Society of the Cincinnati Chili

ArthurStClairOfficialPortrait

Words have meaning, you know. The Ohio city of Cincinnati was named by Arthur St. Clair after his Society of the Cincinnati—a fraternal organization of Revolutionary War officers. Named for Cincinnatus, the Society was founded to honor the officers of the American Revolution and their first-born male descendents. Cincinnatus was a euphemism for the great General Washington, a hero who—akin to the ancient Roman—returned to his farm once his duties as leader and commander of his country were done.

And so, the name of this little port city on the Ohio River is named for a social club, the nickname of George Washington, and an ancient Roman dictator—none of which has anything to do with Ohio or the people who call Cincinnati home.

Cincinnati - Sawyer Point: Cincinnatus Statue

The city would be settled by more colorful stock that the effete gentry of the Society and their blue blooded scions. Being a riverboat town, Cincinnati was first populated by the rovers who took to the river to find a new life in the wilderness—many of whom could be understudies in a Mark Twain novel. From that point in history, Cincinnati became the gateway to the North in the Underground Railroad years—the first city on the other side of the aqueous DMZ of the Ohio, looking south toward slavery.  Fugitives and their abolitionist conductors would get them first to Cincinnati, then to freedom. And in the post-Civil War years, the city became full of Germans, Irish and immigrants from all over Europe, like many Midwestern towns. In that stew of America simmered new ideas about cuisine.

For some immigrant families, the key to prosperity in America was to do what they knew. And for them, cooking their homeland cuisines for a new audience was one way to open the door to prosperity.  Some restaurateurs may fail to introduce new flavors to the American McPallate. Others take advantage of the melting pot and conjure whole new concepts in a fusion of new flavors. That was the case of the “Cincinnati Chili”—the great comfort food of the Ohio River Valley.

In the Great Gatsby era of Prohibition, two immigrant brothers—the Kiradjieff’s—opened a small food stand next to the Empress Theater burlesque in downtown Cincinnati. Serving up their native foods of the Balkans, with the rich Ottoman spices and Slavic-Macedonian stews, they tried to introduce new foods to the burlesque devotees. Perhaps exhausted from the exotica within the theater, the patrons didn’t seem to take to the kabobs and goulash. So, the brothers began some variations on common themes. The Kiradjieff’s figured out a cheap way to make a serviceable chili without too much fluff. They took the bland spaghetti sauce and began to doctor it. They simmered a tomato based meat sauce like a chili, but deconstructed the chili down to its core elements—pepper, beef, tomato and fat. To bring in those favorite flavors of their native land, they added in their own blend of secret spices. That sauce, over spaghetti noodles, was toppled with a monolith of finely grated cheddar. And to help with sopping up the sauce, they garnished the dish in New England oyster crackers.

But what to call this duckbill platypus of food? No Texan would recognize this dish as a true chili. Chili is in a bowl, not on a plate. And spaghetti is never so spicy, nor served with cheddar. The brothers names their food after their adopted home, and called the meat sauce after the common American chili. And so, Cincinnati Chili was born.

Empress Chili, their restaurant named for their burlesque house neighbor, remained the ruler of the Cincinnati chili craze for many years, until other immigrants saw their own opportunities to improve upon the idea. And, as the chili was the headliner on the menu, the diners became known as “chili parlors”—adding a bit of class to an otherwise sloppy meal. Each locale came up with their own secretive recipe. While the original Empress closed down years ago, a few Empress parlors remain. Others have capitalized and franchised the regional favorite—Gold Star Chili and Skyline Chili reigning supreme in our present day.

The chili parlor, the secrets to the chili sauce and the local color in my mind create a different “Society of the Cincinnati”–one whose fealty to the local favorite remains unchallenged.

Classic Skyline

The chili is ordered in the same way you might buy a car. The base model is the chili sauce proper. From there, a numbering system gives you the add-ons, and will cost you a few nickels more:

  • The chili bowl: A naked chili
  • Two-Way: The chili, atop a mountain of spaghetti on an oval diner plate.
  • Three-Way: The triumvirate of chili, spaghetti and the cheddar.
  • Four-way: All of the above, with either kidney beans or onions
  • Five-way: All of the above, beans and onions.

Now, as this dish is neither a true chili—eaten with a spoon—nor spaghetti, there is the issue of the eating. You can’t just twirl the noodles e Italiano, for you will lose the toppings and make a heck of a mess. No, the trick is in the oval dish. The dish is served north-to-south—the oblong plate pointing right at the guest. Using the edge of the fork, the diner cuts into the mound—severing the noodles and preserving the layering of the cheese and sauce. From there, bite-sized morsels are carved from the whole, using the fork as a scoop. Natives may chuckle at the foreigner trying to use their utensils in the incorrect manner when taking on this dish. Do not let such a fate come to you.

Cinners [Jun 4]

Incorrect Technique

Cincinnati Chili is a regional favorite, one that the chain “Skyline Chili” has down well enough. While the chains have kept the Cincinnati chili alive for the people, finding a good mom and pop version of the original is difficult. I have to imagine that the old Kiradjieff version with fresh spices and herbs would put the fast-food chain version to shame. To make your own, as my Midwestern ex-patriot wife and I do, you need the spices of the east with the palate of the Midwest.

I offer up our variation–and membership in the Society of the Cincinnati Chili-to you.

  • Oval diner plates. Go buy ’em.
  • Cheap spaghetti noodles. No artisan stuff. This is Midwestern fare.
  • 1 lb sharp cheddar for the monolith atop the plate. Shred finely. Don’t cheat with pre-shredded. Also, for the Whole Foods crowd, the cheddar ought to be bright yellow, not safely white.
  • 1 lb ground beef. You are going to want a good beef to fat ratio 93/7 is about right.
  • 1/2 c. water
  • 2 teaspoons corn starch or arrowroot (ground)
  • 28 oz. beef stock (or broth)
  • at least 6oz tomato paste (more to taste)
  • 1 bottle Moerlein Beer.

The spice mix is a potpourri of spice blends that would make a Turkish bazaar proprietor proud. There is a persistent myth about what makes this chili so sweet. Some people are convinced that chocolate or espresso are in the mix. The trick is in the use of cardamon–the cool, potent Indian spice simmering with the sweet tomato sauce. Hacking this recipe requires an amalgam of online recipes, trial and error, and proof of the pudding (in the happy eating by your banqueters). The key is not to let those traditional chili flavors overwhelm the new spices.

  • 4 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 tbsp white vinegar
  • 1 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 to 1/4 tsp. ground cardamon (to taste as well)
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp. cayanne pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. coriander
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/8 tsp. ground black pepper

Brown the ground beef, then drain the fat if you are prudish. Mash the beef with a potato masher or fork until the ground beef is very small, Coney-sauceesque, or the size of tic-tacs or perhaps risotto.  Add the cornstarch or arrowroot to the water, making a slurry to help thicken the sauce. Add in the slurry to the beef, and then all of the ingredients. Simmer for 60-90 minutes, tasting a bit as you go along, tweaking the spices to preference.

As the sauce simmers, open the Cincinnati-based Moerlein beer. Drink from bottle. Boil up some spaghetti noodles to al dente or soggy, whatever your preference. Drain. Shred the cheese whist you wait. One the sauce has thickened enough to put over spaghetti noodles, remove from heat. Top off with finely shredded cheddar (3-way), raw white onion (4-way) and if you must, cooked kidney beans (5-way). Oyster crackers are superfluous.

One you have mastered this level, dear initiate, you will be welcome into the Society of the Cincinnati Chili.

Bloody Initiation into Dueling Fraternity

Arthur St. Clair Photo credit: Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Cincinnatus Photo credit: wallyg / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Cincinnati Chili Scott Beale / Foter.com/ photo on flickr / CC BY-NC

Skyline Chili Old Sign Photo credit: Koocheekoo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Incorrect Technique Photo credit: santheo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Initiation Photo credit: mamamusings / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Cincinnati Chili History Source: The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili By Dann Woellert http://books.google.com/books?id=B6mh0iOdtWYC&lpg=PP1&dq=cincinnati%20chili&pg=PA10#v=onepage&q=cincinnati%20chili&f=false

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Pittsburghese

Myron Cope 1929-2008

A typical conversation around the Three Rivers–the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio:

“Wat’s he yammerin’ abaht?”

“I dohn’t know, what didya bring fer lunch?”

“Why are you sow nebby? I didn’t bring anything, ya jagoff.”

“Well, let’s got dahn to the Giant Iggle an’ get some chip-chop ham hoew-gies.”

“Can I get brick cheese ahn it?”

Rarely do I slip into the diglossia that plagues my family, and by extension—my race of Western Pennsylvanians—who have spent the better of two centuries butchering the queen’s English. When I  do so, I notice that I slip back into the quaint regional dialect like well worn pair of jeans. Since leaving the Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands in the 80’s, I have spent a lifetime apologizing for my dialect. My siblings didn’t have it so well. Too young to fight off the public schools, they were forced into speech therapy to correct the Pennsylvania dialect, to be replaced with, dare I say it, a Cleveland brough!.

My Western Pennsylvania dialect is known as “Pittsburghese”–named for the big city in the region. It is the closest I may come to experiencing an “ethnicity” in the same manner that so many Americans do. Don’t get me wrong, I am proudly American. But, I am Pennsylvanian first and always, no matter where I live. Rather than hide this rather idiosyncratic speech, I find myself landing on each “Pittsburghese” word more and more forcefully. Sure enough, I will put aside my dialect when in mixed company. But when I am among family, I notice the familiar patterns slide right back where they belong.

mural-2

Pittsburghese has been described as if a German-born speaker, say an Amish person, tried to learn English from a Scots-Irishman. And well, that is exactly what happened. Anyone who has driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike can’t help but think they have been transported back to the old Irish countryside, with placenames like Donegal and Somerset, then onward to England via York and Lancaster, and then old Germany Strasburg and Womelsdorf. Early settlers, away from the east coastal towns, were forced to learn English in the thickest fog of accents. And so, until the late 20th century anyway, these dialectical oddities survived in Pennsylvania.

I am surprised that, given the ubiquity of American culture now, that any of these phrases have stood the test of time. I am glad that they have, for these little “incorrect” parts of speech and colloquialisms tie me right back into my Pennsylvanian motherland. When I travel through the Allegheny mountains to visit what remains of my family, I am heartened by these little things.

Some of these words and phrases meandered into my vocabulary through my dad’s side of the family, where his mother’s line, the Kriders, were likely Pennsylvania Dutch–Amish–at some point. My own surname has been in Pennsylvania since at least the 1780’s, and we have all mastered the dialect, if not contributed to its continuation. While I might not use some of these words and phrases, I certainly hear them when around my dad or my extended family.

So, if you ever catch me in a moment of speaking in my Pennsylvanian tongue, I hope this little guide below helps you get through the conversation. The following phrases and word pronunciations come through Pennsylvania Dutch and Scots-Irish, and have something in common with Appalachian, Kentucky and Ohio River valley dialects for good reason—as they share a common ancestry.(sources: http://www.pittsburghese.com):

  • Crick, not Creek. Also, Warsh, not Wash, and Root, not Route.
  • “Dawn” and “Don” are homophones.
  • Eagle is “Iggle”—so much so that Giant Eagle grocery stores once had a mascot named Iggle.
  • Elisions of couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t to “coulda, woulda, shoulda”
  • “Ignernt”—said just like this, not necessarily meaning “ignorant” but “rude.”
  • The lack of  the infinitive “to be”—“This needs washed” rather than “ This needs to be washed.”
  • Yammerin—babbling—as in “What is he yammerin’ about?”
  • The lack of an “—ing” ending on most verbs—e.g. “Where are you goin’?” Note that this pronunciation is different that the Italian-American “go-in.” It is more like “go-un.”
  • Words ending in -ower are pronounced -ar. Shower is pronounced as shar, power as par, etc. This also applies to the word hour (pronounced as “are”).

Pittsburghese—the mother tongue of Pittsburgh–is as unique as the three rivers that flow through the city. I have to imagine that once KDKA radio started broadcasting over the air in the 1930’s, that the Pittsburgese dialect landed in many a living-room, including my grandparents, who gave me these nuggets:

  • Babushka—a head-scarf
  • Buggy—a grocery cart
  • Chipped, or “chip-chop” Ham—a low quality deli-meat found mostly at Isley’s, now at Giant “Iggle.”
  • “City Chicken”—pieces of pork skewered on wood to resemble a chicken leg. Pronounced “Cee-e Chicken.”
  • Cruds, or Cruddled Milk—Cottage Cheese.
  • Brick Cheese—Muenster Cheese
  • Dippy Eggs—this is from the Amish “Dippy Ecks”—but basically, over-easy eggs. Dippy lends itself to the more colorful “dipshit.”
  • Dahn-Tahn is “downtown’”. However, dollar is “dauwler”, college is “cauwlege”
  • Mall is more like “maul”
  • Gumband—rubber band
  • Sweeper—vacuum
  • Hoagie—sub sandwich
  • Jagger—a thorn, or something like a thorn, or a pejorative (jagoff).
  • Jumbo meat—Bologna
  • Kennywood’s Open—your fly is down.
  • Neb, nebby—nosey person.

So, when you make your next sojourn or accidental pit stop in Western Pennsylvania, you will be about as ready as any Berlitz guide will make you for another foreign land. Everyone fawns over Boston’s accent or New York’s attitude. The greater Pittsburgh area is full of the same dialectical charm and abuse of the Received Dialect.

Pittsburghese

Primanti Bros. Mural Photo credit: wallyg / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Myron CopePhoto credit: Hryck. / Foter.com / CC BY

Pittsburghese Photo credit: jparise / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh_English

Cicadas

Cicada

When I was a kid, and would go to Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium,–a hulking cavern of old steel, wooden slat seats and lake effect snow–I would marvel at the capacity crowd of nearly 80,000 humans. Imagine 80,000 of something. To put that in perspective, a human’s average life expectancy in days is about 30,000.

That stadium could hold six times the population of my small Ohio town. Years later, attending a presidential inaugural, I got my head wrapped around what a million of something looks like–a million people filling the National Mall from Grant’s plinth in front of the Capitol to Washington’s marble obelisk.

Now imagine a billion things. Or a trillion things. The number is impossible for the mind’s eye to grasp, or at least it was until this week. Every so often, a sleeping brood of cicacas–a bug akin to the locust–emerge from their 17 year dormancy, climb to the surface of the earth, and take flight. In the mid-Atlantic region, the cicada Brood II (they are numbered by cicada experts to keep tabs on their habits) returned, like a comet (except less stratospheric, more abundant and frequently irritating) on schedule.

17 Year Cicadas

Living in more mountainous then coastal areas, we didn’t see much of the great cicada swarms that seem to find their way across the mid-Atlantic and Midwest, destroying countless picnics and cookouts and making life a little miserable for about two to five weeks. But when I moved to Southern Indiana in the 2000’s, I had my first encounter with the Biblical force of nature known as a cicada brood.

The cicada, for the undoctrinated, is a peculiar bug. There are over 2400 known varieties around they world. They spent most of their lives dormant, underground, for over a decade at a time. After a lengthy nap of Rip Van Winkle proportions, they wait for the ground to warm to 64 degrees, after the winter thaw, and emerge. The bugs will reemerge as a ground dwelling brown nymph–a sort of giant armored beetle–before shedding their shell and emerging as a vibrantly colored adult, ready to eat, mate and die over a two to six week week period. Once airborne, they will sing dawn to dusk in the trees at levels nearing 100 decibels. They will clumsily fly past you, with their wings beating baritone. And they will die en masse, leaving a genocide’s worth of corpses piled in the roads, sidewalks and gutters.

Cicada molting animated-2

In 2004, Brood X emerged in the Midwest after a 17-year hiatus. Brood X is particularly huge and ugly. Red eyes, black bodies, orange wings. Individually, the bugs are spooky but harmless, easy to knock off a doorway or window screen. Collectively they are awesome. The swarms are so dense that a yellowish brown haze always sits in the air. Great oaks and elms heave with a collective crescendo of “singing” from the males. There is no respite from the song–the noise makes it indoors. And the grasses and trees, the parks and the wild are teaming with the bugs, ruining the tranquility of an outdoor stroll.

Two Brood X cycles before, in 1970, the bugs upstaged Bob Dylan on the occasion of his receiving an honorary degree from Princeton in springtime. With the cicadas making their presence known, he penned this song:

Cicadas have drawn the ire of many a human. They have been seen as a sign of God’s wrath–a pestilence. And yet, the Cicadas are harmless. They do not destroy the crops like locusts. Birds benefit from engorging on them. I have even seen the plain and goodly sparrow snag a clumsy cicada from the sky and peck it to pieces.

Is this thing on?

Perhaps the haters see something in themselves in the cicada. They hate the years of dormancy followed by ceaseless prattling before they die. The same could be said of a cubicle dwelling Dilbert, who emerges from his office tomb in retirement only to natter his children incessantly before croaking I suppose. For me, I have come to see the cicadas as an avatar not of woe, but of youth. They are rock and roll. They’d be tragic front-men. Consider: They sleep all the time. They are flamboyantly colored. They wake up to eat and fornicate for two weeks straight, singing at a piercing 100 decibels all day and all night, then die.

https://i2.wp.com/photos.foter.com/21/freddiemercurysinging1978_l.jpg

By the end of the two to five weeks, people become slap happy from the cicadas’ Bacchanalia. While bugs have always been reliable protein for human consumption in Asia, Americans take to the chocolate covered cicada–the females prized for their toothsome mouthfeel. The United Nations is in on the act too, releasing a report on bugs as the new food. I have seen people make found art and handicrafts from their fragile wings–even earrings. Children find novel ways to exact revenge. I recall a troop of latch-key kids from a local elementary school mercilessly beating the leaves of a tree–and the cicadas attached–to submission.

Backyard Bug Party

Rather than live in fear of the cicada, I will try to enjoy their return, like an annoying college buddy crashing on your couch for a month. I wonder, that if the cicada boom was a mere three days, that humans would not mind their company and visits.

Cicada Photo credit: Roger Smith / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Molting video credit: T. Nathan Mundhenk / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Cicadas on Tree Photo credit: istorija / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Cicada bug party Photo credit: Matt Niemi / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Cicada Microphone Photo credit: Articulate Matter / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Freddie Mercury Photo credit: http://flickr.com/photos/clender/ / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Hatch Show Print

live music

“Advertising without posters is like fishing without worms.”
– The Hatch Brothers

Nashville’s Hatch Show Print has been putting ink and block letters to press since 1875. The shop’s success was in its proximity to Nashville’s music scene. The nearby Ryman Auditorium hosted country music acts from all over the region, and through the monstrous WSM AM radio, reached the deep south. In that crucible, the music of Appalachia became the country, western and folk music industries. The founders of the shop, the Hatch brothers, cornered the music poster market. With their old print face, bold ink and screen print images, Hatch created Pre-Warholian icons—catapulting the fame of Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Elvis and everyone in the country music business.

Like all businesses, Hatch fell on hard times in the 70’s and almost disappeared. In 1986, Gaylord company—the reviver of the Grand Old Opry—bought Hatch to use for its promotion of concerts at the new Opry. Soon thereafter, the Hatch was released from its corporate servitude to become part of the non-profit Country Music Hall of Fame. Hatch was restored to a location on Nashville’s Honky-Tonk row, in the shadows of the old Opry—the Ryman.

Hatch represents the ur-graphic of contemporary society’s advertisers. In our app driven, info-graphic sharing, and mad-men advertising inundated age, Hatch offers a nostalgic escape to the beginnings of advertising—simple posters, hand cranked in a manner that hadn’t much changed since Gutenberg invented the process. The toil appeals to the hipster culture—those seeking the authentic, original and local in their cultural delights. Hatch doesn’t disappoint. And one of their best-selling souvenir prints captures the spirit of their craft in the modern world:

luddites

Knowing that I only had about an hour between meetings, I wanted to take in as much of Nashville’s Honky-Tonk row as possible—BBQ at Jack’s, peeking in the old Ryman, and seeing what music was wafting from the row of country music bars down Nashville’s Broadway. And there, mid-row, stood Hatch. Having seen the colorful posters all over town—from the airport gate to the hotel lobby—I had to seek out a poster for my own. There is something about those old broadsides, pressed against hand-inked letters with the full force of an old printing press that appeals to your author. The inconsistencies in the ink are welcome, making each iteration unique.

Music City Rising | Nashville Flood Relief

Music City Rising | Nashville Flood Relief

Music City Rising | Nashville Flood Relief

Music City Rising | Nashville Flood Relief

Hatch provides a visual cocktail, drowning my sight with vibrant colors from hundreds of prints on its old brick and wood walls. The shop is fairly simple—reprints of famous posters for the tourist, a modest checkout counter, and a massive print shop to the rear. Tours are offered, but I didn’t have the time. The staff were busy pressing out another round of posters for an upcoming show. So, their assistant came out to greet me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Huey exudes all of the alpha qualities of the master of the hall. He saunters over to the door to greet customers in that cat way, rubbing past your ankle, marking your khakis with his scent, to let the other cats know: this human’s mine, back off. Huey accepts a petting on his terms. A too assertive stroke is met by his fast-scratching paw.

Of the thousands of choices, and the possibilities for a custom job, I was overwhelmed by what the Germans call “die Qual der Wahl”–the torture of choosing. I could have picked up a fan-boy poster, but only one print seemed to capture the visual buffet of Hatch, and my experience with its true proprietor, manager and CEO.

Hatch Cats letterpress poster

Huey Photo Credit: By the author, December, 2010.

Hatch Show Print Process Photo credits: griffintech / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Press Photo credit: newwavegurly / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Huey poster credit: Nick Sherman / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Luddites Unite Source: message.co.uk blog

Source: http://countrymusichalloffame.org/hatch-show-print-history/

Tomorrowland: DC’s METRO

Washington DC metro station

Washington’s METRO is ranked by many tourists as iconic–among the gems of the subway systems of America. The American Institute of Architects list it’s vaulted stations among the best of American design. That is proof to me anyway, that Americans do not get off the continent very often.

Every season is tourist season in DC, however, from the time the cherry blossoms bloom to the last days of summer, America’s denizens will take the trip to DC for one iteration of the “Great American Summer Vacation.” I can’t blame them. Most people who live and work in DC were once tourists themselves–whether tugged by dad along the Mall’s two-mile expanse or hauled on a charter bus as part of a school trip. The entire city is designed to strike awe in the first time visitor. And so it its METRO rail system.

Living here, of course, conjures up different emotions, of a Dr. Strangelove quality. DC residents have a love-hate relationship with their subway system. I have spent, to my calculation, about 125 days of my life on METRO. Career DC people have spent many more days, years of their lives in fact. And like any love, the intensity and passion of those first days in the relationship fade. Sometimes all we can do is find every last fault, remark on every defect, and become passive aggressive until the day comes when you buy a car, and leave. (I am still talking of the METRO, dear reader!) And while the DC system is fairly clean and can be aesthetically pleasing compared to older systems along the east coast of the US, there is something irritating about the dysfunction of METRO, in a city known for its own dysfunction. Locals vent their frustration with METRO on other blogs, such as “Unsuck DC Metro.”

A cousin of mine was visiting for his annual sojourn to a political action conference. He loathes METRO in the same way many in Congress do–a colossal government project that never seems completed, rife with inefficiency, and as polite of an experience as being a fan of the away team at Yankee Stadium. METRO was a product of the LBJ “Great Society” era. To address the needs of the growing national capital, LBJ and Congress passed the National Capital Transportation Act in 1965. The act called for the funding of a mass transit system in DC–with federal dollars. The reasoning for Congressional action was that this was the nation’s capital after all. London had its Tube, Paris its Metropolitan. Even the Soviets had immense subways with chandeliers. America was “behind.” And so, a regional authority would be formed to govern this new system.

Founded in 1967, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is a bureaucracy so convoluted that it can only be called a “beautiful wreck” or a “hot mess” depending on your decade’s parlance. WMATA is governed by a board whose members are appointed by the liberal governors of Maryland, the conservative governors of Virginia, the federal government’s General Services Administration, and the socialists of the District of Columbia. They pick a sacrificial lamb to serve as administrator–some career whiz kid administrator in the DC area–to manage this four=headed beast. And how does the system sustain itself? Ticket sales only get you so far, as do tax revenues from the member jurisdictions. Remember that Congress created the system. Thus, Congress gets a say too. And because of that, a senator from Kansas can hold up spending on fixing a train car in Washington, DC.

The cousin knows all of this. And since the very air of DC is charged with political polarity, we loudly discuss our mutual loathing of LBJ’s Great Society METRO, riding the continent’s largest escalators into the belly of Hades. His loathing is more political, mine more aesthetic.

“The system cost $78 billion dollars?” he choked.

“Yup, don’t you like what liberals buy for you, cuz?”

“Sure, they buy great stuff with my money,” he sarcastically offered.

My argument is not really with LBJ, it is with the very idea of underground transportation. We continue to ride the moving stairs into the maw of the cavernous netherworld.

“The only time people should be this deep underground is when they are dead,” I gravely suggest.

“Geez. Kinda dark there”

“Its kinda dark down here. Not to mention, do you know what they call this kind of architecture? Brutalist.”

“Sounds Soviet,” he quipped as we joined the great proletariat on the platform for the next train.

USSR or USA?

That part we can agree upon–the METRO was designed and built in perhaps the worst decade for American style in her history–the 1970’s. Despite the Cold War, some building and design in the US looked downright Soviet during this ear. Starting with the railcars, the color palate was shades of orange pleather with tan plexiglass seats. The cars were not Made in the USA but in Italy. Gramsci would have been proud. The designers of the cars splashed down orange-red carpet, to try to appeal to the DC businessman to treat this system like his personal livery. Clearly the Italians didn’t consult say, Ferragamo or Versace for design, but Mussolini (okay, I am mixing metaphors. But as Keynes observed, the line between Stalinist-socialism and fascism is very thin) Now, there were other designers in the 1970’s. Imagine if instead, the DC overlords channeled Disney. How much more fun would METRO be as Space Mountain:

Disney - Space Mountain Blue Space Shot Tunnel (Explored)

But instead of Disney, the stations themselves are Brutalist in their vocabulary. Brutalism was the style in 1950’s through 1970’s architecture, defined by its stripping bare of decor and artistic style down to the core elements of a building–cement, steel, stone. The feel of one of these buildings is totalitarian. Heaping piles of geometric, cold cement can be found in Boston’s city hall, the FBI building in DC and yes, the METRO. They have not aged well, as the concrete withers in the weather. They do seem to be Soviet–stripped of all embellishment and humanity–and not built to last. They are brutal. And intriguingly, the federal buildings in DC closest to the neo-Classical dome of the Capitol–the Health and Human Services Building and the Labor Building are also in this style. As for METRO, like any good bureaucracy, by the time Washington decided to build, and had chosen its architect in Harry Weese, the style was already on the way out.

10th Street NW facade - J Edgar Hoover Building - Washington DC - 2012

However, METRO, for all of its political and aesthetic warts, is still a very cheap way to commute into DC. And for tourists, the stations link most sites together well enough to make for a decent travel tool around the Capital. DC workers forget what it is like to be a dreamy-eye tourist from the small town, marveling at the marble, granite and bronze city on a hill. We get temperamental when the tourists are unaware of the unwritten rules of etiquette that only a seasoned DC resident knows:

  • Stand on the Right–Caffeine crazed staffers will bolt up and down the left side of the escalator, in the fast lane. All too often, tourists used to riding an escalator (its actual function) are aghast and the rude and curt huffing and puffing of a rube in a hurry. Do yourself a favor, and don’t be, as the locals say, and “escabump.”
  • Let people out of the car first–DC is rude but it isn’t New York. There is a basic expectation that those exiting the train get priority. Only when the last human has passed through the door may you then enter. Cramming in is just rude.
  • Don’t eat on the cars–Do as WMATA says, not what it does. While plenty of cops and train drivers will eat on the train, it is illegal. Teens do it all of the time, stinking up cars with Eau de Big Mac. And well-appointed bureaucrats will get chided for carrying their latte on board.
  • Avoid Orange cars—This is a helpful hint. If you see a car with a number 1000 on it, or it has vintage orange interior, it will smell awfully and will not have a functioning air conditioner.
  • Don’t try to keep the doors open–They are fragile enough to break all of the time, yet strong enough to bruise and maim you. They are not like an elevator door. They will not stay open. They will crush you.
  • One seat only–Do not expect to have a whole bench to yourself when the cars fill up. And don’t think if you sit on the outside seat that no one would dare ask you to make room for them to squeeze into the window seat. They will.
  • Bring a bottle of water. More often than not, these trains break down. And in the summer, the internal temperature of a car can get hot–over 100 degrees. I pack a little water in the summer, preparing for the inevitable–a free sauna with 100 strangers wearing wool suits.

To the tourists credit, they do not seem to be too bothered by offending this secret knowledge. And the tourists make a game of it, assigning blame. They see the busybody Hill staffer or self-important “deputy assistant to the deputy assistant secretary” scurry by on the escalator, and the tourist assumes the bastard must be a member of the other party. Tea party tourists see the rude DC denizens as Obama people. The Moveon.org crowd sees the rude staffer in navy suits and red ties and thinks “Young fascists.” And some tourists say it out loud, and I laugh. Good for them. Rage against the machine!

Metro Train

While DC may have some of the most educated, snarky and professional workforces in the world, the criticism is not undeserved. METRO has to to do its part too. The system is run by a tired workforce, beleaguered by testy travelers and oppressive summer heat. In most metropoli, the announcements are the car are in clear English, impersonal and automated. On METRO, it is a daily occurrence to be accosted by a driver, threatening to off-load the train if the riders are not compliant. DC is a power town–and every bit of power is coveted. I find the scolding to be an embarrassment.

The system is old and was ill-designed. The entire system is like a dual monorail–if one car breaks down on your side of the tracks, the entire system is stopped. And at rush hour, with the teaming angry bureaucrats trying to get home and perplexed tourists wondering how the greatest country in the world could have such an inefficient subway, the masses get cramped and angry. METRO rarely apologizes for its mistakes, creating more passive-aggressive anxiety between the proles and their transportation vanguard.

L\'Enfant Plaza platform

METRO serves more than the political working class and the tourists. An inevitable outcome of a massive public space is that it is a place for all– rush hour and at night. Teens spill McFood on the pleather. Drunks get home from the bar at the witching hour. METRO serves a home for the homeless too. One would think that the cramped METRO cars could be a great leveler. Imagine, the fly-over state tourists coming face to face with urban realism. The congressional staffer looking the poor in the eye. The bleeding hearts seeing protestors on the way to the Supreme Court to defend the 2nd Amendment. And yet, most people have found ways to insulate themselves even in this public space. Ipod ear-buds create a personal inner space even when a stranger is jammed in a seat next to you. Barriers are on the micro level.

In the socioeconomic stew of METRO, there is the complete lack of conversation, the quietude, interrupted by out-of-townees or the rude idiosyncrasies of fellow travelers–music too loud, big talk by little interns, teenagers. I will say, that I think the older generations are more likely to strike up conversation. I sometimes find myself talking to strangers in those tourist months, popping out of my own iTunes universe to answer a basic question on how to get around my adopted town, its METRO and our shared love-hate relationship with DC’s ersatz “Tomorrowland” train.

White House

METRO Photo credit: o palsson / Foter.com / CC BY

Soviet/USA Photo Credit: ford / Foter.com / CC BY

FBI Building Photo Credit: dctim1 / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Speeding Train Photo credit: chrismar / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Teaming masses Photo credit: owash / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Homeless Photo credit: nevermindtheend / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Space Mountain Photo credit: Express Monorail / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND