Crime & punishment

Don't mess with the MTA

It’s well known that the Metropolitan Transport Authority is utterly strapped for cash at the moment. This means they’re cutting services and firing employees. It also means it’s a bad, bad time to offend them in any way. About a a month ago I made a foolhardy attempt to save 18 minutes by skipping under a turnstyle (all excuses can be found here). I had my hearing today and received my just desserts — or unjust ones, depending on your perspective.

MTA officials are often very unpleasant, but the office at 29 Gallatin Place was surprisingly calm, much like an NHS hospital waiting room. My number flashed up and I moved from ticketing desk to another desk to an adjudicating official within three hours.

29 Gallatin -- actually quite an insalubrious area

Most people there were African American and Hispanic: laconic teens, ironical women who had seen it all, and aggravated, angry men. Most seemed a bit down at heel, but a few men in shirt suits sat looking around them in bewilderment. I felt acutely aware of race and gender. It was notable that none of the adjudicating officials were African American or Hispanic — I spotted a blond woman, a white man with bushy eyebrows, and another woman with dark hair and glasses. I hoped I’d get a man, thinking he might be more sympathetic.

Well, Mr. Andrew R., watery-eyed and middle-aged, was nice enough. He switched on an ancient vintage-style tape-recorder, read out my charge, and other details, read me my rights, and got me to swear to tell the truth holding up my right hand. It seemed rather melodramatic. I recounted my take on the situation and he listened with what appeared to be a friendly ear.

Back in the main office, I awaited the verdict. Because we were all in the same boat the atmosphere was friendly, and people began to chat about how much they hated the MTA. The man across from me had been booked for going through the emergency door, after he had swiped through with his card. He had paid with the card! he said. Another man, dignified and bespectacled, was quiet about his crime. It was hard to imagine what he could have done. ‘They just need money,’ he said. ‘They’re fining everyone for everything.’ I thought, uneasily, how if I was in charge of the MTA, it would make sense to ask all adjudicators to fine everyone uniformly at the maximum amount.

The dignified old man was called up to the window, and we all jumped when he waved his arms and shouted, ‘This is ridiculous!’ He stomped out the door without looking over at us.

Next was a young, anxious-looking Asian-American man who’d been sitting beside me and who seemed worried about getting back to work. Next was me. My heart beat when I looked at my form, where Andrew R. had written that my tale of having bought the monthly travel card did not diminish the fact that I’d broken the law. The fine was the maximum: $100.

So that’s the way things are at the moment in New York. There’s no leeway, no discretion, there are no excuses or explanations: if you get booked for something here — regardless of X or Y or P or Q, the morals of the situation, or whatever plaintive reasons or motives you may have had — you’ve broken the law and you will be punished.

The funny thing is people do break rules here all the time in flagrant, flamboyant ways. It’s only a problem, as it always is, if you get caught.

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