Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Commuting into Washington

Yesterday was a normal day, aside from the fact that I was a little earlier than usual. Marvin, who drives the 7:40 bus, greeted me when I boarded his bus outside my house with “Hello, stranger,” reminding me that I hadn’t been able to get myself out the door before eight for over a week. I found a seat and read a few pages of my book on the way to the Pentagon Metro. Before he opened the bus doors at the Pentagon, Marvin called out for us all to have a good day, which is what he says every day, unless the weather is bad, in which case he tells us "Now let's be careful out there." For some reason I noticed a tall woman with short blonde hair and a long red coat alighting from nearby bus as I stepped down onto the sidewalk. I followed her up the escalator toward the Metro.

On a lawn near the entrance to the Metro, a group of about 20 people joined hands to form a circle, their heads bowed in prayer, while one woman read aloud from a Bible. There are often demonstrators in this area during my morning commute, especially on days when I am early, though not usually a group this big. Last week I saw two women holding up signs that said “Thank You.” More frequently, I see a group of four to six people with anti-war messages printed on their signs. One woman regularly carries a sign that tells soldiers heading into the Pentagon “You are killing and dying to make Bush and Cheney rich.” The demonstrators never chant or yell. They just talk to each other and stand there with their signs.

Yesterday was different. The group was larger than I’d ever seen it before, and there were at least a dozen Pentagon police on hand to supervise. Six or seven lined the walkway between the demonstrators and the Metro entrance (although they didn’t stand between the demonstrators and the commuters on the way into the Metro). One sat on a motorcycle nearby, and several others stood talking to him. Maybe these police officers wouldn’t have surprised me—I’ve grown accustomed to seeing bulky men with large guns around Washington over the past three years—but there was one that stood out. The lawn sloped up beyond the demonstrators, and at the top of the rise stood a single officer, holding his gun in front of him, watching as they prayed in the damp chill of the February morning.

I didn’t read any more of my book on the Metro ride. Instead I thought about the scene I’d witnessed. I don’t know the politics of the people praying—they had laid their signs on the grass while they prayed. I hadn’t been able to hear the woman who was reading. I hadn’t even stopped to watch or try to hear, though I slowed my pace to take in the scene. Now the image of that military policy officer holding what looks to me like an automatic weapon is burned into my memory. I considered who he was protecting. The demonstrators? The commuters? The building? And what was he protecting them from? He seemed more threatening than protective to me. The other soldiers seemed less imposing, less ominous. In spite of the guns slung over their shoulders and dangling in front of them, I was less concerned by the men who stood casually talking than by the man who stood silently in the background, his feet apart and his gun in hand. I wondered if that officer could hear the prayer, if he listened to what the woman with the Bible was reading.

When I came up onto 23rd Street to head for my next bus, music was playing from a boom box. The melody was played by some sort of low woodwind, and it sounded African to me. A man was setting up a card table so he could sell hats and jewelry. Another man was loudly greeting commuters and handing out free newspapers. A siren screamed as an ambulance made its way around the traffic circle to the hospital. Shuttle buses lined up at the curb, and a woman with long blonde hair and a long red coat climbed out of a cab. I fell in step with the rest of the crowd, hurrying toward my next bus.


matty said...

Threatening? No. He's there to help everyone feel safe.
However, there is one thing I've learned from the past election and the last four years, which may help you see it from his (or his C.O.'s) perspective. It's that a mass of people armed with the Bible can be a powerful, threatening, even persuasive thing.
Of course, so can an aimed automatic weapon.

Hi, Liz.
Why pink?

bkamilli said...

Damn. You really write well! Keep it up!
Love and kisses, Bob

cyndi said...

it's so nice to read your short stories again. how long has it been, 8 years or more since we were in an english class together? you haven't lost your touch. i'm absolutely amazed with how well you can describe a scene, do you really pay that much attention to the details when you're in the moment, or do you just easily recall them when you write. anywho, i'm off to read your other story.

mica said...

Blog Liz, blog.

Christina said...

I wonder if you'll be notified that I'm commenting so long after you post.
I'm with the first responder. You might know by now that the separation between church and state doesn't apply to civil servants and the armed forces. There are a few people outspoken about the exception we've made, but I don't see it changing any time soon; people who put their lives on the line as a profession, have a close connection with their spirituality. That armed Soldier or police officer was listening, and feeling a deep sense of honor to be able to protect the peace of the situation.

Elizabeth said...

I know he's there to protect everyone in the situation. It's just that standing above everything dressed in dark clothing and holding that gun...I don't know, big men with guns are always intimidating to me.