Hell lies just below the streets of D.C.

Illustration by Takeshi Tadatsu

I did a brave thing the other day: I went down into the Metro, hopped on the Red Line, changed stations at Gallery Place, and took the Yellow Line train all the way to the airport. I kept expecting things to get really hot down in the tunnel. I thought I’d see smoke, then fire licking at the train. The power would cut out, and I’d hear confused voices in the dark.

My flight to New York compared not at all in terms of the gut requirements. I have long been perplexed by people dying in ways that seem totally avoidable; I will change flights if the radar maps show too many roiling cloud tops, rendered in yellow and orange, en route.

But you really are screwed if you can’t trust the Metro. I don’t want to underestimate the anxieties my grandfather felt—or suppressed—as he went to work every day of his career in a lead mine. But I think I began to know what those anxieties might be like.

For years, Washingtonians have known of the dangers above the surface. The process of commuting from work or the grocery store or the gas station has always had the feel of a safari sponsored by some third-rate adventure company: Stray bullets kill ladies doing their laundry or taking a quick walk; aggressive drivers mow down pedestrians as if they were squirrels; and the Department of Public Works, until recently, gladly allowed anybody with a business card and a backhoe to chew holes right down the center of the roads. It’s a mess out there.

But D.C.’s latest public hazards don’t come from the streets. They come from the gutter—or from parts further below. The sewers are erupting spontaneously and subway tunnels are catching fire at rush hour, and we find ourselves having to worry about what lurks in the ground beneath our feet. For that, we have Metrorail and PEPCO and Washington Gas—and they have each other—to blame.

Like nearly all cataclysms in Washington, this recent series of infernal events has been caused by humans rather than by nature. I have always been perfectly comfortable calculating the risks of being shot or stabbed on the sidewalk or being tricked into a mass-marriage ceremony at RFK Stadium. But the rumblings beneath the ground have shaken the very foundations of my faith in D.C., the reasons I’ve felt safe—arrogant even—about making my nest in the city.

Civilian death and dispossession rates here climb as high as the heat, but, thank goodness, we don’t live on a flood plain or atop an active fault or near a lake that’s suddenly going to burp up lethal gases. Sure, you might have to worry about the tolls of murder and taxes, but do you really have to fear the Atlantic tsunami? (As I write this, Jane Pauley is hosting a special Dateline episode titled “Nature’s Wrath,” which tracks the ruin of tornadoes, landslides, and tidal waves: “For Karen ______, a few precious minutes meant the difference between life and death…#seven crucial minutes.”) We can go to bed at night fairly confident that Nature isn’t going to pull any shit before we wake up.

But our infrastructure betrays us. In February, when the shop windows first shattered and the fire leapt from the ground on M Street in Georgetown, the problem seemed isolated and specific, like crop circles—the experts in such matters said something about decaying leaves turning flatulent in the sewer lines. But then it happened again. And then again, as if the government were conducting some sort of volcanic demonstration project; unstable elements found their sparks and 40-pound pieces of cast iron shot-putted into the air near 9th and L Streets NW, next on 19th and K Streets NW, and, in the incident that grazed my consciousness most closely, at the corner of 13th and G Streets NW downtown.

I used to use that crosswalk all the time, and though I have a much greater chance of expiring in the line at CVS (as I very nearly did last weekend), the car that the fallout destroyed could have been mine. Or me.

The pre-traumatic stress, my sense of pre-emptive shell shock, has compelled me, unconsciously, to invent a new kind of extreme sport when navigating down 18th Street on my bicycle or walking to work: the street slalom. I snake along the sidewalks and weave down the roads, hopscotching obstacles that may not be apparent to others, because I’ve become utterly gripped by fears of having a sewer lid turn into a land mine on me. I confess to whistling by the gallows when I play my little game, but there is one satisfaction to all of this pathos: The only thing I tend more jealously than a phobia is a rational fear.

Whenever I’m in Los Angeles, I’m the one with car wheels screeching as I gun to get out of all those godawful parking garages they build below grade. I plan never to board the Heavenly Express on Sunset Boulevard, and let’s not even joke about cruising around on L.A.’s new subway. Nobody I know out there likes to go underground.

I have found an inn in Beverly Hills where all the rooms are small, wood-framed bungalows; I stay there not simply because it’s cheap, but because my friend Lindsey, almost as big a chickenshit as I am, was thrown ceilingward from his bed at 4 a.m. at the Sheraton Miramar in Santa Monica one fateful morning in January 1994. The furniture was falling over all around him, until it stood still, which is when he realized that he needed to get the fuck out of there. But he couldn’t find his glasses or his shoes. There was broken glass from the picture frames covering the carpet. He smelled gas. He was on the fifth floor.

When I go to visit my brother in San Francisco, I am always certain that the next big earthquake there will wait until I am securely captive in the BART train crossing under the bay to Oakland. Relaxation specialists suggest visualizing your way through silly fears by playing some reassuring imagery in your head. But I prefer to drink vodka, because that way, as one friend says, “Thoughts don’t accrue”; and otherwise, my visions always end up the same: Whenever the train has its typical spasms or shakes, I expect the next thing I see to be water, tons of it, roaring into the tunnel and filling up the car like a punch bowl.

And speaking of roaring water, my boyfriend thought I was crazy when I got jittery about camping in a stream bed in Colorado on a night when distant lightning flashed on the other side of the mountains. He hadn’t heard of the Big Thompson River disaster of 1976. He has since.

D.C.’s natural history feeds no such fears for me. The terra here has always been quite firma—we live at the joint between the Piedmont Plateau and the Coastal Plain, and both land forms have been extremely well behaved. You could say that the impending collapse of the O Street Wall in the Hillcrest part of Southeast is the result of gravity, but we’d rather blame the D.C. government. The only sign of geological violence you will find is that overthrust fault encased in its own informative diorama on Adams Mill Road NW, near the service entrance to the National Zoo. But that was, what, eons ago, when there were no sewers and no lids to blow off of them.

I got on the train, saying a sentimental goodbye to the red tile of the station platform. I began to calm myself by gently humming Gillian Welch’s “Miner’s Refrain” under my breath: “Cause a worried man’s/Been a long way down/Down in a deep dark hole.”

Oh, brother. Time to get a grip. Time to take the advice I was given out in Arizona a couple of weeks ago: A massage-therapist-cum-holistic-health-guru told me that I need to go to the desert, reflect on my life for a week—the good things, the bad things—and then drink a quart of juniper tea and rub ginger all over my body. If things keep up the way they have been here, I’ll try it. If I’m going to live in constant terror, I may as well have a good time. Because I could, you know, die all of a sudden. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Takeshi Tadatsu.