Just Used: Altruism and Punishment on the MTA



505 Fulton St # 6, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Neighborhood: Brooklyn

The thought that we were doing something illegal had not crossed my mind. I was simply doing a little act of kindness for this man – let’s call him Joe – who was looking so forlorn on a hot July morning, standing beside the turnstyles. A bad Metrocard swipe had gotten him a “Just Used” message, and so I offered to let him through with me. “Okay,” he’d said, as he scooted in behind me. “Just don’t tell anyone.”

Personally, I considered it a gutsy move, not for any illegality but for the potential for awkward body contact. But Joe was a fairly small man. We shimmied through with nary a touch.

Joe thanked me, I said no problem, and we headed toward the train, which had just opened its doors. But as we were about to step into the car, a man dressed in a baseball jersey, denim shorts, and a thick silver neck chain stopped us. “Excuse me,” he said, and reached inside his jersey for what was hanging at the end of the neck chain: a police badge.

Several thoughts proceeded: he was an undercover police officer; we had broken the law; and that I now saw the glint of another badge from the corner of my eye. He he was not working alone.

I quickly explained the situation to him, expecting that he would listen to reason and let us go on our way. But they asked me and Joe to stand against the grimy tile and took our driver’s licenses so they could have the precinct check us out, to see if we’d committed any other crimes. Curious commuters rubbernecked on the platform as Joe and I watched the trains come and go. I pleaded to the officers, insisting that they see the illogic of ticketing us.

Trying to flaunt my genuinely innocent nature, I explained to the officers that both Joe and I had current unlimited-use MetroCards. For whatever reason, Joe’s swipe didn’t work. Only unlimited cards get the “Just Used” message, so I knew that’s what he had. Since we had already paid the MTA for an unlimited number of rides within a given time period, we were obviously not stealing a ride.

You might think that one of them would soften. They would see that I was doing a nice thing for someone, and that he was kindly accepting my help. They would feel honor-bound to rescind their charges because you do not punish people for harmless moments like this. But after several rounds of attempts, all one officer could muster up was

I was told that I should be glad he didn’t put me in handcuffs.

I had asked one of the officers if he was in the station to protect the MTA from people like me, or from the kids who tamper with the machines in order to sell people rides. “Both,” he told me.

So that was that. We were slapped with $65 tickets and permitted to go on with our days. As we waited on the platform for the next train, Joe asked me if I planned to dispute the ticket. I told him that I thought I would, but wondered how long it would take out of my day to do so. He was quick to agree. It might just be easier to pay it. Get it over with. Who has the time? Surely Joe, who had been so flustered at the turnstile because he was late for work after dropping off his 5-year-old son at camp that morning, did not.

Sometimes I realize that the daily cycle of life has turned me into a rude and callous person. Other times, I’m able to rise above it. Small moments matter.

I decided to fight the ticket. Two weeks later, I arrived at the Transit Adjudication Bureau for a hearing, typed statement in hand. In a little cube of a room, the hearing officer turned on his tape recorder and slipped into legalese. He listed the facts of my case. Then he asked me to tell him what happened. I managed to tell him the facts, my argument against the ticket, and a sentence or two about why I found the ticket and undercover cops in the subway so offensive. It felt a little ridiculous, like wearing a ball gown to a diner. But knowing that my voice saying “deplorable” would be forever printed on an MTA tape recording, albeit one that probably no one will ever listen to, was also kind of exciting.

“So,” he said, “You were just doing a good deed?”

Well, officer, if you want to put it that way. Without hesitation, he dismissed the ticket.

As long as I could produce evidence that I had used my unlimited MetroCard for the swipe in question, the case would be considered closed. And then, in a voice loud enough for the tape recorder to catch, he thanked me.

Weeks later, I received a piece of registered mail from the Transit Adjudication Bureau. It began:

“The Notice of Violation is sufficient to establish a prima facie case of Transit Authority Rule 1050.4(a) and … the Transit Authority has failed to prove that the Respondent committed the violation charged by clear and convincing evidence and the Notice of Violation is dismissed.”

I’ve seen Joe a couple of times, too, dropping off his son at school. We haven’t made eye contact yet. Most likely, he paid his ticket. I am hesitant to talk to him because I don’t want him to feel bad about that. But it makes me sad, because he seemed like someone who’d stopped fighting.

As for me, my eyes now dart furtively around the station as I try to work out who is and who isn’t. just last week, I saw a teenager with pimples and first-growth facial hair lurking around the turnstile while he waited for the train. It took me several minutes to finally convince myself that he was not a cop.

The divisiveness I’d fought has gotten hold of me nonetheless. Such things are not so easily swiped away.

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(The original title, TIME IS MONEY, was shortened in the interest of saving both time and money.)