Tuesday, February 07, 2006

My Rude Awakening

When I was in high school, I had a rebbe (actually had a few who did this) who would fine the students when they came late to shachris davening (the morning prayer services). 10 minutes late was a 50 cent charge, 20 minutes or more, $1. I suppose that for many students it was an effective deterrent, but many others felt it was a small price to pay to be able to spend a few more minutes under the precious warmth of the blankets, and they willingly ponied up the cash each morning they had overslept. In any case, at that age, we all got our allowances from our parents, so any k'nas (as the fine was called) really was affecting our dear patrons more than ourselves.

That took place in the closed and controlled universe of the yeshiva, where the rabbeim are the supreme rulers who can make up the rules and penalties of their world as they see fit, but I imagine that if our religious authorities would be able to impose penalties on any and all halachic infractions or violations of their religious standards, they would be more than happy to do so. Skipped bentching? $5 fine! Skirt's not long enough? $50! Caught eyeing that cutie from down the block? $100! Eating at an establishment without the proper kashrut certification? $100! Not wearing your hat and jacket when we say you should? $20! (I actually got reprimanded in high school for this - someone had spotted me walking down the street without my H&J, and reported it to my rabbi.)

The truth is that in many religious people's minds, such a system is actually already in place. Many people believe that in addition to the day-to-day affairs of maintaining the universe, one of God's lesser known duties is that of divine scorekeeper. He is closely monitoring every detail of our lives, irrespective of how mundane any detail may seem (which hand did I hold the washing cup in?), and dutifully recording our numerous transgressions, which when we arrive at the pearly gates for our final reckoning, he will hold us accountable for. For those who subscribe to such a view, enforcing a penalty for any breaches of halachic protocol, however minor, is merely an expression of the Divine will, and an entirely appropriate one at that.

Needless to say, I'm quite relieved that I don't live in such a society. In the world I live in, there are rules that must be followed, but these laws are usually of a different sort, and punishments for misconduct are usually only applied when the infraction is of a certain severity. Or so I thought. Last night I was introduced to what life is like when authorities have the power to penalize people for minor and trivial things, far beyond the significance of the offense.

It was late, around 1:30 AM. I was on my way home, taking the subway back from the city. As it usually is at that hour, the subway car was mostly empty, so I grabbed the corner seat, bundled myself up in my coat, and closed my eyes to try to catch a few zzz's. Somewhere along the ride, after I find myself repeatedly tipping over into the adjoining seat, I turn myself sideways, and lift my feet up onto the seat to try to get more comfortable. I'm squished into two seats like a contortionist, but it works. I doze off again.

All of a sudden, I hear a voice nearby. "Sir, can you please come with me?"

Huh? I open my eyes, and see a policeman standing over me. He repeats his demand. "Sir, can you please step out of the train car?"

What the hell is going on? I figure there's some security issue or something going on, so I get up, try to shake off the drowsiness, and step off the train.

"What's the matter, Officer?", I inquire.

"Sir, your feet were up on the bench. You were taking up two seats. That's a violation of subway regulations."

I look at him in amazement. This has got to be some sort of joke. "You're kidding, right? The car is three quarters empty. There's tons of empty seats! I wasn't preventing anyone from sitting down!"

"Sir, that doesn't matter," he insists gravely. "Now, have you ever been arrested?"

Arrested?! Is this guy serious? After assuring him of my pristine record, he asks for identification. I fish out my wallet and give him my drivers license. He hands me a subway flyer with a bunch of rules and regulations and asks me to sit down and read it while he contacts the station to check my ID and record.

While waiting for the station manager to report back to him, he (and another officer who pulled out somebody else) ask us a bunch of questions: Where do you live? Where are you coming from? How do you spell your name? My fellow offender and I look at each other in stunned bewilderment, amazed this is actually happening. Are they actually interrogating us as if we were suspected criminals because we had our feet on a bench?! It was just too outrageous!

Finally, the report comes back from the police station that everything checks out. Then he turns to me, and says in all seriousness, "Ok, now I'm going to have to write you out a ticket. "

Ok, now this joke has gone just a little too far, don't you think? I get that you want people to not dirty up the seats or cause any disruption of any sort, or whatever reason you may have for having such a rule. Ok, I can understand that. So you inconvenience me a bit, intimidate me a bit more, make me regret that I did such a terrible thing, and now I promise never to do it again.

But you're actually going to give me a ticket?!!!

I was just stunned. This whole experience was just surreal. He finishes writing it up, hands me the ticket for $50 and explains that I need to call a number on the back and I'll get details for how to pay it. He then wishes me a good night and goes along his merry way.

It was all just so preposterous I wasn't sure it had actually happened. But it did. I was holding a ticket in my hand proving it.

The entire ordeal was not all that unpleasant. The officers were courteous, although a bit too serious about the whole thing, but even still it was a very awful feeling that I had throughout it all. I felt like I was being treated like a criminal. What did I do to deserve that? I suppose I should be thankful they didn't frisk me and ask to search my bag. It would be one thing to just slap me with a fine, but to make us undergo that questioning was an entirely different experience. Because it was 1:30 AM, the area was deserted, but if it had occurred during normal hours, it would have been most humiliating. I really don't see the justification for such an approach. It did occur to me that this must be what many Arabs feel like in Israel when they are stopped randomly on the street for no other reason than the fact that they appear Arab, and are then forced to undergo an impromptu interrogation from the police. (Not that I think the two situations are the same. But the feeling of resentment it engenders is probably not at all dissimilar.) More significantly, it made me realize how bad my life could really be if the authorities were able to penalize me for every little thing in my life that I've ever been told not to do (or to do). Wouldn't those rabbis be thrilled? I'm sure my mother would've loved it if back in the day she had had a way to enforce my bed being made, the dishes being washed, not letting my shoes be left in the living room, and being home by 11!

I sincerely hope this incident wasn't a sign of the new world order. If it is, we're all in big trouble. (Then again, that's what I was told in yeshiva would happen one day. Such a future is exactly what the world will be like when moshiach comes. I can't wait!)


After researching it a bit online, I came up with some related articles on the issue, listed below for your perusal.

Mayor Turns New York Into the Forbidden Apple
(don't miss the story about the Israeli tourist)

Nickel-and-dimed on the IRT

Transit Authority eyes subway car-hopping fine

Gothamist: Subway House Rules

Official Transit Authority Rules Of Conduct

I'd thought I'd share with you what the ticket looks like. Below is a JPEG of my ticket, so you can see the details of my offense (click it for an enlarged version). Any lawyers want to take up my case and dispute the ticket for me?

Update: I went down to the Transit Court, disputed it, and got the ticket dismissed! See the dismissal here.


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

The officer's name was "German Pagan."


respondingtojblogs said...

Man that sucks. BTW, one of the tricks the NYPD discovered was to reduce the crime rate is to stop people for small violations in order to run ID checks for outstanding warrants.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Wow... i'm always worried about that, but it hasn't happened to me so far. Of course, if it did i would put up and shut up. It is the law, after all. Why would you expect that you can break a law, get caught, and get away with it? Officer Pagan (heh) could have just given you a warning, but if the fine is on the books there's no reason he'd feel obligated to not give you the ticket.

Of course, if you think the law is unfair (and i definitely would agree with that), there's always lobbying the government or something.

brianna said...

Hmm so guys HAVE to wear their hats and jackets, do they. It's an integral part of being Jewish. Wonder what Moshe Rabeinu would have thought of that.

Whatever, it's bs.

The Hedyot said...

I noticed the interesting name too. Actually I noticed the Pagan name while he was questioning me. It was on the badge on his jacket. Then when I saw the German part I knew there really was a God.

> It is the law, after all. Why would you expect that you can break a law, get caught, and get away with it?

Well, the idea is twofold: First of all, it's like making a law that you can't wear green. If no one is adequately notified that doing something absolutely normal is now illegal, then it's unfair. Secondly, it is ridiculous to make a law that fines someone for something harmless and irrelevant. I understand if they want to prevent it, but starting off with a $50 fine instead of a warning or just the inconvenience of being questioned should be enough to deter someone in the future.

The Hedyot said...

Just in case you're all wondering, I am actually employed. Officer Pagan neglected to ask me about that, and used his imagination for that one.

Anonymous said...

I strongly suggest you fight the ticket in court. Use your old yeshiva argumentative skills to have the damn thing dismissed. What really pisses me off is that police officers will blatantlty ignore more serious offenses like aggressive panhandling during rush hour. When it comes to the white kid minding his business, it's an easy target for them.

Ger Tzadik said...

Oh my...are you serious? German Pagan?

I'd be careful with the whole "fighting it" thing. Seriously, ask around and see if anyone you know has ever won a small claim against the state like that. Traffic court and the like. New York is notorious for hanging judges on those courts.

(When you consider some of the lame excuses they must hear, it's sort of easy to understand too.)

Ben Bayit said...

For what it's worth, well before 9/11 my wife - raised in a country where you just get on the train and then pay the conducter who comes around collecting fares - received a turnstill jumping ticket the very first time she rode the subway in NYC, because she walked through the gate, thinking she would pay on the train. The cop in that case was as thick as yours. I believe that the follow-up summons and warrants are still being sent to the hotel she was at.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I guess you have a lot more interesting things to be reading on the subway than the signs saying what you're not allowed to do :-P . I've known about the anti-multiseating rule for a few years already. About a month or two ago they made walking between cars illegal too, unfortunately.

The Jewish Freak said...

Several comments:
1. You made me wonder what the rabbis would charge for committing Onanism :)

2. I find it hard to believe that the transit cops have no issues more serious than yours to contend with. Disgraceful.

3. Sometimes it can feel like being a Jew in Eastern Europe when police ask for ID for no apparent reason.

4. The Israel-Arab situation is not analogous because your "people" did not do anything to bring this treatment upon you.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the ticket, but could we hear more about the rabbis. What did they do with the money? What if a kid was incorrrigible? What if you were late to minchah and maariv?

The Hedyot said...

> I find it hard to believe that the transit cops have no issues more serious than yours to contend with...

These weren't special transit cops, as far as I could tell. They were regular, fully uniformed NYPD.

>The Israel-Arab situation is not analogous...

I already specifically said it wasn't. No need to get all sensitive. What I did say was that the feelings one feels when being stopped probably are similar.

The Hedyot said...

> ...could we hear more about the rabbis. What did they do with the money?

I have no idea. Supposedly it went to a more worthy cause that the rabbi's pocket, but I have no idea whatsoever.

> What if a kid was incorrrigible?

Made no difference. I recall people getting fined every day. Some people even made it a point of pride to ring up a huge bill with the rabbi!

> What if you were late to minchah and maariv?

Mincha and ma'ariv are typically so short that if you're 15 minutes late, you've missed the entire thing anyway. They only concerened themselves with shacharis because it was a result of oversleeping, which was rooted in laziness, and they wanted us to overcome that.

respondingtojblogs said...

These weren't special transit cops, as far as I could tell. They were regular, fully uniformed NYPD.

FYI, the transit police were merged with NYPD way back when. The only way you can tell a transit cop from a regular cop is by the unit identifier they wear on their collar. Regular cops usually have their precinct number there, transit cops have their "Transit District," e.g., TD 34.

If you look at the second to last line of the ticket, you see that Pagan is a transit cop working in TD 32.

The Hedyot said...

Thanks for the info. I stand corrected.

McOrn said...

And I thought I was the only one!!! About two years ago, on a Thursday night in mid-december, I took a subway from Queens to the city to celebrate a friend's 21st birthday with about five friends. On the way back (at 2:30am) I dozed off and slid onto the seat next to me. The car was emoty save for my friends and I. As you can imagine, I was shocked when I was pulled off the train (one stop before my final destination) and slapped with a $50 ticket of my own for taking up two seats. I never thought I would hear such a story again. WOW!!

Anonymous said...

Nu, you can question the ticket because the date is wront. It says month: 03

exsemgirl said...

Sounds crazy though when I travel on the local british tube system sometimes I wish they would enforce some of the rules...

The Hedyot said...

The date wasn't wrong. That date you're looking at is the hearing date.

You are a fool said...

So you're blaming the rabbis for what the police and your mother did to you? You got a fifty dollar ticket - poor baby. Your mom made you clean up your socks? - Oh the Horror!
The rabbis made you wear a jacket - Oh the humanity!
You've had such a rough life!

You felt like you were being accused of being on your way to a homicide bombing because you got a stupid 50$ ticket? Sissy!
Try getting some emotional security buddy.

The Hedyot said...

Please advise me as to where to get this emotional security that you speak of. I truly am in dire need of some. Unlike everyone else who read it, you totally understood exactly what my post was really saying.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Pseudo-intellectual lunatic said...

u get fined for ur dog shitting on the sidewalk.....well in theory. i almost slipped in dogshit quite a few times. there's a fascist law i can handle (fining dog owners)