On Huffing While Riding the Metro

I commute to work using public transportation. In the Washington, D.C. area, that means riding the Metro with hundreds of thousands of other people. Each business day, I spend about 40 to 50 minutes on the Metro one way, or nearly two hours total. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. The time adds up.

Spend enough time doing something and you accumulate experiences. You see things; you hear things; you learn how things go.

Recently while I was riding the Metro, I saw a guy inhaling from one of those compressed air cans that you get for blowing dust off your computer equipment. No one was sitting next to him, and I discovered why.

He released the gas from the canister into his lungs. Within a few seconds, he began to twitch and lean to one side. His eyes were closed and he seemed to lose consciousness for a few moments. He dropped the canister.

Before long, he would fumble around for the canister, reaching around on the floor under his seat. He’d find it and begin the process again. “Squeeeeeee” went the can as he put it to his lips.

Whatever he was getting out of this little ritual did not last long. It was a quick fix. It was a series of brief trips into a chemical-induced stupor. The chemistry that produces the canister of gas is an industrial process. There is no art or craft involved. It can be purchased relatively cheaply. It’s effects, while perhaps momentarily pleasurable, are dangerous with continued use.

I can’t say I understand what brought him to this place, where he was riding the Metro while gassing his lungs over and over again. There must have been desperation there. To turn not to alcohol or marijuana or some other natural substance for altering the brain, but to reach for a can of gas, he must have been seeking to flee some heavy stuff.

Moreover, he was not demonstrating any long-range thinking. He was all about the moment of that high from inhaling the gas. Whatever was to come after was not part of his planning.

Eventually, the can would be empty and the pleasurable effects will wear off. He’d be left with some type of hangover at best, or something worse like brain damage or damage to major organs. Cans of this stuff are pretty clear about the dangers: inhalation of contents may cause heart irregularities, unconsciousness, or death. In fact, deaths from the abuse of difluoroethane are unfortunately common.

All for a quick fix.

It was not beautiful to watch this guy huffing his can while I rode the Metro train. It was ugly and it was sad.



  1. Linda Bozzonetti

    Did you do anything, like alert Metro police? If he wants to hurt himself that’s his business, but he could hurt someone else in his drugged state.

    • Matthew Taylor

      Well, no, I didn’t. Intervening with someone who is in a drugged state is not something I have a lot of experience with. Frankly, I was a bit in shock watching this guy, as I usually am when I see bizarre stuff on the train. Only much later did I have the thought that something could have been done. By then, the train had left the station.

  2. Pingback: On Huffing While Riding the Metro | Renaissance Lifestyle
  3. Julie Taylor

    With all of the years you been riding the Metro, you could write a book. For some reason, people forget (or just don’t care) that they are still in public, even if they are lost in their thoughts, during the length of their commute.

  4. Miriam Huntley


    I have a feeling that human nature tends to focus on the negative or unattractive (although I am sure there is a wealth of the unattractive to behold on Metro). Are there ever scenes for beauty or cheer that counter balance the grim surroundings? Or might those be another blog post?

    • Matthew Taylor

      Good point, Miriam, and thanks for bringing it up. After many years on public transportation, I find that things roughly fall into two categories: transportation and public. If we just consider the public category, you have all the things that you may or may not see on the street, or in a restaurant, or any other public space. Do you focus on the beauty usually? Or is it the startlingly odd that draws your attention?
      Scenes of beauty are few and far between. Most people, I think, don’t really like being cooped up in an enclosed train car with complete strangers, so the tendency is to put up with it for long enough and then get off.
      Not really a ringing endorsement of public transportation, is it? Ugh.
      Anyway, thanks for reading. ;-)

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