I’m not sure how many times I’ve been on the D.C. Metro, but it’s enough I should know what I’m doing. But as I walk to the platform, getting to my train, I feel like a hopeless tourist.
I’m not sure what makes me feel this way. Is it the fumbling of my metro card in and out of my wallet or the obsessive rechecking of which stop I need to take? Maybe it’s the uncertainty of not knowing whether I’m on the right side of the platform. I wonder if people who have been here longer still struggle with these things. If they don’t, how long did it take them to figure it out?
Public transportation is still relatively new to me. My hometown’s population is 18,000 people. While there is a free public transportation system, I never used it.
I wasn’t driving there, either. Transportation was dependency, then. What I did and where I went was at the mercy of others’ schedules. But cars were easier than the bus routes that only went so far, and there was always a way to get to where I needed.
My first taste of transportation freedom came at seventeen, and it was not in the form of a driver’s license. Instead, it involved learning to shuffle off the wads of pesos to the front of the jeepney and figuring out which taxi driver would rip off the foreigner the least. Instead of waiting on people I knew, I was now at the mercy of strangers and routes.
Still, cut loose to go wherever we wanted (it was a mall, always a mall) had been beyond my imagination just a year earlier. This was freedom. Or at least a glimpse of adulthood, with limitations I often neglected.
I thought I took to public transportation in stride, but in hindsight I was rarely ever unaccompanied. I needed another person as a guide, even if they weren’t from the area. Had I actually been cut loose to fend for myself, I’m sure I would have drowned in the chaos of the city.
Six months in northern Virginia after high school graduation returned me to my old life of dependency. My parents took me to and from work. That was the only thing I did while I waited to go to Calvin, but I couldn’t do it alone.
My time in Virginia was reacclimation to everything old, and after the six months ended, I needed to learn a new way of getting around.
Grand Rapids’ public transportation is nothing like Manila’s. Instead of a plethora of routes, methods, and times to get to a destination, there’s a single bus, with half-hour intervals that never align with work schedules. I committed myself to a job off campus that I shouldn’t have. The hours I spent on those buses offered a promise of getting things done and the actuality of time misused.
Three weeks before I turned twenty, I became a licensed driver. I had returned to northern Virginia, disgruntled by my first-semester experience at Calvin. The time wasting away on that bus spurred my desire to drive, even though I wasn’t returning to Calvin that fall.
At twenty, I joined sixteen-year-olds in a newfound freedom: the ability to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I drove myself to work, to get fast food, to the grocery store, to Grand Rapids eventually when I decided to give it a second chance. Transportation was confidence.
Before the summer of 2018, I had taken many different metros, but I never used one with the frequency of knowing where I was going.
But that summer, I made D.C. visits a habit. The metro became a routine. Almost every weekend, I drove ten miles north and hopped on the blue line. The metro became an ease. A new way to explore.
And yet, as I board the blue line in Franconia-Springfield on a hot September day, I don’t think I know what I’m doing. Even though departing trains only go one direction, I’m still afraid I’m boarding the wrong train.
This month I visited my parents’ home for the first time since 2019. It was last-minute, a getaway. The metro wasn’t the only thing I was uncertain about. The NOVA roads I memorized four years ago are unfamiliar once again. And I’m looking for what’s next.
I’m back on the job market much earlier than I had hoped. My post-college job turned sour as soon as it started. And as I go through jobs I don’t feel qualified for, I wonder where I’ll land on my feet.
But, just like the train whose route I scan obsessively for the right stop, I’ll eventually reach the right destination.
Mitchell Barbee graduated from Calvin University with a B.A. in writing in 2021. Originally from Boone, North Carolina, he is currently residing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He enjoys hanging out with the few friends who stayed, wearing grey hoodies, and hoping that he doesn’t get sucked into the nightly wormhole of watching a baseball game.