Fucking wayward duck. It’s outside the Metro station at Farragut North, where I’m meeting my friend Haley. The bird is so close I can see the concrete beneath its delicate and transparent webbing. It’s rush hour in DC, and the duck keeps waddling out into rapids of traffic. I feel an acute sympathy for the stupid thing; I can’t look away.

I turn to the Golden Triangle Ambassador—a woman who directs lost Metro riders—and say, my voice pitchy with angst, “I don’t know what to do. If it gets hit I’m going to freak out.”

“Hmm.” She’s unable to offer direction on this matter. But she wears a look of amused concern, and joins me as I follow the duck with my eyes.

I haven’t lived in the District long. I grew up in Vermont, land of aggressive outdoorsiness. Hiking, fishing, canning. Earlier I got lost walking back from a grocery store. I had to call Haley—a DC native—and ask her for directions to the Metro.

“This may sound douchey,” she said, “but all you have to do is open your eyes and walk down the street.”

She was right. I was one block from the station. Eyes opened, I cringed at my lame-ducked-ness.

I once saw an Army veteran with his search-and-rescue dog on the Metro. The dog had been with the man since she was a puppy, and the two served together in Afghanistan. The dog was wearing her search-and-rescue vest, which had lights that blinked. She was, in a word, bonny. Passengers made kissy faces and pet whatever part of her they could reach, tumbling over themselves in the pitching Metro car to get at that pooch.

She was visibly twitching, and at one point a passenger said, “Oh, poor thing. Is she cold?”

“No,” the man said. “She’s shaking. She’s scared. She’s never been in the Metro before.”

He lifted the dog onto his lap and gave her a hug. We all cooed with enormous concern. Poor little you! So far from home! Granted “home” was a war zone. But still, it’s what she knew!

Haley appears at Farragut station. After listening to me howl, she reaches into her giant purse and whips out a white shower curtain. The curtain is for us to sit on when we get to the outdoor exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum: Doug Aitken’s Song 1. The curtain can also serve, Haley thinks, as a duck-scooping device. We could pluck the lost bird up and deposit it in Farragut Square Park just across the street, where it will surely be more at home.

The bird hops back into traffic before we can shower it with our awkward concern, and I shriek as it almost gets flattened like a cartoon. Then I waddle out after it, shouting “Duck!” while flapping my arms at oncoming cars. Haley follows, and we herd the bird across the street. Drivers laugh open-mouthed as we point down and say “Duck!” again and again.

Safely parked on the grass, the bird looks about as content as it did on the asphalt. We toss it a strawberry (which it declines), then some Hint of Lime Tostitos (which it snaps up in its bill, one after the other).

I feel relieved. We have rescued this duck. I’m not sure why it’s alone, and not flying, but whatevs. Its transparent web spaces are now off the concrete and on some brownish grass.

Farragut Square Park isn’t much of a park, though, now that I evaluate it as a duck refuge. There are some benches and patchy grass, but no pond. It’s only one block long and wide, and not a particularly generous block by city standards. I glance over and see, not far away, a man bedding down on the grass. I wonder if I would’ve seen him if I hadn’t been fussing over the duck. Most likely not. I feel guilty about this, but it’s a transitory guilt—it flies. I’m mainly still fretting over the stray bird. I’m not sure what else I can do, though, so Haley and I turn and head to the station.

I don’t know why I’m so tuned-in to DC’s creatures, but it’s as if my brain’s stuck on that public radio show, The Animal House. In the “Green Mountain” state where I grew up, wildlife is everywhere, and the culture is one of commune. There’s a kind of granola-fortified pressure to harmonize with nature, as if an REI-clad bully were in your ear, squawking: You will call to the wild turkeys. You will pick apples and transmogrify them into baked goods. You will snowshoe even though it’s really freakin’ cold out and it’s going to be dark in, like, an hour.

I thought the District would bring a new focus. The monkey (or moose, or catamount) of nature would be off my back. But I see animals everywhere in DC, and that’s not a shot at the District’s invasive exotics (politicians)—it’s real-live animals I’m seeing. I’d change the station, but I can’t seem to locate the dial.

Now Haley and I sit outside on the white shower curtain and wait for Song 1 to begin. The installation will project a film onto the exterior of the museum, using it as a kind of screen. It’s still light out, so at first I only see shadows moving. But soon the film begins to take shape, color.

People in factories, diners, parking garages. Urban scenes. They all sing The Flamingos song “I Only Have Eyes For You,” but not to each other—it’s either to the camera or to some distant point beyond the camera’s view. The tune is slowed down, sped up, or in other ways distorted, depending on who’s singing. One scene shows traffic racing; another shows an actress singing to her mirror image, though she doesn’t seem to see herself.
Crowds gather around the museum and stare up at the projection, humming along to the repeating tune.

    You are here and so am I
Maybe millions of people go by
But they all disappear from view

My first few months in DC, I was surprised by all the non-human life I saw underground, where I’d assumed it was too isolated and dark for that kind of thing. I respectfully ignored my fellow human passengers, but was impressed with the plants that somehow took root in the grates beside the tracks. The grates were lit up like a small greenhouse or terrarium, and were filled with bright green moss and ferny things. Water trickled down the center of the tracks; the ceiling tiles were covered in thick black fungus.

Before long, the hexagonal tiles on the floors began to look like honeycombs; the footlights on the escalators seemed to undulate like water. The blue-green, sparkly art installed at Farragut North station was clearly a jellyfish.

Why are my eyes doing this to me—chipping away at the cityscape so the creatures stand in relief, like woodcuts? I look into it, and it turns out the sense data from your eyes doesn’t travel directly to your visual cortex, but first makes a stop at something called the thalamus. It’s shaped like a halved walnut, and is housed in the center of your brain—“thalamus” coming from the Greek word for “inner chamber” or room. One previous theory was that the thalamus was like an old timey gate attendant, who could either let all the sense traffic through or hold it back. But now scientists say it’s more like a railway station. It actually picks and chooses which pictures to send on down the tracks.

This must mean there are all kinds of things my eyes see but my brain does not. So if my thalamus is a Metro, it’s only letting wildlife on the cars. The creatures hear, All aboard! But the humans get, Step back, doors closing. Like the Ark, minus Noah and the fam.

The Hirshhorn is shaped like a tire, and is largely windowless, so Haley and I stand now and walk around the circular museum, getting different angles on the projection. It’s pitch black and freezing cold, so as we walk, Haley wraps the curtain around herself to try to warm up. This makes me think again of our displaced fauna.

“Projections” is the same word they use for the tracks between your thalamus and cortex. It occurs to me that most of the creatures I’m “seeing” in the District are a bit out of place. A duck in traffic. A twitchy dog in a subway car. The scraggly ferns in the Metro grates. And I wonder if I’m projecting—if this is my brain holding up some kind of furry mirror to itself. Or maybe my noggin is just trying to lay some track between country and city, Vermont and DC. Conjuring a new, slightly confused bully: Touch the cracks in the drywall, and you will wish them seeded with violets. Dream, and it will be of raking leaves off your laminate hardwood flooring.

    I don’t know if we’re in a garden
Or on a crowded avenue

On the way home from the museum, I wait twenty minutes for the Metro. But when it arrives I can’t board—the train is short and too full, so I have to wait another twenty. It seems the Metro isn’t tuned to my station, either. Haley is at another station; she rides a different line home.

I finally get on the train. It’s mobbed, hopping—a Friday night—and it strikes me that this kind of closeness is like sharing a lung.

This brings to mind a fleeting image I once had on the Metro: that we humans are red blood cells drifting through the arteries of this city. A kind of circulatory system. In the a.m., we’re shot off to the various limbs and organs, pumped. But by nightfall, we’re sliding ourselves through the turnstiles, trying to get home, where we can breathe.

I step off the train at my station. Men are singing a cappella at the top of the escalators, their voices echoing down the stairs, and this makes a strange sort of anatomical sense. Down here are the veins, up there are the vocal cords.

So maybe this is how I can see the humans: as cells in one roving beast. Swaying awkwardly in underground rooms. Doo-bop-she-bop.

Gretchen Vanwormer
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