Paying Dues in New York

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The other day, I cheated subway fare by slipping through the emergency exit as someone left the door ajar. I’d done it before. In a city that overcharges for everything, it’s a small win—a win over the same empire that practically taxes oxygen. That day, I marched through the gate, in my suit coat and wingtips, like a righteous gentleman.

IMG_4878“Sir, you did not pay your fare,” I heard a gravelly woman behind me. I kept walking. Could have been for anyone.

“You in the jacket, you just passed through the door!” I looked left and right. No one matched that description. She sounded angry with me, insulted even, like she wanted a fight. “You must pay your fare!”

I don’t know anyone who likes a scolding, whether they are wrong or right. I’d done my time in Catholic school and this voice—part nun, part trucker—was made for lashing. Exact moments like these are when the British like to say Oh piss off.  Yesterday, I was incorrectly charged twice when I transferred busses. Last week, the Q train from this same stop—my only train to Manhattan—broke down. Today the ride would be crowded and loud. This voice didn’t know my hardship, and I was ready to speak my mind.

Like all New Yorkers, I pay my dues everyday. Noisy neighbors, heavy taxes, smelly streets. When we see a break, we take it. Someone else’s cab? Thank you. Time left on the meter? Yes please. $2.75 subway ride? Piss off.

I kept walking toward the stairs.

IMG_4850A week before this encounter, I watched some grandpa with a cane try crossing a four lane street by my apartment. The pedestrian signal said Don’t Walk, and he hobbled into traffic moving slower than a DMV queue. No way he was going to make it. The 3rd lane roared with cars. This ancient man made it to the double yellow line when an oncoming car held on the horn for the same length of time it would have taken to yell, “get-out-of-the-way-you-crazy-old-man-can’t-you-see-the-pedestrian-signal-says-do-not-cross-I-will-run-you-over-now-get-out-of-my-way!”

And still, the horn continued for so long after passing, it sounded almost rude. Manslaughter was on the line, I couldn’t object.

“Yeah, I see ya,” the old man yelled back, and waved his cane overhead. “You get out of MY way!” He must have exhausted every drop of energy he had, I was surprised he didn’t fall over. Somehow entitlement finds us new strength.

Version 2“You sir, walking down the steps,” The nagging voice continued. “You must pay your fare!” It reminded me of that horn. I was ready to raise a fist, as the more rude she got, the more I was sure the City of New York would be paying my fare.

I turned, and stomped back toward the toll booth window like a boxer approaching the ring. Behind smudged glass, an old woman with wiry hair and big spectacles scowled at me. Still inside the checkpoint, I removed my hand from my pocket. Oh I have something for you, Lady. I pinched my metrocard between my middle finger and thumb, reached around the gate and swiped it, slapping over the turnstile as if letting through a ghost. You’re welcome.

She did not thank me. I guess I wasn’t entitled to that either.

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