Monday, January 12, 2015

Into the Depths of the DC Metro

I guess it was in late summer of 2014 that I realized Washington, DC held something very special deep below its surface. Anyone who has lived in DC or spent a decent amount of time here notices pretty quickly that some of the metro stations here tend to be buried pretty deep underground. These extra-subterranean metro stops have particularly long escalators ferrying passengers up to and from the surface. I was particularly aware of these deep escalators since we live near the Rosslyn metro stop (with the fifth longest escalator on the DC metro at 194') and I routinely commuted to DuPont circle (sixth longest escalator at 188'). Once I went to the Woodley Park metro station (which services the National Zoo and has an escalator 204' long) I was convinced that I had found the longest escalator in the WORLD. You can barely see the top of it standing down at the bottom.

But I was wrong.

My amazement at the size of these escalators finally inspired me to do some actual research on measurements. Lucky for me, there is a small community of escalator enthusiasts out there who have documented just about every technical aspect you could imagine of not just the DC metro station escalators, but weird and interesting escalators all over the world. For a nice global survey of escalators, there's this weburbanist post. For more specific info on DC's metro escalators, has a few posts on the length of escalators and an interesting discussion towards the end of this post on why the metro escalators are so deep. There's also, of course, a wikipedia page dedicated to the DC metro stop that hosts the longest escalator - Wheaton.

When I saw that neither Rosslyn, Dupont nor Woodley Park metro stations had the longest escalators in DC, I was shocked. But then, they are competing with not just any old escalator. The longest single-span escalator in DC also happens to be the longest in the entire western hemisphere! It's 230 feet long and, by my calculation, took 2 minutes and 52 seconds to ride up (without walking). When I found this out late in the summer of 2014, I determined to make the trek way out to Maryland, near the end of the red line, to experience this colossal conveyor of people. After all, how often do you get to live in a place that hosts the longest/largest/highest/etc. anything in a whole hemisphere?

I was determined to make it out to Wheaton at some point, even if it meant a 1.5 hour, $7 round trip just to ride the escalator. But fate intervened and gave me an excuse to go out there.

When I was home for the holidays, I was going through my old boyhood closet seeing what I should bring back with me. It's funny how the move-out process stretches on for so long. I think I've got it down to a bookshelf full of books now, though. Anyways, one of the items I found buried back in the closet was my old clarinet from middle school. I opened it up to find all the pieces still there and relatively in tact. It looked like it needed some maintenance but that could be arranged. I've always wanted to play an instrument and, in my adult years, I fiddled around with the piano. But those suckers are hard to move and I certainly don't want to lug one out to Vietnam. Sure, I could get a keyboard, but my level of skill probably doesn't justify the investment. Also, over the break while we were in Austin, we went to a friend's birthday part and lots of local musicians showed up for a birthday jam. Bryn and I and a few other swing-dancers took advantage of the opportunity to dance, but I think the musicians outnumbered us. There were a few clarinetists there (including David Jellema, the birthday boy) and hearing them play just inspired me to get back in-touch with my 14 year old self and start playing the clarinet again.  I packed it in my suitcase and flew back to DC with a new project on my plate.

Back in DC, I started calling music companies to get estimates on clarinet repairs and I was referred to Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center - a musical institution in the mid-Atlantic that has a long, illustrious history. Its original location was in central DC until it burned down during the 1968 riots. Its new location, coincidentally, is about 1/4 of a mile north of the Wheaton metro stop. I was now chasing two Leviathans - one in the world of escalation and the other in music. I set the date for my big adventure for Saturday, January 10, invited my college buddy Joe along for the adventure and we set out that morning to add to our list of off the beaten path Washington, DC destinations.

Of the two, I think the Wheaton escalator won out. Chuck Levin's was cool - we talked to the son of the original owner who gave us a bit of a history lesson on the place - but they wanted waaay too much money to fix my clarinet. I realized that I probably would have shopped around a little more and done some research before making the trek out there; but since I was prepared to make the trip for no other reason than to see the longest single-span escalator in the western hemisphere, it didn't take much of a pretense to get me out there.

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The Escalators at Wheaton: Imagine a clarinet case in my left hand just a few inches further down. 

As far as escalator rides go, the ascent from the Wheaton metro stop was pretty cool. I guess my tolerance for long escalators has been heightened over the past 7 months of riding up and down the Rosslyn and Dupont escalators. When it comes down to it, a 230' escalator ride doesn't feel all that different from a 194' escalator ride. It's the journey that matters, though, and little adventures like this one are what make DC such a cool city to live in.

For those left wondering what the longest single-span escalator in the world is, according to the weburbanist post on the most extreme escalators in the world, Park Pobedy station in Moscow is the winner at 413'. Rest assured that if I ever make it to Moscow, riding that escalator will be on my list of things to do. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that the Park Pobedy escalator is nearly twice as long as the Wheaton escalator, it takes about the same amount of time to get up both of them (about 3 minutes). According to this Washington Post article, the DC metro authority runs its escalators at 90 feet per minute instead of the standard 120 feet per minute for safety reasons. According to my calculations, though, the Wheaton escalator was moving a little slower - about 76 feet per minute - and the Park Pobedy escalator is racing along at about 140 feet per second: twice as long and twice as fast. Man, the Russians are beating us at this, guys. 

In conclusion, as I was talking to the metro attendant at the summit of the Wheaton escalators, she confirmed my suspicion that there is no kind of plaque or acknowledgement of any kind that the escalators there are the longest in the western hemisphere. Considering that just about every other building, statue and section of pavement in this town is commemorated to some person, event or idea, I feel like the escalators at the Wheaton metro stop should be recognized for their distinction, to. I might get the chance to go back out there next month to visit the nearby Costco and maybe I'll bring some aluminum foil, tape and a sharpie to create my own little memorial to DC's longest escalator. 

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Wheaton: The View Down

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2015 and the end of the even year curse

My adult life, until now, has followed very closely a pattern of odd years being good and even years being bad. I've known this now for at least five years and have helplessly watched as some mysterious, oscillating force in the universe has determined the happiness of any given year based on whether or not it was divisible by two. If I were forced to, I could justify this pattern all the way to 2001 or so - but it really started getting eerily predictable in around 2005. Even my on-again off-again dedication to this blog follows the even year/odd year rule. 2011 and 2013 were great years, full of adventure and satisfaction. 2012 was a trying year of figuring out how to fit into the world.

Maybe I unconsciously stopped updating the blog in 2014 because I was anticipating the drop after a 2013 filled with living in China, traveling through SE Asia and getting into a great graduate school program that let me live in Bologna, Italy. Maybe the mysterious, oscillating force is just my own weird attempt to impose equilibrium in the world. Regardless, 2014 broke the streak. Within the past twelve months, Bryn and I got married; moved to DC;  found out we'll be moving to Vietnam in April, 2015 with the State Department; learned as much about the Civil War as one could during a summer and then I finished my masters five months ahead of schedule. Any low-points were relatively shallow and only served to provide a little contrast to the high points. Granted, one exception doesn't disprove a rule, but 2014's good outcome restored a little of my faith in the flexibility of the universe.

Luckily, 2015 is shaping up to be a good year, too. I finished my M.A. early so that I could start focusing on the transition to Vietnam and maybe even line up some job opportunities there. As of now, Bryn and I are scheduled to leave towards the end of April. That gives me about four months to do three things: 1) learn Vietnamese; 2) talk to potential employers; 3) get all of the training that I can to increase my job prospects. Luckily, the State Department provides language training to spouses, so I'll get about six weeks of all-day Vietnamese training starting in late February. Bryn has been in language training since September so I already have a head-start by helping her go over her vocabulary lists and learning how to count. By the way, two new tricks I learned in 2014: counting to 100 in Vietnamese and touching my toes. I've never been very flexible.

As for potential employers, I already started talking to people in the fall and so I at least have some resources to use in my search. One cool project I found was the Provincial Competitiveness Index, a USAID funded outfit that measures Vietnamese provinces' ability to economically develop. I'll figure out a way to at least talk to them before I land in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). There are also the multitude of foreign companies that are either just opening or expanding their operations in Vietnam. I'm not exactly sure what I could do for them or why they would need me, but I hope to figure that out over the coming weeks. Teaching is also an option in HCMC - either at local schools or leading online classes.

The State Department also hires qualified spouses to work in the consulate and I'm doing everything I can to open those doors, as well. I just took a test on Friday that, if I pass, will qualify me to take another exam in the coming months which, if I pass, could potentially qualify me to apply for certain positions at the HCMC consulate - but in no way guarantees me any job. I'm not too optimistic about finding work down that avenue, but at the very least I'm getting a good lesson in navigating the State Department bureaucracy. I have a feeling that will be a valuable skill to have over the coming years. Regardless of those exams, though, I'll be able to get training in consular affairs. I'll start the class in just a few weeks and, assuming I pass, I'll be a much more competitive candidate for consular jobs that open up in HCMC. It'll also be a great introduction to how a consulate works, so at the very least, I'll understand Bryn's job much better.

I think that most of my fate will remain undetermined until I land in HCMC, start meeting people and see what's going on there. Of course, the more prepared I am, the better, but I don't think it is realistic to expect to have a job when I land there in late April or early May. Of course, there's always my back-up plan. If absolutely nothing pans out, I'll learn as much as I can about the Ho Chi Minh trail that supplied the Viet Cong in South Vietnam and then try to re-trace its path forty years after it facilitated Hanoi's victory against the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Regardless of what happens professionally, expect more blog posts on that topic in 2015.

I think that what I'm most excited about coming into 2015 is that the slate is pretty clean. When I started grad school, I did so with the intent of going on to work for the Department of the Treasury on countering illicit finance. That's still in my long-term professional interest, but it won't be quite so linear as I imagined. The opportunity to go live in Vietnam for two years is just too good to pass up and I am unbelievably proud of Bryn for making this opportunity for us. Now, I get to go over there and create a life for myself. That will be challenging, in a lot of ways, but challenging in a way that makes for great experiences and great life-lessons later on. I'm also pretty confident that it will provide plenty of good excuses to write, so stay tuned.