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Maryland Catabasis

Slouching toward D.C. from the country gives a tour of American malaise.

Homeless tents near White House during winter
(Photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

I live in the northernmost reaches of Maryland, where the land begins to roll as you enter the zone contested in arms by Pennsylvania and my own state during Cresap’s War in 1730. My town is the seat of a county named for the last living signer of the Declaration; it is a footnote in the history of the Civil War for being where Union troops confronted and delayed J.E.B. Stuart on his way to Gettysburg.

The country around here is mostly agricultural and contains the most famous pumpkin patch in American history, at Whittaker Chambers’s place up on Pipe Creek. His descendants are Quakerish and retiring and, I think, not best pleased with tourists getting in the way of the farming. Don’t visit.


It is 50 miles to The American Conservative’s offices from my own humble manse; it is a journey taken in three legs. While trains run through Maryland to the federal outposts in Frederick and Aberdeen (home of military LSD testing!) and even so far as Martinsburg, West Virginia, my town is blessedly unafflicted by Uncle Sugar’s yoke, which means we’re on our own to get to the imperial court; there isn’t even bus service into Baltimore.

So the trek starts with a tolerably long drive to the commuter rail station near BWI airport. Backlighting from the rising sun makes it difficult to read the billboards—“HEROIN STILL KILLS” and ads for sportsbook, Maryland’s most recent foray into liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I rarely leave the greater D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, so I cannot speak to the case in other parts of the country, but here the drivers have simply become worse since the pandemic shutdowns.

In particular cases, it is clear what is happening—a 20-year-old Camry in the passing lane, going ten under the limit and reeking of the botanicals that the people of my state last year voted to legalize, holds no mystery. But we have also added speed demons and weavers and those inscrutable drivers who insist on going the exact speed as the cars in the lanes next to them, making passing impossible. The etiology of these pathologies, whether chemical or spiritual, is unknown to me.

At the rail station, there are two parking garages. They are operated on behalf of the state by SP Plus (NASDAQ ticker SP), a large parking management services company. Every single payment machine in the garage complex lobby is broken; the evening attendant at the gate booth tells me that nobody knows when somebody will come to fix them.


Recently, the two automated gates in the first garage have also broken down, leaving only the manually operated gate, so I chat with the attendant rather more than I used to. She has two piercings through her lower lip and one over her right eye, but she is cheerful and polite.

The MARC commuter rail line is operated by the French manufacturing giant Alstom, which bought the previous operator, Canada’s Bombardier. The majority of the trains are about ten years old, more or less American-made, and, as public transit goes in the U.S., pretty nice—relatively clean, relatively punctual.

Occasional weed men and indigents use the rail to make their way from Baltimore to Washington on their mysterious business, but most passengers are federal employees and businesspeople, with the occasional student from Bowie State or one of the Baltimore schools. The students wear flashier clothes than the weed men, if not exactly better, and are occasionally women and transsexuals.

The MARC line cuts through Prince George’s County, passing behind my childhood neighborhood, behind my late father’s old office building, behind the strip malls where I’ve shopped for car parts and tools. From the Seabrook stop, I can see the barbershop where I have had my hair cut since the age of seven.

Intercut with fond memories are the scenes of decay laid out next to every East Coast rail line: unkempt lawns with rusting car bodies, apparently forgotten hills of gravel, an enormous junkyard. These come closer together as the train enters Washington.

The MARC passes through “NoMa”—“north of Massachusetts Avenue”—which is a neighborhood that was more avoided than named when I was a boy. But real estate speculation conquers all, and shoddy “luxury” apartment buildings are springing up: vigorous new tumors amid the old lesions of repo lots and abandoned fast food restaurants.

One development immediately abutting the rails takes its name from a tangle of rusted steel framing the tracks—the “Gantry.” In case the name’s origin is not clear—it wasn’t for me at first—there is, in one of the common spaces between towers, a stylized replica of the titular feature, also of rusted steel. Baudrillard would have had a field day.

The final leg of transit takes place on the Washington Metro, which has without a doubt gotten much worse since I lived in the city. The trains are slower, sure; what is more alarming is the antisocial behavior of the riders.

When I lived in New York, my subway line ran through some rougher neighborhoods with flourishing skid rows, but this is different—not bums, but apparently middle-class people jumping turnstiles, and, more alarming still, getting on the train reeking of cannabis, taking their shoes off, and lying down on the handicap-accessible seats to pass out. The riders who are ostensibly sober and of sound mind ignore this and watch videos on their phones.

Despite the Metro’s big push to improve station maintenance—the pathetically named “BACK2GOOD” campaign—somewhere between half and all the escalators are broken every day at my destination.

The posh square below our offices, named for one of the few competent Union leaders in the Civil War, is peopled by a rotating cast of beggars. By and large, they are not aggressive—we aren’t far from the White House here, after all, and cops aren’t in short supply—but they will watch you with unfriendly eyes if you walk past during drug deals.

It is difficult not to feel that something has come loose these past few years. Public standards for everything from dressing to doing your job to maintaining infrastructure have slipped. But the Maryland government ran a surplus last year, and may repeat the feat with the help of gambling tax revenue; Alstom is in the black, as is SP Plus.

Everyone has more money but is poorer; things are more profitable but worse; there are more legal ways to have fun than ever, but everyone is miserable. “The purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals is back. Will we never be set free?”


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