Part of living in New York is accepting the brutality of rapid change with a cynical shrug as all you love and depend on vanish to make way for something almost certainly worse. Over the past couple years, I’ve seen this happen to the Metrocard–especially the unlimited Metrocard, which for my nearly two decades living in New York I constantly sought and often found–like many of the city’s great luxuries–lying on the sidewalk for free.
Before the Metrocard I still remember, however faintly, subway tokens, brass coins with a chunk missing from the center, bagel-like, that could be routinely spotted in midtown gutters or littering dance floors after hardcore matinees. With a keen eye, one could collect enough of these to ride New York’s MTA for free most of the time. The Metrocard was more difficult to drop, but due to their size and color they were even easier to find than tokens, but usually held little-to-no value.
As a result, few people would pick up Metrocards, because it was assumed they were empty or discarded or covered with some sort of mysterious stranger-danger disease. But there were many like me who would pick up every single one, no matter if they were found on the sidewalk, the gutter, the drawer of a side-walked dresser, or the pocket of an unwatched coat at a chic Manhattan nightclub we might wander into for the open bar. Once a large enough stack was accumulated, we took it to the MTA booth and ask the agent to combine it into a single card, which they absolutely loved doing.
The GOAT Metrocard collector was John Jones, a homeless man who turned my hobby into a job, bundling discarded cards and selling them at a discount. He says he made about $30,000 a year doing it until the MTA prosecuted him for unlawful solicitation. That amount is all the more impressive considering that during the era he did it, I’d estimate only about one-in-four of the discovered cards had any value, maybe a third of those with a value exceeding a single ride, and maybe another third of those were an unlimited with some time left. Among this latter group, maybe 1 in 21 of the total amount of non-prepaid cards I would find, was a golden ticket: a monthly unlimited with multiple weeks remaining.
But these numbers got even better in 2013, when the MTA started charging $1 for a new Metrocard. From that point on, if I spotted a non-prepaid Metrocard it meant someone had almost certainly dropped it by mistake—it almost always had some value, and maybe a third of the time it was unlimited! During one winter of this golden era of the golden ticket, I found three unlimiteds in a row, allowing me the pleasure of swiping freely from December to late February.
It was an especially fortuitous time for me as a cyclist to find a golden ticket, because it was one of those New York winters of yore, back when it used to snow, and the bikeable parts of the streets were narrowed with black ice and slush. I still biked for work when it made sense with my schedule, but taking public transit with an unlimited was always especially gratifying because it offered the opportunity to “swipe it forward” by offering a free ride to those entering the station as you exit. Sometimes this took a little effort, because people think you’re selling swipes. But in those situations I would simply prove my altruism by swiping and walking away, with a half-friendy, half-frustrated nod, a subtle New York gesture that says “Yeah, a stranger helping a stranger. Imagine that.”
I used the ticket to go everywhere: the situationist microcinema, the anarchist storefront turned into an antifa gym, the coworking space once an autonomist social center, and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, now converted into upscale lofts and a kombucha brewery. Little did I know that the golden era of the golden ticket would soon come to an end.
At turnstiles across the city a sinister new device was being installed–an onyx-black slab ringed with neon and ominously named OMNY. If this sounds more like an evil tech firm than a public service provider, that’s exactly what it is. In addition to fare collection, OMNY’s parent company Cubic is a major defense contractor, specializing in surveillance and drone communications with the US and foreign militaries. The system is nonetheless popular among those chip-enabled commuters satisfied with contactless entry. But for scroungers like me, the omnipresence of OMNY was a black hole sucking the yellow sunshine of my golden ticket into an abyssal portal of dystopian doom.
As it spread to every turnstile in the city, far fewer people bought Metrocards. And for the coup-de-grace, last year OMNY incorporated the unlimited incentive into the system, so that after a certain number of taps the rides become free. With little reason left to buy an unlimited card, the age of the golden ticket, along with agent booths and the Metrocard itself, is nearly over.
But because this is a story about a vanishing institution of the daily struggle of New York’s working class, something more subterranean and sinister emerged to fill the void: Widespread, cooperative fare evasion.
It is today common to see passengers choosing to leave through the exit gates and hold them open for others to pass. Other exit doors are closed gently enough that they don’t lock or were, by some unknown locksmith, sabotaged not to close at all. At some stations at rush hour it is dependable to find volunteer porters waiting by the exit door to open it as people arrive until the train comes. The station closest to my apartment has been like this for so long that it now has two classes of rider–the approximately 25% who pull out their phone to enter through the turnstile, and the rest who simply open the gate when it is sabotaged, or ask one of the 25% to open it for them. If they don’t have earbuds in, they usually do.
Now some of you may be thinking–hey, isn’t this guy the author of the bestselling book I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs, and Apocalypse Communism? Why can’t he just pay for the subway like everyone else? Or at least like 25% of everyone else?
To this means-test, I offer two responses:
First, the more cooperative fare evasion is normalized, the easier it will be for those who cannot pay to ride free without fear of arrest or fine. It was precisely this reason why widespread fare evasion emerged in the first place during the winter of 2019-2020, when videos of police chasing and beating and arresting black and brown people on subway platforms went viral. This led to some rowdy Fuck the Police protests and mass fare evasion actions; for example one cadre of saboteurs used a saw to slice off the bars of a turnstile, leaving three unobstructive nubs as a symbol of the widescale deligitimization of the MTA and NYPD. Three years later, the police still target stations in black and brown neighborhoods, where they almost only arrest black or brown fare evaders, but fewer than ever before are intimidated, because fare evasion has generalized to every corner of the city as a sort of bonding ritual between working-class New Yorkers that the MTA simply has no good idea how to stop.
Second, getting stuff for free in the richest city in the world is one of the great joys of living here. Generations of beatniks and other sorts of scumbags subsisted on day-old bagels, second-acting Broadway shows, ripping-off mail-order book and record clubs, getting wasted on cheap wine at chic art galleries, and entering movie theaters through the exit door. But even most normy New Yorkers will take advantage of a free lunch, because we know we’re always getting ripped off somewhere else–by our landlords and bosses, mostly, but also by the public-private MTA, hopelessly burdened with debt from bad investments and mismanaged projects that it expects us to pay for through higher fares and worsening service. While few commuters might articulate explicitly that worsening services for raising prices affect working-class New Yorkers as a wage-cut, the common grumble of ruin your day on the MTA after each staticky announcement of service disruptions says it all–with fare evasion the implied corrective.
Since this is Hard Crackers, I want to close with an awkward personal anecdote involving race relations. The last time I found an unlimited card was last June, and the card expired on Juneteenth, an especially lively Sunday night/Monday morning in Bushwick. With the next train 25 minutes away, I posted myself at the exit gate and opened the door for about 40 people. I tried out saying “Happy Juneteenth” for a bit, but wasn’t sure if that was appropriate–not only because it’s unclear to me if or how white people should acknowledge this newly-recognized federal holiday, but also because it made it seem like I was doing it as some sort of activist action for racial justice instead of something that could be done by anyone at any time for any reason. So I cut out saying anything at all, and just gave everyone coming in the gesture of working class NY solidarity–a slight and silent nod.