… 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.”
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.