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City Beat June 26, 2003
 
A Hymn to the Metro
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 

The Metro. I love it. It's hard to write about love, but I want to try. So if lovesongs make you nervous, take your cowardly, cheap gaze elsewhere, because this is going to be pure paean.

I admire the Moscow Metro Imenno Lenina (in the name of Lenin) as the best urban transport system in the world. In nine months of taking the Metro every single day, I've been in one delay, and that one was about 30 seconds long. My awe for the Metro is heightened by the fact that I grew up commuting on the worst and most expensive mass-transit system in the world, BART. The Metro is to BART as the Soviet Army was to Pleasant Hill High's marching band. And in case that's not clear, PHHS's band sucked. Inside Moscow Metro

I give thanks to the Metro. The schematic map is in my dreams, and was on my office wall in New Zealand. I can find my way anywhere on that map, and even the times I've been lost have been dream-material -- I have these "waterfall dreams" about moving up to the lip of one of the perekhod escalators, the roar rising from below as I go over the edge to fall slowly with all the others.

I savor the Metro. Every station has its own feel, from the grim crush of Paveletskaya to the Blade-Runner babble of Kievskaya or the pathos of Belorusskaya's pitiful old public grandeur.

I need the Metro. The perfectly posed face-landscapes in every car are nourishment for me -- for every rider, I think. So many faces, each politely looking away from as many other faces as possible. On earlier trips to Moscow, my glance focused on the beautiful young women to be found on every train, imagining chance events -- alien attack or other cataclysms -- which would break the ice, and allow me to introduce myself without offense. Now, an old and blissfully married man, I can scan for a wider range of faces. Russian faces still impress me. The range of nose, chin, eye, neck, of every feature -- the whole history is there, from Rurik to Subotai, sometimes in a single family group rocking gently when the train picks up speed from Kitai-Gorod to Tretyakovskaya.

I steep myself in the Metro, especially its strange, unexpected quiet. I never guessed that Russians would be such quiet people. I know there are times and places when they get loud -- but the Metro isn't one of them. Yesterday two men were talking loudly in my car and when I turned to look at them I saw that everyone else was looking too. We were all shocked. You don't talk in the Metro if you can help it. If you must, you talk very quietly, with your chin leaning against your shoulder to muffle the words, keep them from reaching any strangers' ears. It's a gesture which makes perfect sense to me, a mix of fear and politeness.

If there's noise in a Metro car, we all look and go through a checklist of possible reasons for the breach of manners. (OK, I'm guessing here. Russian readers should write and tell me if I'm right or, as is likely, completely wrong.) Are the loudmouths teenagers? They sometimes break the quiet, and it's excused. Are they tourists? I never knew how loud Western Europeans are, Italians above all. One Italian couple can deafen an entire Metro car. It's amazing us expats aren't beaten and robbed more often. Or are they beggars? Beggars are allowed to be loud. But thank God, they're not allowed to harass. They can carry their cup, or cupped hand, down the aisle, but they can't crowd you. For which I give thanks, remembering the pampered, aggressive beggars of Berkeley.

I look forward to the Metro, to the magic transition when you duck out of the sunny street and go into a slower dream time.

I just plain enjoy the ride, especially the watching games. The cars are halls of mirrors, and we all play the mirrors tactfully, skillfully. We like to check each other out, but there are rules. Tact. Tact is a matter of angles: the person you want to examine is reflected in some window, and your job is to find that window and check out their reflection. To stare directly at them -- this would be the height of rudeness. Once you find the reflection you want to look at, you have to guess how the distorted image (because the Metro car's windows are funhouse mirror, warping and stretching people) actually looks. You get a shock, sometimes, when you see the person directly--which usually happens when either they or you exit, at which point you're allowed to look directly at them, provided they're not getting back in the car.


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dolan@exile.ru
 
 
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