Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

See the wisdom of Metro station managers in Chinatown (video)

January 23, 2012 - 10:41 AM
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Redman and Davis. (YouTube/slimstokes1)

Robbie Stokes, Jr. is turning 25 this month, and he's embarked on a quest. The young man is a graduate of FSU who works at Destination D.C., our city's  convention and tourism bureau, and in the last two months, he launched a one-man campaign to encourage us to talk to more strangers. He paired this mission with a journey across America, from D.C. to Atlanta to Chicago to Los Angeles, as well as a website and plans to write a book. Stokes called me from L.A. last Saturday as he kicked off the final leg of his journey, full of video blogs and tweets and more, specifically to touch on one very fascinating transportation conversation he recorded before he left — Stokes chatted with two Metro station managers who work at Gallery Place-Chinatown. 

WMATA employs about 11,000 people, and as we've learned in recent weeks, plans to employ several hundred more to accommodate all the repair and improvement work. Sometimes Metro's employees frustrate riders. People see the reports of sleeping station managers, of rudeness, even of racist outcries at times, and of course the dramatic and disappointing revelation last week that two employees stole tens of thousands of dollars in our Metro fares. But there are thousands of Metro workers out there and several who do a tremendously impressive job of serving our city's commuters. We should recognize the patience and good work of WMATA employees just as we decry the bad and seek to identify and isolate the few destructive behaviors.

Here's the brief but enlightening conversation Stokes has with two Metro station managers who serve the Yellow, Green, and Red lines, where they talk everything from rider frustrations to Metro suicide:

In the video, the two managers identify themselves as William Redman and Mr. Davis as the three men chat on the platform. Stokes told me that he decided to speak with the WMATA employees before he headed out on his journey. After this conversation, he headed out to Atlanta. As an employee for Destination D.C., he rides the Metro frequently enough and saw Metro workers as a prime target for his project.

"My job is to talk to strangers," Redman told Stokes. "I talk to strangers every day ... That's what I do."

"The next one could possibly change your life," Stokes replied.

"We had one stranger who came in here," the station manager continued, "and he was having a bad day, and he wanted to jump. But after talking to me, he changed his mind and went back home."

"So someone actually came here and wanted to jump?"

"We have a lot of jumpers here," Redman said solemnly. 

"Wow. So by talking to strangers you guys are actually saving lives." Stokes has a casual, open manner as he speaks to the men and appeared ready to listen to whatever they say.

When I first watched this conversation online, what amazed me was a WMATA employee's testament to the suicides on the tracks we hear about every few weeks. A woman killed herself at the Van Dorn Street Metro station on a Friday morning a little over two weeks ago — the first suicide of 2012. Why? The reasons surely differ with every case. But in the aftermath of this recent suicide, people pointed to how Metro has fallen behind on its suicide prevention program, which combines employee training and suicide hotlines posted at the station. Although Metro is remiss for falling behind, I would also point to the wisdom of station manager Redman. He, independent of any broad initiatives, reports talking an individual out of a suicide, a testament to deeper employee service and a move to be applauded. Ultimately, Metro itself cannot alone prevents suicides. That responsibility falls to all us, from my fellow riders to employees. Show a kindness and a stake in the strangers around you. These people who kill themselves are often, I imagine, surrounded by other Metro riders. Redman also reminds us that these Metro suicides affect far more than the jumper and the fellow riders who are delayed; WMATA employees, whether the train operators or the station managers, have to deal with the consequences and the knowledge that they could happen any time.

Davis voices his own interpretation of what WMATA station managers' real job is near the end of the video.

"We're in the problem-solving business — that's our job," Davis told Stokes. "Station managers are in a problem-solving business. If you come here and we can't satisfy, we pacify ... We make it our business to take care of business."

Given all of WMATA's struggles, there's a lot of business that Davis and Redman must face on a daily basis. The single-tracking and Metro Forward efforts alone must result in monumental commuter frustration. Beyond that, there's SmarTrip dysfunction, lost items, and other technical and personality problems. How to confront that? This video provides at least a small peak into the world of the Metro station managers. Stokes appreciated the conversation, he told me, and thinks of it now as he travels America by bus, plane, and train and talks to many other strangers along the way.

"The station managers gave insight that most of their day is comprised of interacting with complete strangers, yet they professionally assist each and every WMATA customer and even save lives!" Stokes said in an e-mail to me this weekend. "I think that people could gain a greater value and worth from service workers such as the station managers from our chat."

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