This story is part three of a series about unique jobs in Washington. Some jobs are necessary for the city to function or require a special set of skills,but all are cogs in the wheel that makes Washington tick.
WASHINGTON – Crystal Saunders’ smiling face greeted patrons as they ascended the escalators at the Metro Center station exit. She made a beeline for the people staring bemusedly at the street and digging out maps that stretched the lengths of their arms.
“Good morning,good afternoon,can I help you find something? Do you need any assistance finding anything?” Saunders said.
Saunders is one of 87 employees of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District,a non-profit organization that manages an area just north of the National Mall and works as a liaison between the city and property managers.
The BID employs workers,affectionately known as “SAMs” for “Safety/Hospitality and Maintenance,” clean and monitor the area and answer people’s questions. Fifty people,clad in bright red,work on the maintenance side,while 37 work in hospitality and safety,Director of Operations Everett Scruggs said.
Saunders wears the white shirt and jaunty red cap of a safety and hospitality SAM. Although she primarily answers questions,gives directions and hands out maps,Saunders also takes the safety aspect of her job seriously. She constantly looks around to assess the situation on the street,abiding by a mantra that’s been drilled into her: “If you see something,say something.”
“We are the eyes and the ears for the patrons,the police officers,the citizens,everybody down here,” Saunders said. “We’re outside,we work outside. We have to be aware of everything going on in your area as well as outside your area.”
Washington has 10 different BIDs throughout the city,but the Downtown D.C. one was the first,Scruggs said. The Downtown D.C. BID began in November 1997 after the D.C. Council enacted the Business Improvement Districts Act the previous year. SAMs are on the street 362 days a year and are available from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the summer months. Scruggs said that during the peak months of June through September,SAMs assist between 18,000 and 19,000 residents and visitors per month.
“It’s something not just beneficial to the city,but beneficial to employees,” Scruggs said. “We want people to come and enjoy themselves,and we’ll do anything to get that done.”
Saunders and her co-workers start their days in the Downtown D.C. BID office at 1229 New York Ave. NW,where supervisor Dion Simmons conducts roll call. He tells the SAMs about events in the area that day so they can recommend them to the people they help. The SAMs also share information they’ve learned about the community from walking in the area,such as restaurant closings or special programs.
“This is a job you have to look – your eyes have to work for you,” Saunders said
As they stand in line the SAMS check the battery levels on the smart phones that they use to communicate with Simmons during the day. They load them with apps to use as references when assisting visitors.
During the day,each SAM also takes notes about where people ask for help and where they want to go so supervisors can determine high-traffic areas to send the SAMs. Simmons assigns each SAM a different area of the BID each day. They walk the area and stand outside Metro stops during rush hour. These are Saunders’ favorite locations because she can interact with more people.
“The best part of my job is actually helping the folks,meeting different people that visit from all over the world,” Saunders said. “It’s just an experience to see someone come here and they’re happy to have us out here to help them.”
Although she’s lived in Washington her whole life,Saunders said this job taught her more about D.C. In her 13 years working for the BID,she’s seen the city change,and her job means she has to be an expert about the area. Still,she said the most-asked question is pretty obvious.
“Where is the White House?” she said with a laugh.
Saunders worked as a security guard before joining the BID. She had to learn about the area,how to read a map and how to be what Simmons calls “aggressively approachable.” In Saunders’ own words,she learned how to be a “go-getter.”
“It’s a good meet-and-greet job,” Saunders said. “If you’re a friendly person,this is good for you. If you’re an outside person,this is good for you.”
Saunders outfits herself with essentials before beginning her 10-hour work day: good shoes,sunscreen,water or Gatorade,maps and her work phone. Throughout the day,Simmons schedules breaks for the SAMs,coordinates map refills and lets them know if they’re needed in a different area. He makes sure the day runs smoothly,and heads out to the streets later in the day to do exactly what the other SAMs do: help the people he calls “customers.” He tells his co-workers to imagine that they work for the best hotel in the world and to be friendly and helpful on the streets.
“I try to instill into the guys that what we are here to do,we’re hospitality,” Simmons said. “Smiling,cheerful and just always having a great attitude. Just having a great attitude; that’s what hospitality is about. And,having people come back and remember that they enjoyed their stay down in D.C.”
Saunders said not everyone she asks needs help,but it’s important to try and to let people know that they can always ask her or any other SAMs for help at any time.
“That’s what I look for every day that I come out,” Saunders said. “Make sure I can help somebody today.”
Reach Reporter Kate Winkle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.