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It happened some years ago, when the Metro and I were both young and full of snarling promise. I was heading home with a friend, loaded with groceries and down to a few spare coins. At the escalator, a desperate man tried to bum some change, but I was already short. I spurned him coldly, but he grabbed my arm, gestured toward the bowels of the Metro, and gave a muttered warning: “He gonna get you.”

I had already heard many tales about the Metro trolls. They dwelled underground, like the golems of old who lurked beneath bridges and demanded tolls from all who dared to pass. But these Metro trolls were all too real, the gatekeepers of a vast subterranean system—”America’s Subway,” they called it—a clean, brave new world of mass transit. To enter through its electronic gates, you needed a magic card, and that magic was the dominion of the Metro trolls. They raged at those fools who would ask questions about the magic cards, or who would challenge their sway over Washington underground.

As the escalator carried us down into the Metro’s endless night, I looked back to see if the beggar still hovered on the threshold above, but he had vanished. Approaching the gate, I couldn’t find my magic card among pocketfuls of losing lottery tickets and assorted debris. I glanced toward the kiosk, where a shadowy figure sat with his back turned. I saw my chance and decided to buck the system.

Sidling up behind my friend, I slipped through on her magic card, as the electronic jaws of the gate snapped shut behind me. It was a slick move, but not nearly slick enough. The troll burst from his kiosk. Outside his dwelling, the Metro troll grew to massive proportions, and his eyes seemed to glow with hatred. Not only had I dared pass his gate without paying the toll, I had used a tactic called piggybacking, favored by adolescents and cowards.

I stammered a phrase in broken Spanish that I had recently learned, “Hace un frio de cagarse” (“It’s cold as shit”), to try to pretend that I was a confused visitor. He wasn’t buying it, so I tried to hand over the grocery bag, as if surrendering contraband to a border guard. He waved it away, again demanding my fare card. My ruse wasn’t working, and he continued to berate me. I fumbled around for enough coins to gain passage and stumbled away toward the platform.

Ensconced in their kiosks behind glass capable of repelling a Stinger missile, the trolls show little mercy to newcomers trying to make sense of the color-coded, hydra-headed monster known as the Metro system. I have seen them destroy the will of many a Metro rider whose only crime was confusion and ignorance.

I have witnessed an entire French family break into a sobbing mass as a troll berated them over the intercom in the harsh, guttural language their government deems a threat to national security. Scared shitless, their collective sin was an utter incomprehension of the rush-hour rate.

I have seen an L Street lawyer—sitting smug on a near-empty platform—forced to forsake his steaming latte in embarrassment after a troll reminded him through the PA system in booming Big Brother tones that no one is allowed to eat or drink in the Metro.

I have watched an old matron fly into a Rumpelstiltskin tantrum after a troll refused to exchange her crumpled magic card, and get nothing but silent loathing in return.

During these encounters (especially the French fracas), I couldn’t help secretly rooting for the Metro station masters. This may seem odd, especially after my abasement at their hands, but it’s actually quite sensible: Like the VMI upperclassmen who redeems his humiliation by hazing incoming cadets, I embrace the initiation rites of the Metro underground.

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Time and time again, I have watched hordes wave their useless $20 bills, braying like asses outside the kiosks. I always take a sadistic glee in their pointless supplications. Don’t these damn fools understand? The trolls don’t make change for anyone. They’ve got absolutely no sympathy, and they simply point to a small sign outside their lairs that announces the Metro’s most sacred commandment: “Station managers do not have access to money and can not [sic] make change.”

The trolls’ renowned rudeness has always served as a refreshing antidote to the cold, sterile efficiency of the Metro, which ranks as one of the safest and cleanest subways in the world. The surliness of the trolls—their utter disregard for human feelings—has always been a healthy reminder of the meanness and petty bureaucracy lurking in the city above.

Lately, though, there have been some disturbing changes. At stops throughout the Metro system, the callous trolls of old seem to have vanished, replaced by kind, considerate human beings. The kiosk doors swing open, and many amble about their stations, greeting riders and offering directions.

At Gallery Place, the trolls guide schoolchildren to their destinations and listen patiently to geezers who seem lost in space. Over at the Smithsonian—which has always been ground zero for Metro ignoramuses—they behave politely toward the teeming masses of tourists, even helping grotesquely obese visitors sidestep their way through the unforgiving gates.

Waves and even smiles abound; a general feeling of good nature has infected the honeycombed-vault-ceilinged tunnels that once echoed with bitter recriminations.

Charles Marcellus, who mans the Capitol Heights station, is one measure of how much things have changed. Marcellus has the physique of a weight lifter and the demeanor of a particularly convivial maitre d’. He takes to his job with disturbing relish, and he has trained a whole cadre of station managers who emulate his gentle ways. “You have to be a people person to do this job,” he says. “You have to deal with so many different personalities, and if you can’t you’ve failed your job….You have to go back on the bus or the train.”

The mean old trolls were banished, says Marcellus, because they weren’t good for business. After ridership dipped a few years ago, Metro officials launched a new training program for station managers. “We want to be as accommodating to the public as we can,” says Marcellus. “These are the people that keep this thing running.”

The old business mantra about the customer always being right sounds shocking when it echoes off the walls of a Metro station. And it isn’t always easy. Marcellus will tell you he has been spit on and verbally abused; senior citizens have thrown their tickets at him in disgust. No big deal, says Marcellus. He doesn’t take it personally. There are some people who take out their frustrations on station managers. “You are everything derogatory that their little minds can think of,” he says. “Some people think they own you—if you work down here you’re their servant.”

Not that some of those cranky users would notice, but not all the improvement is attitudinal. The kiosks also boast a new computer system that instantly reads the magic cards; instead of wasting time wrangling with riders, Marcellus now simply pops the card into the machine, which provides a complete readout—a detailed history telling exactly where the card and the rider have been.

Disputes are down, because the computer doesn’t lie. Naturally, though, there are still the piggybackers and other scam artists running the rails. Some regulars use the elevators to bypass gates, going hours out of their way to save a few bucks. “You’re always going to have people trying to pull a flimflam, but most are honest,” he says.

The station managers are there to help keep those honest folks honest. Their main job is crowd control, and Marcellus says his presence marks the thin blue line of the underground. “Without us, it would be total chaos down here.” I watch the people queuing up politely for the escalator and wonder what that might look like.

Marcellus doesn’t spend much time sitting inside his aquarium staring out at his customers.

“This job requires that you spend at least 50 percent of your time out [of the kiosk],” he says. “How are you going to serve the public in there with your back turned to ’em?” Even during rush hour people stop and say hello. A former Metrobus driver before he went underground, Marcellus uses his knowledge of the streets to help wayward travelers.

A sad-faced schoolgirl wanders up and hands Marcellus a worn, washed-out dollar. The machine won’t take it, and it’s all she’s got to get back home. Marcellus sighs, takes a crisp bill from his pocket, and makes the exchange.

“We’re not really supposed to make change, but we can if we so desire,” he says, waving as the little girl heads away. All this, and crisp one-dollar bills just in case. The troll is dead. Long live the troll.CP