- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

The two women ride up the escalators at Metro Center and step cautiously into the light. They squint, slowly turning their heads left, then right. They look lost, a little bewildered.

On the platform the appearance of the women — obviously out-of-towners, confused and vulnerable — has not gone unnoticed.

Enter Nick Smith, one of the Downtown Business Improvement District’s veteran greeters. For him the hesitation and looks of confusion are like Gotham City’s bat signal, a call to action.

“Good morning, ladies,” the 48-year-old D.C. native says with a smile to Lidy Rutgrink and Ina de Bruyn, two tourists from the Netherlands looking for the White House Visitor Center.

Mr. Smith is one of more than 100 safety and maintenance employees, known as “SAMs,” working for Downtown BID, a publicly funded nonprofit formed to revitalize 138 blocks of downtown Washington, stretching from west of the Capitol to the White House.

Clad in their trademark uniforms of a red hat, white shirt and navy blue pants with red stripes on the sides, SAMs are about as omnipresent downtown as Starbucks, lobbyists or consultants. Mr. Smith’s outfit, like that of other SAMs, includes a stack of maps in his back pocket and a walkie-talkie hitched to his belt.

In addition to giving directions, SAMs also keep the streets clean and act as concierges, giving visitors information on where to eat, shop and see the latest attractions. They are linked via radio to a home base — the program’s dispatch office — and have quick access to any location they don’t know off the top of their head.

“I don’t like office work,” explains Mr. Smith, whose job requires him to be on his feet about 10 hours each day. “That’s one of the reasons I took this job — I love being outside.”

On a typical day, Mr. Smith, a 21/2-year veteran of the program and September’s employee of the month, stands at attention for a 9:35 a.m. roll call, during which time supervisors make announcements regarding things to be aware of that day, such as road closings or job fairs in the area. Yesterday, supervisor Charles Lane read the SAMs, who stood in three single-file lines, two letters from grateful tourists.

By 9:45 a.m., the SAMs disperse to their recently assigned locations, which change daily to ensure that employees become familiar with all parts of the city and to prevent them from becoming “complacent,” supervisor Jose Vega explains.

“Once you’re on the street, it’s very different from being in the classroom,” Mr. Vega says, referring to the group’s two-week training program. “It comes almost naturally after awhile, if you pay attention.”

At his station near the Metro Center exit at 13th and G streets, Mr. Smith greets people as they alight from the escalator while keeping an eye out for anyone who appears lost. Some are friendly and instantly return his hellos, others smile hurriedly and go on walking while a small minority keeps their eyes focused on their BlackBerrys or cell phones, seemingly too engaged to acknowledge Mr. Smith.

Saying hello to everyone “keeps you busy,” he says. “Nothing worse than having someone coming to work pouting all the time. I got problems like everybody else, but I don’t bring them to work.”

Mr. Smith, a Vietnam War veteran who has spent time working in maintenance at the White House and the Pentagon, describes himself as “cheery.” A father of 12 children and grandfather of 13, he says he has learned patience over the years.

As he talks, a man exits the Metro and stops.

“You OK?” asks Mr. Smith in his usual “if-you’re-not-I-can-help-you” tone.

“No,” replies the suited man holding a duffel bag, frowning as he turns and walks down the street. Mr. Smith simply laughs.

“They come out of the Metro and then they just walk to the middle of the sidewalk and turn around and start looking. Sometimes, I wait a minute before I approach them. Then sometimes they say, ‘I know where I’m going, I’m just getting my bearings,’ ” he says.

Mr. Smith says he isn’t fazed by the summer sun or winter cold, and noted that supervisors are always conscious of employees’ well-being, encouraging them to take frequent breaks in extreme weather (SAMs work rain or shine).

While he certainly knows his way around town, even Mr. Smith admits it can be hard to read a map or know the location of every last building.

“I know where most stuff is, except maybe for specific law offices,” he says. But “if they got the address to the building, I’ll know where that is.”

In his spare time, Mr. Smith enjoys DVDs with his wife Loretta and their family, works on landscaping and likes to take leisurely drives. “I love the city but to get away from it for a minute is beautiful,” he says.

He says being a SAM is “the easiest job I’ve heard of.”

“If you can get along with people and you can stand on your feet, that’s all you’re doing. And the hardest part of the job is standing up,” he says.

“You can’t beat that.”

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