Taking Amtrak to Washington DC to see what is going on in the Nation’s Capital during the Covid shutdown was both shocking and sad but also inspiring and beautiful. But seeing a busy city like this shut down to this degree is a terrible eye-opener and makes you worry about whatever is coming next.
It started at Amtrak’s Metro Park station. I arrived early since Amtrak has cut back on so many trains because of lack of passengers I was not sure whether I’d be able to get a parking spot in the five story parking garage as well as a seat on one of the few trains left. It was ridiculous to worry.
My car was the only one parked on the first level on the track side, so there was ample parking for an army. Instead of checking my ticket when I got aboard, the conductor said, “You’re Muriel, right?” The fact the conductor got a list of all those reservations getting on at Metro Park and I was the only one there made it easy for him to identify me. Once aboard, there was only one other person in the same car I got in.
Arriving a few minutes early into Union Station….less time spent at each the five stops between Metro and Washington accounted for that….I was stunned to see the emptiness of this vast building. All the stores lining the gate entries are closed except for the one McDonald’s at the end of the building. I walked down to take a look at what was going on there and that’s when I learned my first lesson about what experts know about the spread of the disease. They must think it is spread by sitting down!
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I could buy whatever I wanted from McDonald’s in Union Station. And I could even stand there with 20 other people and eat it! But I couldn’t sit down! The same was true in the station itself. Lots of seats were plastic covered and there were only a few places where folks waiting to depart could sit.
Walking to the main lobby of this magnificent 19th century building modeled after ancient Rome’s structures, I was shocked to see I could throw a basketball the length of the building and not hit a living soul. One man taking a photo of the emptiness and myself were the only two in this huge area of a building normally jammed pack with busy travelers, tourists, and lots of activity. That’s the sad part. The wonderful part was it gave me the chance to look more carefully as some of those elaborate sculptures, ionic columns, and marble all over the place and appreciate the architecture. It’s been renovated more than once over the years, but the huge glassed roof, the massive doors and columns, the sheer vastness of the place still take your breath away.
The lower level of Union Station is a bevy of fast food places where you can buy just about every kind of ethnic delight plus subs or burgers. Most are closed, but the few remaining open still follow that same Covid comes from sitting attitude….you could buy it, you could stand there and eat it, but you couldn’t sit!
Once outside, I crossed the street…no need to wait for a traffic light to turn, no cabs, no traffic on the road… to stand back and really look at the building’s exterior. Built to resemble a massive arch from England’s 19th century, I took the time to appreciate the architecture and read the inscriptions etched across the top of the building once again. I also noticed that Washington’s homeless are a trusting bunch. No need for them to take their coats or blankets or whatever materials they use to cover themselves when they sleep at the base of some of the statues and fountains at night. They were all there, the materials, piled in corners while those who sleep there nights go wherever they travel or eat during the day.
U.S Capitol Building
The picture was no different as I walked up the hill to the Capitol. The streets were almost vacant, certainly no traffic problems, the parks employees were on their equipment cutting the lawns, and only a handful of people were sitting on park benches. But the absence of crowds also meant I could appreciate the daffodils and violets blooming, notice that the azalea had passed its prime, and could enjoy young moms taking advantage of the open spaces to play catch with their kids or run with their dog. Even the dogs looked happier and more eager to run!
There were no crowds around the Capitol, the legislative buildings, the Library of Congress or anything else. Everything was closed except to those employed or working in the Capitol. Guards by the Senate Office Building were delighted to stop and chat for a few minutes; yes, they’re bored they’ll tell you adding it was fun in the beginning not having to shovel people around and answer a dozen questions about who they see or who is polite when they go in. But now, it’s just boring and they’re eager for the busy times again.
A CBS camera crew was near the front of the Capitol, their cameras aimed at the lower level where Senators and staff were leaving. I sat on a low side wall to watch and see why they were there. Turns out, no specific reason, they just set up in case a Senator comes over and has something to say, or falls, or does something unusual they can catch on film and broadcast on the six o’clock news. Senator Booker came out, mask in place and accompanied by an apparent aide. I said hi from a distance of perhaps 50 feet, he turned, waved, and kept on walking.
I spent the afternoon enjoying the beauty of a well-manicured Washington, talking to the guards and passersby who were all eager to see a friendly face, and headed back to the station for the train back to New Jersey. I could sit until the gate opened and the dozen or so of us boarding Amtrak for a trip that ultimately ended in Massachusetts boarded. Each went to whichever car he chose, knowing while there would be passengers getting on at most stops along the way, there would still be plenty of room to keep safe space among ourselves. Once settled, I headed to the Café Car for a snack and a bottle of wine….surprisingly, you could sit at tables in the café car, just with a warning to keep a safe space….chatted with the car attendant who normally worked aboard the Acela. He was working this train since the Acela high speed trains have been halted for lack of passengers. I was heading back to New Jersey and enjoyed the twilight settling over the towns and cities we passed.