They are from here but they're not from here. Three teenaged girls, white, just crossing the line over zoftig in semidismantled semiformal uniforms: pre-tied bowties dangling unclasped around open collars, that sort of thing. I would immediately peg them as waiters just getting off duty from some gala event but none of them seems to have the slightest clue where they're going. They're ambling through the humid sump of the Blue Line platform at L'Enfant Plaza--it's mid-autumn but this is still Washington, and all the heat and water vapor are held in by the stone cradle that suspends the Green and Yellow Lines overhead. They're looking for Metro Center and they have no idea how close they are and they're broadcasting their confusion for everyone to hear in the exhausted silence of eleven-thirty. They look and act like don't belong, like nobody's told them how to get home from whatever unimportant ceremony they have just been honored at/paid for and now they're good and lost in a strange city, but their voices tell me they are more at home here than they know.
"Blew line. Is this the blew line?" In that flat Chesapeake drone. This city is their inheritance, too, and this may be the first night they have ever navigated it alone. Maybe they'll retreat from it later to become the sort of exurbanites who refuse even to drive through the city at night, while visions of crack-fiends dance through their heads, but they are here now, so young and so brazenly ignorant that I know they will get home just fine because even more than the bold, fortune favors the foolish. If they blunder about like this often enough then soon the whole city will be theirs. They will graduate from the childishly simple Metro system to the highways and then surface streets, and when asked in later years they will discard the names of their suburban incubators and identify their home simply as DC.
I didn't cross that line until comparatively late, when a friend moved into the middle of downtown and my late-night ferries forced a firsthand awareness of the city's geography that I'd always avoided; I'd been too dependent on the Metro to shepherd me around. Will Self wrote a wonderful essay about the myopia of the lifelong urbanite (it was called "The Big Dome" when I read it in Harper's, although I've seen it published under the fantastically dull title of "Self's London") where he talks about the multicolored spaghetti strands of the Underground map as a projection of "the child's unintegrated vision" of the city. The subway divorces all destinations from one another, mystifying any awareness of the whole.
As it happened this moment of unspoken connection with those three girls, "Nausicaa" without the naughty bits, was the second transportation-related epiphany of the evening. The first one occurred close to an hour earlier while I was waiting on the platform back at National Airport. My train was a long time coming but I didn't mind the delay; luminous architectural icons floated just across the Potomac, filling half my field of vision. I realized that I didn't love my home in spite of all its infrastructural shortcomings but, in some sense, because of them--that, living in Nashville, I had come to miss just how damn difficult it could be to get across town. This is what makes me one of Will Self's urban provincials: it's not that the view across the Potomac makes the insane commutes worthwhile, it's that the commutes make the view worthwhile as well. But then, anything worth having is worth working for.
Tomorrow I'm heading back to Nashville, where everywhere is twenty minutes from everywhere else but there's no reason to go there. Too harsh? Probably. It's a perfectly liveable city--if you have a car--but I notice that after nearly three years of living there I haven't written about it once, except to grouse about how it suffers by comparison to more interesting, more aggravating places.
But this is not the real problem. The real problem, hardly Nashville's fault, is that it will always lose out to the place where a snatch of overheard conversation can trigger a rush of memory and kinship, where the arc of my life can be fit into a child's query about the Blue Line.