I came into work this morning on 95, taking 395 via the Capital Beltway, before exiting South Washington. This takes you on the southwest side of the Pentagon, directly under the flight path of American Flight 77. On your right you can see where the limestone exterior walls are a shade lighter. Arlington Cemetery is on the left. As we turn onto the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac, JFK’s tomb is directly behind us, and the Lincoln Memorial—framed by an unusually late-season full bloom of cherry blossoms—lies directly in front of us. The driver knows Henry Bacon lets us cut over to Constitution quicker than 23rd(still don’t know who Henry Bacon is), so he’s not new to this. And look! There’s a trucker convention next to the Vietnam Memorial. Then it’s past the Daughters of the American Revolution, all the way up 18th, which is where I tell the driver to let me out, just before we get to Pennsylvania Avenue.
No money is shared. Nothing is exchanged. No feedback or stars or tips. No conversation this morning, or really most mornings. I have no idea who my driver is, or what he is doing in our nation’s capital, and this unknowing seems a crucial part of the reason this whole thing even works. This enterprise is known as slugging. And I am a slug.
Slugging is legalized, recognized, ad hoc hitchhiking. Unionized bus drivers coined the terms ‘slug’ in the 1970’s. A slug is a rider. The riders waiting at bus stops would happily get in the car—any car—that would take them up to the Pentagon. The fact that the ride was free was of less import than the fact that the ride was here, now, ready to go. Of course, the bus drivers didn’t like this, because it meant less bus fares from paying passengers. This was especially grating for the bus drivers because the slug drivers were effectively taking advantage of the centralized nature of the bus stop pick up routes—slug drivers knew where the people would be located, and that they would be in need of a ride. Hence, the derogatory ‘slug’. Back in the early days, slugging was basically Springfield to the Pentagon; your options were limited. But getting to the Pentagon gave you access to the Metro, which could deliver you to various points in and around D.C. That was enough.
Today, there are multiple points of egress throughout Northern Virginia (even as what constitutes ‘Northern Virginia’ expands ever southward and westward), just as there are various points of ingress in Arlington and the District of Columbia. This is mostly cribbed from articles cited on Wikipedia, which also erroneously states that hybrid vehicles are currently allowed to drive the HOV lanes without additional passengers (this regulation changed in 2014), so reader beware, and take this history of slugs with a measure of salt.
It was a bus this morning, mainly because the unpublished etiquette of slugging frowns upon the use of personal electronic devices larger than a phone, and I had work to do on my laptop on the way into the office. I’ll confess to enjoying the looks of pity and expressions of empathy I receive when I divulge that my daily roundtrip commute totals just under two hours on good days, and frequently approaches the three-hour mark on the regularly-occurring bad days. But secretly, and perhaps shamefully, I mostly enjoy my commute. I usually work in the morning, sending out emails to clients and colleagues well before I know they’ll be in the office. And contrary to LinkedIn’s assertion that such a practice is merely virtue signaling for the striver demographic, I have actually found that my early-morning emails receive a much better response rate, especially when I need a quick turnaround or a timely response. To be sure, buses are slower, and this morning is no exception. What would normally take me 40 minutes in a slug takes over an hour. However, the fact that I’ve already sent out a half dozen emails, edited a weekly newsletter, and RSVP’d for an industry roundtable tomorrow evening lessens the impact of a 75 minute trip into the District.
Thanks to the decentralized nature of slug routes and the fact that the pick-up points overlap with the bus routes, I don’t have to rely on a bus to take me home in the afternoon. The existing public commuter bus system, which is slow but relatively reliable, supports and enables a transit ecosystem in which slugging is possible. Without the knowledge that at some point, all else failing, a bus will eventually come along and take you to where you need to go, it is unlikely that slug riders would be willing to take a chance and hope that a slug driver will pick them up on a given morning. And absent the existence of slug riders in a central location, it is unlikely that a slug driver would be willing to go out of his way to organize a carpool with the same flexibility inherent in slugging. The sometimes-plodding, ever-unionized, and seemingly inefficient public option enables the existence of a much more efficient, cost-effective, and faster private option. Much as it ever was.
The primary decision I face each morning is which commuter lot to drive to. The 234 lot is nearest to me, about 12 minutes away depending on whether I leave early enough to avoid the school zones on my way. It is the preferred lot for riders living near Quantico Marine Corps base and has a steady flow of both riders and drivers heading north to the Pentagon. The other option is the Telegraph Road/Horner Road lot, which is about 20 minutes away but has more bus lines in the morning and more slug drivers in the afternoon. Making the wrong choice can cost you upwards of 40 minutes, and despite what I just said about not hating my commute, I’d rather not be commuting, all else being equal. If I need to get into the office as quickly as possible, I’ll do 234, and take my chances on catching a bus in the afternoon. If I know that I need to be home as soon as possible after work, I’ll likely go to Telegraph/Horner.
This morning, I decide on Telegraph/Horner. Once there, I see that the slug line to the Pentagon is moving quickly, so I make my way to that line. I stand just behind a man in fatigues who, if my limited knowledge of military insignia doesn’t fail me, is a corporal in the United States Army. In many senses, the military is the lifeblood of slugging, with the Pentagon being both its birthplace as well as its most frequent destination. Riding with a fellow slug or a driver in full fatigues is common. I’d thank him for his service, but the restriction on speaking outside of a driver-initiated conversation outweighs even the debt of gratitude we owe our nation’s service men and women.
Tonight I am attending an industry roundtable for which I have previously RSVP’d. I was, that is, until a minor medical emergency arose at home that required my attention and presence. After clearing my calendar and making sure that I’d be available for a conference call, I contacted the multi-state inter-regional transit authority, which has a program called “Guaranteed Ride Home”. This program, which is funded by states, municipalities in the region, and the Federal government allows registrants to make use of a taxi cab four times per year, or once per quarter, at no cost to the rider (other than a tip, which is both expected and appreciated). After calling the transit authority, I receive a message from a taxi cab company who informs me that my driver will be outside my office in three minutes. I take the elevator down, get into the wrong cab, get out, and then get into the right cab, which takes me back to Telegraph/Horner. I arrive home in time to avert any scheduling crisis owing to the medical mishap. All is well, all is well.
Despite slugging’s self-police prohibition against slug riders speaking unless spoken to by the driver, the astute rider can pick up on some clues that may serve as an indicator of the driver’s willingness to engage in a conversation, as well as the topics a rider might broach. Of all such signals, I’d estimate that the radio station is the most reliable indicator of a political affiliation, as well as the driver’s willingness to engage in conversation. Spotify playlists or albums, audiobooks, or silence do little to betray the driver’s sensibilities; the only meaning that can be derived from such is the fact that that’s what the drivers wants to listen to. But if they listen to a radio station, they may be telling you something. A guide, of sorts:
WTOP 103.5: D.C. area news, from Richmond to Baltimore, from the Chesapeake to the Shenandoah. Traffic and weather together on the 8’s and when it breaks.This driver is actually making a statement that they don’t want to make a statement. It’s the radio station equivalent of a damp beige blanket being dropped over the warm embers of political fire; vanilla extract used to drown out all other ideological flavors that may manifest; a panacea of anodynity so overpowering in its blandness that everyone knows not to say a thing.
WAMU 88.5:Probably left leaning, and would entertain conversation about the topic being discussed, especially if the topic is of particular local concern and has limited relation to politics or international affairs. Note that this only applies to the NPR station that simulcasts during the morning commute; if they are listening to an NPR podcast, they are practically begging you to ask them about the topic of the podcast.
Bloomberg 99.1: All business, all the time.Allows the mid-level executive to entertain the illusion that he is receiving a personal, private daily briefing in the style of daily briefings that C-suite executives might have received as recently as 15 years ago. This driver is perfectly pleased to make your acquaintance and may later attempt to add you to his personal LinkedIn Network. So that you, reader, may know more about me, this is the station that I would tune into most mornings, were ever I to become a driver.
WGTS 91.9 Christian Music Radio:I’ll admit to some surprise at the ethnic and racial diversity of the drivers who tune in to radio with an explicitly Christian worldview and purpose, a surprise which is likely the result of my own experience growing up in the suburbs of D___, where Christian radio was synonymous with white Evangelical Christianity. But based on the placards of saints and bumper stickers adorning their cards, drivers tuning in to this station include Egyptian Coptics, Eastern Orthodox, Ghanaian Pentecostals, Latin American Roman Catholics, and the occasional white Evangelical with whom I’m more familiar. I don’t speak to these drivers both out of respect for the rules of slug etiquette, along with a desire not be on the receiving end of proselytization.
WFJK-FM 106.7 The Fan:G-d—-t Redskins. Seriously, just g-d—-t all to h–l. The f—–g Eagles (THE EAGLES!) are now god’s gift to this midnight green and charcoal silver earth and what the h–l is Snyder doing about it? Not a d–n thing, that’s what. RIP, burgundy and gold.
I’m nearly certain that the impetus for the no-speaking-unless-spoken-to rule for slugs has its origins in the ubiquity of politics in the D.C. scene. And not just because tastemakers and connoisseurs of etiquette have declared politics and religion to be the archetypal taboos of polite conversation. Rather, it has to do with the proximity of politics. Two persons sharing a ride in nearly any other city could disagree on politics, and their disagreement would likely extend no further than a matter of who they voted for. But when you catch a ride into D.C., there is a decent chance that the person giving you a ride filed an FEC disclosure for a PAC affiliated with the candidate you oppose, that one of your riders’ first jobs out of college was stuffing envelopes for a ballot initiative which you worked to defeat, or that she is a political appointee at a regulatory agency that increased your company’s compliance costs. It’s the specificity of political operations, combined with the intimacy of a ride shared with strangers, which makes an enforced hiatus a necessity.
But today is an exception. This morning, I ride with Keith, a retired Navy man who volunteers his time twice a week at the White House Office of Correspondence, which is exactly what it sounds like. He sits in a room with other volunteers and sorts the hundreds of thousands of letters that the President receives each week. Having worked at an agency where such letters sometimes get forwarded, I appreciate the difficulty in the task, with letter openers being required to correctly distinguish such bureaucratic turf battles and acronymic puzzles such as the FHA from the FHFA, ONDCP from DOJ/ATF, and EX/IM from OPIC. But outside of that, I don’t know much about what the day-to-day operations entail; you’d have to ask Keith.
Keith loves the President, which is why he spends Tuesdays and Fridays driving his late-model Mercedes into the District from his suburban Virginia home to sort through his mail. It’s his way of giving back, he tells me. There’s an earnestness that I find confounding and appealing and naïve. He tells me about his Navy career, and how he enlisted at eighteen and wishes that his son, who lives at home and who’s not really the college-type, would enlist. It wouldn’t even have to be the Navy; Keith doesn’t hold grudges. But he’s glad to know that there’s a President who has America’s back. So glad, that he’ll drive two hours twice a week and pay $18 dollars a day just for the privilege of opening his mail. Then Keith asks me about the proper way to drop off slugs, since this is his first time after a buddy told him about slugging, and I explain: just drop them off on the side of the road nearest to the intersection where they’ll be getting off. For me, this is 18thand Pennsylvania. He thanks me and obliges, and as I get out of the car, he shouts at me his cell phone number and simultaneously requests mine and says, “I’ll call you when I’m leaving so that I can pick you up this afternoon.”
I don’t know if it is the breach of etiquette or the atypical gregariousness or the niceness of his car or the fact that he sees opening letters as a means of giving back that makes me remember Keith. Maybe it’s the feeling that by accepting a ride from him, I’m somehow complicit in the various aspects of the current Administration that I cannot abide. Or, on the other hand, it’s the semi-uncomfortable realization that in both the quotidian task of arriving at work, as well as the larger scale of living in this democracy of America, that I am–in a real and figurative sense–dependent upon Keith. And so I accept his offer, give him my cell phone number, and I get a ride home with Keith that afternoon.