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When the Green Line arrives in Petworth, a commute will go underground.
A couple of seconds after he sidles into his seat, the guy who’s been swilling from a bottle of PowerAde at a bus stop in front of the Mount Vernon Square Metro station starts growling. It’s not a steady growl—nothing, at any rate, to drown out the rattling from the bus ceiling as it sits in northbound traffic on 7th Street NW. The snarling makes its way into passengers’ ears at its own herky-jerky rhythm—much like the wafts of boozy air that suggest that the PowerAde bottle, which he’s still holding, ain’t holding just PowerAde.
“Yeah, you might be the man!”
“He done look at me!”
Between these snippets comes enough of a pause for other riders—the woman in a “I Don’t Need Viagra (Knock on Wood)” T-shirt who’s stuck next to him, the guy in the beret with the yellow-and-black plaid pants—to exchange glances with each other and even peek at PowerAde Man before studiously staring out the window when the next blast starts.
“Number 5! Number 5! Stay alive!” he shouts at 7th and P, while a woman in a Fubu windbreaker—No. 05, to be exact—walks by on the sidewalk.
“Can you walk OK?” he wonders as the bus crosses U Street and pulls up to Howard University Hospital.
“I’ll get a tractor,” he says in front of a sign for Capitol City Auto Sales near Georgia and Lamont. The lot’s sign says “Cadillac Specials,” but there’s nothing inside its chain-link fence. PowerAde Man evidently thinks better of his transportation choice, anyway. “I’m going to get off here,” he says, standing up and plunking an alligator hat down over his Coby headphones. “I’ll walk down to Maryland.”
As the bus pulls away on its midday ride, heading into the Petworth intersection that will soon become the newest stop on the Metrorail system, PowerAde Man fake-fights with a guy in a Green Bay Packers getup, looking an awful long way from Maryland despite his two miles on bus No. 70. Viagra Lady watches out the window and chuckles. “You never know what you get,” she says.
On Sept. 18, riders traveling between Mount Vernon Square and Petworth suddenly will, in fact, know exactly what they’ll get: Instead of waiting for the 70 bus—on a route that snakes its way from Southwest up 7th Street and Georgia Avenue to Silver Spring—they’ll be moved along in a marvel of high-tech efficiency, nestled in fluorescent-lit, climate-controlled, soundproofed splendor amidst the commuter crowds. According to Metro spokesperson Cheryl Johnson, trains will glide up to the platform every four to six minutes, whisking Gallery Place’s riders to Petworth in 12 minutes.
That’s 12 minutes of clean carpets and well-behaved passengers, bland suits and sensible shoes, tunnel views and…more tunnel views.
And no PowerAde Man.
At 8:05 a.m. on a September Tuesday, driver S.M. Douglas wraps her inchlong, multicolored fingernails around the steering wheel and pulls the No. 73 express bus away from the corner of Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues NW. After the new subterranean segments of the Green Line open, the 70 bus will continue, albeit with fewer Petworth passengers, a few dozen yards above the subway. But this rush-hour express will be Metro’s real tragedy. It’ll get phased out below Petworth, forcing its morning denizens to hop the subway and share their ride downtown with folks from Fort Totten, Hyattsville, and Greenbelt.
This morning, though, people don’t concede that they’re going to go under with their bus. “A lot of people are phobic about being underground,” says Latisha Leonard, who’s been riding for 30 years. She’s not alone. And among the passengers echoing the fear of depths is a commuter en route to her job at the Department of Transportation.
But according to Carl Berry, who says only that he’s heading to a government job, the real problem with Metrorail is a social one. “Everybody reads the paper on the subway,” he says, vowing to find a new bus once the Green Line comes in. “People don’t read the paper on the bus, because they’re too busy watching things. They’re watching the girl with the short shorts walk from the back of the bus to the front. And then they’re looking outside.”
Unfortunately for Berry, no one in today’s crowd of commuters is wearing short shorts. And the view outside the 73 isn’t quite D.C.’s most scenic, either.
The bus leaves Georgia Avenue after Petworth, taking a parallel route down dowdy Sherman Avenue to dodge the morning traffic. Berry stares out the window at the world he’ll stop watching in a few days: A “WWJD” poster adorns the Greater Harvest Baptist Church; graffiti on the corner of Irving Street declares, “I am God”; six cranes rise like spires from the convention center construction site, betokening the new D.C. of tourist-friendly amenities and Metro-conveyed visitors.
But as the 73 stop-and-starts its way downtown, the real views are the human ones. The forklift driver at 7th and Massachusetts who’s in the middle of an epic yawn as the 73 rolls up. The kids in black-and-yellow school uniforms walking up New York Avenue. The fellow passengers descending from the back door and looking instantly transfigured as they step into the 9-to-5 moonscape. The Mercedes driver staring furiously at a newly discovered parking ticket in Chinatown.
“He won’t pay it,” explains Gerald, a D.C. government staffer en route to his C Street office, staring out the window at H Street. “Maryland and Virginia don’t pay tickets.” True? Not true? You wouldn’t be having the conversation at all on the subway.
At about 8:40, the 73 noses out of downtown and onto the Mall. The bus is still mostly full, and the passengers take their glimpse of Washington’s monumental cityscape not as an opportunity to marvel at democracy’s splendors but as a chance to check the weather. The sun is trying to poke through the clouds out to the left of the Washington Monument. It’s a losing battle, but it’s also pretty clear that those folded-up umbrellas tucked into the passengers’ bags won’t need to come out today. The bus takes a final left into a space in front of the Department of Transportation building on D Street SW. Forty-five minutes from Petworth, everybody finally heads inside. CP