You may have heard about the MTA vending machines that were spitting out free rides for three years. Due to a computer glitch, a Roosevelt woman discovered in 2005 she could get tickets from one of the machines, despite having insufficient funds in the account to which her Bank of America card was linked. Instead of reporting it to the MTA, she apparently reported it to her roommate, and they kept on working the machine and a few others. A Manhattan man got in on the act later. Though hundreds enjoyed this unexpected largesse over the years, these three were arrested yesterday, perhaps because the authorities found the $800,000 in free rides they obtained, and are believed to have resold, egregious.
Leave it to the New York Times to explore the ethical angle. Reporter William Neuman interviewed ordinary citizens and found that, while they had some scruples about the recent massive fraud (“Generally, though, I think it’s wrong to steal rides”), they were uniformly unsympathetic to the MTA and in favor of smaller, less criminal ways of helping people get into the subway for free (“The M.T.A. already has too much money, so I don’t feel bad”), and some even endorsed the fraudsters (“I wish I could have met them and gotten a deal”).
While we endorse Neuman’s verification progress, his findings are no shock to us. We were young in the era of “No Cop, You Hop,” when guys would just hang around the turnstiles till the train came; if the coast was clear, they’d vault at the last moment, and MTA clerks would mutter “Pay your fare” into their microphones as they did.
Back then the access mechanisms of a typical subway station were less complicated and easier to finesse. There were far fewer thresher-style revolving gates, and they were more prone to malfunction; we still fondly recall the day the old green gate at the Driggs Avenue entrance to the L swung freely, and we saw at least a dozen passengers happily rolling in, one Hispanic woman crying “Everybody ride for free!” gaily as she went.
As the price of riding rose, the City and the MTA made free-riding tougher. Policing surges like 2003’s “Operation Impact” mandated more cops in subways, and last month the MTA raised the fine for fare-beating from $60 to $100. (The Times dutifully reported, “In the late 1980s, the authorities noticed that fare beating dropped substantially when uniformed police officers were present at station entrances.”)
Times have changed, but whereas New Yorkers would certainly approve crackdowns on other sorts of crime wave — purse-snatchings, say — it’s safe to say that fare-beating doesn’t stir our blood in quite the same way. Train rides are close to a necessity to working citizens — and one that gets more expensive all the time, despite our grumblings. Though the MTA tirelessly advertises its helpfulness to us, and makes mechanized gestures of gratitude for our patronage (“Thank you for riding the MTA”), they can hardly expect us to return the sentiment.
So it’s no surprise the Times found sympathy for the MetroCard manipulators. We are reminded of the exchange between William Holden and Ernest Borgnine in The Wild Bunch: “He gave his word!” “To a railroad!” “It’s still his word!” “That ain’t the point! It’s who you give it to!”