The American Matatu

July 15, 2010

The longer I ride the Metro here in Washington DC, the more I am convinced that it is just an American version of the matatu.

When I arrive in the morning, the platform is already full of a wonderfully varied group of people waiting for the train- military personnel in crisp uniforms, businesspeople in stiff suits, and tourists in brightly-colored matching t-shirts. Every once in a while, I’ll strike up a conversation with someone interesting. My favorite, so far, is Isaiah who has a gold tooth etched with the letter “I,” and two cats named Sundance and Wild Bill.

Once the Metro pulls in, people stream forward, jostling for space in front of the doors. And this is the matatu part: there is always room for one more even when there most definitely is not. At first I hung back timidly waiting for an emptier car, but now I push forward with the boldest, and cram myself in just before the perky recording warns us “Step back. Doors Closing.” And, if someone catches their purse in the door, a more urgent: “Please step back to allow the doors to close.” ¬†Unfortunately, when we exit, there is no “Mind the Gap.”

As we pull out onto the tracks, the odd part is that our car packed full of people is utterly quiet. The only sounds are the rumble of the engine, the rustling of newspapers, and overly-loud music leaking from someone’s ipod. It seems strange to me that when you are three inches from someone’s face, hanging on tightly to the same cold metal pole as you inhale their cologne or coffee breath, you wouldn’t at least exchange “Good mornings.” I do, however, enjoy discreetly watching my fellow passengers, imagining who each person is, what they are doing, where they are going, and why on earth they are carrying that odd burlap-textured bag with a llama print.

As I leave the station and crowd on to the escalator, I know it really is an American matatu. The only things missing are the chickens, turnboy, and tacky slogan.