In the early morning hours at the Union Station Metro stop, station manager Joyce Mullins tosses out flashy smiles and familiar greetings about as quickly as passengers can turn through.
A woman shouts "Hi" and is sent on her way with a "Hi, sweetie, have a good day!" Another rider hands her a newspaper as he passes. "There are two of my favorites," she says, smiling at them as brightly as the gold and diamonds that flock about her ears, neck, wrists and fingers.
"Joyce is the friendliest woman in the system," Ron Perry gushes before handing her a newspaper. (Turns out a lot of people bring Mullins the paper.)
This all happens before things get a bit crazier and she has to race after a man because he forgot his Farecard, jog down the platform to fix a train door, call someone to turn on the fans because the station is too stuffy, walk out of the station and across the street to make sure the emergency hatch works and help an Estonian couple find their way in the confusing confines of underground Washington.
But not all station managers are like Mullins. By Metro's admission, Mullins's colleagues can be surly, uninterested, only grudgingly helpful and occasionally downright hostile. And that's when they're alert.
Rider Doug Walcutt sums up his impression of station managers in a single word: "Grouchy." He said he was verbally accosted by one manager recently when he tried to exchange a Farecard that didn't work. "They're in a customer service position," Walcutt said, "and they need to understand what that is."
Metro officials acknowledged as much last week, announcing that the system's 308 station managers would be retrained in how to be more civil so they're not so grouchy and so they don't keep falling short on customer service. The announcement came after a pregnant woman complained that a station manager screamed at her and her husband, brandished a broom and pushed her husband after they inquired about a broken escalator.
A ride on Metro's Red Line from Glenmont to Farragut North on Friday morning revealed an uneven performance by station managers along the way.
Managers who were asked the same questions about SmarTrip cards gave conflicting, often incorrect, answers. Some said the cards had to be purchased at Metro stores, although many stations have machines that sell them. Most said correctly that the cards cost $5, but one said that they cost $6 and another said $10, possibly failing to note that half of that would be applied as credit on the card. Some said the cards work on only a limited number of buses, even though all buses were fitted to use them this month.
When a manager at the Silver Spring station was asked about a broken escalator, the same question that led to the altercation this month, he snapped: "What's it look like?" He snapped again when asked what had happened to the escalator. "Ain't nothing happened to it; they're just overhauling it," he said, before giving a condescending explanation about how sometimes things break.
Some managers were very helpful, walking around and looking for people to assist. A woman at Gallery Place not only answered every question but asked about riding habits to see if there was anything else she could do.
And yet, not a single manager at any of 13 stations offered a greeting, much less a smile.
Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said the information given out and behavior exhibited by the station managers on Friday was "something that has to be addressed. That's something we can do and will do.
"One of their main functions is to be polite, courteous and professional at all times," Taubenkibel said. "They are also supposed to provide the best level of customer service information at the time they are working."
Station managers, who are paid an average of about $47,000 a year, are expected to be part inspector, part Mr. Fix-It, part tour guide and all customer-friendly. If a light goes out, an escalator stops working or a Farecard machine malfunctions, they are the ones who are supposed to spot it.
When a train breaks down or is delayed or the platform gets too crowded, they are the ones who hear the gripes. And they are the ones expected to politely help passengers, most of whom are regular commuters frustrated by system problems or out-of-towners who have little idea how Metro works.
Metro officials said the job of station manager has become more pressure-packed because the 28-year-old system is deteriorating, giving them more problems to catch and more complaints to field. In addition to chronic escalator problems, stations and trains are dirtier, and rush-hour customers regularly have to wait for a train or two before they can get on because of crowding.
Recent months have been particularly difficult because flooding at the Silver Spring Station slowed the Red Line for nine days; late-night trains were crowded after an agency decision to shrink them from four cars to two; and an operator walked out of a packed train during rush hour because her shift was over.
Complaints about station managers have risen along with the system's defects, jumping from 36 in June to 63 in July, Metro officials said.
James Gallagher, Metro's deputy general manager for operations, said station manager problems will be addressed during training in October. "Some individuals take to this sort of work, and some have some learnings they have to get," he said, adding that the training would "probably be very focused on conflict management tools, how to deal with individuals, how to calm them, how to make sure your own feelings don't get in the way of your interaction."
The good ones, such as Mullins, don't let any of the mounting challenges get to them. "This is a very, very stressful job," she said. "Anything that will go wrong -- if trains break down or are delayed -- I'm the first one they see. I'm the front line to Metro, but I am not going to add insult to injury."
On a recent morning, for instance, she took several minutes to direct a man by train and bus from Union Station to a residential address in Lanham. She also delighted in fixing Farecards, snipping here and taping there, anything to make them shoot through the machine so customers could get on their way. She loves trying to turn a passenger's attitude around.
"Sometimes they cuss me out," she said. "It's okay. I just say, 'I love ya.' "
She knows not all of her colleagues handle things that way. "Most of the time you see station managers doing this," she said, crossing her arms on her chest, leaning back in her chair and giving an icy, don't-come-to-me-for-help look. "All of us don't work the same," she said.
It didn't take Cassandra Boyd long to figure that out. She's been riding Metro for three weeks and already is soured on the system because of a station manager who was anything but helpful. Boyd said she wanted to ask a question about Farecards, but the manager "totally ignored me. She didn't even acknowledge my presence." So she left after waiting some time, disappointed, grumpy and no closer to an answer.
Some say the assistance they do get comes in a grudging way that makes them wish they hadn't asked for it. "They're helpful," rider Adam Kennedy said. "But there's a feeling that they're impatient with people, that they feel irritated or something."
These kinds of complaints bother Mullins. "I'm not saying you got to put on white gloves and roll out the red carpet," she said. "But treat them like they're human, like they're people."