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My first encounter with one of them happened on a late-fall morning a couple of years ago. I was taking Metro to work, in a hurry, a cup of coffee in my hand. As my train pulled up to Federal Triangle, a middle-aged, primly dressed businesswoman walked past. “They’ll fine you $200 for that, if they catch you,” she said, glaring at my coffee.
“Rewy?” I said, midsip.
“Yes, and they’re not all wearing uniforms,” she clucked before disembarking.
I cringed with embarrassment, but before long it turned to indignation. A war on terror is going on and some undercover Metro cop is going to bust me for a cup of coffee? Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d had the vague notion that food and drink were prohibited on Metro; back farther still was the expectation that anyone would actually care.
In New York, where I lived for several years, people are known to eat entire meals on the subway, and it’s considered unwise to reprimand strangers unless they’re, say, physically assaulting you. Metro Lady, on the other hand, acted as if I were in her living room. Granted, there are rules in place to protect that grimy orange Metro carpeting, but it seemed strange that an ordinary D.C. citizen was enforcing them. This turned out to be the beginning of a trend.
A short while after the Metro Lady incident, I was carrying a cup of joe with me on another morning commute. I’d gone through the turnstile on my way to the train when a pudgy man in a white button-down shirt and the unmistakable ID-badge necklace of a federal employee passed me going in the opposite direction. “You’re not allowed to bring that in here!” he exclaimed.
If he was one of those Metro food-and-beverage cops, he was deep undercover. But apparently, he was just another concerned civilian. What was he going to do, make a citizen’s arrest for possession of coffee? “Thanks!” I said, smiling and raising my paper cup as if in toast to him.
Mulling over these episodes to an unhealthy degree on subsequent trips, I carefully planned my response to the next Metro busybody to cross my path: a withering glare and the novel riposte “Get a life.”
Don’t get me wrong: Like anyone else, I enjoy my commute more when I don’t have to sit on somebody’s stray french fries or share the compartment with a rodent. And I’ll even concede that it’s snooty to think that the rule should apply to others and not to me. But I found my fellow passengers’ zealousness a little unsettling, which in turn made me a little, yes, zealous. I was determined to keep bringing coffee on board with me. It wasn’t just convenient; it had become a badge of honor, a revolution against a rigid (if not entirely unreasonable) rule. I was a beacon to those everywhere who craved freedom as well as Jamaican Blue Mountain roast.
One morning, late again and clutching my cup of coffee, I ran down the escalator, into an open train car—and almost straight into a transit officer. He was about 6 feet tall and cute, so I was prepared to throw myself at his mercy.
“You’re not drinking that, are you?” he said.
“Good. Because it’s a $20 fine if you do,” he said, about as menacingly as a Boy Scout.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling and meaning it.
Sure enough, as I exited the station, I noticed that the rusty sign did in fact read: “No
drinking.” Maybe the officer was just being good-naturedly literal, I thought. From then on, I imagined future encounters with subway vigilantes in which I nonchalantly one-upped them. “Well, actually, I’m not drinking it. You see, it’s only illegal if you drink it.” I would then raise the coffee to my lips and maybe take a sip, swoosh it around as if I’m at a wine tasting, and spit it back into the cup.
As it turns out, Metro backs me up on this. “You can bring food and drink on board. You just can’t consume it,” says Linda Farbstein, a public-relations officer. The law has been in place since Metro opened 28 years ago. A significant number of former military personnel were involved with Metro at the beginning—which might have had something to do with the ban. According to Farbstein, the law was part of an effort to “create an environment that minimized disorder.” It’s a quality-of-life issue, Farbstein adds: Eating and drinking, like the proverbial broken windows, breed litter, graffiti, and other crimes. “Crumbs, wrappers, spills, and stains,” says Farbstein. “You just have to go on a train late at night to see it.”
On a recent Thursday night, I boarded a Red Line train and took a look around to assess the damage. A lone plastic Coke bottle rolled across the aisle, but that was the extent of it. I’ve actually seen less tidy cars on weekday mornings, after half the passengers have left their newspapers behind.
Farbstein is not averse to a little off-duty enforcement herself. “I feel comfortable going up to somebody who looks like a tourist and letting them know that it’s against the law to consume food or drink on Metro,” she says. “Usually, they’re grateful for the information.” She feels less comfortable approaching a regular commuter—someone wearing a suit or carrying a briefcase—who is probably familiar with the law and intentionally flouting it. She’s reluctant to “do anything that may threaten my safety,” she says.
That might explain why no one has hassled me lately. I’m no longer fresh off the Metroliner from New York, and although I don’t carry a briefcase, I’ve become an ordinary Washingtonian. I make my way through the station at a brisker pace and without having to consult a map or sign. Some mornings, though, it really does seem as if more people are carrying coffee on board. I’d like to think that, thanks to freedom riders like me, D.C. is now a more tolerant place.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Deanna Staffo.