Myra Smith is a pragmatist. As a Metro station attendent, she tempers riders' inevitable frustrations over late trains with a soothing voice, their anger over jammed farecard machines with a quick repair and their irritation at new schedules and fares by handing them a timetable.
"It's all in the approach," said Smith last week as she stood near the attendant's kiosk at the new Deanwood Metro Station. "If you can reassure people and show them how to use Metro instead of fight with it, you can save a lot of time and headaches for yourself later on."
It is an approach she learned the hard way - in the moments when the small pieces that fit together to form the puzzle of her job fell apart.
I used to find myself with the farecards of three different people in my hands and not know who they belonged to," Smith said of her initiation as a station attendant two years ago. "You have to learn to deal with what you can and take one thing at a time."
Smith, 28, a lithe woman who moves with confidence in and around the octagonal-shaped kiosk at the station, has a job that requires several sets of hands. She controls the station and track monitors, gates, escalators and elevators; works the public address system; offers information on routes, and tinkers with the machines that provide the key to it all, the small brown and white cards that are often her greatest nemesis.
"Those farecard machines," she shakes her head, "they can really have their good days and their bad days.We learn to unjam them and get the coins out, but the main thing for us is just getting them through the day, doing anything to make them work." She smiles and adds, "we know things about them that they don't even know we know yet, that the company didn't teach us."
Smith learned the intricacies of the farecard machines as well as those of Metro's other computerized equipment during a six-week training course before her first assignment. She also learned how to deal with emergencies and how to help handicapped persons, including those in wheelchairs, down the escalator should the elevators not work properly.
"We learned what to say to people and how to say it, when to call the security police and when to lock yourself into the kiosk," she said.
Smith's career with Metro has always been as a "front person." In the three years before her shift to rail operations, she was a telephone operator for the bus system, giving out timetables and bus routes to callers who could make it through the busy signal. "That really helped me because it forced me to deal with people, and people with questions."
Now the questions are "how much it costs and where does it go," Smith said. "A lot of people don't even know how the city is laid out. Most of the time, people are very polite. But they get riled when the train is late - especially when they are late for work or are rushing to catch a plane.
"The worst station I ever had was the Pentagon. Those people were really rude. I guess it's just the military used to giving orders, but they were something. They would tell me that a man could do the job better. After the Pentagon, I can go anywhere. Most people are more tolerant."
Smith said that as a woman she is often assigned to the late shift. "The men have been driving Metro buses long before any women got into it, and we just don't have the seniority. We often get the late hours."
The 3:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift does hinder her private life, she admits. With a six-year-old son and a husband who used to work irregular hours as a District fireman, Smith said, "I almost never got to see my family." Now her husband has moved to an 8-to-5 job in community relations and there is more continuity to her life. "But we still can't show up at parties until 2 a.m. It can make for a long evening."
During late hours in the often cold and damp stations, Smith said she feels secure in her kiosk. "The transit officers are some of my best friends.
"I used to get nervous - at the Arlington Cemetery station for instance. There you are alone in the midst of all that around you. Almost no one uses it after the cemetery is closed, unless they get lost . . ."
The Deanwood Station, where she started work last Friday, sits isolated on a strip of land across from Roper Junior High School. "I've heard some things about the area," she said, "but we have more police here too."
Last week, when scores of Roper students took advantage of free rides on the new orange line, several fights broke out. Smith said she anticipates little trouble however, during the regular runs.
"When they learn they have to pay to ride the train, they'll go away," she said.
Smith is eager for the regular customers to begin moving in and out of "her" station. "I don't plan to wait for them to come to me with questions, I want to get them instructed, show them the fare maps, take them over to the machines and show them how they work."
"You know, I would never drive a bus, it's too hard. But with this job, each day is different, different people, different situations. And you can change, you don't have to stay at this station forever.
"I like my work. It pays well and with the economy the way it is now. I'm not anxious to look around. You might say I'm being practical."