Train platform, new friends (hello! hello!), young boys not much older than my son approach me to shake my hand and say, “Nice to meet you.” I am so stunned I almost forget how to respond. Metro cards, turnstiles, find a car. Kids spin around the metal poles, “Sit down! Sit still!” It does not work, they are all maps and windows and new new new. The littlest ones cry, both wanting the window seat and the seat next to daddy. Once we are zipping along, tears dry and the traffic, tracks, sky, tunnel mesmerize.
Then, up onto city streets. Dusk. Lights, crosswalks, thousands of cars. “Stay close! Stop at the curb! Don’t run ahead!” The boys slam into each other, their bodies pin-balls pinging between Pennsylvania Avenue office buildings. The caravan growths thin as it stretches down a city block. Two boys race ahead and we lose sight of them between the looming wall of strangers. The dad carries his young son far back, his daughter in the bubble-gum pink coat bringing up the rear.
Then, it is giant tree. White House in a golden glow. Crowds, bustle, tiny trains, throwing coins into open freight cars. We lose one another, gain an additional mother and daughter, lose her, re-group. The little ones and the big ones all press into the fence, sharing snacks, all learning and then forgetting names. The girls ask their mother for pennies. Another round of coins until we all stop digging into our wallets. The kids throw clumps of grass. The state trees arc behind us and we find the ones we know. Rhode Island, where one went to culinary school. Texas, where one will spend Christmas. Then we see Virginia and we all crowd around for a moment, squeezing our way in.
We break free of the crowd’s tight grip and weave our way down the streets again. Up the stairs and onto Freedom Plaza’s deep breath of open space. Up past the marquee lights of National Theater. No one remembers what is here anymore, no one spends time in the city. Where will we eat? All around us, hotels, glimmering brass. The Willard. The Washington Marriott. Lights, doormen, black hired cars. We gamble on distant memory and hoof up 14th street. The Shops at National Place offer up a bakery with a kids’ menu. Sandwiches, fruit cups, chocolate milk. Slump, hydrate, chat, color, wait wait wait and then eat.
Back out into the night. The metro again, the front car now, kids take turns peering through the dark glass at the curving tunnel ahead. We peek our heads out at the station stops and wave at the conductor who grins and winks. Girls pour their tiny toy animals onto the vinyl seats. Boys wrestle. “Stop that! Gentle hands!” The parents talk more. Who is in school, who lived where, whose kids like which sports, instruments, books. Have you decorated yet? Where will they be for the holidays? With dad? With you? Half weeks, split Christmas, alternating years.
At the final stop, we all wait at the turnstile. No one in this crowd is left behind. We only just met, and already we are each other’s fierce protectors. For one sparkling night, we barely-friends are one tribe.