MAXWELL:   Random acts in the city that never sleeps

2/11/2004 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In this city that never sleeps, surprises pop up in some of the most mundane and pedestrian situations.

I saw what can happen when technology that is taken for granted fails busy New Yorkers. If you do not travel to New York and have not ridden the subway lately, you need to know that tokens are things of the past. Now, you must use the MetroCard that you can buy at subway stations. I had one from my last visit a few weeks ago. It still had $20 worth of rides.

To enter a train platform, you must swipe your card at a turnstile. Well, after exploring Central Park and Museum Mile, I decided to go to Harlem. I went to the subway station at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue, where I joined a throng of ill-tempered riders. I marched to the turnstile, swiped my MetroCard and waited for the familiar “Go” signal. It did not appear. Instead, the dreaded words “Please swipe again” appeared.

I had had to swipe my card more than once several times before, so I thought nothing of doing so now. Which I did. “Please swipe again” flashed on the turnstile. I swiped six more times and was rejected each time. Suddenly, I became aware of the complaining and mild cursing all around me. None of the turnstiles worked. Everyone’s MetroCard was being rejected.

By now, the throng had become a multitude with attitude. Leave it to teenage boys to solve our MetroCard problem. Dozens of boys began jumping over the turnstiles. Several teenage girls went beneath them. Then, other people of all ages followed suit. I was thinking about going beneath one (I am too stiff to hop over one) when I spotted two transit police officers half-hiding behind support columns.

The journalist in me took over, and I stood away from the action and observed. The cops did what cops do: They began stopping people and writing summons, each a carrying fine of $60. These turnstile-jumpers, dozens of them, were charged with fare evasion. I mean, these officers were good at their job. The interesting thing was that most of those who got summons looked like bankers, Wall Street brokers, pastors, teachers and professors, homemakers, doctors and even judges.

Those malfunctioning turnstiles had turned otherwise law-abiding New Yorkers into turnstile-jumping criminals. Technology, complete with a plastic card, had failed people too busy for failure.

The scene was dicey. The cops did their job of serving and protecting, and the people were beside themselves with anger. Many were late for this or that appointment or whatever.

One beautiful, stylishly dressed woman, who had gone beneath a turnstile, was in tears as the officer handed her a summons.

“I’ve never been in trouble before,” she said.

“You’re not in trouble yet, Miss,” the officer said ever so politely. “You will be, though, if you don’t answer this summons in March.”

“God! You mean I have to get involved with the court?”

“You must answer the summons on the date specified.”

Fortunately, I had not gone beneath a turnstile. Given my luck with cops, I would have become a Rodney King. When your MetroCard does not work, you are supposed to talk to one of the booth clerks. I have never had good luck with these clerks, either. Most of them do not seem to like themselves, let alone their jobs.

What did I do? I left that station and walked to the 96th Street station. The temperature was in the high teens, but I felt the warm glow of having escaped trouble far away from home. The turnstiles worked at 96th. I caught the No. 4 to 125th Street and walked to my uncle’s house. He and his family were eating dinner _ smothered pork chops, big limas, mashed potatoes and gravy, cornbread and apple pie.

After visiting my family, I walked around Harlem for about an hour. I contemplated taking the No. 2 train at 125th to Times Square. But I changed my mind and caught the No. 104 bus.

The trip was great, slow and above ground. On Broadway, people strolled in the frigid weather. I loved studying the other passengers. Regular bus riders generally seem to be different from subway riders. The bus environment is friendlier.

At the Columbus Circle stop, an older couple got on and realized that they did not have correct change. The man, saying that he and his wife were out-of-towners, asked the rest of us if anyone had change for a $5. No one came forward with change, but a girl wearing a New York University baseball cap used her MetroCard and swiped the couple’s fare. This was a nice surprise in the city that never sleeps.