 500 block of Florida Avenue NE.

I also know of mobile speed cameras positioned sometimes on the Third Street/I-395 tunnel, MacArthur Boulevard and New Mexico Avenue.

So stay alive, drive 25 (unless you're on I-395, where the speed limit is 45 mph.).

UPDATE: 1 p.m. Swamp City links to the WT article on the traffic cameras, but I'd like to clarify something: The list of traffic camera Swamp City links to IS NOT a listing of cameras that will clock speeders. That list is just for stalkers who like to look at random intersections, like New York Avenue and Ninth Street in Northeast, the Key Bridge, or South Capitol and M Street, et cetera, if you so choose.

WMATA WATCH: 4 30s in a Row


On Wednesday I was waiting to cross Wisconsin Avenue at Porter Street at 9 a.m. when four of the 30-series buses ran north toward the Friendship Heights terminal within two minutes, as if they were in a race. Later, four buses ran north saying they were "Out of Service" (which makes sense since they may have been running to the Western Division bus yard off Jenifer Street), but do they have to say "Welcome Aboard" on the side, and "Not in Service" up front? It can make it seem that your agency's bus drivers have no regard for passengers who are waiting for a bus, only to see one that says "Not in Service," with an additional cheery "Welcome Aboard" message. Symbolically, that just rubs salt in the sore wounds of your agitated passengers.

Also, please update your bus drivers on the transition to SmarTrip for bus-to-subway and subway-to-bus transfers. I boarded a 90 bus last night and asked the bus driver whether I could use my SmarTrip card for the subway-to-bus transfer. Since my old bus route never had SmarTrip, I am just giddy about the fact that I can use it on most 90 buses now. I know the new automatic transfers are coming soon, but I thought I would ask the driver if he knew when. But he didn't even seem to have the faintest clue to what I was talking about.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

DINING: Rosa Rocks? Or Does She Just Suck?

A friend of mine who's a New York commercial real estate consultant calls the whole Gallery Place/Chinatown/Penn Quarter mess "MCI-ville." I think it fits quite well. Ever since the MCI Center went in, the Seventh Street corridor has been transformed. Dining-wise, the immediate area around the intersection of Seventh and H streets is the nexus of all dining franchises on the East Coast. Fuddruckers, Legal Seafoods, Hooters, Chipotle, et al. The area services the arena crowd looking for decent food in a "vibrant" urban setting.

But MCI-ville offers upscale franchises as well. Over on Sixth Street is D.C.'s contemptible Coyote Ugly outpost, which tries to pass itself off as a upscale Hooter's, attracting the "Fairfax cul-du-sac crowd" as one friend puts it.

Then over on Fun Street, err ... F Street ... (The F Street/"Fun Street" marketing campaign is probably the most ridiculous in recent memory) is Rosa Mexicano's outpost in MCI-ville. For those who don't know, Rosa Mexicano is New York's popular and swanky Mexican restaurant with locations on the Upper West Side and on First Avenue. (Atlanta is set to get a Rosa franchise as well.) Among the general population, the food is held in relative high regard. The interior is just a feast for the eyes as the tableside guacamole and the pomegranate margaritas are for the taste buds.

Or so says the conventional thinking.

But don't say you love Rosa Mexicano to most posters on eGullet. They seem to hate it. The following posting from DonRocks back in January is still making people laugh this May:
On the menu at Rosa Mexicano, there are two items listed by themselves on the top, clearly intended as grabbers: the pomegranate margarita, and the guacamole.

The pomegranate margarita is dispensed soft-serve style out of the wall behind the bar. Almost magically, it seems to keep flowing and flowing, seemingly at the rate of ten gallons per second.

Question: where do you think it comes from?

Do you think the conscientious Tequila-master is sitting there behind the wall, thoughtfully mixing crystal shot glasses full of Patron Anejo into the swirling machine?

Think the pomegranate juice is from the farmers market?

At least Fat Tuesday's has more than one flavor.

The guacamole is fabulous, wonderful and a bargain at ten dollars. It's a cleverly crafted strategy, having this as the signature dish. Are you going to go to Rosa Mexicano, next to the MCI Center with $15 valet parking, and order a guacamole with a glass of ice water? If you do, your food will be a terrific value. If you don't ...…

Washington DC is the third outlet for this chain restaurant. Atlanta, Georgia is soon to be the fourth. Any guesses for number five? Six? Seven? Get the picture?

Let's call a spade a spade: this factory serves processed-tasting food intended for the masses who naively think they're getting something more meaningful than they would at Cheesecake Factory. Even the tortilla chips taste like they came from the bulk food section at Shoppers Food Warehouse (as opposed to Rio Grande and Cactus Cantina, two high-volume operations that get the chips right).

Rosa Mexicano sucks. It sucks! How much does it suck? It sucks, that's how much it sucks. It sucks ducks, bucks, monster trucks, hockey pucks, guys named Chuck, migrant workers that shuck, lightning bolts that struck, sewage workers wallowing in muck, rear-wheel drive cars that are stuck, vagrants who are down on their luck, babys who taste spinach for the first time and say yuck, and don't think for a moment I've forgotten about the word fuck. There!

I have never been to Rosa so I cannot give my own testimonial. I'm sure the guacamole is good, I'm sure the design is stunning and the food is decent, though probably overpriced. But I really don't want to go there for one reason: geography.

Since it is in MCI-ville, the choice of their location says one thing to me: they want to make lots of money. Rosa doesn't seem to care about her food, only about attracting the masses in with a stunning interior and buzzworthy margaritas. Plain and simple, that is why I stay away from Seventh Street dining.

But if you think that I'm unfairly judging Rosa on account of its geographic mass marketing, then read on.

A reader e-mailed me her experiences with Rosa Mexicano's unscupulous waitstaff:
While I did not have the "ventworm nut" they speak so fondly of on, my friends and I did order a round of margaritas to kick off the night. My friend, the evening's birthday girl as we informed our waiter, ordered a 'Tradicional' margarita. The waiter asked if she liked Grand Marnier.
Friend: Oh, yes.
Waiter: I'll make you a special margarita with Grand Marnier, I'll call it La Uniqa.
Friend: (flattered) OK, sounds good.
Me: I'd like a Tradicional also.
Waiter: Do you want me to make it like hers...special.
Me: Sure, why not? Thanks.
The dinner progresses in all its lackluster glory, but the margaritas were strong and we were having fun. The budin Azteca was merely mediocre (melted cheese with some tortillas and shredded chicken) and none of my friends were impressed.

Bill time rolls around...
Me: (glancing over the bill) Those margaritas were $10!?!
Friend: (after consuming three) What!? I thought they were $7.
I was extremely bothered by the fact that our sly waiter had upcharged us without even so much as a mention or hint that his "special" margarita was three smackers more than the Tradicional that we both plainly asked for. So I decided I couldn't leave without mentioning to our waiter that I didn't appreciate his slyness.
Me: Those "unicas" were uniqely expensive.
Waiter: Yes, $10.
Me: I gotta give you credit for upselling us, but we thought we ordered $7 drinks.
Waiter: (silence with an innocent stare)
Me: was tricky of you.
Waiter: I just let you know they were available.

Whatever dude!! I backed down, being not as aggressive as I wish I could be.
And we left -- having paid more than $50 for 5 margaritas -- with a bad taste in our mouths.

Yes, I could've insisted he charge us $7 and raised a big stink, but I don't go out to eat looking for a fight. But it's those kinds of sleazy upselling practices that make me feel like I'm in an Applebee's. Come to think of it, they probably have a policy on NOT misleading unsuspecting customers. So a $10 margarita. Was it worth it? No. I can make a better one at home.

The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema gave Rosa Mexicano a tepid, if less-than-favorable review:
Right now, Rosa Mexicano is the city's most glamorous source for chips and dip. I'll remember it when I want a sassy drink, a comforting plate of melting beef, or a tasty quesadilla or two. Meanwhile, I'll keep my fingers crossed, and hope this newcomer's substance soon catches up to its style.

Sietsema's review brought this reaction on's Rosa page:
Rosa "Rocks"
Posted by anonymous on Feb 21, 2004

I think the food writer needs a reality check. there is no Mexican like this in DC and it's great. slurpee or not the margaritas are awesome and the food is really tasty. Maybe he should try and enjoy the whole restaurant instead of picking aaprt the food. The design is really cool and there are lot's af great people at the bar. Thanks Rosa Keep bringing it!!!

Rosa's place on Fun Street has been creating much buzz around town. Out and about, I've heard groups of people ... OK, it was all women in their 20s, including one gaggle from a Democratic Senator's office at a recent Capitol Hill happy hour ... rave about it without necessarily supporting their claims with much more that it was "so" good. At that happy hour, I heard this questioned posed about Rosa: "Are avocados low carb? I could eat Rosa's guacamole fo 'eva. No, really! Fo 'eva!"

You get the point.

NEWSPAPER SQUATTER: LaRouche and the Writers

At the corner of Q Street and Connecticut Avenue, it appears that Lyndon LaRouche could be trying to co-opt the DC Writer's Way writers workshop. The New Federalist -- a newspaper part of the publications family published by wannabe-Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche -- is currently occupying the DC Writers Way publications box. Have the LaRouchites taken over the writers workshop, or are the LaRouchites just squatting?

WMATA WATCH: Blue/Orange Line Mired in Delays

A Blue Line train was stuck for nearly an hour between the Rosslyn and Arlington Cemetery stations during the middle of yesterday's morning rush hour.

From The Washington Post:
It took 51 minutes to move the train because the area inside the train where the controls to release the brakes are housed was locked, and the operator did not have the key, [WMATA spokeswoman Lisa] Farbstein said. She said it is highly unusual for the control box to be locked. The operator had to climb out and release the brakes from outside the train, she said.

THIS MORNING'S NEWS: Later Liquor, a Tragic Mulching Death, And Get to Know Your Local Gangs

The Washington Post reports this morning that the District will allow its 600 liquor stores to apply for licenses from the Alcohol Board of Control to stay open two more hours ... until midnight.

From the Post's Yolanda Woodlee:
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) introduced an amendment that would give the ABC Board the authority to determine which of the city's 600 stores that sell alcoholic beverages can stay open for the additional two hours.

The council's vote to extend the hours of the stores on a case-by-case basis passed 7 to 6.

Some members argued that asking the ABC Board to decide which stores could stay open past the current 10 p.m. closing time placed an enormous burden on the board.

Up in North Potomac, the Post reports on the gruesome death of a teenager who fell in a landscape mulcher.

Meanwhile, The Washington Times says that Northern Virginia is changing its tactics in dealing with rising gang violence ... by naming the names of the gangs.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

L'ENFANT PLAZA: Can Children Save It?

L'Enfant Plaza, that monstrosity in Southwest Washington, could get a shot of badly needed redevelopment with the news that the Capital Children's Museum is headed for the I.M. Pei-designed government and hotel complex in a few years. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the museum is closing its Capitol Hill location and will move to a new location in the complex in about four years, if everything goes according to plan.

But can children bring life to the drab collection of austere, minimalist, Cold War-era federal buildings? The District hopes so at least.

From the Post's Debbi Wilgoren and Dana Hedgpeth:
"L'Enfant Plaza needs help. It's all this stark, abandoned plaza," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), whose district includes the site. "It needs some life to it. It needs to be a destination point for people."

But L'Enfant Plaza is already a destination ... for federal workers of second- and third-tier executive branch agencies. And they aren't necessarily the most uplifting bunch of souls to create a friendly destination for tourists.

A Deserted Aztec Temple, With Thousands Trapped Inside. Southwest Washington was once a working class and commercial sector of the city near the waterfront. But urban renewal ... or literal urban removal ... essentially wiped the area off the map. (The building of the Southwest Freeway helped too.) The famed architect I.M. Pei designed the complex in the mid-1960s. But it isn't celebrated as some of his other designs are.

Anchored by the L'Enfant Promenade -- a boulevard that starts beneath the Energy Department and leads to an overlook of Interstate 395 and the Southwest Waterfront -- L'Enfant Plaza's stark piazzas seem to distribute any sort of modest pedestrian life over a wide swath of square footage. It is boxed in by the Loews hotel, the Energy Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Postal Service. Part of it is elevated, cut off from the street grid, connected only by confusing staircases that lead to the imposing-but-deserted Aztec plaza before its Loews hotel altar.

Below ground, there is life in the "La Promenade" underground shopping plaza, albeit a depressing existence. For thousands of civil servants, it is the only lunch spot besides agency cafeterias. (I've heard that the Energy Department cafeteria isn't all that bad. Rumors of health code violations kept me away from the Department of Transportation cafeteria across Seventh Street.) Despite its "oooh la la" name, La Promenade might as well be named the Yuri Andropov Food and Retail Bazaar. When I was working in the area, there was persistent talk that the federal government subsidized the entire retail operation just so civil servants had the dignity to escape the dingy corridors of their offices for an hour every day.

Since I departed the federal government in January 2003, I haven't returned to La Promenade, so I may not be up-to-date as to what the retail corridor offers these days. When I was there, there was a Frank and Stein (with its 4 p.m. federal worker happy hour), an Au Bon Pain, at least three Asian pay-per-pound buffet establishments, a pizza place, Kelechi's African Authentics, a Dress Barn, a tie shop, a CVS and a McDonald's. This was all located below the plaza with no light, aside from a small glass pyramid that gave the Dress Barn and a coffee stand some natural daylight. The underground complex reminded me of the Martian colony in "Total Recall", filled with unhappy, worn out people trapped below ground.

Even the American Institute of Architects is reserved in its praise for the I.M. Pei design. From its guide to D.C. architecture (third edition):
Now a generation old, the first two office buildings here, fronting the north and south sides of the plaza, are generally regarded not only as sophisticated examples of design in concrete but also as technological innovations, for Pei integrated the mechanical and electrical systems into the exposed coffered ceilings, a practice by no means common on the 1960s. The complex, an outgrowth of the Zeckendorf-Pei plan for southwest Washington, maintains an air of quiet dignity, despite being located at an exit ramp of I-395.

Does it have dignity? Perhaps. Is is dead? Most definitely. (An appropriate reflection of the federal bureaucracy.)

Can It Be Saved? That is a good question. The Post doesn't really explore how the children's museum will fit into the complex. What L'Enfant Plaza needs is a dramatic overhaul. The government can't exactly bulldoze hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space. But the space could be reconfigured much in the way General Motors is renovating the Renaissance Center in Detroit. Both complexes have the same ailments: Big institutional buildings, cut off from the rest of the city by roads and elevated walkways, its human element trapped inside, confined to underground pedestrian precincts. By tearing down its huge bunker-like berms, the Renaissance Center is becoming more opened up to downtown Detroit. Opening up L'Enfant Plaza could be done in a similar fashion.

Despite L'Enfant Plaza violating everything Pierre L'Enfant stood for in his civic design, it can be helped, but it needs a major municipal and federal support. Getting busloads of children aren't going to solve L'Enfant Plaza's lack-of-humanity issues. My idea, which is probably unrealistic, would be to expand the commuter rail station at Seventh Street Southwest for Virginia Rail Express, creating more of a Boston-type North Station/South Station set-up for suburban rail commuters, alleviating pressure on Union Station. A second commuter hub for central Washington would really give Southwest Washington a needed shot in the arm. But until manholes stop exploding in Georgetown, the water system is free of lead, and children stop shooting each other in Southeast, a vibrant L'Enfant Plaza is just a pipe dream.

INFESTATIONS: A Third Potomac Snakehead Found

The Washington Post reports this morning that a third snakehead has been found in the Potomac, sparking fears that the fish may become permanently entrenched in the watershed.

From the Post's Peter Whoriskey:
An angler competing in a bass fishing competition on Saturday pulled a 13-inch northern snakehead out of the Potomac River, marking the third time in nine days that the exotic species has been captured in or near the waterway and heightening fears that the Asian predators could become permanently established.

Screw the cicadas, they're ready to die and go away. The snakeheads could be here to stay.

Monday, May 17, 2004

COMMUTING: Escalating the Escalator Debate

The Washington Post sparked discussions across the capital Monday about the considerable burden the tourist classes place on locals who are trying to simply move about town quickly via public transportation. The problem: outsiders standing on the left side of Metrorails's 572 escalators.

From the Post's Lyndsey Layton:
Here comes Sarah Shain, typical Metro rider. The 22-year-old District resident is hustling down the left side of the escalator to the lower platform at Metro Center, clacking on the moving metal steps in her sensible pumps, until she hits a roadblock: a pair of tanned tourists in shorts standing two abreast, talking and blocking her path to the Orange Line train idling at the bottom of the escalator.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metrorail, doesn't support climbing escalators, because it can be dangerous. In fact, WMATA escalator run at speeds slower than escalators in a typical shopping center.

The conflict is most visible on Metro's 572 escalators. Because the subway was built deep beneath swampy Washington, Metro has more escalators than any other transit system in the world. A typical passenger must ride at least two escalators to reach a train. The steps are 40 inches wide, broad enough for just two adults.

(Hold on Lyndsey, "swampy Washington"? More on that in a second.)

That means that riding the Wheaton escalator can take three minutes; and the Dupont Circle Metro's 2 minutes and 10 seconds. The escalator at Woodley Park Zoo/Adams Morgan, a favorite of tourists with small children, clocks in at 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

And that means that the average Washington commuter will walk up the escalator, which could potentially lead to a fall. WMATA will not encourage walking on the left, though they won't go out of their way to tell people to move to the right.

Last year, they tried, sort of.

As you may remember, WMATA placed yellow message signs on the ground of many Metrorail stations, telling people not to run in the stations, to stand back from the platform edge, and one, if I remember correctly, said stand on the right of escalators. Though the signs worked their way into my subconscious, I think they disappeared. They may still be there, but I don't think they are.

In London, the Underground has signs in certain stations, particularly at newer facilities on the Jubilee Line that tell commuters to stand on the right of escalators. Granted, tort reform may farther advanced in the United Kingdom than in the United States, but still, is WMATA afraid of lawsuits from a lawsuit happy society that could pounce on the cash-strapped agency if someone falls and chips a front tooth? That is the impression that I got when I dealt with the agency. It wasn't a territory they wanted to cross into.

So in the meantime, locals can complain, and even buy a t-shirt from some budding entrepreneurs to vent their frustration with the tourist classes.

Swampy Washington? In Layton's report, she writes that escalators are so deep because of Washington's "swampy" nature. Hmmm. That isn't really true at all. It you might notice, the deepest stations in the system lie below Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues in "Upper" Northwest. For instance, in order for the Red Line to travel beneath the Rock Creek gorge, it must dive deep underground. In fact, the Red Line tunnel beneath Kalorama and Woodley Park was only feasible by building one tunnel, not the dual parallel tubes common in the rest of the system. (Therefore, the Woodley Park station is deep beneath Connecticut Avenue. The last time I checked, Woodley Park sits high on a bluff above Rock Creek, not on a swampy tidal flat.)

The only subway tunnels built through areas that were once swampy are mainly down near the Mall. As you may know, the entire Mall west of 17th Street is built on drained river marshes, as is the Constitution Avenue corridor, which is built on the former Tiber Creek. So the Smithsonian metrorail station, and other stations close to sea level are actually among the most shallow underground stations in the system.

WMATA Watch. DC SOB on Monday celebrated the completion of the repairs to the Judiciary Square escalators at the D Street exit, naming the winner of his contest to pinpoint the date of completion. This contest is a symbol of all of our frustrations with WMATA's escalator problem.

They are technically among the most complicated escalator contraptions in the world and there are a lot of them (572 according to the Post). It would make sense that if WMATA built an escalator-dependent system, the agency would know how to maintain them. Some blame the unions, some blame the escalators' exposure to the elements, some blame basic agency befuddlement.

So it may be good to remind WMATA of their problems. As public citizens, we are the eyes and ears for WMATA. So here, "WMATA Watch" is launched. I will keep track of WMATA service failures in this space and compile reports from time to time on interesting trends I notice.

First up: Dupont Circle metrorail station, 8:00 p.m., Monday, May 17, 2004 ... Station manager announced that all three escalators at the 19th Street portal were not working.

In a related note at Dupont. The elevator is out of service for major capital rehabilitation. The suggested alternative is Farragut North. But unless you know of the outage in advance and have mobility difficulties, you wouldn't know of the outage until Dupont Circle, when during the normal station announcement by the train operator, it is made known that the elevator is out of service. For Shady Grove-bound trains, it would make more sense to announce the Dupont outage at Farragut North.

Have a WMATA Watch tip? E-mail the Oculus at oculus [at]

Sunday, May 16, 2004

POLITICAL DRIVING: Bipartisan Love of Celine

Like I've been saying, I'm in the middle of moving and my sister, who lives across the Potomac, has been nice enough to lend me her car for the move. Saturday morning, I was driving north on Glebe Road from Ballston toward the Chain Bridge when I pulled up to a red light at Lee Highway. A blue BMW pulled up next to me with its windows down.

The car came to a stop right as the climax of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" was blaring from the sound system. I turn over out of sheer discomfort. No, it was not a soccer mom on the way back to McLean. It was a man in a pink-striped shirt and a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Golf clubs were clumsily sitting up diagonally in the back seat. And he was enjoying the song. I could tell this was the case because of the fact that he was singing along with such devoted intensity, without a care that he may have been making a spectacle of himself.

I turned over in disbelief. I can't really describe my smirk, but it was enough to make him instantly shut up when he turned over and realized that outsiders could hear him. He immediately began tapping the steering wheel.

The light turned green, the car sped off toward the Chain Bridge. The car had Virginia plates (too bad they weren't vanity plates for that would have completed the package quite well) and two bumper stickers, well three if you count the obligatory OBX sticker. One was a Rick Santorum bumper sticker, the other was a Charlie Stenholm sticker. It was a bipartisan car, though Stenholm and Santorum don't seem to be an obvious match.

Men who love Rick Santorum and Celine Dion are certainly an interesting commodity, and are one of the more odd combinations I've seen in a long time.

A REINTRODUCTION: The Washington Oculus

As you can see, the Oculus has a new look. After six months of blogging, the intense orange was getting to me. It will be under construction for awhile (especially since I'm still in the middle of getting settled in a new apartment), but I think I have a fairly decent template now that's easy to use. (And you can add your comments.) I didn't want to move to Movable Type or something radically new, because I don't have an interest in doing graphics (and blur the lines of copyright regulations, etc.) or multi-layered archiving. I like to write and that is what I do.

Granted, a lot of what I write is done late at night and can sometimes be confusing and perhaps overly detailed, but I consider myself a blogger who focuses on writing, instead of digesting the media, finding a link and quickly posting for the whole world to see. There are many blogs that I love who do that, but that isn't exactly me.

So Who Is the Oculus? I am a 24-year-old pseudo local who came to Washington in search of work after college. Though I grew up in Michigan, a good chunk of my family has roots in the District. Unlike most transplants, I have a history here. My father's family grew up in Foggy Bottom before the undergraduates took over. My mother's side of the family is from Latvia. I'm a strange mix, I know.

A colleague describes me as someone with an "intense love for the arcane." True. I know to much worthless trivia. And that is why I blog, to make my coffers of random facts and knowledge available to all.

A Friendster testimonial describes me in Zagat form:
Our favorite local "Geography Bee Champ" puts up a "brilliant front" as a "mild-mannered copy chief," but that's simply the "cover story." In reality, M.G. is formulating a plan to "take over the world" using his "vast and cavernous knowledge" of "bizarre street formations," "living with women aged 80+," "D.C. bus lines" and "W.M.D. manufacturing." Get in his way and incur a "wrath holier and deadlier than any earthly force."

(For the record, I used to live with my now-85-year-old great aunt in the Palisades. I just moved out of Glover Park for McLean Gardens.)

Social geography governs everything, it's just that very few study it, or for that matter, write about it. And in the capital city, social geography dictates living -- political living to be more precise -- more than most cities. Washington is such a transient city that it lacks so many characteristics that makes a city a city. It's an interesting dynamic. And I intend to document it ... in excruciating detail.

What I Intend to Do. First, I try to avoid politics. There are plenty of people in this city who have all their time and mental capacity invested in digesting and regurgitating politics. I'll leave the policy debates to the countless political blogs and most of the gossip to Wonkette and Swamp City. But that doesn't mean I won't explore the art of political living, where the politics meets the personal. And while I may write about things only townies care about, it's to inform the greater populous of what is going on in the capital city, a deeply misunderstood place in the country. And I hope that you'll gain a greater understanding of this odd place.