Thursday, January 20, 2011

Free the Free-Swipers!

Let me be judicious and say simply that "recently" I entered the 59th Street subway station at Columbus Circle, and found myself one cent short of a $2.25 subway fare. I also had $100 in 20s which I owed to someone and I was on my way to pay them back. Aside from not having one cent, I was also not carrying any I.D.

I debated whether or not to reach my destination and lamely offer the person I owed the $100 to, $99.99, or, more conveniently, I felt, I would ask someone leaving the station with an unlimited Metrocard if they would swipe me into the system.

As I stood there, I asked one person who declined, then a second person walked right up to me as they came out of the turnstile.

"That's panhandling," he said, "show me some I.D.," and flashed his police badge.

Without any I.D., and given that I was engaged in a dangerous crime, the undercover cop determined to waste the next two and a half hours of my time and his, holding me in a cell until finally releasing me.

Ironically, the police station at 59th Street is inside the subway station, so when I was released, I was able to get on the train anyway...!

There are additional layers of stomach-churning and heart-thumping irony to this episode which I choose not to go into, but today online I noticed the Free Swipe movement, which calls on subway riders with unlimited Metrocards to actively volunteer to swipe people into the subway system, as they are leaving it.

I guess the thought is that if a person offers the swipe, and another person then accepts it, it cannot legally be considered that the beneficiary is panhandling, therefore nullifying the charge of panhandling, which I personally consider dubious to begin with: isn't there a vast difference of degree between an unlimited card swipe (which the owner has already paid for) and a person who aggressively approaches others and says (quoting a guy seen on the subway a few days ago): "GOOOOOD EVENING SIR WOULD YOU HAVE A DOLLAR FOR ME?" (He then leaned over me and others for several minutes, breathing and panting audibly).

Several sources have been plugging the "Free Swipe" thing online, calling it 'economic disobediance,' aimed at the subway operators, the MTA, whose outrageous financial mismanagement started coming to light as the economy began to turn sour in 2008, and whose response to the hole in the budget has been to increase the subway fare, placing the burden on the backs of the ordinary subway riders (memorably, only one member of the MTA board of directors could say that they had used the subway in a 12-month period).

I personally find the term 'economic disobedience' to be dressing up an action into something it isn't. Swiping someone into the subway system is an act of common courtesy, not dangerous radicalism -- and it's also not panhandling to ask someone for a swipe.

Coda: the police officer who hauled me in was friendly and professional, expressing surprise at why I was asking for a swipe when I had $100 in my pocket, and during the whole unnecessary episode he took extra care to make sure that as I left, I got the $100 back along with all my other possessions. All police officers, by the way, may enter and use the system for free by showing their badge, even when off duty, and they may also ask a station clerk to let their spouses and children on to the subway for free as well.

Keeping Them In The Dark

Wednesday, January 19, 2011