Capital Living

The not-so-seedy underworld of Capitol Hill

Underneath Capitol Hill exists an entity so tremendous that it brings together Armani-clad legislators, tourists adorned in “I ? D.C.” T-shirts and foreigners wearing what presumably must be fashionable in their part of the world.

Underneath Capitol Hill exists an entity so tremendous that it brings together Armani-clad legislators, tourists adorned in “I ? D.C.” T-shirts and foreigners wearing what presumably must be fashionable in their part of the world.

Some people passing through this underground haunt talk politics, some talk business and even more ask how to find the cafeteria.

Since 1909, members of Congress and the common masses have been crossing paths to use the subway trains that link the Capitol to the Rayburn House Office Building and the Senate office buildings. The subways, only blocks long, give elected officials and their constituents a rare, albeit brief, moment of equal footing.

Well, sort of equal. The trains do have “Members Only” cars. (Which are rigorously enforced, by the way.)

Home-schooled kids from Massachusetts, staffers toppling over from the weight of boxes, sightseers from the United Kingdom, and senators voting on immigration legislation were spotted riding the subways on a recent Wednesday.

Although rides on the subway, which has two tracks for each leg, take less than a minute, some congressmen say it can be a productive 60 seconds.

“Lots of business is done on the metro,” said Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.), who sat in the members-only car with Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), headed toward the Capitol.

“We seal a lot of deals here,” Kind agreed, perhaps only half-jokingly.

Despite the subway’s high-profile clientele, the person you most want to befriend on the system are the operators who keep the trains running back and forth all day — and sometimes night — long.

The life of a Capitol subway operator isn’t all playful hobnobbing with elected officials and wide-eyed tourists. Sometimes votes in the House and Senate last until the wee hours of the morning. And as long as Congress is in session, so are the subways.

Patricia Freeman has been operating the open-air House subway cars since 2001. She typically works from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. but has stayed as late as 3 a.m. Even though she gets paid overtime for the late nights, she says they’re a drag.

“As long as they’re in, we gotta be here. That’s just the way it goes,” Freeman said.

Conscious that she represents the American work force to an international crowd, Freeman takes care to look professional. On Wednesday she wore a red blouse and red earrings, with her hair coiffed and glasses perched on her nose.

Senate subway operators, on the other hand, typically wear a uniform — a navy-blue collared shirt or sweat shirt monogrammed with their name and dark trousers. The uniform fits the general feeling that a bit more attention is paid to the Senate subway than its House counterpart.

For example, the Senate has two systems: an open-air, operator-controlled train that travels from Russell to the Capitol and an automated, closed-car train that runs from the Capitol and stops at the Dirksen and Hart buildings. The automatic train is operated from an out-of-sight control room.

Subway operators on both sides work in an hour-on, half-hour-off cycle, with three operators on duty per shift. During lulls in the day, such as after lunch, when no votes are being recorded and when passengers are just in a quieter mood, most operators admit the job can be a bore.

Freeman said she usually reads the Bible to pass the time. Erick Gage, an operator on the Senate train between Russell and the Capitol, said he usually reads books.

“But I’ve read them all now. I’ve got to go back to the bookstore again,” he said.

An intimidating number of buttons, levers, lights and wires face each subway operator, but the operators say the system is not hard to manage. They are trained in the sink-or-swim style, where they learn how to operate the train and troubleshoot on the fly, with the operator on the opposite track fielding their questions.

No serious accidents have happened when Freeman has been on duty, aside from the train’s breaking down in the middle of the track with a congressman aboard.

“I’ve got to get them out,” Freeman said, making a disapproving face.

Although some legislators are less than gracious to Freeman, she said most of them are friendly. She has a particular soft spot for Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and his wife, Annette, who usually accompanies him.

“We don’t deserve that accolade,” Lantos said when informed that he made Freeman’s short list of favorite riders. He called his interaction with Freeman “a warm and wonderful relationship.”

Lantos, a Hungary native and the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, said goes out of his way to show Freeman and other Capitol Hill laborers that he appreciates them. The relationship is beneficial to him, too, he said. Whether the subject du jour is grandchildren or current events, Lantos said, his chats with Freeman light up his day.

Then there’s Senate train operator Leonard Durrett, who said that, while most of the senators are nice enough, the subway “is a place of business. You don’t have time for a conversation.”

Gage said Sens. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are the chattiest.

The hardest part of the job might be learning the faces, if not the names, of the lawmakers. It’s an easier job for Senate subway operators than House operators.

“Sometimes you’ve got to just ask them who they are because they may be a new congressman,” Freeman said. “Some of them get mad about that. I can’t tell you who that is, but it happens. We have to tolerate it and go on.”

In addition to the Senate subway operators’ uniforms and elaborately painted train cars adorned with the Senate symbol, the operators on the elite side of the Capitol shuttle some of the more high-profile guests. Gage said he has met Richard Gere (a guest of McCain), Chuck Norris, who was meeting with Texas GOP Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, and …

“That woman, whatever her name is, who’s messing with Brad Pitt,” said Gage, who always gets an autograph.

As for “wacky” tourists, as Freeman calls them, “they’re just people doing what they want to do, dressing how they want to dress.”

She recalls one left-of-the-mainstream adolescent who wore his hair in tall, thick spikes jutting out from his head so that, in Freeman’s opinion, he looked “like a palm tree.” But perhaps this young man was not so misplaced in the Capitol after all — coincidentally, the style is known in punk circles as “liberty spikes.”

All operators deem tourists the most interesting riders, but they appreciate the familiarity of Hill rats.

Pages came aboard Wednesday, riding four or five times in a single hour as they toted files to and from Capitol Hill. They often build a warm rapport with the subway operators. A bespectacled young redhead named Jack Barnhill stood for the whole ride — against safety protocol, perhaps — and chatted with Freeman.

Tourists commonly wait in line for the trains when it would be faster to walk. Durrett said this is because of the “sense of nostalgia” that the whimsical trains bring to mind. The subway adds to the Capitol experience.

For example, Bernard Coughlin of Northern Ireland was thrilled that the British Embassy hooked him up with a tour of the Capitol.

Mildred Ness and Phyllis Schiff, guests of Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), said they had been to Capitol Hill many times before. However, they had never been “escorted by a handsome young man,” Ness said of the Slaughter aide giving them a tour.

The first subway in the Senate was built in 1909 and served three Senate office buildings. In 1960, the Senate monorail was installed to take passengers to Dirksen and Hart. In 1993, that system was replaced by an automatic train that does not require an operator. The House part of the train that runs from Rayburn to the Capitol was built in 1965.

Steve Misarski of Millbury, Mass., climbed into a subway car with his wife, son and two daughters in the typical brightly colored clothes of tourists.

“We’re home-schoolers, so this is a field trip for us as well,” he said.

“We just came from the Capitol, where Sam [his son, watching lawmakers from the House gallery] asked, ‘Is that for real?’” Misarski said, laughing. “I wanted to say, ‘No, they’re just actors.’”

Tags John Cornyn John McCain Ron Kind

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