“Welcome aboard Metro. Sorry we don’t serve coffee and doughnuts.”
That cheery greeting from a Metro subway operator, booming from his train’s public address speakers one recent Monday morning, drew rueful smiles from suburban commuters lurching shoulder-to-shoulder toward the start of another week in their downtown offices.
Shove a microphone in front of some people and they can’t resist hamming it up. There’s something about an open mike in the front cab of a commuter train, pulling a captive audience of several hundred passengers, that tempts subway operators to become amateur comedians and tour guides.
Officials of Washington’s 70-mile Metro subway system frown on this lighthearted ad-libbing, but most passengers seem to enjoy it.
‘Hold Your Breath!’
“Welcome, all first-time riders and visitors to Washington,” said one operator as his train swooped down from the Virginia river bank toward the District of Columbia. “You are now 35 feet below the Potomac River, so hold your breath!”
Another: “The next station is Smithsonian, home of the world’s largest flying dinosaur.” Passengers laughed and applauded when another announced the train’s approach to George Washington University and--his voice dropping to an ominous Boris Karloff bass--"FOG-GY BOT-TOM.”
One operator on the Yellow Line route heading south across the wide Potomac notes that “this is NOT the place where George Washington threw the dollar across the river.” He points out the Jefferson Memorial’s cherry blossoms and the Pentagon (“the world’s biggest office building”), and tells bad jokes all the way into suburban Alexandria, Va.
When his train suddenly filled up with boisterous teen-age tourists, one operator made his customary announcement that “the doors will open on the right” at the next station’s platform. Then he added: “For tourists, the doors will open on the left.”
Few Offer Patter
Metro spokeswoman Mary Bucklew said that among the transit system’s 345 subway operators who haul passengers on more than 500,000 trips each day, only a handful of those at the controls indulge in good-humored patter.
They get a mixed reaction from passengers, she said.
Most complaints come from people who, “if they’ve had a rough day--or plan to have one--a little humor might hit them the wrong way,” Bucklew said.
“It’s like art,” she said. “Some people find it entertaining; others find it irritating. We ask the operators to stick to the script, so to speak.”
The 10-week training course for new subway operators includes three days of special coaching, with rehearsals using tape recorders, on making a few standard announcements over their microphones.
These include identifying which line the train is traveling--Orange, Blue, Red or Yellow--and its final destination, giving the correct name of each approaching station and noting whether the doors will open on the right or left, plus occasional safety reminders.
No Official Support
“We neither encourage nor condone going off on their own as comics or tour guides,” said Jim Winn, Metro’s acting general superintendent for rail operator training.
But operators are not reprimanded unless their off-the-cuff remarks are rude, vulgar or inappropriate. Metro officials said many tourists appreciate being told which station is close to the sights they want to see.
Only one operator, accused of “just being too exuberant,” has ever been admonished to tone down his act, Bucklew said.
Hezekiah A. Briscoe, an 11-year Metro veteran as subway operator and training supervisor, said he plays the straight man when he’s behind his train’s controls. But he does not mind when his colleagues try to lighten their passengers’ load.
“Sometimes a little humor goes a long way,” he said, “especially when it’s Friday afternoon.”