Every New York City subway rider, at some point or the other in his riding career, becomes the ‘target’ of a solicitation, a beg, or a panhandle. And all around us, signs–put up by the MTA–tell us: don’t indulge them, don’t give; if you really want to, there are plenty of charities that would be happy to relieve you of your dollars and pennies; just don’t add to the ‘disorder’ on the trains. There are also, in addition, warnings from the MTA about not misusing our unlimited-ride Metrocards: don’t give away free rides, don’t give anyone a ‘free swipe.’
To some extent, I have internalized these warnings. I rarely give money on the subway; somehow, I become oblivious to the beseeching look, the plaintive appeal, the witty–and sometimes musical–plea for support and sustenance, for the alm not to be spent on drugs–the horror, oh, the horror!–but only on food for the family and children.
But I find it harder to resist the plea for the ‘free ride,’ the ‘swipe’ with the Metrocard. I have unlimited rides on the Metrocard; I’ve already spent my money ($104 a month) for it; the MTA has its money; why not give someone a free ride on it, especially when I’m done riding? (I”m usually asked for a swipe when I exit from a subway turnstile; the putative rider stands there, patiently, asking for swipes as passengers exit; the Metrocard can only be reused after an eighteen minute gap, so there is a good chance that my card is usable again, and more to the point, it is unlikely that I will use it again so soon after having finished a ride.’)
The economic argument against handing out free rides is clear and strong: every single ride thus denies revenue to the MTA. And the more revenue the MTA loses, the greater the chance that it will hike subway fares again, and give us all the collective middle finger. So why hurt yourself and everyone else by a misplaced act of charity?
Well, the MTA does pretty well with unused unlimited Metrocard fares. (These, among other unused Metrocard rides add up to $52 million a year.) But sometimes, our reasons for taking an action can find their grounding in something far more elemental.
This morning, as I headed toward my gym to participate in Memorial Day festivities (a brutal workout, followed by a barbecue and beer), I exited the Seventh Avenue turnstile and was asked for a ‘swipe.’ I mumbled a ‘No’ as I headed for the exits. Then I turned and headed back; I had only been asked for a swipe and the man who had asked me appeared to be wearing an olive-green jacket with pins and insignia. As I approached him, I detected the distinctive aroma of those who live on the streets, who have no home. Perhaps he was a veteran, but one not treated so kindly by the non-service life. Perhaps he wasn’t, but wanted to be one. In any case, it was Memorial Day and all the economic arguments against denying the MTA revenue didn’t make that much sense any more.
I ‘swiped’ him in, wished him well, and went on my way, wondering about my dispensation of illegal acts of kindness to someone who might be among those being honored on this Memorial Day, 2012.
PS: To the MTA: Sorry about that.
PPS: Edited to add link and change 55 to 52 in MTA figures above.