You don’t have to be a movie star to shine

I’m accustomed to receiving great service at area businesses. Whether I’m shopping for sneakers at Zim’s Shoes on Main Street or getting my eyeglasses adjusted at Wal-Mart on Southside, I can generally count on salespeople to be helpful and friendly.
   But I don’t generally look for service like that in a big city. And I certainly don’t expect it from mass transit. So I was stunned when, on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I got the best customer service I’ve ever seen.
   I went into the city for dinner with a few people from a seminar I was attending in Reston, Va. We took cabs to Georgetown for dinner at an Italian restaurant, shelling out about $20 apiece for the ride. We did some shopping and then some of us decided we’d like to go see the White House.
   By the time we trekked on over to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. it was almost midnight. We quickly realized we weren’t going to have time to see any other monuments if we wanted to take the subway back out to Virginia and save some money on the ride home.
   So we walked a few blocks up to the Metro, bought tickets and hopped on a train. I checked to make sure we were going the right direction, then stopped paying attention because our stop was at the end of the line.
   Several stops later, one of my companions noticed that we had just passed the Pentagon and were headed south instead of west. We had boarded the wrong train — one traveling on the same track as the one we should have taken but then changing direction. We had already missed the last chance to transfer.
   The four of us got out at the next stop and ran to catch a train going in the other direction. We were headed toward the stairs that would take us down to the other tracks when the station master called out to us.
   “That was the last train,” he shouted over the noise of our train leaving the station.
   My jaw dropped. Not only were we not going to save money by taking the subway part of the way home, we were now stuck in some other part of Virginia and were going to have to pay for a taxi from even farther away.
   Before I could figure out what to do next, the station master called me over. He asked me how many of us there were and where we were headed. Then he told us to stay put and got on the phone. I thought maybe he was going to call us a cab himself, which would have been really thoughtful.
   But he called us a train!
   I was flabbergasted. After all, mass transit is all about taking large numbers of people from one place to another. Why should he care about four lost tourists?
   I was so surprised by what he was doing that I actually said that aloud.
   Then the station master said something so perfectly simple, yet absolutely brilliant: “Once you’re in the system, it’s our job to get you home.”
   Now I was determined to write a letter to his supervisor, describing this incredible service. I asked who his supervisor was and for his name.
   “Al Brown’s my supervisor,” he said. “My name’s Paul.”
   “And if I wrote to Mr. Brown about Paul at Crystal City Station, he would know who I meant?” I asked.
   “Well, my last name’s Newman,” he said.
   This was too good. Not only were we getting a personal train ride home, we had met Paul Newman!
   A full string of subway cars pulled into the station just a few minutes later, taking us back to the station where we could catch up with the line we were supposed to be on. Those trains had stopped running, too, but another empty train picked up the four of us and took us all the way out to our stop at the end of the line. The ride cost us $2.10 apiece.
   Everyone was friendly to us, even though we must have been keeping them at work late.
   The train conductor came upstairs with us, unlocked the gates to the station and wished us a good night. We walked out into an empty parking lot, realizing that our chances of hailing a cab at a train station that was supposed to be closed were minimal. We called a taxi company, found out it would be at least 20 minutes before a car could come get us and sat down to wait.
   Moments later, a cab pulled up to the curb. At first I thought it was luck, but now I’m sure that Paul Newman had made the call for us.
   I’m happier to have met him than I would be to meet that other Paul Newman everybody talks about.
   Rachel Dickler is city editor at The Daily Star.
This column was published Feb. 6, 1999


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