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The purpose of despotic government…

… is revenue, saith Tom Paine.  Here’s the latest adventure in this realm.

I’m wrapping up a nine-day stay in the City, and have some time at long last to record a few of the many, many impressions. The Friday after Michael Jackson died I met some friends at a Soho apartment and we listened to a little Michael before heading out to meet others at a bar; and from there we went to a rooftop party in the East Village where people were dancing on the rooftop, New York skyline in the background, to the King of Pop. There was a tremendous sense all through the City of an individual moment unfolding that would never return: an evening of joy and love being offered back to a man that we all felt had somehow earned it in our hearts. I left around 5 a.m., and walked to the F train in the morning light. It was a slow and thoughtful walk and then a long wait before the train actually came.  I was tired, and curled up in one of the two-seat benches that jut perpendicular to the others. The train was nearly empty, but, this being New York, not entirely so: about ten people were on the train.

At Roosevelt Avenue a man got on the train and motioned me and the other nearby people off the train; I was sleepy and couldn’t quite understand what was happening. I didn’t see the problem that he was attempting to solve, and was slightly confused. He then flashed a badge and told us to get off the train. I thought perhaps there was some dangerous gunman on the train, and got off, along with the other sleepy men in the car. As we looked back, however, we saw that he left three women on the train, and took only the seven men. We were received by a group of police officers, six in all, four in plain clothes and two in uniform, who demanded our IDs and said they were going to run a check on us. To all seven of us – three could not speak English, of course – this seemed astonishing and strange. They brought us over to a platform bench and told the three people sitting on it to get off it, as they needed it for law enforcement purposes. We were ordered to sit, though one man had no seat and was told to stand next to the bench. All of us in our own way asked what we had done wrong. I was told that I had my feet up on the seat in front of me – which was true – and now they were checking to see if I had any outstanding violations. If I did, I would get arrested. If I did not, I would get a summons.

It took forever for these six cops to get our names through to their computer, and the entire time all seven of us became more and more annoyed and difficult. The non-English speakers, two Hispanics and an Israeli, kept asking us natives what was happening. I began to harangue the officers.

“This is ridiculous. The Law is for the resolution of grievances between citizens. There is no grievance here. No one did anything wrong. This is not what the Law is for and you know it. This is a shameless revenue grab, and that’s why you, officer, won’t look me in the eye or even respond. You’re just doing what you’ve been told to do, and you know it’s wrong.”

“Excuse me sir, can you be quiet? I’m trying to work.”

“And I’m a human being, and I am appealing to your sense of what’s right and wrong, which is more important than your work. I know you didn’t make these rules. But look at these guys. These two guys here have been working in a pizzeria all night and you’re robbing them of their entire night’s pay. That’s wrong. That’s clearly wrong. That’s not what government is for and you know it. No one’s ever heard of getting a ticket on the subway train. How are we supposed to know that this is going to happen?”

“Sir, you can request a copy of the rules and regulations at the token booth when you enter the subway.”

“And what’s the punishment? How much do you want to bet that the punishment is not going to fit the crime? Am I going to have a criminal record for this?”

“No. You won’t. This is a civil violation. It’s not a crime.”

“And how much will it cost?”

He looked down at his pad.

“How much will it cost?”

“Sir, can you be quiet?”

“You know how much, and I have a right to know the law.”

“Fifty dollars.”

At this everyone on the bench exploded into gesticulations and recriminations. One guy said, “What did I do?”

“You want to know what you did?”


“You were taking up two seats.”

“I was leaning over to hear what you were saying. You got on the train and were motioning us to get off, and I leaned over to hear.”

“It’s against the rules.”

Another said, “How come you didn’t take any of the women off the train?” Which they did not, though one woman had about four bags and was certainly taking up more than one seat (though on an empty subway train at 6 a.m. on a Saturday how can this really be a violation?).

Another interrupted here though and said, “What did I do?”

“You were stretched out on the seats asleep.” Which he was.

“That’s a lie!” he said. “I didn’t do nothing!”

“How do I challenge this?” I asked.

“That information is on the summons.”

“Can I get the summons and leave now?”

“We have to wait to see if you have any outstanding violations.”

“Aren’t we going to get a summons regardless of whether we have any previous record?”

“No. If you have an outstanding violation you will get arrested.”

“Can’t you just write up the summons and rip it up if you need to arrest me?”

“No. You know you really do have to shut up.” This guy was getting very annoyed at me by now. It was mutual. I began repeating myself about the purpose of the Law and how they knew they were just out for money, not for the enforcement of the rules. Eventually our records cleared and they began writing up the summonses. Mine indicated that I was observed with my feet on a seat. Others indicated that they were seen taking up more than one seat. I will challenge the penalty, although of all the men there I have the worst case. Putting feet on seats is contrary to social custom, though I’ll admit I do it in polite company and even in restaurants. But I’ve also done it on the subway for thirty years and have never received even so much as a warning before. It’s one of the reasons you use those perpendicular benches late at night, to get a more comfortable position to sleep, read, or write.

But I wish I could challenge the tickets of the other men. It was so clearly wrong, and the cops who did it – six cops! – clearly were operating with such guilty consciences that I felt sorry for them. But I did fire a parting shot as I got my summons, telling them that bad people did only fifty percent of the world’s evil, but another fifty percent was done by good people who acted contrary to their own sense of right and wrong but followed orders nonetheless. “Go back and tell your superiors you won’t do this again. Go back and tell them you think it’s wrong and it’s not police work and not what governments are supposed to do. Because you know what I’m saying is true.” I then walked off and waited for the next train. It was about forty minutes out of my morning. I arrived back home at 7:30 a.m.

And I’ll reiterate, it really was wrong.  Entirely contrary to the spirit of the city.  When people tell me they like Bloomberg, I can hardly believe it.  The virtue of Midas is no virtue for a man.

I’ll note also that they did this in Jackson Heights, where the peons live.  So clearly wrong.  Poor Paine!  Poor Jefferson!  My indignation is the unworthy incense I will offer to them this Independence Day.


  1. Take solace in the fact that by challenging this ticket, and refusing to take the automatic plea bargain, you will ultimately cost the city more than the $50 that they fined you.

    Posted on 06-Jul-09 at 7:21 am | Permalink
  2. cr

    No one cares. Next!

    Posted on 07-Jul-09 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  3. pigeon

    I received a summons for riding my bicycle on the sidewalk and when I appeared in court it turned out the NYPD had never even filed their paperwork. Our tax dollars hard at work! That may or may not be the case with this, but an ex-roommate of mine received a summons for putting his feet on the seat and he disputed it and won.

    Posted on 07-Jul-09 at 4:52 pm | Permalink
  4. I asked for a copy of the regulations at the token booth at Union Turnpike today, of course, they don’t have one.

    Posted on 07-Jul-09 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  5. Harry Singh

    John –

    Although I agree wholeheartedly and can echo the sentiments expressed throughout the many years riding the subways; referring to people who live in Jackson Heights as “peon’s” is as disrespectful as it is an unfair, biased generalization. You are entitled to your own choice of words, naturally, and in my opinion, poorly, but I’m equally entitled to defend those of us who have worked, lived and have surmounted great success in Jackson Heights.

    Keep Fighting.


    Harry Singh.

    Posted on 07-Jul-09 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  6. John

    The other guys do have a better case–taking up more than one seat is only “disorderly conduct” if it interferes “with the operation of the Authority’s transit system or the comfort of other passengers”.

    Section 1050.7

    Disorderly conduct.

    No person on or in any facility or conveyance shall:

    “j. (1) occupy more than one seat on a station, platform or conveyance when to do so would interfere or tend to interfere with the operation of the Authority’s transit system or the comfort of other passengers; (2) place his or her foot on a seat on a station, platform or conveyance; (3) lie on the floor, platform, stairway, landing or conveyance; or (4) block free movement on a station, stairway, platform or conveyance”

    Posted on 07-Jul-09 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  7. John

    You may want to argue that the Rules and Regulations section of the MTA’s website fails to mention it is improper to put one’s foot on a seat. Specifically, those rules mention “No person in a terminal, station or train shall:

    1. Block free movement of another person or persons, lie on the floor, platforms, stairs, or landings, or occupy more than one seat”.

    Posted on 07-Jul-09 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  8. John

    It looks like the prohibition of putting your foot on a set was added recently.

    MTA’s proposed amendments showing the addition here:

    As of February 2000, that prohibition was not included:

    It looks like the MTA never updated its Rules and Regulations page ( after the amendments were passed.

    Posted on 07-Jul-09 at 6:16 pm | Permalink
  9. jp

    The regulation against putting your feet on a subway seat is posted in pretty much every subway station I have been in, typically on the other side of or next to the subway map.

    It is illegal because it is disgusting. New York streets are filthy and so are the soles of your shoes. Please save your self-righteousness for an occasion when you were not making life a little worse for fellow New Yorkers.

    Posted on 07-Jul-09 at 7:04 pm | Permalink
  10. Just a note… it’s not just about my situation! I committed an infraction of the rules, no doubt about it. I wonder how much worse New Yorker’s lives are for my action, but an infraction is an infraction. But the police rounded up people who were slouching, or leaning over another seat, on an empty train! If they had gotten on and told us all about the importance of the rules, we would have followed them and been more mindful. But to this observer, enforcing the rules seemed less important to them than issuing revenue-generating summonses.

    Posted on 07-Jul-09 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  11. sb

    A friend of mine had this happen to her, but she didn’t leave the train. It was late at night and who knows if the cop was really a cop. Taking a single woman off an empty train for taking up two seats in the middle of the night is not only ridiculous, it’s unsafe. If these cops have nothing better to do, they shouldn’t have jobs.

    Posted on 07-Jul-09 at 8:01 pm | Permalink
  12. John


    I misunderstood your reason for fighting. I thought you either didn’t believe the cop who told you that your conduct violated the law or didn’t know of the law at the time you committed your violation. If you were aware that you were committing a violation, then you’ve got no business fighting the citation. It is a waste of the court’s valuable time and limited resources.

    You seem to be offended by the fact that those “who were slouching, or leaning over another seat” received citations. Fighting your citation will in no way remedy their harm.

    Finally, you seem to have taken offense to the fact that the citation generates revenue. That’s of course no defense to knowingly committing a violation of law.

    Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum

    Posted on 07-Jul-09 at 8:51 pm | Permalink
  13. Ian

    File a lawsuit; by not ticketing the women on the train, the officers were not treating everyone the same under the law, a violation of the equal protection clause. The only way to stop the police state from arbitrary enforcement of rules is to hit them where it counts, which obviously is in the city’s purse strings.

    Posted on 08-Jul-09 at 12:31 am | Permalink
  14. ryan

    I wouldn’t of gotten off the car until a uniformed police officer requested me to leave. If I was made to leave badge numbers would of been taken and follow up to superiors would of gone down Monday morning.

    Posted on 08-Jul-09 at 1:25 am | Permalink
  15. Joe

    Great article. Unfortunate but it happened to me as well. Made me sick when it happened.
    One gripe though . . . your line about Jackson heights and peons. Poor choice of words. That line wasn’t needed or could have been phrased differently. Thought to myself that statement alone deserves a $50 fine.

    Posted on 08-Jul-09 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  16. rhubarbpie

    Putting your feet on the seat is a violation of NYC Transit’s rules, yes. But, as your account makes clear, it’s enforced randomly and possibly in a discriminatory way. The desire is for revenue and to catch somewhat bigger fish, which I suspect happens pretty rarely. A more civil way of dealing with this would be what you’ve suggested — reminding people of the rules — but then what fun would that be? Then New York City might even be a somewhat more pleasant place to live, and we can’t have that.

    (A side note: a scandal in the late 1980s had transit cops accusing men of crimes, like rubbing against women, just to increase their arrest count. A friend of mine was an alleged victim of such inappropriate behavior, even though she told the cops that nothing had happened.)

    I don’t know how challenges work out, but I wish you luck.

    Posted on 08-Jul-09 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  17. I’ll respond here to my two best critics, Harry and Joe, regarding the “peon” comment. I am far less sensitive to insulting words than other people are, and do not mean offense here. I am a Queens native myself and my sympathies are entirely with the people who live in places that many others do not care about. Harry, I am most impressed that your experience of Queens does not carry with it the kind of class-war taint mine (and many of my friends’) has had; perhaps others can prove with various statistics that these kind of stings are done all over the city, but to me it felt like no surprise that I found these cops working Roosevelt Avenue and not Rockefeller Center. Manhattanites and tourists “count” a lot more than boroughs boys do. And I felt pretty strongly that these guys were getting peed on right in front of my eyes, and by cops who themselves probably grew up in the boroughs and did not in their hearts approve of what they were doing for this very reason.

    Posted on 08-Jul-09 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  18. pd

    I’ll bet what they where really after was not giving these tickets, but finding persons with outstanding warrants. 50 bucks a pop is nickel and dime compared to collecting on out of state warrants. and maybe just maybe the cops pocket it themselves..

    just sayin

    Posted on 09-Jul-09 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  19. Sam

    Glad someone else is furious about this; creeping despotism is despotism nonetheless.

    And if the cops are going to enforce the damn 1-seat rule, then they should do it on crowded trains where people actually need the seats.

    All my life I’ve been getting up off seats for women, elderly, and kids… I certainly never take up two seats if anybody else needs one, and I’d absolutely fucking SHIT if they wrote me up on an empty train for that bull crap.

    Posted on 28-Jun-11 at 1:41 am | Permalink
  20. Sam

    Oh and @ 12, you seem to misunderstand the entire purpose of fighting the citation: it is EXACTLY to waste the court’s time and resources. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a time honored form of civil disobedience, and he’s allowed to exercise his rights. If the court incurs undue fees prosecuting him, then perhaps the accounting office will write it up, and A) increase the fine or B) discontinue the law, which appears to have no benefit to the public as exercised here (of COURSE it would be a different story on a crowded train).

    However, nonetheless, I feel that this is a circumstance where he may have broken the RULE but not the LAW, since the law seems to add the very reasonable caveat “when to do so would interfere or tend to interfere with the operation of the Authority’s transit system or the comfort of other passengers.”

    Whatever. Look, anyway it doesn’t matter to me. I think that New York is a freer place than elsewhere in the country particularly because of our fanatical argumentative unreasonable tendency to fight convictions. Madoff gets his day in court, then so does J. Schmoe who gets a traffic ticket. It’s precisely because we slam the courts full of angry citizens that we’re not being tazed by a callous local police force for minor peccadilloes like they are in the rest of the country. Just look at the national news sometime and you’ll get a sense of it: swat teams raiding houses for the smell of pot, diabetics in comas getting tazed for non-compliance with police instructions… it’s just terrifying. To err on the other side of liberty is not so bad in my view as to let it slip…

    Posted on 28-Jun-11 at 2:21 am | Permalink

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    […] background for today’s word comes from a recent blog post by John Kuhner.  Mr Kuhner was recently fined $50 by the Transit Police for resting his feet up […]