WASHINGTON, DC—The transit officer was not feeling well, but was being a decent sport about the whole thing. “Something just isn’t agreeing with me that we ate,” he said to his partner on the shift. “Maybe the potato chips.” He’s been cutting out gluten, you see, since six months ago he ballooned up like he was “pregnant or something” and then lost a bunch of weight all at once. It is rude to nitpick, so I did not tell him that potato chips typically do not contain gluten.
He was a pretty a good sport about it. His philosophy on the matter being, “I don’t want to tell people I don’t eat gluten because they’ll think I’m not a man.” Because of this, I’m glad for him that it’s pretty much business as usual underground.
Aside from pockets of breakout chaos, broken windows, and burning limos North of the National Mall, D.C. was quiet today. The parade was sparsely attended, which should embarrass someone, but mostly just gave the District’s municipal support staff time to shoot the breeze and enjoy a sandwich. It was not this way on January 20, 2009, when President Obama was sworn into office. On that day, the D.C. Metro strained to accommodate its riders. The streets of Capitol Hill, where I found myself searching for a sandwich after President Obama’s address that year, were so filled with fans of the President that I failed to find one at all, and ended up eating a cranberry muffin (not my favorite) on the floor of Union Station.
That was not going to happen to me today, or seemingly, to the employees of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), whom I met when I rode a nearly empty subway car across the District, hoping to catch a few transit workers on their lunch hour. Out of fear of getting fired for talking to a writer, they all requested anonymity, with a uniform wince and the same explanation: “We’re not allowed to speak to the press.” They went on to talk to me anyway.
“Everything has to be more politically correct these days,” a WMATA officer with a tattoo on his ring finger told me. “Image is everything.”
At that moment, less than half a mile away from us, Donald Trump was being being crowned king or something, on the basis of his rebuke to political correctness and, well, image. And yet, it was a mostly normal day underground. The crowd was “just another crowd,” said the guy with the tattoo, a lifelong D.C.-area resident who loves his city. On vacation in Thailand last year, he said he met a woman from D.C. who was working there as a teacher and they really hit it off. He did not get her number, however. (He claimed not to regret it.)
His partner that day, that same cop with the gluten allergy—or maybe it’s an intolerance; they don’t know yet for sure—is white. He’s the only white transit worker I met today, and he worries about what people think about cops. “Cops have the same problems as anyone else has. Our kid’s problems are your kids’ problems,” he said. He doesn’t trust the media, or anyone, for that matter. “In this climate, you get in the habit of not trusting anybody.”
I hate to line up a bunch of cliches and then tell you he’s a Trump supporter, but he pretty clearly is. Did he vote for the guy? “Possibly,” he said with the air of a man who doesn’t think politics should be discussed at the dinner table. The problem is political correctness. Too much of it. First you’re putting up a Christmas tree in your office, not trying to bug anyone, and in “today’s climate,” next thing you know, “one guy complains” to your supervisor and it becomes a whole thing in the office.
But today is not for politics, he told me. “It’s a day you put that to the side to honor” the new president. That’s what was on the ticket for him today, since 3:30 a.m. when he shift started. And he hadn’t even had any coffee. (“It irritates the gut.”)
Two members of the National Guard, a woman and a man carrying Subway in a cellophane bag, walked up to us, sandwiches swinging. They came all the way from “shoot, where’s Mike Pence from?” (Indiana)—not, presumably, for the sandwiches, but they didn’t seem too bummed.
The white cop reached out and clutched my hand as I turned to leave, begging me not to use his name. “Please,” he said, “It puts us in a bad light.”
Another officer shouted to him, complaining about how hard it was to find a microwave at the station—he’s also gone gluten-free.
The way out of the station led past a row of ticket machines. A man wearing a scarf fashioned after the flag, a blazer, and a Make America Great Again cap turned to his much younger, blond companion, who was wearing sunglasses and staring at her phone. “I think this one is closest to the Ritz,” she said, pointing at the glowing Metro map in her hand. He ignored her and explained how to get to Virginia to a clutch of ponchoed visitors in Kansas City Royals gear. A black Metro worker watched with his arms crossed.
Outside the station, in the shadow of the Cannon House Office Building, a Metro engineer gave a spongy, white couple directions to L’Enfant Plaza. She’s black and in her mid-thirties. She came to Obama’s Inauguration in 2009 “just as a person” but did not come here today in the same capacity; instead, she’s volunteering to help people get around the District, something she is doing because pretty much everyone else from her office was doing it, too. “I did not vote for him at all,” she said. “Not at all. This is terrible.”
Five Make America Great Again caps and one beanie disembarked at L’Enfant Plaza with me a little after 1 o’clock. The white transit cop had told me that L’Enfant Plaza—which is pronounced “la font” by the way—is “unofficially, ground zero” for Inauguration Day foot traffic, because it’s where five Metro lines intersect in the city center, within walking distance of the National Mall.
Two middle-aged black Metro workers, a woman and a man, surveyed the scene in neon vests. The woman politely requested anonymity before declaring today “a good day.” And not even compared to what she was expecting, which was “a good day.” She knows what she wants and she got it. She described herself as “having a passion” about her work, which is the blandest way to describe one’s work, but it seemed true. This is D.C., after all, where people come to serve their country, and she typifies public servant in all the ways one might expect, demeanor-wise. She works in an office most of the time, literally making sure the trains run on time, and wears a FitBit on her left wrist. She ate a salad for lunch. Her watchword for the day, she said, was, “I’m here to help and assist and that’s all.”
She’s been with WMATA for 29 years, and came out to work the platform for Obama’s inauguration both times. The thing about this year compared to 2009 is that that time, the platform was filled with people; too many to move through. “The people were part of the platform,” she said.
She left without saying goodbye. I hopped on the Silver Line to get a sandwich, myself. It was time to go anyway; the ceremony was over. The king had been crowned. The Metro was quiet. The people were not part of the platform.