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Whew!  I spent the day walking around downtown St. Louis.  I forgot how easy it is to get around this town.  My hotel was conveniently located in the heart of downtown, so I started my morning with a walk to the Gateway Arch.  My sister used to live here, so this wasn’t my first visit to the Arch, but it was nice to see it in the peace and quiet of an early Saturday morning – just me, the river, and a few early risers.  Construction on the Arch began in 1963 and was completed in 1965; the stainless steel monument is 630 feet high – the tallest man-made monument in the United States.  Did not know that.  Last time I was here – which was many years ago – my sister and I rode the car to the top of the Arch.  There are windows up there, so you can look out over the city.  And you can feel the structure sway a bit when it’s windy.  Let me just tell you now:  I have no photos to document this experience.  I’m afraid of heights, so I had to be cajoled into taking this little excursion.  Once at the top, I stood in the middle of the room not looking out of either set of windows.  So lame.  My sister got a real kick out of it.

Gateway Arch, St. Louis

Gateway Arch, St. Louis

But I digress.

By mid-morning, the temperature really started to rise.  No more cool, breezy morning.  I walked to Busch Stadium, snapped a photo of the Tums building along the way, and then headed back to the hotel’s cafe for a rest break.  Once I was sufficiently revived, I caught the MetroLink to Forest Park, where visitors can find the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Science Center, and the St. Louis Art Museum.  First, let me just say that I really enjoy St. Louis’ light rail system.  The cars are clean and air conditioned, and the PA system works well (at least when I rode it today), and the maps make sense.  Granted, the MetroLink routes are not as complex as the DC area’s Metro system – MetroLink only goes east to west – but it’s still a good rapid transit system.  I think all of the stops are above-ground, so there are no complaints about adequate lighting (I’m looking at you WMATA!) and the system takes you to many of the tourist hot spots.  I give it a B+ (deducting only because of the limited lines).

In Forest Park, I stopped by the Zoo.  By this time, it was about 93 degrees outside, so I wasn’t really in the mood for a long stay.  And my timing was bad:  most of the animals were hidden from view in an effort to escape the heat.  I did manage to catch a glimpse of a rhino, a few Asian elephants, and a hyena.

Forest Park is massive – 1,371 acres (according to Wikipedia), smack dab in the middle of the city.  The park opened in 1876 and hosted both the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and the Summer Olympics (both in 1904).  The park is known as the “heart of St. Louis.”  I wish I’d had time to explore more than just the zoo, but I was on a bit of a time crunch.

After the Zoo and lunch at Union Station, it was time to head for the American Queen.  I’m checked into my little stateroom, unpacked, and settled in.  This should be fun…

The American Queen

The American Queen

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It’s that time of year people:  tourist season in DC.  Don’t get me wrong – I recognize the importance of tourists to the DC area economy.  I get it.  But summer can be hell for the lowly DC Metro rider.

I just got home.  After waiting 30 minutes for an orange line train uncrowded enough for me to cram my relatively small frame into.  And once on that train, I competed for my one square foot of space on the floor and my grip on the handrails with everyone else.  Today was like any other day, though the experience was exacerbated by the ungodly heat outside (and inside) and the loud tourists with whom I had to share the car.  Considering the station from which they boarded (Roslyn), I am guessing they were business travelers.  Judging from the conversation – overheard by everyone in the car because they were so loud – some were from California, others from the Midwest.  This group of six or seven, male and female, loud and wrong, pushed themselves onto the crowded car at Roslyn and loudly (and incessantly) commented on the car, the station, the length of the trip, their dinner plans, etc.  “Hwah, hwah, hwah!  This train is so crowded!! Cackle, cackle, cackle.”  “I’m from the Midwest.  We drive everywhere!  We don’t care about the environment!  Chortle, chortle, snort.”  “Thank goodness we only have to go two stops!”  Tell me about it.

Yeah, I’m totally in a sour mood today.  Normally this stuff doesn’t bother me.  But today…

And another thing, would it kill you guys to stand on the RIGHT SIDE of the escalator if you don’t feel like walking up?  For some of us, the sights, sounds, and smells of the Foggy Bottom station are not new and interesting.  We’re actually trying to get to work on time.  And could you please move to the freaking CENTER OF THE CAR when you board?  Please?  I promise you will still be able to exit before the doors close if you do.  I promise.  And every once in a while could you let your 2 year old kid sit on your lap and free up the seat next to you?  Maybe?  And if you are riding with your Cub Scout pack or your sewing guild or whatever, you all do not have to exit by the same door.  It’s a crazy concept, but every freakin’ door on the train lets you out at the same station!  Really!

But WMATA is not blameless here.  WMATA, listen up.  Have pity on the poor schlubs like me who ride the Metro even in the off season and put up some signs that tell people to stand on the right, walk on the left.  Can’t afford to put up new signs?  Budgets are tight, I get it.  Make an announcement every once in a while, or put in on those electronic boards that tell us how long before the next train arrives.  Something.  Throw us a bone!  And maybe management could just accept the fact that the Metro trains are not buses and take out some of the seats or redesign the cars so that there’s one row of seats on each side of the car – like in NYC – so that more people can fit in the cars.

Parking downtown is expensive, so I have no intention of giving up on Metro and driving to work everyday – so Metro doesn’t have to worry about losing my business.  So maybe that means they have no incentive to change things.  But I really, really wish they would.  This is not cool.

And yeah – I do appreciate the irony of having published a post a few months ago in which I giggled about how it was better to ride Metro than deal with DC traffic.

I need birthday cake.  And a stiff drink.

So Metro is trying to turn me into a fat, diabetic alcoholic.  Terrific.  It’s working, Metro.  It’s working.

Today, I left my office – located at 23rd and C Streets – at 5:10 p.m.  The traffic was already backed up on 23rd, cars barely inching forward toward Constitution Avenue.  Why?  Who knows.  Maybe an accident on I-66, the light rain that was falling, or a stalled vehicle.  I was serenaded by bleating car horns as I walked down 23rd to the Foggy Bottom Metro Station.  Because honking one’s horn instantly gets the traffic moving.  I stood at the corner – along with all of the other walkers – waiting for the traffic light to signal “walk.”  A man turned to me and said, “This is why I take the train.”  I giggled, (yes, I still giggle) and replied, “I know, right?”

In spite of the elevator outages, the collapsed escalators, and the single-tracking, this is why I choose WMATA.  Enough said.

First, full disclosure:  I am a government employee and proud of it.  I love working for the U.S. State Department, and I love knowing that what I do has an impact. 

After seven years overseas, I’m back in Washington DC.  Since I live in Arlington, VA and work at Main State in DC, I ride the infamous Metro to work every day.  The system isn’t perfect, but it works for me.  One of the perks I receive is transit benefits.  I filled out one form, which includes my SmartTrip card number and the cost of my roundtrip commute.  Once my application is approved, I will receive a monthly reminder to download the funds to my fare card at one of the kiosks in the metro station.  Excellent.  As long as that fare card is not lost or stolen, I’m golden.

Or not. 

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"...or a photo of me after talking to Metro?

Back in December, I lost my SmartTrip card.  Totally my fault.  I remember using the card one night to get from my gym in Clarendon to my car in Ballston.  I brought the card home.  Then I lost it.  Although I am convinced that the card is somewhere in my condo waiting to be discovered, I realized that I had to move on, cancel it, and get a new card.  Done, done, and done.

Okay, but what about my transit benefits?  I took care of that too.  I updated my application form, sent it in, and received notification of its approval.  I was told that my benefits would resume in February.  Okay, that’s the price I must pay for being careless.  I understand. 

It’s February 2.  Would you like to place a bet on whether I’ve received my benefits? 

This morning I called Smart Benefits, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s office that manages the program, for assistance.   A truly enlightening experience.

  1. Smart Benefits has no record of me in their system.  How is that possible?  I’ve been receiving benefits since October!  Finally, after repeatedly insisting that they should have my records, my records are discovered.  I officially exist.
  2. Clarification:  they have a record of my old card, but not my new one.  How is that possible?  Did you register the new card, ma’am?  When I called to cancel the old one, the customer service agent told me she would automatically register the new one.  And that, my friends, was my fatal error.  I believed her.
  3. Oh, we see your January and February benefits assigned to your old card, just waiting to be downloaded by you.  How. Is. That. Possible?  I cancelled the card in December.  I notified my employer of the cancellation in December.  Why would they (my employer) continue to send benefits to that card and why would they (Smart Benefits) continue to accept them?  Foolish girl, you’re asking logical questions in an illogical world.
  4. Okay.  Fine.  Whatever.  How do I fix this?  I am told that I need to register my new card and inform my employer that I have a new card.  Am I speaking in a vacuum?  Have you heard anything I’ve said?  I was told the new card was registered.  I did inform my employer back in December.  I have proof that they received and approved my notification!  Silly girl, you have to do it again.  Maybe we’ll get it right this time. 
  5. Why don’t you call the Department of Transportation, which administers the program for State, and ask them to transfer your benefits to your new card?  I’ll even give you the telephone number.  Thanks, I guess.  I call and speak to a lovely woman, who is forced to hear this long, painful saga.  She is patient.  She is kind.  She tells me that she cannot help me because my employer insists that all requests for changes be sent to them.  I believe there is a form you must fill out, she says.  Did I go to sleep in the real world and wake up in a Kafka novel?  What have I been saying?  The form was filled out.  Submitted.  Read.  Reviewed.  Approved.  No matter, you must do it again. 

And so, like the demoralized, thoroughly indoctrinated drone that I am I contain my rage, suppress my tears, and fill out the form.  Again.  Praise be!  They have responded already!  I open the email.  It’s an auto-reply message, telling me my message has been received and will be responded to within 5-7 days.

What can I do, but wait?  Wait for them – the infamous “them” – to decide that my existence is real, that my inquiry is worthy of review and investigation, and that I am deserving of a real response. 

Does anyone else feel my pain? 

Tell me I’m not alone! 

Tell me about your crazy “Brazil”-like (look it up) experience with bureaucracy – government or otherwise.

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